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USB has become the main way that computers talk to a variety of peripherals, including (you saw this coming, right?) audio interfaces for music recording. But while USB was designed to be a consumer-friendly, plug-and-play kinda thang, you know as well as I do that when computers get involved, things can get complicated. Here are some tips on how to get the most out of USB.
First and foremost, get the latest update for your operating system, as early implementations on Mac and Windows had problems. Windows 98 didn't even work with USB; you needed 98SE. And in my experience, XP works okay with USB, but for music software that does MIDI over USB, you really need to have Service Pack 1. The Mac implementation of USB has also improved dramatically with newer OS X updates.
There never seem to be enough USB ports, right? You have two options: One is to insert a PCI card with USB ports. The advantage to this approach is that you can upgrade your ports to USB 2.0 if your machine is stuck in the days of 1.1, and some cards include a Firewire port as well.
The other option is to install a USB hub. This plugs into a USB port and powers anywhere from two to eight additional ports, but can't magically convert USB 1.1 to USB 2.0. However, don't cheap out and buy a bus-powered one: You want a self-powered type with its own power supply. Otherwise, if you have enough devices drawing power from the port, look out - they may exceed the port's capabilities.
Let's add a couple tips for Windows users. If the little USB icon appears in your taskbar to indicate a USB peripheral is connected, pay attention.
Never disconnect a USB device simply by unplugging it if this icon is in the taskbar. Click on the icon, and choose "Safely remove [device name]." Shortly after you do this, you'll be told you can remove it. Only then should you disconnect the peripheral.
Another tip involves the "case of the unrecognized peripheral." Here's the deal: You install a driver for a USB device plugged into a particular port. At some point you disconnect it. A few days later you come back, plug it in, and . . . oops, nothing happens. This usually means you plugged into a different port. Disconnect, and plug into the port you originally used. This time, it should work.
Oh, one last thing: There are spiffy, expensive USB cables and there are cheapo USB cables. I use the cheapo ones and I don't see any real problems. I figure as long as the data gets through, it doesn't really care about the wire carrying it. Granted, maybe the cheapo ones will wear out sooner, but they don't seem to affect the integrity of data one bit. Or byte, for that matter!