The computer industry and users alike have maligned the concept of Plug and Play (PnP), and rightfully so. Trying to coax relics such as serial and parallel ports into playing nicely with modern hardware is like teaching an old dog new tricks—it’s not gonna happen.

Enter the new era of the Universal Serial Bus (USB). USB corrects the sins of serial and parallel ports and is a much more elegant interface. USB enables true PnP operability on today’s systems. If you’ve purchased a Pentium II or Pentium III system in the past year, you already have two USB ports built in. With the use of a hub, one system can accommodate up to 127 USB devices, running at a maximum throughput rate of 12Mbps.

One of the more useful products to come out of the USB gate is Iomega’s USB Zip drive. Like its original SCSI and parallel siblings, the USB Zip drive is still a 100MB device—far less storage capacity than most of us require these days. So what makes it so special? Aside from the attractive translucent blue case, the USB Zip Drive is several times faster than the parallel port version (although it's not as fast as a clean SCSI connection) while retaining the portability aspect that millions of Zip drive owners have come to love.

The Zip USB is limited to a maximum sustained transfer rate of 800KBps, slower than any hard disk, but more than adequate when you compare it to a floppy drive. The most important benefit of using a USB Zip drive is that it can take advantage of USB's inherent PnP support. Through the cooperation of Windows 2000 (Win2k) and Windows 98, installing the USB Zip drive is simply a matter of plugging it in and installing the drivers—there are no messy SCSI ID, termination switches, or IRQ conflicts to worry about. Best of all, USB devices are hot swappable, so you can connect or disconnect the drive without shutting down the system.

Unfortunately, Windows NT 4.0 lacks USB support. However, with Win2k just around the corner, you can bet hardware manufacturers are building new products around the USB specification. USB won't eliminate serial and parallel ports overnight, but with products such as the USB Zip drive, we’re already one step closer to the end of Plug and Pray.