So many peripherals, so few ports
March 10, 1999
March 10, 1999
by Carla Thornton
(IDG) -- PROBLEM: You've collected more serial and/or parallel port devices than your PC can handle.
SOLUTION: Use a converter kit to connect the devices via a Universal Serial Bus port.
For two years, Mike LaGamba faced an exasperating and all too common problem: His PC, with its single parallel port and two serial ports, didn't have enough connectors for all the peripherals he wanted to use. The registered nurse from Mount Laurel, New Jersey, bought hardware switches and installed a parallel port card, but he still couldn't connect his laser printer, color ink jet printer, and video camera simultaneously.
"I had a drawer filled with gadgets for which I spent well over three or four hundred dollars," LaGamba recalls ruefully. "The switches allowed only one printer at a time to print. The parallel port card would have forced me to rearrange my entire hardware architecture just to free up one IRQ. I didn't even bother trying my camera's pass-through parallel port connector because I'd heard they're so flaky."
LaGamba figured he was out of luck but doggedly kept checking his local CompUSA store for a product that might help. Finally, he found an unexpected solution: Universal Serial Bus converter kits that let him connect all his peripherals quickly, reliably, and simultaneously.
Put USB to work
If you bought your PC in the past couple of years, it probably has at least one USB port. And once-scarce USB peripherals are finally hitting stores in significant numbers. Still, it'll take years for most people to replace all their old peripherals with USB versions, despite the technology's promise of Plug-and-Play hookup of up to 127 devices via a single port. In the meantime, USB ports collect dust on many machines, and many users face LaGamba's dilemma: lots of equipment to connect and no simple, effective strategy for sharing or adding ports.
Enter USB converter kits -- products that let you plug parallel and serial port devices, such as printers, modems, and cameras, into USB ports. Sold by companies such as Belkin Components and Entrega Technologies, these products have their limitations: Most notably, they can't handle any parallel devices except printers. But they can provide an easy alternative to futzing with parallel port pass-throughs or IRQ-hungry serial/parallel add-in cards.
If your PC has one or more USB ports (small, rectangular jacks situated near the system's other ports), you simply use the kit's special converter cable to connect a non-USB peripheral. If you have an older machine (like LaGamba's Pentium-166) with no USB ports, you must buy a USB adapter card (for about $40 to $70) and install it in an empty PCI slot in your PC. But it's a no-brainer after that. Just plug the converter cable into one of the card's external USB ports, and you're ready to hook up a non-USB device.
Products like Entrega's $49 USB-to-parallel kit (which LaGamba uses) or its $79 USB-to-serial kit will free up one port. If you need to add lots of devices, you may be best off with a USB hub that conveniently clusters multiple parallel, serial, USB, and even ethernet ports in one unit; these typically cost from $150 to $200.
Zip drives need not apply
If you want to add a modem, digital camera, or other serial port device, a USB converter kit may be just the ticket: It'll work with any serial port peripheral. But as mentioned earlier, printers are currently the only parallel port peripherals you can convert for use with USB. Parallel devices such as Zip drives, tape backups, and scanners aren't compatible. David Murray, vice president of marketing for Entrega, attributes this complication to the wide range of connection protocols such devices use. You can avoid an impasse by relocating your printer to a USB port; your standard parallel port will then be free to accept other parallel devices.
USB works best with Windows 98, so if you've been on the fence about upgrading, now may be the time. With Windows 95, only the OSR 2.1 and 2.5 versions support USB, and some USB devices don't work at all. For the moment, Windows NT users are out of luck: NT doesn't support USB -- period. (The oft-delayed Windows 2000 promises to remedy that deficiency.)
Still, using USB to extend the life of non-USB add-ons -- and give yourself some extra ports in the bargain -- makes a lot of sense. Although costs can mount if you need to buy multiple converter kits, the converters install and work much more smoothly than other solutions, according to LaGamba. The kits also should prove a boon to notebook users, who have fewer expansion options than desktop PC owners (most new notebooks include one or two USB ports).
To LaGamba, who no longer has to swap cables or maintain two PCs just to handle his add-ons, the kits are a minor miracle. "I'm a cynic," he claims. "I had every resource book and manual out, ready to go tooth and nail with these things. But in 10 minutes and for a minimum outlay of money, I solved all my problems. I was printing different jobs to each of the printers and videoconferencing with my friends -- from one PC, all at once."
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