James O'Neill's Blog

December 29, 2006

USB wasn’t meant to be like this !

Filed under: Mobility,Photography — jamesone111 @ 2:12 pm

Jason is seems to be bugged by the same things as me…

I got my new Pentax just before Christmas. I’ve owned three of their digital camera and each needs a specific USB cable – used on other cameras; the camera I take diving has a standard “Mini-B” and the old camera used something totally proprietary. In all I use 7 different USB cables. Some devices block the neighboring USB port so I connect them with an extension cable. My portable hard disk / card reader uses a “Y” cable with a standard “Mini-B” end and 2 “A” connectors to the PC (wikipedia explains the connector types). My wife’s Ipod has its own proprietary  USB connector. Phones are starting to use a single connector for USB and audio, which needs an audio adaptor, as Jason has pointed out, my old phone has a 2.5mm socket so that needs a different headphone adapter for MP3 use.

Traveling with a handful of gadgets is a pain. My laptop is a given: next into my bag goes an Inverter from APC to give AC power from the car or on a plane (fortunately the APC unit has an adapter for the 12V connector used on planes). I used this a lot in my previous job – where there was pressure to bill 10 hours work, done in premium economy: these days I idle the time away in the cheap seats where British Airways don’t provide power. When I’m abroad I have a Swiss Word Adapter which has doesn’t just act as mains plug adapter but also has a “cap” which is a USB 5volt power supply. Jason is pretty keen on the Power adapters from I-GO which are sold by Expansys among others. At the very least that could reduce the laptop power brick and inverter to one device, and should power the USB devices… APC have a similar device with a USB socket.

If you didn’t know already – USB has only 4 pins, 2 data, +5V and ground. PC USB ports rarely deliver more than 500mA of current not enough for the external hard-drive: hence the “Y” cable. That cable will connect one of the cameras and my phone to my laptop. However: just plugging  the phone’s data cable into the USB power won’t work, it needs a computer – with drivers installed – sending data or a power cable which grounds the otherwise unused pin on the USB Mini-B plug. 

At least the phone and drive can charge when connected to the PC: the cameras don’t charge via USB at all, and each has a different battery. The change of camera needs an extra charger, the Pentax I’ve just replaced shared AA batteries and a (USB-Powered) charger with my flash gun. That charger has a “full B” connector like my printer, scanner and mains powered hard disk – which means packing a USB cable! I found out about AA form-factor, USB-Chargeable batteries but charging 4 at once sounds worse than taking multiple battery chargers:  “universal” chargers use swappable battery holders, so there are just many bits to pack/lose, although all my chargers are mains only and the Universal ones tend to be mains or car. If they could be run from the APC or I-GO universal PSUs that would be be a help. I was getting so annoyed with the mass of cables that I wired my own to let me use the Swiss adapter to charge my hard disk , phone (modified mini B connector) AA battery charger (full mini B) and my 5V powered Bluetooth GPS “puck”. I’m on a quest for the perfect adapter which would let me use just the “Y” cable or an extension lead to connect any device for data and/or power; none of the kits on the market seem quite right – the “Universal” adapter by Hama is close (and cheap right now on 7DayShop), but lacks a Mini-b socket and “A” and full-B plugs 

Here are three things I’d like to see

  • Organizations which have to give approval (CE, the FCC etc) should withhold it from devices which depart from established connector standards. 
  • Policy from regulators which says that (a) Devices which use USB for data with batteries of 5V or bellow, should always charge via a USB using a standard cable. (b) Devices which don’t use USB for data should still use 5V via USB as a power source.

This is pretty close to what the Chinese government is mandating for phones – according to the People’s Daily article which was the source for Jason’s blog post . Jason got his info via Techdirt, who reported a similar initiative in Korea. Korea to me means Samsung, who have a tie-up with Pentax. With luck Samsung will standardize their cameras as well as their phones, and tow Pentax along behind them. But too late for this purchase.

Manufacturers (and cell phone carriers) see proprietary cables, batteries and chargers as a way of selling more accessories. Maybe they’d look at the other way round. They have to put one in every box which increases cost but they don’t add any value to a cable. I’d rather Pentax didn’t give me a cable and let me use one I had already. It wouldn’t move the camera to a lower price point so that’s margin for them. My retailer would get the chance to sell me one as an accessory – without stocking half a dozen different cables.  The same would happen when I bought a phone. No need for Orange to put the charger in the box with my new phone if I’ve got a perfectly good one cluttering the place up already, no need to supply chargers to people who will only charge the phone from the computer etc. And if you need a charger you can pick one up anywhere .

I must admit that until the Chinese initiative I was resigned to losing a never-ending fight to control the array of bits needed to support my gadgets. Now there is a chance things will move in the right direction, but I’m not getting carried away.

Technorati tags: Photography, Pentax, USB, Mobility

This post originally appeared on my technet blog.


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