USB BEGINS LIVING UP TO THE HYPE

USB BEGINS LIVING UP TO THE HYPE

Universal serial bus (USB) technology may finally be living up to all the hype.

It seems like it took forever for Microsoft to deliver drivers within Windows to support it, and they're only available right now in Windows 98. But now hardware manufacturers are rushing to get a bevy of new peripherals to store shelves.I've been playing with USB modems from Zoom Telephonics and Shark Multimedia and two USB Zip drives from Iomega Corp.

The new Zoom/FaxModem 56K USB ($99.95) is the fastest of the two modems I tested, giving me average connection speeds of 49 kilobytes per second to 52kbps. The only problem was its habit of cutting off my connection after 20 minutes on line. But that was easily remedied after a call to one of Zoom's resident techies. All I had to do was change my modem's settings.

As with all USB devices, it's detected by Windows as soon as it's connected to the computer. The beauty is that, once the drivers are installed, you can move it from computer to computer and it will be available instantly. No IRQ (interrupt request) conflicts, no ports to reconfigure - true plug-and-play.

The Shark Leopard Pocket USB 56K Modem ($79.95) is a bit slower: 42kbps to 45kbps. It redefines the term ''portability.'' Although not as compact as a PCMCIA card modem, this is the smallest USB device I've ever seen - it fits in your shirt pocket.

It also comes with all of the software you're used to, including a call connection center that sets up password-protected voice mailboxes to handle telephone calls while you're off doing other things. This baby is also true plug-and-play, so you won't have a problem moving it from notebook to PC and back again.

You can also purchase a Shark three-port USB hub, which resembles the modem in design and size. Just attach it to your computer or notebook port, and you can use the modem plus two other peripherals off the same USB port. One cautionary note: Make sure your drivers can support it. Early USB drivers have a problem with multiport hubs and may cause your computer to lock up.

But I believe the greatest feature of using an USB modem is that you don't need to attach a bulky power supply to a wall outlet. All USB modems draw their power directly from the computer's power supply.

The two Iomega drives I played with were the Zip 100 USB ($99), and its smaller and sleeker successor, the Zip 250 USB ($149).

As with all the other USB devices I've used, both drives were instantly recognized by all the computers I attached them to - an Acer Aspire 366, a 500-megahertz Pionex Pentium III and an a Pionex 300 megahertz notebook.

Ease of use is definitely the key here. And you can even use these drives on an IMac or a MacIntosh G3, giving you true cross-platform portability.

The Zip 250 can read and store data on either a 100-megabyte or 250-megabyte Zip disk (you're limited to 100-megabyte disks using the Zip 100). The 250 is also easier to tote around because of its smaller size, making it ideal for use with notebooks.

Also you can purchase a PCMCIA adapter ($39.95) so the drive can be run through a PCMCIA Type 1 slot in your notebook.