Saturday, November 3, 2012

Are Your USB Ports Too Close Together? Here’s How to Fix It!

 By Christian Cawley

  If you’re like me, you probably make good use of USB on your PC, from connecting keyboards and printers to smartphones, USB flash memory, Bluetooth, 3G or Wi-Fi dongles, headsets, game controllers and more.

   USB is a versatile and easy-to-use connection format, but there is one thing that bugs many people (including me) about it: the inability of computer manufacturers from Apple to Lenovo, Dell to HP (short version: all of them) to correctly space the positioning of pairs of USB ports so that two devices can be connected at the same time!

  However, upon investigation into this state of affairs, it seems that this inability is little more than an unnecessarily inflexible adherence to a set of agreements governing the use of USB on such devices. The result of this is that users will have to put up with the narrow gap between ports on their PCs and laptops and instead spend money on alternatives.
Typical Measurements For USB Ports

   USB seems to be pretty ubiquitous, found on PCs, laptops, mobile phones, tablets, games consoles, NAS devices, set-top boxes and routers. With the advent of USB 3.0 it shows no immediate sign of going anywhere soon, but there remains this problem of the distance between port sizes failing to match the real-life situation of USB connectors being too big to sit side-by-side when connected to a laptop or PC.

   The usual situation is that two USB cables can be connected concurrently, but that a cable and a USB wireless dongle (or other “fat” device) cannot be. Similarly, two “fat” devices cannot be connected together – some of the oversized USB devices might even overhang onto the neighbouring USB port.

   It seems that 5 mm is between ports is common, a gap governed by the USB port hardware selected from a list of hardware by the computer’s manufacturer. There is little that can be done about this in physical terms, it would seem, other than to avoid purchasing “fat” USB devices (there is the possibility of filing down the side of the device connector, but in the case of something like a wireless dongle this might well make the peripheral useless).

Fortunately, there are workarounds that you can use to overcome this most frustrating of computing issues…

Solution #1 – Use One Port At a Time

It might not be flexible and it might be obvious, but the option to use just a single port at any time is there.

Of course, if you’re using a pair of devices that require connecting at the same time – such as a webcam and a microphone – this is going to prove difficult.

However for things like USB flash RAM and wireless dongles, this might just be the best option.

Solution #2 – Break Out The Hubs

Meanwhile, USB hubs are dirt cheap these days (although you might want to pay a little more for a decent unit) and can easily be connected to your computer. The result of this should be that you have additional ports, potentially a far preferable situation than the standard pair of ports on the side of your laptop or on the front of your PC tower.

Additionally, hubs can be found in unusual places. Dell monitors often have a USB cable so that you can connect memory sticks and other devices to the computer via the monitor, while some keyboards come with built-in hubs. Printers often have USB hubs too, intended for printing directly from flash memory sticks.

One creative solution to requiring additional USB ports comes in this Instructable, explaining how to turn your mouse into a USB hub.

Solution #3 – Extender Cables

Perhaps not as cheap as a hub but potentially more flexible, extender cables often ship with wireless dongles and other hardware. Constructed with narrow connectors that can successfully sit alongside another similar connector, this solution can be used with any USB item you might have and has the added bonus of adding a few extra inches to an existing cable, something that might prove useful connecting printers, scanners and smartphone/tablet stands.

Which Is Your Solution?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the world’s computer manufacturers got together and came to an agreement about the distance between USB ports? The thing is, of course, they’re not entirely blameless.

USB has been used as a connection form factor since 1996. USB hardware manufacturers have had more than enough time to design dongles and cables that easily sit side-by-side in computers.

All-in-all, it’s a funny state of affairs, but at least we can find solutions in the form of cables, hubs and other peripherals that might have additional USB ports.

Let us know what your preferred solution is.

Image Credit: USB hub via Shutterstock

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