USB stands for “Universal Serial Bus”

This is not to be confused with “USP”, which is a marketing term meaning “Unique Selling Proposition” and describes what might be a small, insignificant, difference between one product and a competing one.

USB is a type of connection that was designed to be suitable for connecting all types of external items (“peripherals”) to a computer.

USB ports (the “socket” part) are much smaller than the parallel and serial ports of earlier generations of computers. Also, you can connect a device with a USB cable without having to re-start the computer to get it to recognise the device you’ve just plugged in. This is called “hot plugging”.

The most common type of USB connection that connects peripherals to a computer is USB Type A. This is the familiar rectangular connection that will only fit one way up. We are now on the third generation of USB connections – each one being faster than the previous one. USB connections are “backwardly compatible”, meaning that if you connect a later generation device to an earlier generation port then everything will work – but at the lower speed of the earlier generation port or connector.

If you are connecting a mouse, keyboard, or printer, the speed of the USB connection doesn’t matter much. If you are connecting an external hard drive then the speed does matter. A new portable external drive will almost certainly have a USB3 connection, so connect it to a USB3 port on the computer if at all possible. You can tell if a port is USB3 as it will either be partly blue when you look directly at it or it will have “SS” (for “Super Speed”) written very close to the port.

USB plugs

USB C, USB2 A, USB3 A, micro, mini, USB B

Printers have traditionally been connected using a different plug at the printer end. This is a square plug with two edges chamfered off. Once again, the plug can only be inserted into its port one way. This type of connection is called USB Type B. Having said that, most people prefer to connect their printer wirelessly these days, so the USB connection is redundant.

Lots of new laptops now feature a new generation of USB connection called Type C. This is much smaller than Type A and can be connected either way up. You can buy an adaptor to connect a Type B plug into a Type C port. For that matter you can get all kinds of adaptors for changing one type of USB port or plug into another. Go to Amazon, for instance, and type “USB adaptors” into the search box.

The end of a USB cable that connects to the device might be much smaller than the end connecting to the computer. An older design of this was called “mini USB”. The current design is even smaller and is called “micro USB”. Once again, the cable can only be connected to the port one way up.

There is another type of USB connection – just for Apple devices such as iPhones. This is called the “lightning” connector and it is used instead of the mini USB and micro USB connection of non-Apple devices. The other end of a “lightning cable” features a standard Type A plug.

USB coffee warmer

USB coffee warmer

USB connections allow data to be transferred between devices, but they can also transfer power as well as data. 2.5 inch external hard drives, for instance, are powered by the USB connection as well as the data transfer taking place along the USB connection. There are also some devices (mini fans, for instance) that are connected via USB simply to power them – ie with no data transfer taking place. You can even get a USB-powered gizmo that keeps your coffee warm (if you don’t mind risking knocking your coffee over into your keyboard).

I hope this helps to clarify a rather confusing area. The confusion is mainly caused, of course, by the fact that things change and improve over time and the changeover is never neat with a cut-off date. We always have lots of “generations” in use at the same time. Plus ca change…

If you’d like to know more about this utterly fascinating (!) subject, then you could try

Just two quick tips this week:

Re-booting a frozen computer

On/off switchIf your computer has frozen solid and simply won’t respond to anything at all that you do, then there is an easy and certain way to get it to-reboot – just depress and hold down the on/off button for a minimum of five seconds. This will definitely cause your machine to re-boot.

This is not to be done lightly as it does immediately delete the entire contents of the computer’s memory, so any unsaved work could be lost and there could just be unpredictable consequences in other respects (since the programs that were previously loaded haven’t had an opportunity to perform any “closing down tasks” before being rather brusquely dismissed). Nevertheless, I would recommend this method over simply yanking out the power lead. There is one situation in which it may be the ONLY thing you can do if your computer has frozen, and that is if you have an Apple Mac laptop with a battery that is not removable.

Lost Internet Connection

Sometimes your internet connection may disappear without any obvious reason. You can usually tell that it is a connection problem outside of your own computer if a red light appears on your router/modem. If this happens then I recommend doing the following:

  • If you have a telephone on the same line as your broadband connection then see if you have a dialling tone. If you don’t, then report the fault to your provider as a telephone fault – don’t even think of reporting it as a broadband problem if the voice line has gone. It’s far easier to get them to investigate a voice line failure (which will also be the reason for your internet connection failure).
  • Assuming that you still have a voice line, re-boot your router/modem – ie switch it off (or, more likely, remove it from the power supply as they don’t usually have on/off switches) and re-connect it after a minimum of 30 seconds. There is a very good chance that after you’ve given it a minute or so to get itself started then your connection will return.
  • If re-booting the router doesn’t work, then re-boot the router and the computer at the same time – ie switch them both off before switching them both back on.
  • If that doesn’t work, then disconnect your router from both the power supply and the telephone line and leave it disconnected for 30 minutes. This gives the equipment further back up the line the opportunity to see that you’ve “gone away” so your connection will be closed (and re-opened when you re-connect).

I estimate that about 80% of internet connection problems are resolved by carrying out these simple steps and it can be a very great relief to regain your connection without being subjected to the torture of speaking to the average ISP’s technical support department.

There is no doubt in my mind that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get decent technical support from ISPs. It doesn’t matter what you try and tell them. They still absolutely insist that you jump through all their hoops, exactly as they demand, despite what you may have already tried. There have been several occasions in the last few months when I have spent hours – yes, hours – trying to persuade ISPs that we have investigated all the possibilities of problems at the client’s end and that we now want them to carry out a line check. There is no doubt that they carry out support by following a very rigid pre-defined set of steps and they will not deviate from this. I can’t offer any help here – just sympathy and the hope that simply re-booting your router will save you from this Kafkaesque nightmare.

Finally, I don’t apologise for plugging my own ISP – Zen Internet. Their technical support (based in Rochdale) is still first-class. Maybe they are not quite alone, though. I had reason to contact PlusNet a few days ago and their response was also fast and human. Yes, this is the same PlusNet as the one that lost the plot regarding technical support about 3 years ago. Maybe they have learned from Zen how to do it. I can’t help thinking that it’s probably not just a coincidence that PlusNet have been running a television advertising campaign boasting of their technical support based in Yorkshire – not a million miles from Zen in Rochdale.

By the way, several Mac clients have pointed out to me that it isn’t always obvious if I’m talking about PCs or Macs in these blogs. I’m going to start to categorise them so that it is more obvious. In the meantime, the topics in today’s blog are equally applicable to Macs and PCs.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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