brainwagon "There is much pleasure in useless knowledge." — Bertrand Russell

7Feb/113

USB: technology du jour, or evolutionary leap?

G4ILO has a post on his blog grumbling about the increasing use of USB technology in amateur radio:

G4ILO's Blog: USB technology du jour.

As seems typical with many things he talks about, I disagree with virtually all of his points.

My position: I absolutely hate special purpose cables. My FT-817 has some wacky DIN-6 or something on the back. My TH-D7A (and I think the VX-8GR) use a 2.5mm plug to carry data. Every time I have to buy a special purpose cable, I grimace, mostly because I know that they are shafting me out of $30 or whatever for a cable that provides about $2 worth of manufactured value. USB has three (or is it four) plug types, but at least they are commodity items: you can get them inexpensively if you hunt around, and chances are you probably have a couple of the right type from a phone, or a disk drive, or whatever.

It's nice that G4ILO's shack has four different serial ports. I have one machine in my office that has a DB-9 in it, but I have six other machines which combine to provide probably two dozen USB ports. If I want to add a couple of ports to something, I have a $7 powered hub that I keep around (it was useful a couple of times with a laptop that provided only one USB port). G4ILO tries to portray USB as being the side with limited expandability, when precisely the reverse is true: USB has much greater expandability.

There is one criticism which I think is valid: I despise manufacturers who require the use of proprietary drivers to access functionality. Luckily, the USB standards folks have figured this out: USB defines class codes. This means that you can create devices which comply with certain USB specifications, and the USB devices simply work. You plug in a device, and it is recognized as a serial port, or an audio card, or a modem, or an ethernet controller. I love the idea of the TH-D72a: you simply plug in a USB cable and plug it into your computer, it recognizes it as a serial device and creates the necessary device entries. Windows/Mac/Linux, it all just works.

Yes, if you wanted to hook it to a microcontroller, it isn't that helpful. So in exchange for making it work better for 99.9% of the people, it doesn't automatically fufill the needs of of the .1%. I'll take that tradeoff any day.

Sending analog audio down cables sounds great, and of course we find that radios like the TH-D72a of course still have audio inputs and outputs. But having digital ones via USB opens up lots of possibilities: like sending data noiselessly, and being able to control levels with actual program controls.

Do we need plug and play controls on our radios? ABSOLUTELY. There is nothing about ham radio that implies that we have to be masochists and invent the kludgy solutions that everyone else in the universe is well beyond.

USB is hardly a technology du jour. It's perhaps the single most widely supported standard in computing, is supported on every major operating system, and has created a huge industry of peripherals that are simply expected to work.

As for longevity: who can tell, but I'll simply say that I've had USB peripherals since the Windows 95 days. It was rocky back then, but fifteen years later, they are still going strong.

As consumers (and most of us are consumers of ham radio stuff) we should expect better from the manufacturers. Radios should use well-developed USB technology.

Filed under: Amateur Radio 3 Comments