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High-Tech Times Article 006

Universal Serial Bus (USB) and Other Buses

"Everything that can be invented has been invented."  Charles Duell, head of the U.S. Patent Office, 1899.


"Science has not yet mastered prophecy.  We project too much for the next year and yet far too little for the next 10."  Neill Armstrong, astronaut.


Perhaps the best way to take stock of where we are is from an historical viewpoint.  Twenty years is a nice, round number.  Gunsmoke had just ended a 20-year run on CBS.  In Atlanta, Ted Turner had put his small, independent TV station up on satellites.  And Coca-Cola was beating our brains with the annoyingly catchy "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing."  In 1978, the PC did not exist, and the only Mac around was a hamburger.  A laptop was where you put your kids.  The IBM AT and its ultra-fast 6-MHz clock-speed was seven years away. I had just heard about this invention called a word-processor....


The world was indeed a simpler place, but it took us far longer to write a letter, and heaven help you if your five-part carbon paper was smudged!


Today, we have new technologies that pop up every few weeks that are advertised as the solution to our everyday problems, but which end up confusing most of us beyond belief.  Let's take one of the newest buzzwords: the Universal Serial Bus.  Here, thanks to Jim Louderback at PC Week, is a fictitious question-and-answer session that tells you everything you need to know about USB for 1998.


Q:  What exactly is USB?


A:  USB is a small port on the back of most new computers that essentially lets you plug in multiple devices that will work seamlessly with your computer.


Q:  What type of devices?


A:  Keyboards, mice, scanners, digital cameras, fingerprint scanners, and other devices that used to plug into serial or parallel ports, or that require an add-in board.


Q:  Does it work with Windows 95?


A:  It sure does, but you need the latest revision of Windows 95, called OSR2, which is installed on all new Windows PCs.


Q:  Oh, so I have to buy a new computer for USB?


A:  No.  Supposedly there will be USB add-in boards for upgrading PCs.


Q:  So just to connect that new mouse, I'll have to open up my computer, add a new card, and upgrade my system with OSR2?


A:  You got it!  But you probably won't get a new version of Windows 95 with the board.


Q:  Which would make it useless, right?


A:  Well, yeah, at least until Windows 98 comes out late this year.  Hey, did I tell you how great plug-and-play is with USB?


Q:  I heard about that, but I just tested a USB video camera.  I plugged  in the camera and then installed the software.  My computer crashed when I tried to run it!  What gives?


A:  You were supposed to install the software before you plugged the camera in.  So now you need to uninstall the camera and USB, then turn your computer off and back on - and then reinstall everything.


Q:  What's a USB hub?


A:  That's another cool part of USB.  You can run a single cable from your computer to a USB hub, and then connect four or more devices right into it.  Soon, your video monitor will be a USB hub.


Q:  And the incentive for vendors to add a costly USB hub to their monitors is...?


A:  Well, everyone else is doing it!


Q:  Okay, when I installed a USB hub on my system, and then tried to add another device to it, it just wouldn't work.  It wasn't recognized at all by Windows 95, even as an unknown device.  I thought this stuff was foolproof?


A:  And it is, except that you bought an unpowered hub.  Many devices work fine with that hub, but other devices need power.  Better be safe and return that hub for a powered one.


Q:  But how would I have known that?  The system didn't say anything to me about that, and neither did the vendor's advertising!


A:  Well, that's why I'm here!  I'll help you get all that USB stuff working just great.


Q:  Forget it.  I don't want to have to call you every time I have a problem.  It sounds like this USB stuff just isn't ready for prime time yet.  I'll wait until December when Windows 98 finally ships.


A:  I thought you were adventurous.


Q:  I am, but not on my company's time.  I have a job to do, just like you.


A:  Yeah, but if USB really worked like it was supposed to, all of us technical support guys would be out of work.  Good thing it's not here yet!



I'm happy to say that USB is really quite a bit further along than Jim's parody, and if you haven't already looked into this technology, I suggest that you do. USB really addresses two of the major problems with PCs: speed and conflicts. There are so many factors that affect system performance that minor bottlenecks can significantly slow even today's fastest computers.  The more devices that are added to a system, the greater the chance of slowdowns, conflicts, and crashes.


Windows 95's plug-and-play capabilities make it somewhat easier to avoid system conflicts, and the wider use of SCSI (Small Computer Systems Interface) devices expands connectivity.  But conflicts and bottlenecks are far from being eliminated.  The USB is capable of handling a wide range of devices, and will hopefully do for PCs what the SCSI interface did for the Macintosh.


Developed by a consortium of major firms including Compaq, DEC, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, NEC, and Northern Telecom, USB has the potential to end the peripheral port shortage that has plagued the PC world.  Don't believe me?  Well, how many of you have even two parallel ports on your current system, or fully understand how to address COM 3 and 4?


With USB, you can theoretically add up to 255 external devices (and you thought your desk was a mess right now?).  It detects when devices are added or removed, and you don't even have to turn off the power or reboot.  USB automatically determines which host resources, including driver software and bus bandwidth, each peripheral needs, and makes those resources available without user intervention.  The bus carries five volts for power, thereby eliminating the need for power converters for each device.  And, what may be best, USB defines a standard connector and socket that all peripherals can use (I have over 110 different computer connectors in my storeroom)!


And USB isn't the only new I/O option available on today's computer systems.  Intel has recently released the Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) specification as an adjunct to the PCI (Peripheral Components Interconnect) bus.  AGP was designed specifically for point-to-point graphics components, and significantly improves the performance of 3D graphics and other visually intensive applications running on Intel chips.


AGP is physically separated from the PCI bus and uses a separate connector, and works by adding new features for graphics accelerators, including a dedicated pipelined access to main memory and much faster data transfer rates.  Near-term, I see the main advantage of AGP as the acceleration of 3D graphics on even moderately-configured systems.


The AGP port specification, currently in 2X mode, has a data transfer bandwidth of 512 MB/second, compared to 128 MB/sec. for today's PCI bus.  AGP is designed to be scalable, and Intel has already announced development of a high-speed extension, called AGP 4X mode, that doubles the bandwidth to 1 GB/sec.  AGP addresses features like texture-mapping, Z-buffering, and alpha-blending, all of which means that your games will look better, digital video will run faster, and animations will be even more realistic.


According to Intel, AGP is one step in its broad-based Visual Computing Initiative, an industry blueprint to "deliver platforms that provide interactive, lifelike experiences to users."  The initiative couples the increased performance of Intel's MMX processors, the high-bandwidth memory access of AGP, and advanced graphical solutions offered by software vendors, to bring a 1000-percent increase over today's 3D graphics performance by the year 2000.


Just when you thought you had the ultimate computer system, too.  We'll keep looking over the shoulders of these new technologies in future issues of The High-Tech Times.  Please contact me at 521-2259 or if you have  questions, or if you would like to see a specific topic covered.  See you next month.