Managing USB 2.0 Devices

In a recent column, I pointed out that many of you might already have computers capable of USB 2.0 support (the hardware has been available for some time). If you have such hardware and you've installed the Windows XP Service Pack 1 (SP1) upgrade, your computer has ports identified as USB 2.0.

I've received email from readers who tell me that Device Manager gives them weird information about their USB 2.0 ports. Basically, these readers see one USB 2.0 port with machines that actually have several such ports; the machine shows all the other ports as standard USB. To find out what was going on, I set up a USB 2.0-capable computer.

To have as generic an installation as possible, I started with an Intel P4 white-box system with four USB 2.0 ports on the back panel and an internal connector that would let me configure two more USB 2.0 ports on the front of the computer if I needed them. My plan was to start by adding two USB 2.0 devices: a Belkin Hi-speed four-port USB 2.0 hub and one of Belkin's USB 2.0 drive enclosures equipped with a 120GB Western Digital Caviar hard disk. I wanted to use USB 2.0's 480MB bus speed to see whether connecting a mass-storage device to the USB port was practical If it proved realistic, I planned to add a DVD-RW drive to the chain later to use as a backup device.

After installing XP with SP1, I brought up Device Manager. Sure enough, Device Manager reported only one USB 2.0 Enhanced Host Controller and three standard USB Universal Host Controllers. When I checked the drivers associated with the controllers, only the first USB port appeared to have the USB 2.0 driver. I then tried to upgrade the software on the other controllers, but without success—the Driver update wizard reported that the controllers had the most current driver.

My next step was to call Microsoft Technical Support. The support team had never before seen the problem with USB 2.0 port identification, but a customer service rep got back to me within 24 hours with the solution to the problem—or, as it turned out, the non-problem. The problem wasn't caused by the availability of USB 2.0 ports, but by the way that Intel has designed the USB controller. Basically, my computer has one USB 2.0 controller and three (or five, if you enable all the ports) USB companion controllers that report themselves as USB 1.1 devices. If you plug a USB 2.0 device into any port, the device functions at USB 2.0 speeds; the controller handles the logic internally. USB controllers from different vendors might not report ports in the same way and might not indicate that all the ports are USB 2.0 capable, but each should have the same functionality.

I've already filled six of the seven ports with a USB hard disk, digital camera, MP3 player, Compact Flash reader, USB Bluetooth transceiver, and the USB connection to my satellite Internet connection. I use the seventh port occasionally for a USB flash memory card I use to transfer files—my digital video camera uses an IEEE 1394 (aka FireWire) connection. I'll probably add a second four-port hub to free up additional USB connections so that I can attach a DVD-RW backup device in the future. So far, I've been able to determine that I can use a data-only drive connected at USB 2.0 speeds without any problem.

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