The Current State of USB
Introduced first as two cool looking ports on everyone's motherboard, the rectangular USB ports went many months without use by the majority of the population.  We all realized that the potential for something "big" existed, however no one manufacturer stepped up to meet the challenge the demanding market posed, which was a full fledged migration to the USB standard. 

Nothing more than a standardized version of what many manufacturers, such as Apple Computers, had been contemplating (and in some cases actually implementing) for use as an peripheral interface standard the Universal Serial Bus quickly drew the attention of the market by its incredible speed and potential.   Supporting up to 127 devices per root USB port and allowing for transfer rates of 1.5Mbps to 12Mbps (0.18MB - 1.5MB per second), the Universal Serial Bus needed nothing more than a little upwards push to catch on.

The first nudge the standard received was Microsoft's Windows 95 Service Release 2.1 Patch, otherwise known as the USB Supplementary Patch.  This patch, which updated your version of Windows to OSR 2.1, slowly became a requirement for many Video Card installation processes among other things, for no reason other than to promote the USB standard.  While OSR 2.0 was necessary to enable full AGP support under Windows 95, OSR 2.1 had nothing to do with Video support at all, supporting the fact that the only reason OSR 2.1 was forced upon us was to promote the USB standard.  Even in spite of Microsoft's efforts to integrate the standard into their Operating System, the Universal Serial Bus didn't make that big of an impression on the market, the primary reason for this being the lack of USB peripherals.

The next step in the nudging process, from the software end, was to completely integrate USB support into the software which in this case happened to be Microsoft's newest Operating System: Windows 98.  Right off of the cover of the $98 Operating System's box, Windows 98 has full support for the Universal Serial Bus.  With the software taken care of, what was left but to take the final steps into the world of USB?  With this evident, hardware manufacturers and most importantly, hardware vendors began to announce and stock USB peripherals more readily.   Don't think that USB devices are just now being released, since USB Cameras, Keyboards, and Mice have been available for quite some time, they are just now finally catching on.

Using that primer as a quick lesson about the history of the Universal Serial Bus, let's discuss the benefits of USB peripherals and hopefully we can shed some light on a few features of the new standard that had previously remained in the dark.

Installing a USB Device

Nothing could be easier than installing a USB device, but before you start you must get to know your system a little better than you probably already do.  First of all, make sure you have Windows 95 Service Release 2.1 (OSR 2.1) or later or Windows 98.  If you have the original version of Windows 95 (OSR 1) or Service Release 2.0 (OSR 2) then you can upgrade your version to 2.1 by downloading the necessary components from Microsoft's Web Site.  If you have trouble navigating the software giant's website (in which case, don't worry, you're not the only one) you can download the USB Supplement just about anywhere online, just search for the file name usbsup.exe, the file size should be around 950KB.

After making sure that you have OS support for USB devices, secondly you must journey into your BIOS Setup and enable the USB ports on your motherboard.  In most cases they have been disabled by default as it frees up an IRQ, however now that you're ready to put those two "cool looking" ports to good use you will want to re-enable them.  The setting will usually be found in your Integrated Peripherals Setup, however it may also lie in the Advanced/Chipset Features Setup of your BIOS.  The setting itself will be called something along the lines of "Enable USB IRQ" or "USB Support."  If you are planning on using a USB keyboard be sure to enable USB Keyboard Support in the BIOS Setup as well.   Save your newly modified settings and exit, it is as easy as that...but wait, there's more.

Upon booting up to Windows 95/98 you will be paid a visit by the highly useful (a truthful statement in the case of Windows 98) Add New Hardware Wizard which should report newly installed hardware.  Windows 98 has all of the drivers necessary for you to install your new USB peripherals without requiring a driver's diskette from the manufacturer, Windows 95 on the other hand requires that you have OSR 2.0 installed completely for driver support.  This is just one of many reasons why the upgrade to Windows 98 is actually worth undergoing contrary to popular belief. 

One of the convenient features of the USB is the ability to "hot-swap" USB peripherals, meaning you don't need to power down your system to safely install or remove a USB peripheral.  Simply connect the USB cable to the back of your motherboard and you're ready to rock 'n roll.

Human Interface Devices

Don't be surprised if Windows detects something called a "Human Interface Device" upon startup after plugging in a USB Keyboard or Mouse, as 'Trekkie' as the name is you will find that USB Human Interface Devices will be among the most popular USB devices in the home.  How many times have you found yourself occupying all of your PS/2 and Serial Ports just wishing for one more so you could connect that Digital Camera or so you could connect a better mouse you happened to have lying around?  Well, USB puts an end to that, instead of occupying your IRQ hungry PS/2 ports with your Keyboard and Mouse go out and buy a USB Keyboard with a USB Mouse and put an end to the "Port Deficiency Syndrome." 

Naturally, Microsoft was one of the first companies to release a USB Keyboard and Mouse, part of their Natural Keyboard and Intellimouse product lines, the MS Natural Elite Keyboard and the MS Intellimouse are now both available with USB interfaces. 

AnandTech purchased a Microsoft Natural Elite Keyboard and an Intellimouse from a local CompUSA for $59.95 a piece, both of which installed without a hitch on the Pentium II Test System using the Chaintech 6BTM BX Motherboard.  The Keyboard itself was a PS/2 Keyboard with a PS/2-to-USB adapter, however the Keyboard works perfectly fine in both modes. 

As the months go by expect more and more manufacturers to release USB interface devices, however the train doesn't stop there there is an entire world of gaming to conquer before leaving the Human Interface Devices category.  Gamepads, Joysticks, and Flight Yokes are next in line for the Universal Serial Bus.  Instead of being limited by the single Game Port on your Sound Card, USB Joysticks will allow you to have multiple controllers hooked up to the same system without multiple interface cards.  Currently USB game controllers are a bit on the scarce side, but expect that to change in the coming months. 

USB Cameras & Scanners

As mentioned earlier, one of the first USB devices that ever hit the market were USB Cameras.  Used mainly for Video Conferencing, the outstanding transfer rates the Universal Serial Bus provides make it an ideal platform for Video Cameras.  At the same time, the Universal Serial Bus also makes a beautiful medium for Scanners and other such devices to be hooked up to your computer.  Operating under true Plug and Play, USB Scanners require nothing more than a couple of minutes of your time to get your system up and running.  You no longer have to worry about messing with SCSI cards and slow Parallel Port interfaces to add scanning capabilities to your PC.  The price of a USB scanner isn't all too bad either, they start at around $150 and are quickly making their way into Computer Retail Stores, you can expect USB scanners to take the place of Parallel Port Scanners on store shelves shortly. 

USB Speakers

One of the most interesting USB Devices you will probably encounter are USB Speakers.  You may be wondering how USB speakers interface with your Sound Card and the USB ports at the same time, the two word answer to that question is: they don't. 

USB Speakers function as their own Audio Device, meaning you don't even need a Sound Card to take advantage of USB Speakers.   Just connect your USB Speakers to a free USB port and you're on your way to true digital audio.  USB speakers receive the sound signals directly from the source, which is the software producing the sounds.  Instead of sending audio files to a sound card and then outputting them to your speakers, your USB speakers will act as a Digital Signal Processor or another Audio Source (Windows 98 Detects USB Speakers as a USB Audio Device) and they will interpret the signals directly.  Not only does this virtually eliminate the need for a sound card, it also decreases CPU Utilization and increases Sound Quality at the same time. 

Don't go ahead and ditch your Sound Card for a set of USB Speakers, there are some downsides to this outstanding technology that must be worked out before it can be considered a full Sound Card replacement.  First of all, unless you want to run a cable from the headphones output on your CD-ROM drive to the input on your USB Speakers, there is no way to play an Audio CD (or listen to Audio tracks on a Data CD, like Quake 2's Soundtrack) without a Sound Card.  If you do have a sound card, all you need to do is run a cable from your Sound Card to the USB speakers.   If that doesn't bother you, then you must also remember that there is no legacy support provided for by USB speakers, meaning most older DOS games won't recognize the presence of an audio device.  Finally, the cost of USB speakers is considerably higher than most other Computer Speakers. 

AnandTech picked up an Altec Lansing ADA 70 Digital Powercube PC Sound System from CompUSA for $129.99 which has both Digital USB and Analog 1/8" Input connectors so the speakers themselves can function as either USB speakers or a set of really expensive normal speakers.

You can even use both connectors simultaneously to allow you to get the full benefit of high quality digital audio from your speakers while maintaining legacy compatibility and CD-Audio support using your old sound card.  Using the USB Digital Audio Streaming technology discussed above that directly interprets the sound signals, there is no sound distortion when playing back audio using the USB Audio Device.  Altec Lansing's own Volume Control Software Utility prevents distortion from Volume Levels from occurring either, giving you a truly excellent audio experience.  Unfortunately, the Powercube System won't work as a USB Audio Device under any Operating System other than Windows 98, so you Win95 owners out there are out of luck.

One other positive point to the ADA 70 speakers that AnandTech tested was that there was virtually no setup required other than the physical placement of the speakers and connection of the cables.  No messy IRQ settings to deal with, no compatibility problems to work out, if we could just retain legacy support or even just allow for CD-Audio to be transmitted through the Bus then sound card manufacturers like Creative Labs would have to start to concentrate on the speaker industry.  Don't be surprised if you begin to see USB speakers from Creative Labs and Turtle Beach in addition to your run of the mill speaker manufacturers.

Connecting it all Together

How can you possibly connect 127 devices to a single port on your motherboard?  The answer is you can't.  Your motherboard itself can only support 2 USB devices provided that it does have USB connectors on the board.  Each one of those ports can support up to 127 daisy chained devices, for a total of 254 possible devices.  In order to take advantage of those capabilities you need to purchase additional USB Hubs which do no more than split a single root USB connector into multiple connectors.  USB Hubs come in various sizes each fit for a different set of needs, for example Belkin's Express Bus USB Hub is available in a 4-port version (approx. $70) which allows you to connect up to 4 USB devices to a single port.   If you wish to use more than 4 devices you can either purchase a larger hub or you can connect two hubs together.  While USB devices generally operate off of the power of your system, also referred to as Bus Powered, it is a better idea to purchase a powered hub (a hub with its own power supply) especially if you are connecting many devices.   Believe it or not, but one of the most power hungry devices on the USB chain is your Keyboard.

USB devices may even have hubs integrated into them, USB monitors for example are nothing more than standard monitors with a USB interface and an optional integrated USB hub.  Don't get too excited though, you still need a Video Card even if you are going to use a USB monitor. 

The Current State

Where do things stand now with USB?   There is a lot of potential that has yet to be tapped, Retail Systems are now being shipped with USB devices instead of the more conventional PS/2 and Parallel Port peripherals we're used to.  CompUSA and other large retail Computer chains are beginning to carry more and more USB peripherals.  Expect the standard to take off in the coming months especially with built in support from Windows 98, unfortunately if you don't have Windows 95 Service Release 2.1 or Windows 98 you are almost completely out of luck in the USB world, for now at least.  Meaning you Windows NT users may want to wait just a little longer before jumping on the USB bandwagon.  However if you do happen to have Windows 98 and are looking to build a new system, USB is the way to go.

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