Where would we be without USB? Well, on the one hand, we’d be lost – could we bear to live in a world without memory sticks, webcams and multifunction devices?

Such is the ubiquity of the technology that almost any product you care to mention has a USB connection – FireWire, ethernet and memory slots barely get a look-in. USB is so successful that an entire crop of gadgets has been spawned specifically to capitalise on its very convenience. Just this week we were sent a USB-powered massage ball. We jest not.

On the other hand, the men (and some women) among us would probably have more hair and rather less need for anger-management courses. Yep, as we’re all well aware, sometimes USB ports and their associated devices just don’t work as they should.

Over the following pages, we’ll help you to solve some of the more frustrating USB problems. Why do some devices seem to stop working at the drop of a hat? Why do some devices refuse to work at all? Why does Windows think your USB 2.0 ports are actually USB 1.1 ports? The answers are all here.

If your PC is getting on in years (if it does what you need then there’s nothing wrong with that), you’re probably stuck with the dinosaurs in the land of USB 1.1. Help is at hand here too – we’ll demonstrate how to fit a USB 2.0 PCI card.

This will also prove useful if you’ve already got USB 2.0 but want to add some extra ports, particularly if some of your existing ones are damaged or shorted out. Believe us, it happens.

Your ageing PC will need to be running Vista, XP or Windows 2000 – no other consumer version of Windows officially supports USB 2.0. Older operating systems are reliant on third-party drivers, which are all too often flaky or non-existent. Even so, if you’re soldiering on with Windows 98, much of what follows is still highly relevant.

General USB troubleshooting

1. ‘Hi-Speed USB Device Plugged into non-Hi-Speed USB Hub’. If you’ve ever seen this error message before, you’ve probably been trying to run a USB 2.0 peripheral in a USB 1.1 port. Or have you? If you’re certain it’s a USB 2.0 port, use Windows Update to ensure your PC has the latest patches.

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Step 1

2. If that doesn’t help, try updating your motherboard’s chipset driver. To determine your chipset, consult your system’s user guide or the motherboard’s manual. Alternatively, install a diagnostic utility. We recommend PC Wizard (tinyurl.com/p2udz). Then head to the chipset manufacturer’s website and download the goods.

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Step 2

3. Motherboards from 2002 or earlier often have a mixture of USB 1.1 and 2.0 ports. The latter will be connected not to the board’s chipset but to a separate controller. If this applies to you, update the controller’s driver. For the very common VIA VT6202 (a known troublemaker), head to tinyurl.com/7htbs.

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4. If your motherboard has a mix of USB ports, ensure you know which ones are which. Maybe you’re being unwittingly short-changed on speed. Often, the ports on the board’s I/O panel will be USB 1.1, with USB 2.0 being provided only via ports front-mounted on your case. Again, check your manual to see what’s what.

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5. On the subject of speed, have you inspected your cables lately? Printers and scanners often come without them, as a result of which many people just use ones they’ve got lying around. Kinked or squashed cables – or ones only designed for USB 1.1 – can cause slow transfer rates and even data corruption.

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6. If a USB device intermittently stops working, it’s possible that Windows incorrectly thinks the device has become inactive. To stop this, open Device Manager, double-click each USB hub in turn and, under Power Management, untick ‘Allow the computer to turn off this device to save power.’

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7. If random dropouts still occur, try temporarily unplugging all non-essential devices. A USB port provides only 2.5W of power (500mA at 5V). Sometimes that either isn’t enough or the motherboard can’t reliably supply it – especially if you’re running multiple high-power devices without dedicated power supplies.

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8. The best solution to power-related problems is to buy a powered hub. Most hubs are ‘bus-powered’, drawing their power from the USB port they’re plugged into. What you’re after is a ‘self-powered’ hub, drawing its power from the mains. Previously erratic devices will often then operate faultlessly.

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9. Your hub won’t need a driver: just plug and play. It won’t always need the mains adaptor, either. It will work quite happily in bus-powered mode when you’re using low-power devices. Also, if your PC has no front-mounted ports, your hub should put an end to ferreting under your desk to attach devices.

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10. Using a self-powered hub in bus-powered mode (or just a plain bus-powered hub) carries a caveat. As the ports are fed by a single host, they share a single 2.5W output. One-fifth (100mA at 5V) is used by the host, leaving only 2W (400mA at 5V). Some devices might now refuse to function.

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>>NEXT PAGE: HOW TO INSTALL A USB 2.0 PCI CARD

How to install a USB 2.0 PCI Card

1. If your PC only supports USB 1.1, upgrading to USB 2.0 is simply a matter of fitting a PCI card. You don’t need anything expensive – spend more than £10 and you’ve been robbed. If possible, get a card with four ports (some cards come with one or more internal ports too).

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2. Switch off the PC, then disconnect it from the mains. Leave the power cord in place to keep the system earthed. Next, access the motherboard. This will usually mean removing the lefthand panel. While working, occasionally touch the case’s bare metal to discharge your body’s static.

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Step 2

3. Remove a blanking plate that aligns with a spare PCI slot. It’ll be secured by a clip, screw or soldered joint (which will need breaking). Insert the card. Be cautious but firm. Finally, screw or lock it in place. If the blanking plate was soldered and you don’t have a suitable screw, take it to a local PC shop.

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Step 3

4. Now fire up the PC again. Provided you’re running a version of Windows that officially supports USB 2.0, you won’t need to install a driver. To confirm the card has ‘taken’, open Device Manager and look for a USB controller described as ‘Enhanced’. If everything’s okay, reassemble the case.

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