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Computer Care: USB port options run the gamut
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I am a gadget freak. This should be no surprise to you since you know that I fix and write about computers. Some of the coolest gadgets for computers come in the form of USB-powered devices. So let’s depart today from the usual "how to fix your computer" and find some practical and unusual gadgets for it instead.

A quick primer: USB is Universal Serial Bus, a device-type and port on computers, invented in 1996. Its the flat, rectangular-shaped plug. We are currently at version 2.0, which is 40 times faster than its predecessor, version 1.1. The latest incarnation, USB 3.0, is already here, but we won’t see the devices for it for a few months. They will be faster yet.

When you hear USB, you probably think of flash drives, maybe a mouse, keyboard, webcam or laptop cooler pad. But there is more than that much more. I have portable storage devices, laptop lamps, Bluetooth chargers and hubs in my collection, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface.

The pocket flash drives that started with a mere 16 megabytes, now store upward of 128 gigabytes (from Kingston). FYI: 1,024 MB = 1 GB. You can get an 8 GB stick now for $20.

Today’s USB flash drives not only store your data, but can encrypt it, password-protect it and tell you how much space you have left on the device. There are also those with biometric fingerprint scanners or facial recognition for real security. These are a far throw from the old vanilla 2 MB drives of the last decade.

If you’re using Vista or Windows 7, alternatively you can use today’s flash drives to boost your system’s memory instead of using it for storage. This is especially helpful if you don’t have much memory to begin with. Windows will ask you what you want to do with the device when you plug it in.

It’s worth noting that not all USB flash drives are the boring black plastic type they started out as years ago. You can now get them decorated with jewels, carved from hardwood or a chunk of steel. They can be for the keychain or pocket, neck or wrist or double as a pen. You can of course, still get black plastic.

Desktop USB units are able to store terabytes of data now. (A terabyte is 1,024 gigabytes.) But more common are the 300-500 GB desktop devices and the 100-300 GB portables.

If you want fancy, there are more than storage devices built for USB. On the practical side, you might consider getting someone a laptop lamp for late night computing or USB personal fan; a multiport hub (I’ve seen from 2 to 16 ports in all shapes and sizes), a keyboard vacuum, beverage warmer, mini-water cooler or mini-fridge as a gift this holiday season. How about a smoke-sucking ashtray or an aroma therapy dispenser? All are great gifts for the desk. There are also shavers and neck, leg and foot warmers. These all plug into a USB port.

Everyone needs a digital card reader. Most have multiple slots one will most certainly accommodate your cameras card. Some even read your phone’s SIM card.

For fun, you can get a mini-aquarium, a missile launcher, TV tuner, microscope or a lava lamp, all USB-powered. Did I mention lava lamps? How about a Mr. Spock USB Pez dispenser?

The nice thing about USB as compared to other type devices is that you can hot swap them. By that, I mean you can plug or unplug them at will. With other port types (video, PS2, serial), you need to power down the system to do that. If you plug in a PS2 mouse, for example (the small round plug), without turning your computer off first, it won’t work. With a USB mouse, it doesn’t matter if you do or not.

Speaking of mice, there are always wired and wireless USB mice (and keyboards) to consider. For the wireless, you plug one part into the USB port and it talks to the device, sans cord.

So where can you find these things? Mostly online, I would guess. Look on Web sites like thinkgeek.com, cyberguys.com, coolest-gadgets.com and usbgadgets.org. The last two, especially, have an extensive listing of unique and affordable USB gadgets. In the neighborhood, check out Frys, as they always have a good selection.

USB gadgets have come a long way from just being small storage devices and printers. Swiss Army knives now have an option of a USB flash drive folded into them. You can play your old vinyl LPs on a USB-powered turntable or slip on a pair of computer-heated slippers.

I not only look forward to the upcoming USB technology, but I’d like to see what they think of putting it in next.

Keep this information in mind while shopping this week. Have a happy computing season and to all a good byte.

Arthur Glazer is a freelance writer and computer technician in Gainesville. His column appears biweekly. Arthur welcomes your computer questions and ideas for future columns.

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