There's a new computer acronym you're going to start hearing a lot about: USB. It stands for universal serial bus, which is a powerful, new way of connecting peripheral devices to PCs.
Here's the scoop: Until now, connecting printers and other gizmos to PCs meant inserting one or more specialized adaptor cards into the motherboard of the computer. These cards essentially move information back and forth between the PC's central processor and a peripheral device. But in most PCs, there's room for only a handful of such cards, which limits the number of devices you can use at any one time. What's more, switching devices requires a fair amount of fiddling with software settings--even restarting the computer.
With USB, a single PC can connect to as many as 127 different devices at once, all of them available for you to use at the same time. Instead of add-in boards, you just plug a USB-compatible device into the single USB port on the back of your PC. Then one after the other, each device plugs into the USB plug in front of it, in what's called a daisy chain. In theory, there's no software modification required.
USB ports have been built into new PCs for months, but you may have only heard about them recently, due to two important developments. For one, Microsoft began shipping its Windows 98 operating system, which is USB-ready. Equally important, USB-compatible peripherals are just starting to show up in stores.
These peripherals run the gamut from laser and inkjet printers to digital cameras, modems, speakers and telephone-related devices. Digital Persona has come out with U.are.U, a USB-compatible device that recognizes people's fingerprints as a way of securing computers against unauthorized use. And Butterfly Communications has developed Monarch Wireless PBX, a wireless private telephone switch to plug in to USB-equipped PCs--designed for small businesses that depend on more than one outgoing phone line. USB was created for moving rich multimedia data, too, which means even more compelling videoconferencing experiences.
Meanwhile, Apple Computer is making USB news with its new iMac computer. By accommodating USB, Apple was able to lower the cost of its hardware and allow its customers to use many peripherals designed for the IBM-compatible PC market. Apple is expected to integrate USB ports into future models as well.
So what does this new technology cost? USB-ready peripherals aren't expected to cost significantly more than previous models, especially as the technology becomes ubiquitous. Market research firm Dataquest Corp. predicts the number of USB-compatible PCs will skyrocket to more than 151.8 million shipped in 2001--a tidy 100 percent of all machines expected to be produced that year.
John W. Verity is a writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered the computer industry for 21 years. Send your computer questions to John at firstname.lastname@example.org
And Then There Was DVD
First came the CD-ROM, storing a mind-blowing 650MB of digital content--text, photos, software, sounds and even video footage--on a 5.25-inch disk. And now there's the DVD-ROM, a sister product to the new DVD video disks you may have seen at your local video store. With DVD-ROM drives now showing up as standard components in many PCs, the multimedia industry is asking itself the big question: Will the DVD-ROM, offering 10 times more capacity, succeed where the CD-ROM failed?
You'll recall the excitement in the early '90s about CD-ROMs as a new medium for delivering multimedia programming. Many companies rushed to market with fancy titles--everything from encyclopedias to disks celebrating hip rock bands, describing exotic journeys and providing interactive history lessons. Today's CD-ROM market, though, is a victim of impossible economics. Between production expenses and the licensing of high-quality photos and video, producing an entertaining CD-ROM can cost more than $300,000. But few titles sell enough copies to earn back that kind of investment, so publishers slashed budgets--and production values--and the market crumbled.
DVD stands to do better, but don't hold your breath. One big plus: A DVD-ROM disk can hold several hours of broadcast-quality video or thousands of crisp, full-screen photos. And its coding process strongly protects that material against unauthorized copying--a big bugaboo for Hollywood studios and news organizations, which balked at releasing their valuable properties on the insecure CD-ROM format.
But for now, there are no standard specifications for the minimum PC setup people need to view DVD-ROMs. For the next year or so, about the only form of DVD interactivity you'll see is the kind found on 12-inch laser disks beginning a few years ago--a set of still photos and maybe a short trivia quiz tacked on to the end of a feature movie. Even with millions of DVD-ROM drives expected to show up under holiday trees this season, "The DVD market is mainly about movies," says Blaine Graboyes, co-founder of New York City's Zuma Digital, one of 125 DVD production firms in the United States. "DVD-ROM will develop, but it'll take years."
Q: What should I look for in a computer monitor?
A: Personal computer systems are finally selling for less than $1,000, but beware: To get prices that low, manufacturers often cut corners on arguably the most important component of all: the monitor. It's the primary interface, so to speak, between you and your programs and documents. So if you're compelled to work with your PC for long periods of time, you'll do well to get the best screen you can afford. The alternative is not just lower productivity but considerable discomfort in the form of headaches, tired eyes and even permanently deteriorated eyesight.
Screen size and resolution are the two main attributes to consider. Generally speaking, the larger your screen, the more detail you can comfortably see and the more windows and program icons you can view at one time. Low-cost systems try to get away with 15- or even 14-inch monitors, but a unit 17 inches or larger is highly recommended. The 15-inch models currently cost around $300; 17-inch models start just below $500 and cost as much as $1,000, depending on their features. Go larger than 17 inches, and you're in the realm of specialized graphics, which most people don't need--and can't afford.
Resolution is a more complicated matter. It's determined by a combination of settings in your operating system and the monitor's physical attributes. Most PCs can generate finely detailed full-screen images, but when used with a screen smaller than 17 inches, your text and icons will probably appear too small to be comfortably viewed. Your best bet is to lower the resolution to 800 x 600 dots per inch (dpi), which is standard. Or, if you need items to appear even larger, you might try a 640 x 480 dpi setting.
Finally, there's your video card. Its total amount of memory determines how many colors you can display at once and how quickly the computer can change images. The 1MB video cards included with many low-end computers are probably fine if you're working mainly with text. For better graphics, you can upgrade to a 2MB or even 8MB video card for $150 or less.
And don't forget, properly situating your chair, keyboard and monitor is key to comfortable computer use. Happy viewing!
Zuma Digital, (212) 741-9100, email@example.com