Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Laptops evolve to include ports of all sorts

November 19, 2011

If you’ve purchased a laptop lately, you may have noticed it has a few new things in it, most visibly ports that now come in a rather bewildering variety of types and purposes. Meanwhile, other ports you’ve seen for years have dropped out of style. Note when I write “laptop” here, I’m including tablets and notebooks, too, all of which share the problem of packing ports into small cases.

The old venerable modem is an example of a dying port breed. Long a staple of laptops, modems are now slow and unpopular. Most hotels now have either WiFi, direct-connect Ethernet network cable jacks, or both. I confess I like to carry an Ethernet network patch cord for those rooms that have direct connections, because I like the reliability of copper-to-copper better than the caprice of WiFi. But if I want to work in the hotel’s lounge instead, WiFi is the only way to go.

Other ports have proliferated to take over the modem’s accustomed spot. USB 2 ports in particular have bred like rabbits on fertility drugs. My newest laptop has five of them. These are the ports that accept a massively wide variety of devices, from the pedestrian mouse to fans and fruit-shaped thumb drives. Add in the USB hub I use and the count goes up to nine. I don’t use them all, but it’s comforting to know I could if I wanted to. Some laptops now come with one or more USB 3 ports, which are much faster than USB 2’s but look just like them.

One new port type that looks confusingly like a USB is the eSATA, which is for attaching an external hard drive. USB ports work fairly well for this, too, but eSATA connections are about three times faster. If the lighting is low, you may find yourself trying to plug a USB into this thing. Most laptops have a faint “eSATA” somewhere around it to distinguish it, but with older eyes the words may blend into the background. Transferring large amounts of data has been a bottleneck for a long time; the size of data files keeps growing, and so does the need for a faster port to push them through. eSATA is considerably faster than USB for moving big hunks of data to external drives.

Video ports are similarly rushing toward the future. The old VGA ports are still standard equipment, but on many new laptops there are also DisplayPort or HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) ports that work with high-resolution video devices. Video standards have changed repeatedly over the years, as for example when DVI (digital video interface) first arose and then began to lose ground. Still, many of today’s monitors will accept DVI or VGA. On older laptops, you may spot the round S-Video port, but it’s old technology and definitely getting hard to find now.

Some laptops intended for a video market may have a FireWire port to hook up a camera. It’s superior to USB for video, but still isn’t frequently found on laptops. If you intend to do a lot of video capture and manipulation, you might want to insist on having a FireWire port. Interestingly, you can use FireWire to hook up a point-to-point network between two Apple laptops that have FireWire. Microsoft quit providing support for networking over FireWire in 2004, so Windows users can’t do this.

New laptops and notebooks take security more seriously, too. Many now feature a Kensington lock slot, which is a small, unobtrusive oval port that accepts a special anti-theft cable.

New laptops have a wide array of card port functionality nowadays, too. Some machines meant for multimedia may have built-in memory card readers, for example, that will accept camera or cell phone cards. Older laptops often had single PCMCIA slots for specialized cards. One laptop I once used didn’t have built-in WiFi capability, so I used the slot for a WiFi card. Newer machines have an updated version called “ExpressCard.”

Other built-in goodies we’ve come to expect include a camera, speakers, microphone and pointing device. Most now have a CD/DVD player/burner, too. Hard drives are getting bigger over time, at least in terms of storage capacity. You can now buy laptops with 500 GB (gigabyte) storage capacity, the size of one I have in my mini-tower personal computer at home. There are even “hard drives” that live up to the name more completely, as they are entirely solid-state with no moving parts at all. These have been getting more popular for years as very thin external hard drives that are primarily used for backups or overflow storage, but their higher cost for internal use has kept them somewhat underused inside laptop cases. No longer. Like the new data ports, they’re likely here to stay, until something better comes along.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.
 

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