Does universal USB cable? ‘not so universal’

Wednesday, February 22nd 2012. | Hardware News

aw-wwusbs-420x0AS YET, science has no satisfactory explanation for the migratory habits of the USB cable. All we can say with certainty is that one day the USB cable you desperately need to attach to your printer, speaker, external hard drive and so on won’t be where you expect to find it. It might never turn up again.

The peripatetic quality of these seemingly harmless items can be hazardous for computer owners. It is far too easy to trip over one or more of the things in the journey from one’s computer or power adaptor to somewhere else or to bump one’s head while engaged in cable-hunting activities under the desk.

They might also be hazardous to equipment. We were quite alarmed to discover, for instance, that, according to Barnes & Noble, the Nook Color or Nook Tablet e-readers require the use of a dedicated cable and charger. A Nook Simple Touch or Nook 1st Edition power adaptor and USB cable will not only not charge the Nook Color or Nook Tablet, they might actually damage them. We assume this relates more to the power supply than the cable but who knows?
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Here in the Bleeding Edge cave, this has meant we have been forced to keep the Nook Tablet’s cable under a particularly close watch. Fortunately, it is easily distinguished from similar cables because on one end it has a horseshoe-shaped LED that lights up when it’s plugged in.

But increasingly, we label USB cables with the handy Dymo LabelManager – which works independently of cables, fortunately – and store them with the device to avoid the exhausting searches when a cable goes missing.

While USB cables are mostly able to be swapped, occasionally we’ve found that some devices – such as the Cybook e-reader and at least one TomTom GPS, for instance – have been carefully designed to reject anything but their particular cable. We have wasted endless hours trying to pair them up again.

The arrival of USB 3.0 complicates things even more. If you want to take advantage of the faster data-transfer times the latest version offers, you have to use a USB 3.0 cable, which usually has a blue connector. Because they have more wires than the standard USB cable, they are more expensive. We priced a one-metre extension lead – USB A (male) to USB socket B (female) – at $5.90 before tax at Radio Parts Group. A two-metre USB 2.0 cable cost $1.80.

There are other irritations with USB. Some devices, such as the otherwise useful DViCO TViX HD set-top box, seem to offer no way of dismounting an external USB drive, so we are constantly forced to scan the drives for errors when we remove them from the DViCO and attach them to a computer.

And that Safely Remove Hardware icon Windows users must deal with every time they want to dismount a drive can drive us to distraction.

It’s not a good idea just to remove the drive – it raises the potential for drive errors or corruption of the USB drivers – but that warning message about the drive being in use can put you through a tedious routine of closing files before you get the go-ahead. Every now and again, the system simply refuses to shut the drive down for removal.

You can shut down every available program and still have Windows resolutely determined to keep the drive in use, forcing you to “try later”.

We downloaded a program recently called USB Safely Remove (bit.ly/8xBCxg), which seems to solve the problem. The feature we most appreciate is the program’s ability to determine which programs or processes have locked the drive, allowing you to terminate them without engaging in guessing games.

It also allows you to name the various drives you might have connected, whereas Windows tends to name everything a “USB mass storage device”. You can also hide devices so you don’t accidentally stop them. And once disconnected, you can reconnect a drive from the program, rather than having to reinsert it. The program describes the process as “Return Device Back!”.

We haven’t had any problems with the 30-day demonstration copy and we think it’s worth the discounted registration fee of $13.93 (usual price $19.90).

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