It seems every gadget maker is hopping on the Universal Serial Bus. USB, as it is commonly known, has emerged as a standard for all the cables and software drivers that connect computers with anything digital. But not all USB connections are equal, and products that flaunt the latest version, USB 2.0, aren't necessarily as speedy as consumers might expect.

While a growing number of devices feature USB 2.0, some actually transfer data at the slower speed of its predecessors. Also, there's a significant difference between "full-speed" and "hi-speed" USB 2.0.

An industry group behind the USB standard is partly to blame for the muddled jargon, though it is trying to clear up confusion by issuing official logos and labeling guidelines for manufacturers.

These are only guidelines, however. Ultimately, the labeling and any fine print that either informs or misleads the public is still up to individual companies.

Some do a better job than others. For USB, truth in labeling may not arrive until device makers see how many customer complaints they get after the holiday season, said Richard Doherty, analyst with The Envisioneering Group.

First introduced in 1996, the USB standard allows instant communication between a computer and myriad devices with a new small plug as an alternative to two older formats.

Unlike the older "serial" or "parallel" ports, a single USB connection with a hub can handle multiple devices simultaneously. USB is also "hot swappable," which means users no longer need to reboot their computers when they want to plug or unplug their USB-enabled devices.

USB 2.0, a successor to the popular USB 1.1 standard, started appearing in mid-2001 and is now being built into almost all new personal computers. Meanwhile, the number of digital devices compatible with USB 2.0 is expected to quadruple from last year to more than 151 million shipped worldwide in 2003, according to market research firm In-Stat/MDR.

USB 2.0 offers greater bandwidth and a data transfer rate of up to 480 megabits per second — 40 times faster than the 12 Mbps maximum of USB 1.1.

That improved performance is behind much of the USB 2.0 hype now found in retail stores.

The words "USB 2.0," "ultrafast," and "super hi-speed" are prominently displayed on products and signs all along the aisles of external hard drives, CD burners, media card readers, scanners, digital cameras, or USB hubs and adapter cards.

But USB 2.0 doesn't always mean "40x faster."

The creators of USB 2.0 — a team made up of Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp., Hewlett Packard Co., the former Compaq Computer Corp., Agere Systems, NEC Corp. and Royal Philips Electronics — made the standard fully backward compatible so it would work with the gadgets people already own.

That's why USB 2.0 actually encompasses three speeds: the original USB speed of 1.5 Mbps, aka "low-speed USB"; 12 Mbps, aka "full-speed USB" or USB 1.1; and 480 Mbps, aka "hi-speed USB."

Some manufacturers have confused consumers by using the USB 2.0 label for products that don't necessarily support its fastest data transfer rates.

Furthermore, some devices, such as keyboards, only need the 1.5 Mbps data rate to work. And the flash memory used in many cameras and so-called keychain drives is, like many USB 2.0 consumer printers, far slower than USB 2.0's top speed.

Devices that actually do process large chunks of data at as much as 480 Mbps include CD burners and newer hard drives.

There's an additional consideration in buying USB 2.0 products.

Your computer needs to have a USB 2.0 port to take advantage of the faster data transmission. Many computers built before 2002 have USB 1.1 ports, limiting them to 12 Mbps.

The chairman of the USB Implementers Forum, Jeff Ravencraft, says users have not flooded product makers with complaints about misleading labels: "There may be some confusion, but I can't say there's a lot."

But some members of the trade association acknowledge that the industry's message could have been clearer.

"We were trying to portray that USB 2.0 is faster and backwards compatible. What came out of that was the faster message, and the common usage became USB 2.0 means faster speed," said Dan Harmon, a product marketing manager at Texas Instruments.

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