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Networking Hardware

What USB Has Replaced (And What it Hasn't) (arstechnica.co.uk) 299

An anonymous reader writes with a story at Ars Technica about the evolution thus far of USB as an enabling technology: Like all technology, USB has evolved over time. Despite being a 'Universal' Serial Bus, in its 18-or-so years on the market it has spawned multiple versions with different connection speeds and many, many types of cables. A casual search around the shelves by my desk shows that I've got at least 12 varieties, and that's not even counting serial and PS/2 adapters. What have you replaced with USB?
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What USB Has Replaced (And What it Hasn't)

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  • The company I work for replaced a propriety fiber optic comms system designed in about 1998 with a straight usb 2 interface. Saves about 400 gbp per unit.....

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 28, 2015 @05:29PM (#51019151)

    1. Serial ports, because you don't need a complex microcontroller and driver stack just to throw a few bytes between two machines.

    2. Parallel ports, because sometimes you want some basic high/low monitoring on a few lines and you don't want some ridiculous custom peripheral just to do this.

    • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Saturday November 28, 2015 @05:39PM (#51019193)

      Yup, pretty much this.

      It's trivial to implement a serial connection in a microcontroller. All you need is a level shifter like the dime-for-dozen MAX232 and you're set. For USB, this requires a lot more implementation overhead (not to mention getting a genuine UID if you want to ship it), and literally EVERYONE who has ever even dabbled in microcontroller programming knows how to deal with a MAX232. Pushing information down the serial line is like the Hello World of microcontroller tinkering.

      That's why you can still get PCI-E serial controller rather cheaply. And, lo and behold, almost all of them contain some variant of the MAX232.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward
        Or, just use an FT232 and connect your UART to an emulated serial port. Having a true hardware serial port is useful at times, but for micro-controllers an FT232 with a USB connection on one end and the uart on the other is usually easier...
      • and literally EVERYONE who has ever even dabbled in microcontroller programming knows how to deal with a MAX232

        As someone who does dab in that stuff I have found it far easier to get a USB enabled microcontroller to work as a CDC serial device than to deal with the effort of making a hardware serial connection work. The choice is many modern microcontrollers comes down to: Grab standard software library off the net, send bytes. VS Add extra hardware for serial communications, along with extra board layout + extra cost of MAX232 + significant board space taken up by a DB9 connector, grab standard software library off

        • Pin count since yea you can do serial over 1-2 pins USB needs only 2 and with those two you can program it, get debugging out, emulate a plethora of devices including ethernet all while getting 500ma at 5v.

        • The point is that the serial port is very convenient for testing, and very easy, and with zero impact on the rest of the design, to remove for the finished product.

          There are certain informations that you want to get for testing, but don't want your users to get for reverse engineering.

      • by AaronW ( 33736 )

        It's actually a lot easier. In our case our eval boards normally came with multiple serial ports. All we had to do was put on a FDT quad USB to RS232 chip. No custom UID required. With Linux it's just plug and play, plug it in and you've got your serial console, plus we can reliably run it at much higher baud rates up to 10Mbps.

    • by AC-x ( 735297 ) on Saturday November 28, 2015 @05:57PM (#51019279)

      My motherboard doesn't even have serial or parallel ports you insensitive clod!
       
      ... I suppose I could use one of these [usbgear.com]...

    • by dotancohen ( 1015143 ) on Saturday November 28, 2015 @06:13PM (#51019337) Homepage

      1. Serial ports, because you don't need a complex microcontroller and driver stack just to throw a few bytes between two machines.

      The poster seems to not understand what the words "universal" and "bus" mean in "Universal Serial Bus". He has 12 different varieties of physical connectors, but they all use (different compatible versions of) that same bus protocol, so he can simply use an adapter to interconnect between them. His PS/2 "adapter" is unreliable, does not completely support either the PS/2 or USB protocols, and will not work with many high-draw PS/2 HID devices, such as the PS/2 Model M keyboards (Lexmark, then Unicomp). Rather, there is a 'standard' mapping of PS/2 connectors to USB that most USB controllers support, but that is a USB feature.

    • by _merlin ( 160982 ) on Saturday November 28, 2015 @06:18PM (#51019349) Homepage Journal

      Serial ports are definitely still alive and well as a connection of last resort. All my network switches, rack mount servers etc. have a serial console port to help when you can't use the usual network administration interface. Professional desktops also tend to have serial ports allowing you to do initial setup of one of these devices without the need for a USB to serial adaptor.

      Centronics-style parallel printer ports, on the other hand, really do seem to have disappeared. You'd be hard pressed to find a computer that includes one any more. They were always a bit troublesome, without good two-way speed negotiation, and with generally unreliable daisy-chaining of peripherals. Requiring thick cables and using unbalanced signals also contributed to poor reliability at higher speeds. It was nice for hobby projects to be able to get logic levels straight out of the connector, but they weren't the best interface for anything else.

      • by ZorinLynx ( 31751 ) on Saturday November 28, 2015 @07:13PM (#51019591) Homepage

        Centronics parallel ports are something that I do not miss. Even slightly.

        Before the USB era, pretty much every peripheral that needed a faster connection than serial but was too cheap to implement SCSI used a parallel port. Webcams (Connectix QuickCam was a famous one), Zip drives, laplink cables, etc... it was insane. Parallel ports provided no power, so these devices either required a power brick or stole power from the AT/PS2 keyboard interface.

        When it worked, great! When it didn't, good luck getting it working. I always used to pay a little more for SCSI when it was available because it was faster and a million times more reliable.

        Remember the Zip Drive Plus? It was a drive that could either do SCSI or Parallel on the same port. I like to think of it as the height of the clunky, kludge-filled world we had before USB.

        If the personal computer market ever had a "savior", it would be USB. It was truly a dark time before that.

    • 2. Doesn't work any more. Due to changes in how parallel ports are implimented now, you can't do line monitoring or bit-bang the output on all ports. It's one reason a lot of factories with CNC machines keep a few ancient PCs around to operate them.

      • This is true. USB parallel ports are only implemented far enough to get printers working. Pretty much nothing else from the dark ages will work.

        Serial ports are a bit better, but still have compatibility issues because most of them just use TTL level (5 volt) signaling, whereas RS232 specified 12 volts. The better ones have voltage multipliers onboard that will provide the necessary higher voltages; if you want to hook up vintage terminals to your computer using a USB serial port, these are often required.

        • RS232 is worse than that: It specifies +-12V. It's the reason the power connector on your mainboard has a -12V rail.

        • In theory, FTDI's USB-UART chips can bitbang... but AFAIK, no windows, Linux, or osx drivers have any kind of API for using it on a computer. You have to program the bare metal directly using a microcontroller. The catch is that due to the way USB modes work, the max usable rate is about 1 mbps... and that assumes a lockstep transfer of data AT 1mbps with fairly precise timing using isochronous mode. If you want to sample the pins at arbitrary rates, the max usable rate is about 1/64th of that (using

    • by mikael ( 484 )

      Don't get them on modern gaming laptops. No floppy disk drive either.

    • USB to Serial adapter [amazon.com]

      USB to Parallel adapter [amazon.com]

      So there's certainly no need to have an internal serial or parallel port in your computer, for the very rare applications that need one of these antiquated interfaces.

      I would argue that USB has indeed replaced both of these technologies, because all the common peripherals that used to use these (modems, printers, UPSes, fax machines, scanners, external drives, game controllers) have either become obsolete themselves, or have adapted to use USB.

      • by AaronW ( 33736 )

        Some USB to serial adapters are better than others. I've found that the real FDT-based ones tend to be the best. USB to parallel adapters tend to have problems. For example, I have some label printers and cannot talk to them with the USB to parallel adapters but they work fine with a real parallel adapter or a parallel network print server. They also don't work well for bit banging and have a high latency if they can work at all.

        • Some USB to serial adapters are better than others. I've found that the real FDT-based ones tend to be the best.

          And Prolific, specifically the infinite variations of the PL2303 and its even more buggy clones, are the worst.

      • by fisted ( 2295862 )

        Those adapters require a booted operating system. Just because there's no need you have ever heard of, doesn't mean there wasn't a reason for having a real serial port in a PC. And, frankly, most mainboard still have them. They'r just not exposed on the backside of the case.

    • by sjames ( 1099 )

      It may be excessive in some sense, but USB serial has absolutely replaced serial ports on desktop and laptop machines. I can get all the serial ports I want by plugging in inexpensive USB serial devices. The microcontroller in the device may be excessive, but no more so than the glue logic for a PCI device would be just to transmit at 115,200 bpx MAX.

      I agree completely on the parallel port. The only remaining use I have for a parallel port is as poor man's GPIO lines. Unfortunately, for reasons that elude m

    • Yup, parallel ports were better for monitoring several lines than at actually transferring data.

  • by Todd Knarr ( 15451 ) on Saturday November 28, 2015 @05:33PM (#51019163) Homepage

    USB's been the connector of choice for most of my peripherals. It replaced the floppy drive connector for portable media. It replaced dedicated connectors for keyboards, mice, tablets and the like. My headsets are almost always USB, whether they're wired or wireless. Webcams. The only things I don't use it for are primary networking (hardwired Ethernet there), non-portable mass storage (hard drives and optical drives), and video. Sometimes I still use the PS/2 keyboard connector for non-Windows UEFI systems where a USB keyboard won't get initialized during POST. It's fast enough, there's typically more than enough connectors (especially with a hub for non-latency-sensitive devices), and it's almost universally present and usable.

    • USB's been the connector of choice for most of my peripherals. It replaced the floppy drive connector for portable media. It replaced dedicated connectors for keyboards, mice, tablets and the like. My headsets are almost always USB, whether they're wired or wireless. Webcams. The only things I don't use it for are primary networking (hardwired Ethernet there), non-portable mass storage (hard drives and optical drives), and video. Sometimes I still use the PS/2 keyboard connector for non-Windows UEFI systems where a USB keyboard won't get initialized during POST. It's fast enough, there's typically more than enough connectors (especially with a hub for non-latency-sensitive devices), and it's almost universally present and usable.

      That still does not make it particularly good just ubiquitous. It took forever to come up with USB 3, the speed was not exactly blistering compared to competitors and the connectors are still clumsy and unnecessarily bulky.

    • I was looking in vain for my ethernet port for my Lenovo Yoga 3 laptop lately. Very nice price for a good IPS touch display, WiFi AC, backlit keyboard, Samsung SSD, i7 and 8.6 GB of RAM. But when my cable internet provider asked me to test the connection I was searching in vain for my ethernet port. I never even imagined that such a machine comes without ethernet support. Fortunately the USB 3 ethernet connector of Lenovo is pretty cheap and works amazingly well. As you still need the ethernet cable I'm not
    • Things it has

      1. Dedicated ports for keyboards, mice

      2. Floppies and CDs - USBs have totally made them obsolete. Only DVDs and Blu-Rays are still around, but once flash memory catches up to them in $$/GB, that will go as well

      3. Firewire ports on camcorders, once USB 3 became widespread

      Things it hasn't

      1. Internal hard disks. This interface, fast as it is, is too slow for either HDDs or SSDs that are internal

      2. Headsets - I don't see the speaker or mic jacks going away anytime soon

      3. Bluetooth - Wire

  • Displays.

    You still don't use USB for displays.
    And USB->HDMI peripherals are far from being the best gadgets - many of the cheap ones are basically unusable for anything more than a second screen of desktop icons.

    Merge USB and HDMI and you have the ultimate connector.

  • Surprisingly little (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    What have you replaced with USB?

    Keyboard and mouse.
    Scanner, though I didn't have a scanner prior to getting USB.
    USB flash drives, though I rarely use those. They mainly replaced floppys or zip disks.

    I went from SCSI to firewire to eSATA. USB for storage has always been considered a fallback.
    Network printers have become so cheap that using one for just two computers is reasonable. At least that was my thinking for getting one at home.

    I use a bunch of USB devices not mentioned here, but they didn't exist prior to the introduction of USB, wh

  • I use a PS/2 to USB adapter for my gigantic clickity clack circa 1991 mechanical keyboard. And I am very grateful for that ability. Thank you USB!
    • USB for keyboard and mouse is trash compared to PS/2.
      With PS/2 you get full rollover support and you don't have to wait for the CPU to poll for shit.

      • by wjcofkc ( 964165 )
        I have no problem with rollover. It's a feature I frequently use. Also, my quad-core i7 does not seem to mind. Neither does a CPU from ten years ago. Beyond that CPUs exist so that they can, well... do shit.
  • USB does not have hardware interrupt lines, so USB is not used for anything critical... like your nervous system. [xkcd.com]

  • by Mirar ( 264502 ) on Saturday November 28, 2015 @06:58PM (#51019505) Homepage

    ...I know I haven't managed to replace serial ports. I haven't found any stable RS232 converter on USB...

    Either drivers don't work, or everything I get is badly made (fake?).

    Kind of weird that *serial* ports don't work well on an *universal serial bus*. But ah well.

    • ...I know I haven't managed to replace serial ports. I haven't found any stable RS232 converter on USB...

      Either drivers don't work, or everything I get is badly made (fake?).

      Kind of weird that *serial* ports don't work well on an *universal serial bus*. But ah well.

      I use C2G / Cables To Go 26886 serial adapters at work for console access to network switches and routers. They work great. Never had a problem.

  • It replaced freedom (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 28, 2015 @06:58PM (#51019511)

    Before USB, the PC had parallel ports, serial ports, Keyboard and mouse ports, ALL of which were unencumbered by patents and none of which required ID codes that had to be purchased from a monopolistic trade entity for $4000 or more. There was a minimal cost of entry for anybody in a garage who had a clever idea for something to add to a PC and even individuals could quickly hack together an interface to some custom hardware via the parallel port with no need for complex USB code and drivers. If you only plan to make a hundred gadgets, USB is insane. The Price to get a required ID number for your gadget is not reasonable, and if you use a USB-to-Serial chip with somebody else's ID number, you have essentially admitted you could have just used a standard serial port but are putting extra junk in your design because the host PC is missing the old standard serial port.

    Microsoft hated this openness because it meant a huge array of stuff with which they had to avoid breaking compatibility in each new Windows release, so they wanted it all replaced in the PC99 spec with USB. At the time, they pretended no modern computer could run efficiently while connected to such old slow interfaces (something Linux proves is false) and that this was all for the benefit of the users.

    Sadly, most people seem not to realize that many of the things (like mice,keyboards,serial adapters, etc) that use USB do not even need its speed. We would all have been much better served with an open, un-patented, USB-type interface without the MPEG-LA-style USB authority. There's no reason why ID numbers should not be bought as easily as MAC numbers (i.e. if a developer wants a few without going to the responsible authority, he can buy s cheap EEPROM from somebody like Microchip with a unique assigned number already burned-in).

    USB is a very "mixed-bag" - better for live connect/disconnect, power and management on std cables and cons, but soul-sucking rights-hogging and freedom-squelching.

    Personally, I'd like to see the whole industry replace USB with PoE (NOT using the infamous and un-necessary PoE patents). Drop all interfaces on a PC and do EVERYTHING with PoE - Keyboards, mice, printers, scanners, drives, everything. An open UDP-based protocol stack could be used to ID devices and detect when they plug-in. All devices could have standard (royalty-free) assigned device type codes just as we have standard assigned numbers. There's no reason other than control and royalties for why we need an authority selling numbers over a desktop bus.

    • USB was an Intel defined standard, not Microsoft defined. They originally defined it b'cos they wanted to go away from the myriad types of connectors and standardize them. Going to a serial interface also allowed for higher speeds.

      That said, the myriad types of connections and connectors the standard had over time - Type A, B, C, mini, micro, et al has just served in having mismatched equipment - like not being able to use a mini-USB cable w/ a phone that takes micro-USB

  • Every cell phone manufacturer would make a new charger with a new connector totally incompatible with one another. Some manufacturer will change the charger between lines of their own product. (Nokia was a little more friendly than others in this respect). You forget to pack a charger you can't borrow one easily. You lose one, they come dunning for $19.99 + shipping and handling. What a mess!

    Finally Android put a stop to it. Now on the android side almost all the chargers are ubiquitous micro USB. Most wea

    • Along w/ Android, Microsoft too went the micro-USB connector way. Only unfortunate thing - the USB committee now decided that a symmetric connector is needed, and hence, here comes Type C. So now we'll have one set of standard phones w/ micro-USB slots and future set of phones w/ Type C
  • USB replaced PS/2 and IEEE 1284 (Parallel ports), and SCSI-1 (see: Pre-USB scanners, CD Burners, HDDs), and PCMCIA (see WiFi, Flash, Floppies, Zip drives, etc.), and game ports, and TOSLINK, and MIDI ports, and PCI slots (to a significant extent), and ADB, and infrared ports, and...

    http://tech.slashdot.org/comme... [slashdot.org]

    • Actually, has IEEE 1394 been replaced? For the longest time, I was unable to get camcorders w/o Firewire, which was needed if you wanted to play your video from the computer just by connecting the camcorder to the PC. An USB connection wouldn't work, but Firewire did.
      • by ihtoit ( 3393327 )

        usb is useless IMO for production video work - bus contention is just too high.

        • USB is dirt cheap. You can have a separate bus-per-device if you so desire. That will easily eliminate all contention.

          And what you really mean is USB is useless for REAL-TIME work... When USB can do faster-than-realtime for you, the contention and other gripes aren't much of an issue. Firewire is dying out in production video shops, too, though it has been (almost-) replaced by several different alternatives, not (just) USB.

      • Firewire is long dead, except for a few niches in the industry.

        DV cameras were the one and only practical consumer application of firewire, and they've been obsolete and forgotten for many years. Once you eliminate DV tape and switch to solid-state, you eliminate the need for the fixed-bit-rate codec, and can easily transfer faster-than-real-time over USB2.

        In fact, you can skip the USB cables, and transfer your videos over WiFi these days, even with sub-$100 camcorders...

  • The biggest advantage for USB is for uncommon hardware configurations. For instance, I recently started using Yubikeys for authentication. Instead of getting a smartcard adapter for my desktop, laptop, and cell phone (god, just image carrying all that around!), I just have the one USB dongle that can plug into any computer or NFC to the cell phone.

    I also do quite a bit of photography. Prior to USB, I honestly can't even remember a time when tethering a digital camera to a PC for remote shutter or instance i

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Saturday November 28, 2015 @07:09PM (#51019571) Journal
    No one ever figured out the right way to power a little fan attached to the chop sticks to cool your noodles as you pull them from the bowl, till USB came along. And there were some twenty more such crazy things powered by USB.
  • I've always been fond of Apple's ADB. It seemed like the closest thing to USB as far as I know of, at least compared to IBM's PS/2. ADB seemed more versatile than PS/2, which was easy to mistake the PS/2 mouse port with the PS/2 keyboard port. The only other versatile port I can think was SCSI with it's ability to chain devices.
    • by Etcetera ( 14711 )

      I've always been fond of Apple's ADB. It seemed like the closest thing to USB as far as I know of, at least compared to IBM's PS/2. ADB seemed more versatile than PS/2, which was easy to mistake the PS/2 mouse port with the PS/2 keyboard port. The only other versatile port I can think was SCSI with it's ability to chain devices.

      Yeah, this. Surprised more people haven't mentioned this. ADB was pretty far ahead of its time, considering it debuted with .. what, the Mac SE? Apple IIGS? I forget which of those came out first, but certainly way back in the day.

      More to the point... All this discussion about USB adoption without really mentioning what made it actually take off. The Original iMac. Only someone like Steve Jobs could get the company to agree to drop essentially ALL legacy support at once and force people into this newfangled

  • Modern computer controlled telescopes still use classic serial ports to control the mount. The mounts have computerized controls built it that once you align it with the sky, you can direct it to slew to any point in the sky. You can hook them up to computers to run the operation, but need to use serial ports. And, of course, telescope manufactures don't use standard DB9 connectors, they replace them with phone style RJ45 and RJ11 connectors. So you need to purchase an RJ to DB9 serial cable, then hook it t
  • the RS232 serial port and the parallel printer port from the back of PCs, i went out and searched for a desktop that still had a RS232 serial port so i can run a SDR radio naively (old Ten-Tec RX320) one of these days i will buy a nice Bonito RadioJet 1120s or Perseus, but those radios cost big bucks, and the RTL.SDR is cheap but it is also a piece of junk
  • It may not have killed RS232 (which is way too old and simple to replace i completely), but do you remember the time when every external device (scanner, camera) had it's own implementation of talking to you computer? Or when big PC vendors would define their own "expansion busses".

    These times are gone for good.

  • Serial ports are still used in a LOT of equipment

    USB-to-serial adapters work, but have a maddening array of annoying quirks. It seems like every time you plug one in, it gets a different COM port ID

    Parallel ports are also used in a lot of specialized stuff (like low-budget CNC). NOT for printing, but for providing a somewhat high-speed, 5V logic level digital interface

    USB-to-parallel adapters fail miserably in this case. They are programmed to provide a printer port, but some software uses the hardware I/O

  • Before USB, I don't think there was any connector that would let you download wine straight from the vineyard. Quite revolutionary.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

  • My mouse is USB. I have a rarely used video camera that is USB. I have a couple of thumb drives and a backup drive that are USB. I have some phone chargers that are USB. Printer is on the network, speakers are 1/8" stereo plug, monitor is Display Port, keyboard is PS/2.
  • if I can replace a device with a serial, ps/2, or parallel port with one which has one of the standard USB terminal connectors or hardwired to a console connector, I'm happy. Less so but still happy if I can update existing devices with nothing more than a mating adapter.

    What pisses me off is the apparent joy camera manufacturers still seem to take in using nonstandard terminal connectors. SAMSUNG, I'M LOOKING AT YOU! £14 for a fucking replacement USB cable is not fucking funny!

    I'm glad most phone man

  • I survived the era of the joystick port. Usually, it was on a soundcard, or the fancy motherboards. When USB 1 took over the joystick market, I was happy. If I plugged it in, I got confirmation it was ready to go, and it did.

    It's not like gamepads based on USB ever took off after the late 90s.

  • After the death of xp - some pretty hi-end synth/sequencer gear was bricked due to lack of USB drivers on a modern OS.

    USB was over-engineered and chosen over firewire by idiots. The ony good to come out of it is phone charger standardization - except some chargers are nonstandard voltage with interchangeable plugs, resulting in ignorant USB users who then blame the exploding 4v device instead of their 6v+ charger and their own stupidity..
  • USB not good as the good old jack for listening to music . Sometimes the quality is inferior (because the USB converters are cheap), and other annoyances. see this informational thread for more important and irrelevant information [superuser.com].

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