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Making your PC accessory-friendly

Consider the humble USB port. Lacking the speed of its rival interface, IEEE-1394, not to mention a cachet-laden techno appellation like “Firewire,” it has nevertheless become a practical necessity for nearly anyone using a computer today. Got a digital camera? Plug it in through the USB. A photo-printer? USB cable. Joystick or Gamepad? USB. Perhaps you’re even connecting to the Internet with an exotic external communications device on your laptop. If you’re not doing it with a PCMCIA card, you’re doing it with Universal Serial Bus.

Now this is all very fine and, in fact, A Good Thing, as anyone who’s ever had to transfer information over the slow-as-molasses interface that is a serial port knows. That’s the little nine-pin outlet on the back of your computer; the big 25-pin one is the parallel port, which is also outdated, slow and in the process of being replaced by USB. But the proliferation of USB devices, like federal regulations, has continued to the point that it has created a problem. Since a normal user will usually have between two and four USB devices, but only one or two USB ports, there simply aren’t enough outlets in which the devices can be plugged.

This can be a real headache, especially if you happen to be using a USB mouse, for example, which you can’t simply unplug and do without as easily as, say, a joystick. And it is simply annoying to always have to be inserting and removing various devices, not to mention the hazard to life and limb involved in climbing down behind your desk in search of wayward USB cables. They do that on purpose, you know. Don’t think that they don’t.

Enter the USB hub. These handy little boxes turn one port into four, six, or eight ports, depending upon the specific hub. Unlike most computer contraptions, they are very easy to install and use, as one simply plugs the USB cables into one end of the hub and then connects the hub to the computer’s USB port. No software installation is necessary, and even the evil Microsoft Windows wizards will usually only pop up for a second, take a quick look around to see what’s going on, and then return to their more important work of plotting the complete destruction of your system’s registry.

There is, however, one important gotcha to keep in mind. Fortunately, with USB hubs, it is truly a case of forewarned being forearmed. While some less power-hungry devices like card readers and joysticks can use the hub’s bus-powered mode (which means it doesn’t need any electrical power), most will require self-powered mode, which means that you’ll usually have to buy a separate five-volt DC power adapter to power the hub. This is quite simple, and anyone who can figure out how to use a hairdryer can do it. The only thing that’s tricky is that your computer won’t tell you when you need to be in self-powered mode; your USB devices just won’t work without the extra juice.

Therefore, if you’re buying a hub, you might as well go ahead and buy the power adapter as well, assuming that one isn’t included. With regards to specific brands, we tend to favor the cheaper, industrial-style hubs, which are smaller and work every bit as well as the more consumer-oriented ones – sometimes even better. We’ve had no problems with the four-port USB Link from Hama, whereas the Logitech Wingman USB Hub showed less inclination to work than a Teamster on coffee break.

You can usually expect to pay around $40 for a hub and power adapter. I highly recommend one, especially if you’re just getting into the whole digital photography thing, what with the digital camera, the smart card reader, the CD-writer, the scanner and the photo-printer all potentially demanding a port to call their own.

QUESTION: I have a fast 850 MHz laptop, but it won’t play the latest computer games. Why is that, especially since my old 166 MHz desktop will?

THUS SPAKE VOX: No 3D acceleration is your problem. This is an abomination, true, but in the year 2001, most laptops still don’t have proper 3D technology incorporated into their designs. The Dell Inspiron 8000 series and the Toshiba Satellite 2805 are two laptops that do have decent 3D hardware.