Computerworld's big guide to USB peripherals

Whether you want something useful, something playful or something just plain fun, there's a USB device for you

The Universal Serial Bus (USB) was originally created to replace legacy parallel and serial ports on PCs, for example, mouse and keyboard connections, printer parallel cables, outboard modem serial cables and so on.

But the "U" in USB could just as easily stand for useful, unusual or even ubiquitous. On the unusual front are the $29.95 USB Beverage Cooler, the $12.99 USB Coffee Warmer and four-port hub, and the $9.99 USB Vibe Personal Massage.

But don't let those fool you -- there's a lot of useful desktop and mobile USB peripherals and other devices out there, enough to clutter your desk or fill your carry-on. Here's a look at some of today's USB offerings that can make you more productive. Although, of course, if you use too many of them, they'll make you less mobile. (Disclaimer: I've only tried a few of these.)

USB peripherals come in all shapes and sizes
 
USB peripherals come in all shapes and sizes

Mobile storage, of course -- for data and also apps

USB flash drives are the "sneakernet" of the new millennium. This season, $50 4GB drives are common, and 8GB USB drives start in the $50-to-$100 range. That's big enough for files, applications, a Linux distro, even a few movies and a whole lotta MP3s.

If you want to carry around dozens of gigabytes, and access it away from a wall outlet, bus-powered pocket USB hard drives have gone below the dollar-a-gigabyte range, like Seagate LLC's FreeAgent Go in 80GB to 160GB versions, and Toshiba America Information Systems Inc.'s USB 2.0 Portable External Hard Drive line, in 100GB through 200GB versions.

These drives should be fast enough to, say, watch movies from (I've done this, with a Toshiba 160GB drive), and are also useful if you need to schlep 100GB or 200GB around. Your pocket USB drive may need two USB ports' worth of power; the drive should include a power-port and additional power-only cable, and an optional AC adapter. You can even carry live apps on your USB storage, ranging from browsers and e-mail clients to OpenOffice.

Companies have started distributing apps on also-use-them-for-storage flash drives, such as CA Inc.'s Secure & Store Flash Drive with its Internet Security Suite and Desktop DNA migrator. After you're done, you've got a 2GB flash drive. Another example: H&R Block Inc.'s Tax Cut USB Flash Drive.

If you want to load apps yourself, you've got several approaches, including 1) portable applications (PortableApps.com) (they simply run), 2) getting a U3-enabled flash drive, which lets you get and run U3-enabled applications, or 3) using Ceedo or MojoPack application USB managers.

USB also lets you connect up regular hard drives, by getting an external drive chassis, or chassis-less adapter. This lets you turn extra drives into external drives. And if you've got a computer that's gone south (or a fried friend with a fried computer), a USB hard drive adapter is a quick way to see if the disk is still viable and let you recover files before something gets worse.

If your notebook doesn't include an optical drive, or you need a DVD burner, I'd look at Plextor LLC's new PX-608CU Super Multi Portable DVD drive (MSRP $169). Note, the power demands call for a second USB port or AC power.

USB video -- now you see it

Want to add a flat panel display, but don't have the video port or room/money for another video card? USB to the rescue!

Would you believe -- a USB flat-screen?

If you want a done-in-one-piece application, there's Samsung's new SyncMaster 940UX LCD, which has a built-in USB video card, in addition to its DVI and VGA interfaces. (Check reviews first, though, if you've got performance-heavy needs.)

The USB SyncMaster isn't cheap, though. The only price I could find was on somebody's write-up; it was $678. Unless you've got a specific reason, like needing a whole bunch of daisy-chained displays for a trade show, you'd be better off buying a good LCD -- if you don't have an extra display on hand -- and getting an external USB video card.

Choices here abound, including IoGear Inc.'s USB 2.0 External VGA Video Card (MSRP $99.95), USBGear's USB 2.0 Hi-Speed USB Video Card Adapter SVGA ($MSRP 89.98), Matrox's DualHead2Go (analog version approximately $150, digital version around $250) or Tritton Technologies Inc.'s SEE2 USB 2.0 VGA Adapter ($79.99).

USB rabbit ears

Optical drives and streaming video have already turned our computers into video players; USB add-ons let you go one or more steps further.

"I've been pleasantly surprised by the reliability and quality of the very inexpensive PVR, plus video capture device, from Kworld Multimedia," reports Ken Greenberg, owner of New York-based Krypton Neon, which creates neon effects and designs for Broadway theater, film and TV. "While I am by no means a video professional, I've used it to convert older VHS recordings to DVD and Web flash presentations. I have spent up to $500 in the past on capture cards and none have ever performed as well as this $35 toy."

If you demand the highest quality, "The PVR Plus is not the way to go," Greenberg concedes. "But if you want to, say, convert a fading family VHS to DVD and maintain basic VHS playback quality on a standard TV, it will definitely do the trick."

If you want to watch broadcast TV on your notebook, add an antenna and tuner, and get a remote plus PVR recording software, with something like the finger-size Pinnacle PCTV USB Stick ($99.99).

Networking with USB

Even though most new notebook computers have Wi-Fi built in, USB adapters can still have uses. Tom Henderson, president of Extremelabs.com (and a technology tester/reviewer for Computerworld sister publication Network World) is fond of his Linksys USB 802.11b/g adapter. "Some notebooks have the antenna facing down into my lap, this one lets me aim it in different directions."

Need a dial-up modem? No need to find your serial port, try Zoom Technologies Inc.'s 56Kbps Model 3095 V.92 USB Mini External Modem (MSRP $49). It's USB powered, works with Windows, Macs and Linux. And it won't bulk up your travel kit; it's about the size of a Pez dispenser.

If you've ever run into a broadband modem that's got a USB port (but no available Ethernet), or need to quickly and easily add Ethernet to a computer that does have a USB, another useful widget to consider adding to your travel kit is a USB/Ethernet adapter, like Belkin's USB 10/100 Ethernet Adapter (MSRP $29.99), or LinkSys' even smaller Compact USB 2.0 10/100 Network Adapter (MSRP $29.99).

Turn USB devices into networked devices; serve your printers

USB devices -- printers, USB external hard drives and scanners -- are easy to connect to a single computer. ... Did you know you can also easily turn them into networked devices?

Two reasons for doing this:

  • To let multiple computers share USB devices easily.
  • To "extend reach" -- USB devices don't have to be near the device, just on the network.

For example, Keyspan's USB 2.0 Server (MSRP $129) will let you connect devices like USB multifunction printers, scanners and hard drives. Belkin International Inc.'s 2-Port USB Print Server (MSRP $69.99) lets you connect two printers through your network. And Belkin's Network USB Hub (MSRP $129) lets you network up to five devices, like multifunction printers, media readers, digital cameras and scanner, plus it includes a print server.

Scanners to go

Post-trip paperwork processing can be a drag. Portable USB bus-powered scanners make it easier to handle as you go, letting you input trip receipts, notes and business cards as you go, rather than building up until you get back to your office, or to scan from documents instead of taking notes.

ExtremeLabs.com's Henderson is fond of his Visioneer RoadWarrior scanner (MSRP $199). "Unlike previous ones, it almost never jams and makes beautiful scans of documents."

The real power of a mobile scanner is in its software's ability to feed data into applications like expense spreadsheets or contact managers. For receipts in particular, consider NeatReceipts's USB-powered Scanalizer ($199.95).

"Anytime I can scan data rather than re-key it, I'm thrilled," says tech journalist Ernest Lilley. "I especially like NeatReceipts' assertion that the scanned record will satisfy tax record-keeping requirements, freeing me to throw away all those little pieces of paper."

For business cards, you may want to consider a dedicated card scanner. They'll be smaller, will feed cards through and should have card-oriented scanning software that works with Outlook or other contact management software. Available from NeatReceipts, CardScan and others. (I've been trying the CardScan 800c.) Look for one that's USB powered, of course.

Hub hubbub

The two to four USB ports on most computers are rapidly becoming not enough. For travelers, something compact can help, like Targus Group International Inc.'s four-port Travel USB 2.0 4-Port Hub with Built-in Cable (MSRP $29.99).

To add more USB ports on your desk, if you've got a desk with 3-in. grommet holes in it, consider Belkin's "Front-Access In-Desk USB Hub -- 3 Inch" ($44.99). In fact, Belkin points out, "If your desk does not have a predrilled hole in it, you can drill one yourself using a 3-in. hole saw." Or perhaps a USB lightsaber' or USB termite farm. (I haven't seen any USB hole saws ... yet.)

You can even add USB ports wirelessly -- that is, get a wireless USB hub and wireless USB adapter, like Belkin's Wireless USB Hub -- not cheap, at $224.99, but convenience rarely is.

If you've got a lot of USB devices and two computers, consider the $39 Ultra 7 Port Buddy Hub. (Just be careful with storage devices that you don't try switching during a write operation.)

Adapters: The USB-legacy connection

USB has successfully replaced/displaced legacy connectors in most new devices, but many of us still have and use legacy-connector keyboards, mice and other devices, even though not all our computers have the right legacy ports.

So it doesn't hurt to keep your eyes open for USB adapters, like TrippLite's USB to Serial Adapter, a Keyspan USB PS/2 Adapter (MSRP $19) for when you need to connect your pre-USB keyboard or pointing device (and also pick up a PS/2-USB adapter, for going the other way). If you like combos, add a serial and parallel port plus two USB ports with KeySpan's Mini-Port Replicator (MSRP $79).

USB's power connection

Like 802.3af Power over Ethernet and POTS phone lines, USB cables/connections can carry not only data, but a modest amount of power, enough to power or charge/recharge a growing range of devices. (Assuming power -- enough power -- is supplied to the USB port in question.)

Being able to run/charge via USB is a great convenience, but there isn't always a computer or notebook around, or not enough power in their USB ports. If you use a desktop KVM switch that has peripheral USB ports (which I do), you can use those as a USB power/charging station. But sometimes you want USB port power to go.

Some USB-chargeable devices include mini-AC adapters, letting you charge from an AC outlet. The smallest I've found so far comes with the Gennum nX6000 Bluetooth mobile phone headset, with fold-in prongs. (However, I don't know whether it supplies the power that larger USB devices might need.)

While larger -- more like card-deck size -- Belkin's new Dual USB Power Adapter (MSRP $29.99) has two USB ports. I heartily recommend adding one to your mobile applications kit.

Or Tekkeon Inc.'s myCharger MP1600 (MSRP $24.95) -- only one USB port, but includes a bunch of adapter tips.

There's also a dozen or more portable power supplies with USB ports, ranging from the AA-based to rechargeable to the disposable, like the new Medis 24-7 Power Pack.

The lighter side of USB

Robert Raisch, chief technology officer at Financial Media Holdings Group Inc., is a big fan of his USB flex light. (Many available, like this one.) He says, "It's like one of those lights you see on mixing boards at band performances and perfect for keyboarding in the dim or dark. I use it while traveling in a car or on an airplane as well as on the back deck at night, my bedroom, dim bars or coffee houses, etc." His least useful, but most-used piece of USB frippery is his USB disco lights. "Plug'em in and pump up the jams," he says.

Thinking small? Consider a USB microscope -- a pen-size one in the 10X-200X range for $100 to several hundred dollars, a 200X ProScope handheld suitable for TV forensic shows, or a desktop Digital Microscope with both USB and TV and output for $199.

Nervous about leaving paper with sensitive information behind while traveling? Pack Brando's USB portable paper shredder (MSRP $22.50). It'll handle up to five sheets. You can also power it with 4 AA cells.

Daniel P. Dern (dern@pair.com) is a freelance technology and business writer. His Web site is www.dern.com.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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