USB is also getting a big push from a tiny device called a thumb drive.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
On the periphery: What peripherals are, Part 1: USB

Jan. 21, 2007

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2007, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2007, The Post-Standard

   Your computer is confusing enough. How are you expected to cope with all the stuff that plugs into it?
   Let's see what we can do to sort it out. This week and next, I'll take you on a tour of the sometimes strange land of computer peripherals -- devices you connect to your computer for added functions.
   Let's start with the official-sounding "USB" whatchamacallit. It doesn't come from the U.S. government, but it's got the backing of all the companies that make computers.
   USB -- standing for "Universal Serial Bus" -- is just what the name indicates, once you take out the geek-speak. A USB circuit in the computer lets you connect up just about anything. It does this by using a common pathway, or "bus," for data going in both directions. On a modern computer, the keyboard and mouse plug in using USB, for example. Printers, iPods and webcams use USB, too, and you can buy external disk drives (including CD burners) that connect with a simple USB cable.
   But USB is also getting a big push from a tiny device called a thumb drive. It's a Tootsie Roll-size plastic capsule that has a USB connector on one end. Plug it into a USB connector on any PC or Apple Mac and you've suddenly added a storage drive to the computer.
   The drive icon shows up on the desktop on a Mac or in My Computer on a Windows PC. Then you simply drag files or folders to the thumb drive icon to copy them onto the drive. When all the files are copied, unplug the thumb drive and take it with you to copy everything to another computer. Just drag the stuff off the thumbdrive after you plug it into the other system.
   A quick explanation: Yanking a thumb drive out of its socket is supposed to be bad for the drive and your computer, and you'll get a warning notice to that effect if you do it without "ejecting" the drive on a Mac or "removing" it in Windows. Pshaw. Do it anyway. Nothing bad will happen as long as all the files have already been copied.
   USB is clever, as you can see if you connect two mice to your computer. You can use both of them at the same time. USB won't let either one of them be the boss. Harmony is the watchword.
   Harmony's also important in another kind of USB device -- a sound converter that lets you grab digital audio from your old tape deck or your '70s-era stereo receiver. I use one from ADS Tech called Instant Music to make MP3 music files from my old music collection. I can carry it around and use it with my laptop or my desktop computer. Because it's a USB device, I just plug it in and it works.
   USB's been around long enough -- more than a decade -- to have an older version and a newer one. The senior citizen of the USB world is USB 1.1. It's fast enough for printers, keyboards and mice, but a little slow for iPods and video cameras -- and really sluggish for external hard drives. The youngster is USB 2.0. It's standard on all recent computers and is fast enough for anything you can throw at it. Trivia fans might note that there is no "USB 1.0." It got replaced before USB came to market.
   Next: What's that fire on the wire? A look at a competitor for USB, and more.