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USB Problem Solvers

When USB was introduced over a decade ago, it was blessedly simple: a USB cable with a Type A (flat rectangular connector) and a Type B (square with notched corner connector) was all you needed to connect your computer to printers, scanners, drives, multi-function devices and network adapters (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 A standard USB cable.

Unfortunately, times have changed, and the Type B connector used for external devices has largely been supplanted by various types of Mini-B connectors. Whether the problem is the wrong connector on the end of your cable, too short a cable length, or an awkwardly-placed USB port, a few low-cost adapters enable you to keep using your existing cables and help you can solve almost any USB connection conundrum.

Use Cable Extenders to Make a Short USB Cable Longer

Depending upon where you connect your USB devices (computer front, side, or rear), you might find that some of your USB cables aren’t quite long enough to do the job. Stash a USB cable extender in your bag and you can turn a ‘not-quite-long-enough’ USB cable into one that does the job. Keep in mind that you must disconnect the existing USB cable from the computer or hub, plug the extender into the same port, and plug the existing USB cable connected to the device into the extender. See Figure 2.

Figure 2 A USB cable extender.

Sources for USB cable extenders include Belkin, Cables to Go, and other vendors.

Turn an Old Cable into a “New” Cable with B-Mini B Adapters

Except for printers and multi-function devices, most external devices now use mini-B connectors instead of the traditional Type B connectors. Stick a couple of five-pin B to mini-B adapters in your toolbox, and you’ll be ready to deal with replacement devices that don’t use the old Type B connector. See Figure 3.

Figure 3 Two views of a USB mini-B to B adapter.

As with USB extender cables, Type B to mini-B adapters don’t always provide adequate power for bus-powered devices. Sources for Type B to mini-B adapters include Belkin, Cables to Go, and other vendors.

More Power for Portable Hard Disks with a USB Y-Cable

Portable USB hard disks are hub-powered (they are powered by the USB port) to enable them to be moved from system to system without the need to connect or disconnect an AC adapter. Unfortunately, some computers and self-powered USB hubs don’t provide quite enough power to spin up portable drives.

Some bus-powered USB hard disks include a Y-cable that draws power from a second USB port as well as providing standard USB data/power connections, but if yours didn’t, you can order one from LaCie, Cables-to-Go, and many other vendors.

Easier Connections with Flexible USB Cable Adapter

If your computer doesn’t offer enough free space for a conventional USB cable to plug in, pick up a flexible USB cable adapter. It acts as an ultra-flexible USB extension cable that can be turned in almost any direction to make connections in tight spaces easier. See Figure 4. They’re available from Belkin.

Figure 4 Two views of a USB mini-B to B adapter.

Universal USB Cable Kits Handle Virtually Any USB Connection Task

If you don’t know what you’ll be encountering in USBLand, you might want to pick up a universal USB kit that will work with almost any USB device on the market (excepting a few digital cameras with proprietary USB cables). A typical kit (Figure 5) includes a USB extension cable with removable Type B, mini-B five-pin, mini-B four-pin, and mini-AB connectors.

Figure 5 Universal USB cable kit.

Kits similar to this are available from Belkin, GE/Jasco, Emerge, Targus, and many other vendors. Some kits also include retractable network cables

Turn USB Headers on the Motherboard Into USB Ports

If your motherboard has USB headers but no header cables, you can’t use those USB ports unless you can get your hands on a USB header cables, such as the example shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6 USB motherboard header cable.

Check with your motherboard vendor, or pick up an aftermarket version. Note that most aftermarket versions use a separate connector for each USB header, and some even use individual connectors for each wire to enable compatibility with a wide range of USB header types. They’re available from Belkin, Cables-To-Go, and other vendors.

Connect eSATA Drives to USB 3.0 Ports

An increasing number of computers include USB 3.0 ports, but it costs serious money to replace external hard disks that the previous external hard disk interface champ, eSATA, with USB 3.0 drives. To connect eSATA drives to USB 3.0 ports, use adapters from vendors such as Addonics, NewerTech, or SIIG.

Create More Ports with a USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 Hub

No matter how many USB ports you have, you might need more. This is especially true if you have a laptop or an older desktop system. Although you can buy bus-powered hubs for as little as $10, keep in mind that bus-powered hubs only provide 100mA of power per port. This is adequate for keyboards, mice, game controllers, and self-powered devices such as printers, most scanners, desktop hard disks, and all-in-one units.

However, if you’re trying to service power-hungry devices such as portable USB hard disks, USB flash drives or card-readers, better set your sights on a self-powered USB hub. Many self-powered hubs can double as bus-powered hubs if you don’t plug in the AC adapter, but by using the AC adapter, you can support virtually any USB device on the market. Expect to pay about $20-30 for a four-port model, or if you need lots of ports, look for seven-port or ten-port models for $30-50. Figure 7 illustrates a seven-port Staples USB 2.0 hub.

Figure 7 This seven-port USB 2.0 self-powered hub from Staples uses a rounded front to enable bulkier devices such as thumb drives to be plugged in alongside USB cables.

Both bus-powered and self-powered USB hubs are easy to find at retailers, but before you buy, check reviews. Some hubs have problems servicing multiple devices with high current draw, while others don’t always handle hot-plugging and unplugging well. For best results when handling a mixture of USB 1.1 and 2.0 ports, look for hubs with multiple transaction translators.

High-rated self-powered hubs are available from Belkin, D-Link, Plugable, Staples, and other vendors. For much more about USB ports and hubs, see my article, “Running Out of USB Ports? Best and Worst Solutions.

If your system supports the new USB 3.0 standard, you probably have only a couple of USB 3.0 ports. For now, that’s probably enough. But when more USB 3.0-compatible devices hit the market, USB 3.0 hubs should be on your shopping list. Right now, they’re running $30 or more.

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