Telling Tech Deals from Tech Duds
In a weak economy with plenty of competition for the computer and technology dollar, great deals are no longer confined to “Black Friday”: if you know what to look for, every week can bring you good deals on computers, digital cameras, HDTVs, peripherals, and accessories.
But, for every really good deal, there may be several deals that only look good. Look beyond the low price, and you might discover a dodo – a device that’s about to become extinct or lock you into the trap of old technology. In this article, we’ll give you the help you need to tell the deals from the dodos, so you get the most for your money.
When Cheap Tech is Bad Tech
I love cheap tech – but not as much as I once did. What happened? I’ve learned (the hard way, of course) that a low, low price on a technology item may be a tip-off that the technology in that item is about to head off to the boneyard. Buy it, and that low-priced gadget, gizmo, or major tech purchase might suck up your money while giving you little current benefit and, worse yet, might force you to replace it sooner than you wanted to because it stops your system from growing with your needs.
There are now three versions of USB on the market: USB 1.1, USB 2.0 (aka High-Speed USB) and now USB 3.0 (aka Superspeed USB). The good news about USB 3.0 is that you can plug a USB 3.0 device into a USB 2.0 hub or port; the bad news is that you lose the performance boost USB 3.0 provides.
If you want to go end-to-end with USB 3.0 (which is backwards-compatible with USB 2.0 and even USB 1.1), you’ll need a USB 3.0 host adapter card if your computer doesn’t have onboard USB 3.0 ports.
However, even if you have no plans to make the move to USB 3.0 anytime soon, watch out for these USB dead-ends:
- USB Type A to Type B cables. The Type A connector is the connector used by motherboard and front-panel USB ports as well as by USB hubs. However, the traditional Type B squarish connector once used by virtually every USB device with a removable cable has become virtually obsolete, replaced by its more-compact Mini-B five-pin sibling for most uses (see Figure 1). While you can adapt a Type B cable to a Mini-B port, the adapter usually doesn’t transfer sufficient power to run a bus-powered device or charge a mobile device.
- Bus-powered USB hubs. Bus-powered hubs are cheap (under $10), but can’t power devices that require more than 100mA of power, such as portable external hard disks or flash memory drives.
- USB 1.1 hubs. USB 1.1 runs at 12Mbps, a fraction of USB 2.0’s 480Mbps. Plug a USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 device into a USB 1.1 hub, and your system will display a warning telling you the device can run faster. USB 1.1 hubs are suitable for game controllers, keyboards, and mice, but that’s it.
- USB 2.0-based external hard disks.Whether portable (bus-powered) or desktop (self-powered), hard disks that use USB 2.0 ports can’t reach their full performance potential because the drives inside the enclosure are SATA 1.5Gbps or 3.0Gbps models.
Figure 1 The USB Type B connector originally used for peripheral connections (left) has been largely replaced by the 5-pin mini-B connector (right).
How can you avoid getting stuck by deals on these dead-end devices? It’s easy to say “don’t buy them,” but what should you get instead? Try these alternatives:
- If you need a spare USB cable, buy a universal USB cable with interchangeable tips. You can use a universal cable for devices that use the original Type B connector (such as printers and multifunction devices), the much more common 5-pin mini-B connector (works with some brands of digital cameras, almost all flash memory card readers, most external hard disks, and even some mobile devices), the 4-pin mini-B connector (some digital cameras), and a Type A female connector (enabling you to turn a too-short cable into a longer cable with an extension. See Figure 2.
- If you need more USB 2.0 or 1.1 ports, add a self-powered USB 2.0 hub with at least four ports. I favor seven-port hubs for my most heavily-used systems. If you’ve already made the plunge into USB 3.0, pick up a USB 3.0 hub to run all generations of your USB devices.
- Shopping for a USB-based external hard disk? With current price breaks, you can buy a USB 2.0/3.0-based drive for the same price or even less than a comparable USB 2.0-only drive. Although the drive won’t run at USB 3.0 speeds until you connect it to a USB 3.0 port, you’ve future-proofed your storage. See Figure 3.
Figure 2 A USB Universal cable with interchangeable tips works with almost all USB 2.0 and 1.1 devices.
Figure 3 This 500GB Western Digital portable hard disk can be used with USB 2.0 ports as well as its native USB 3.0 ports.