Connecting peripheral devices to your PC has become significantly easier since USB's introduction in 1997. Users no longer need to know what kind of cable a printer needs or whether buying a scanner requires adding a SCSI card. Vendors now offer a broad selection of USB devices for consumers of add-on computer hardware.

But although USB's 12Mbps speed is faster than the speeds available to a printer port or serial port, it's not fast enough for digital devices that need to move a lot of data. Users who want to attach hard disks, CD burners, scanners, and digital video cameras must find another solution or deal with USB 1.1's not-quite-acceptable performance. Digital video camera users found USB 1.1 completely unacceptable and became the leading force for the adoption of USB's only real competition, the 400Mbps IEEE 1394 standard (sold by Apple as FireWire and by Sony as iLink). Every currently manufactured digital video camera that outputs to a computer (which is most of them) comes with an IEEE 1394 port. But few computer manufacturers have standardized on 1394; only Apple and Sony offer the connector as a standard item across their product lines.

Other than digital video cameras, hard disks, and CD burners, few peripherals use 1394 connections. This lack of adoption led the USB Implementers Forum to design the next generation of USB—the 480Mbps USB 2.0 standard. At 40 times the speed of the first USB generations, USB 2.0 is fast enough to make moving lots of digital information practical. Although the speeds of the 400Mbps version of the IEEE 1394 specification and the 480Mbps USB 2.0 are virtually the same, USB has one significant advantage: serious backing from Intel.

Intel has announced that future versions of the chipsets the company provides to PC vendors will include USB 2.0 support. By mid-2002, every new computer with the Intel chipset will have built-in USB 2.0 support. You can be certain that third-party chipset vendors will provide the same level of support to stay competitive.

USB 2.0 peripherals are already starting to appear. Hardware vendors such as Adaptec, Keyspan, Belkin, and USBGear offer add-in cards that give you support for USB 2.0 peripherals. These vendors also offer drivers for their cards that let Windows versions prior to Windows XP support USB 2.0.

If you use XP, Microsoft has announced that the USB 2.0 drivers will be available through Windows Update sometime this month. If you use a version of Windows prior to XP, you'll have to rely on vendors of add-in cards for hardware and drivers. Microsoft won't provide USB 2.0 support on any non-XP platforms. One hopes that motherboard chipset vendors will provide the drivers for earlier Windows OSs with their motherboards.