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 Just the Other Day

Cables not Included!
February, 2003

Lee Besing is the owner of Computer Solution Experts, a consulting firm that provides on-site service and support for PC computers and networks.

Just the other day, actually several times during December, I was called by a customer to help set up a new printer on their computer network. We all know about "Batteries not included", but as the costs decrease on new products, it's time to start remembering that "Cables not Included" applies to new printers as well as other items. In each case, the printers were the new multi-function printers with USB interface instead of the older PARALLEL interface and while the sales person tried to sell them extended warranties, but none of the sales persons tried to sell them additional USB cables which they actually needed to make the product work. 

The information I am about to provide you in this month's column, probably comes as old news to those of you who got new 'toys' for Christmas. But perhaps it will be in time for those of you who haven't bought all of your new 'toys' yet this year.

The first printer I dealt with was with a customer almost all the way out to Boerne with only a nearby Radio Shack Store to support her. She rapidly returned from the store with another $75 worth of cables and hubs to start setting up her USB system to support not only the new printer, but her future digital camera and other devices planned for acquisition. The second printer I was asked to install, being in town, had a wider range of stores to select from, but he still spent nearly $50 on cables. The others had better (cheaper) outcomes because I started carrying spare cables with me just in case.

Bottom line when buying new devices is to check the side panel on the box regarding what was included with the printer or product and then buy extra cables, or batteries, to allow your new toy to work properly. While you are reading that side panel, make sure your computer meets the minimum specifications for supporting that new toy, otherwise you will be reduced to the status of a kid at Christmas who prefers to play with the packing material rather than the new toy.

The new USB 2.0 standard is what you should watch for on the package of any USB device or cable. This new standard is much faster (speeds of up to 480Mbps) than the older 1.1 standard (12Mbps) and is downward compatible with the old standard. Prices on the same product varied greatly from store to store, as evidenced by a recent search by this author on the CNet shopping comparison page.

I did a search for USB Cables and selected 'USB A/B Cable 20/28 AWG Double Shielded' from the list as a typical item. This cable was made by Belkin (# F3U13306) and had pricing ranging from $3.70 from an on-line store to $29.99 from a local national retail outlet. Rather amazing comparison for something that ought to be fairly consistent in cost. This is a standard style cable for connecting a printer to your computer or to your USB hub. The flat connector goes to the computer or hub, while the other end goes to your printer.

If your printer or scanner is too far away from your computer to use the standard 10' cable, you can get extension cables to extend them. But just like extended power cords there are some power loss considerations if you try to make the USB cable too long without a powered hub inserted along the way to maintain voltage on the system. Some of the newer scanners that I’ve seen, including one that was only one inch thick total, has a 'no extra power' feature which means all you do is plug in the USB port and there are no other cables to connect. This device uses the power from your PC via the USB port, but if you connect too many of them to the same hub or computer, the voltage may drop.

When comparing pricing on the same product, I have started using CNet because they actively go out and compare pricing on the same part numbers between as many as three dozen sources. On one screen you can compare pricing between companies, including their estimated cost of shipping and handling. When I was searching for a new Secure Digital memory card for my digital camera, I found that I could buy the same brand name 256mb card at Best Buy for $189.99 or from  e-cost  at $109.00 (with free shipping), and that Sanyo was offering a $30 mail-in rebate if I bought it from E-Cost during a certain date range. Hmm, spend $79 via the Internet or $189.99 (plus tax) to buy it locally. Gee, what a hard decision to make.

I’ll end this month's column with my usual admonishment. If you haven't updated your anti-virus program definition files since you last read my column, it's that time again. I recommend a weekly update to be safe, but if you haven't done it in a month, it's more than past time to log on-line and download that update to keep your system protected.

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