Article for PC Novice magazine

All Aboard The New Bus
USB Technology Promises to Revolutionize PCs

Adding peripherals to a PC has never been easy. Since the dawn of the home computer, users who wanted to expand their PC’s capabilities had to open their computer cases to install expansion cards; fiddle with interrupt request lines, DIP switches, and driver settings; and make sure their systems’ components are properly configured so they all work—and all work at the same time. If an emerging computer technology lives up to its lofty potential, those problems will eventually go the way of the 5.25-inch diskette and slip into computing history.

Some of the PCs shipped this summer came with chipsets, designed by Intel Corp., that supported a new hardware bus standard called the Universal Serial Bus (USB). (A bus is a piece of hardware in your PC that connects your central processing unit [CPU] to your peripherals.)

The effect of USB on computing will be eventual, but dramatic: Plug a peripheral, any peripheral, into a USB port, and it will be automatically configured and ready for use. You don’t even need to turn off your computer to install a USB-compatible device.

“USB means you won’t ever have to take off the cover of your computer to achieve plug and play,” says Mark Kirstein, an analyst for PC Market Services.

USB & You. The technology behind USB is complex, but the results for consumers are simple. Users will be able to daisy chain up to 127 peripherals to USB ports, eventually eliminating the need for serial and parallel ports and the need for interrupt request configurations in computers. (Devices are daisy chained by connecting the first device to the computer, the second device to the first device, the third device to the second device, and so on.)

You only need to use one USB port, but computers with USB capabilities will have two or more ports for users who want to attach many peripherals to their computer. Basic peripherals such as keyboards and monitors will act as additional plug-in sites. USB can handle bandwidth of 12 megabytes per second (MBps), which means this bus standard also will be able to accommodate a new generation of peripherals, such as video projects that support the MPEG-2 standard. (Motion Picture Experts Group-2 is the latest version of the video compression standard.)

PC industry giants Compaq, Digital Equipment Corp., IBM, Intel, Microsoft, NEC, and Northern Telecom worked together to create the new bus standard because they realized ease-of-use was the biggest shortcoming of PC technology, says Jim Pappas, director of Peripherals and Interconnect Technology with Intel Architecture Labs. The USB standard is not specific to any platform, but at this time, it can be used only with Windows 95 and Windows NT.

“We recognized that the Mac (Macintosh computer) was easier to use than a PC, and that’s why we kicked off this USB project, Pappas says. “The PC industry realized that it could make a dramatic improvement to the PC. It was a big enough problem to make this happen.”

Consumers have told the computer industry over the years that their biggest concern when upgrading is opening their computer to add devices or upgrade it, Pappas says. USB technology, he says, is the, industry’s response to that concern. “End users don’t want to spend a couple of thousand (dollars) for a PC and feel they’ll break it by opening it,” Pappas says.

Some PCs on store shelves already have USB capabilities, Pappas says. They include IBM’S PC 300 and Aptiva models, Compaq’s Presario, and Siemens’ models using the Pentium and Pentium Pro chips. Sony also recently announced it will include USB technology in its line of PCs.

Unlike the current bus standard, Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI), USB automatically detects when peripherals are added and removed, eliminating the need for users to configure the devices. As a result, USB peripherals will be plugged in and unplugged as easily as a toaster. Because there will only be one connection to the computer in most cases, the rat’s nest of cords beneath and around today’s PCs will be eliminated.

Not So Fast. Although you now can buy a PC with a USB port, it’s unlikely you’ll be plugging any devices into it anytime soon. Pappas says few existing products are USB-compatible, and that probably won’t change until peripheral manufacturers catch up with the technology early next year. More than 50 companies are designing peripherals for USB, he says, and a few USB-compatible products are already on the market (i.e., certain brands of mice, keyboards, modems, monitors, and speakers.) For information about USB-compatible computers and peripherals, visit the Universal Serial Bus site on the World Wide Web at

The gap between USB technology in PCs and products that are USB-compatible will be widespread at first, Kirstein says. For that reason, consumers obviously won’t be throwing out their peripherals with serial and parallel port connections as soon as USB-compatible printers, scanners, and joysticks hit the marketplace, Kirstein says. PC manufacturers will be putting out “hybrid” computers that have traditional serial and parallel ports as well as one or more USB ports until these peripherals with traditional ports become obsolete and USB-compatible peripherals become the standard, he says.

“If you buy a new PC (with USB), it had better have a parallel port because that’s what your printer needs,” Kirstein says. “That means you will have parallel ports on computers for years to come.”

This transition from parallel and serial ports, which use the current PC I bus standard, to the USB standard will be similar to how the computer industry and users made the switch from 5.25-inch diskette drives to the 3.5-inch drive standard, Kirstein says. At first, computers had both types of drives until 5.25-inch diskettes became obsolete. “You won’t see fundamental changes for probably two years,” he said.

Applications. After USB-compatible peripherals become readily available, users will have to obtain an upgrade for their ating systems to be able to use USB products. Pappas says. Future versions of Win95 and Windows NT will come with software that your PC detect USB peripherals, so users won’t have to buy new software to make each peripheral operate.

Eventually, consumer electronics products have USB ports so they can be connected to PCs, Kirstein says. Expect to see USB incorporated into telephones, answering machines, stereo tuners and receivers, digital video discs (DVDs), and other products in which the user controls the interface, he says. “This will link PCs to the intelligence of consumer electronics,” he says.

USB technology will especially benefit computer users who have more than one computer, even those who have a desktop and a portable PC. A peripheral can be shared easily among computers simply by unplugging it from one computer and inserting it into another, eliminating the need to buy the same type of peripheral (such as a modem, for example) for each computer the user owns.

USB also will change business computing, Pappas says. It will greatly expand the role of telephony in the workplace because USB technology was developed with the integration of telephones and computers in mind, he says. Mitel Corp. has demonstrated a USB telephone with call-control features that should be released by the time you read this article. Features of USB telephony products will include on-screen caller identification, a history of when conversations with the caller took place and what the call was about, and the ability to set up conference calls with the touch of a button, Pappas says.

He also foresees that USB will be used to provide an additional level of computer security for businesses. Computers with USB, for example, could be programmed to require that a corporate badge be inserted and then a traditional password be entered before a user can gain access to a computer.

The many ways USB can be used will continue to develop as the standard is incorporated into more and more computers and products, but this much is certain: For users who like to add gadgets to their PCs, the Universal Serial Bus appears to be a computing dream come true.


Next Bus Stop: FireWire

Universal Serial Bus (USB) technology seems pretty amazing and is a godsend to the average PC user who’s driven to tears while wading through the uncertain world of peripheral configuration. But the bus that is set to follow USB will eventually bring even more gee-whiz technology to the computing world.

The IEEE 1394 bus standard, called FireWire, is set to bust through USB’s bandwidth barriers to let PCs connect with consumer electronics that use digitized video, such as some versions of camcorders, cameras, and digital video disc (DVD) players. It also can be used in desktop publishing and video editing.

The result will be PCs that serve as home entertainment centers in addition to their traditional computing roles, says Mark Kirstein, an analyst for PC Market Services. But FireWire, under continued development by Sony (who has already developed an IEEE 1394 camcorder), is not designed to eventually replace the USB standard the way USB is designed to eventually eliminate the PCI standard. Instead, these buses will share the same road in a PC, Kirstein says.

Computers of the future will use USB ports to attach about 90% of the common peripherals you use today, such as modems, printers, and scanners, Kirstein says. FireWire connections will be needed, however, for even more bandwidth-hungry features such as digitized video, which will become more prevalent. While USB supports a bandwidth of 12 megabytes per second (MBps), the IEEE 1394 bus is exected to handle between 200MBps and 400MBps, which is needed to process digitized video.

FireWire capabilities will be included in some PCs as early as late this year, but they won’t make much of an impact right away, Kirstein says, because FireWire-compatible products probably won’t be commonplace until 1999.