August 31, 1999 2:05 PM PDT

Data transfer technology touted at Intel show

Consumers tired of slow-performing printers and other external PC devices are about to get a long-needed boost in speed.

An industry consortium unveiled the second-generation Universal Serial Bus today at Intel's developer conference in Palm Springs, California.

USB 2.0's main backers, Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Lucent, Microsoft, NEC, and Philips, announced the connectivity standard at the Intel Developer Forum in February, but things have changed since then.

"The speeds that the technology is delivering is actually surpassing earlier projections," said George Lwanyc, an analyst with Dataquest. The initial projections were half those announced today. "The technology's speed will close the performance gap with IEEE 1394," he added.

USB, however, isn't the only game in town. Another connectivity standard, the aforementioned IEEE 1394, or FireWire, offers today the speed USB 2.0 promises tomorrow. USB 2.0 is not expected to be available on PCs for another year.

USB and FireWire are both alternative means of connecting devices to PCs, with USB heralded as the replacement for serial and parallel ports. Both are considerably faster than these older connection standards, which is important for transferring large amounts of data, such as color printing or digital camera image capture.

A serial parallel port transfers data at about 115 kbps. Enhanced Parallel ports are about 10 times faster, which still falls short of USB's 12 mbps. USB 2.0 is expected to be 30 to 40 times faster still, between 360 to 480 mbps. Data transfer speeds vary widely, depending on a variety of factors.

FireWire offers up to 400 mbps today with 800 mbps anticipated later this year or early 2000.

More emphasis on speed
The need for speed has never been greater, said peripheral makers, many of which are beginning to support FireWire alongside USB 1.1.

Epson, for example, introduced its first FireWire capable printer today, the Stylus Color 900G. The device also supports USB, which Epson offered early on its printers.

"In the near future, print-engine speeds will be faster than USB can feed them. With the Epson Stylus 900, we're almost at that point," said Mitch Kadish, Epson's product manager for connectivity products.

Kadish predicted a possible future clash between USB 2.0 and FireWire. "We're tracking USB 2.0. I can't tell you which is going to win, but certainly the two are contenders."

One advantage USB has over FireWire is it's free. PC manufacturers must pay Apple a royalty fee for FireWire.

USB got a slow start on Windows, because Windows 95 did not initially support the standard very well, said peripheral manufacturers. Although Windows 95 Service Release 2 offered USB support, it was Windows 98 that made USB work well, said analysts.

FireWire faced a similar fate, without true support until Windows 98 Second Edition. Microsoft's more corporate-oriented Windows NT 4 supports neither FireWire nor USB, although its successor, Windows 2000, does. Windows 2000, formerly Windows NT 5, is currently in testing.

USB is virtually ubiquitous, shipping on nearly every PC sent out and supported by more than 450 PC, peripheral, and software manufacturers. FireWire is only getting a foothold, with two or three PC manufacturers backing it and about 50 supported peripherals available.

PC manufacturers benefit from both standards, which let users connect multiple devices to one port, said Vince Fidel, chairman and founder of VST Technologies. "All those cables, all those connectors, all that motherboard space is now available, and USB and FireWire combined are much less expensive than these old interfaces combined."

Apple Computer, which pioneered the IEEE 1394 standard, switched to USB only when it launched the iMac a little over a year ago and USB and FireWire on the Power Mac G3. Apple expects to eventually offer FireWire on all its platforms.

 

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