If your PC was made after 1997 there is a good chance it has Universal Serial Bus (USB) capability, you may even have spotted the sockets on the back panel. There are usually two of them; they're quite small, rectangular in shape and just over 1cm wide.

USB is a determined attempt by the PC and peripherals industry to clear up the confusion and data bottlenecks created by the standard PCs serial and parallel ports. A couple of serial sockets and a parallel printer connection were all that was needed in the early days but now, with dozens of devices clamouring to get a high-speed data connection to your PC those clunky old ports can no longer cope.

The principle advantage of USB is that in theory up to 127 devices can be connected to a computer, by 'daisy-chaining' the cables or using a series of 'hubs', which are a bit like multi-way mains socket adaptors. In practice it's unlikely that such a large number of peripherals would ever be linked to a single PC but you get the idea. Another key benefit of USB is that devices can be 'hot swapped', in other words plugged and unplugged without having to re-boot or reconfigure the PC.

As far as transfer data speed is concerned USB is moderately fast at 12Mbits/second (1.5 megabytes/sec). That compares with the relatively sedate standard serial and parallel ports which trundles along at around 115kbits/sec (0.15Mbytes/sec), but it is a good deal slower than the fast-emerging FireWire or (IEEE-1394) standard which is capable of speeds up to 400Mbits/s (50Mbytes/sec). FireWire is intended for demanding applications like digital video whereas USB is ideal for more down to earth jobs, like connecting PCs to printers and scanners, mice, joysticks, loudspeakers, digital cameras, modems, tape and disc drives. USB connectivity is improving all the time and in addition to sockets on the backsides of PCs a number of monitors are now fitted with USB hubs (or sockets for hub modules). USB sockets are also starting to appear on laptops and portables, which means they can more easily share office peripherals without recourse to clumsy port replicators and adaptors.

It all sounds wonderful, so what's the catch? There are several, starting with patchy USB support on PC motherboards and operating systems made before 1999. From now on virtually all new PCs should be fully compliant but there are a lot of machines with BIOS programs and USB sockets that don't work, and others with USB capability, but no connecting sockets. Windows NT 3.5 and 4.0 do not support USB, Windows 95 has limited USB capabilities but it is notoriously unreliable. Windows 98 is much better and Windows 2000 will be full compliant though Win 98 is not completely trouble free. Until recently the number of USB peripherals was quite limited and manufacturers usually charged a premium for the facility but that is changing fairly quickly as new products come on to the market.

USB has a few other limitations; it is not really suitable for direct PC to PC connections or networking. Devices called USB 'Bridges' or USB to USB adaptors are available but they are not as efficient or cost effective as traditional local area network LAN solutions like Ethernet. Do not be tempted to connect two PCs together by USB cable, it can fry chips on the motherboard! The length of USB cables is limited to around 4 metres; it is possible to extend cables in multiples of 4 metres using 'powered hubs' but it starts to get a bit complicated. Reliability is another concern, there have been reports of PCs failing to recognise peripherals, they may have to be switched on and off or plugged and unplugged several times before they work. USB installations have been blamed for causing Windows Registry problems, failures have occurred when bus systems are put under pressure and some users have experienced difficulties configuring USB to Ethernet connections.

Nevertheless, for most straightforward home and office applications, such as connecting printers, scanners and digital imaging devices, USB can solve a lot of problems and make life easier, if you are starting from scratch, or thinking of buying any new peripherals. So how do you find out if your PC is up to the job? Providing your PC fulfils the basic criteria, namely it is a fairly recent Pentium model made after 1997, has the necessary sockets on the back panel and you are using Windows 98, the next step is to download a PC evaluation utility from Intel called USB System Check. It checks your PCs hardware and software and reports back on any faults or problems. USB System Check is quite small (around 540kbs) and can be obtained from:  

Start by creating a new folder in Windows Explorer – call it USB or something similar – and when asked by your Internet browser, save the 'usbready.exe' file in your new folder. Click on the USBReady icon and the report window appears after a couple of seconds, along with suggestions for any necessary hardware or software upgrades. Next, check your PC's BIOS or set-up program, this can normally be accessed during the boot up routine by pressing Delete (other key or key combinations are usually displayed on the screen). The USB options are usually contained in one of the sub menus (PNP and PCI Setup, Peripheral Configuration, Advanced Setup or PCI Control), make sure the option is enabled.  

Installing USB hardware is (or should be) simple and is similar to the procedure used to connect serial and parallel port devices. USB peripherals normally come with a driver installation disc, which you load into the machine, when requested by Windows, or when using the Add New Hardware utility in Control panel. The whole process should be more or less automatic and once completed you can plug and unplug the device without any further actions on your part.

Next week –  Email away from home




USB devices have two sockets so they can be connected together, one to the other, like a chain  


The facility to be able to plug or unplug a peripheral whilst the PC is running


A multi-way connector with one input and several outputs


You can do all sorts of things with the items on the Windows 98 Start menu, they can be copied, moved around and have their properties changed but the one thing you can't do is rename them, unless you have Internet Explorer 5.0 on your system. However, there is a way around that. You can change the name of an icon by left clicking on it and dragging it onto the desktop, it can then be renamed by clicking into the name field. Next, right-click on the newly named icon, drag it on to the Start button, put the mouse pointer where you want it to go on the Start menu, release the mouse button and choose 'Move Here' from the dialogue box that appears.

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