Cable Yankin’

Some things in my life have required a cruel and unusual amount of patience. Getting my drivers license, turning twenty-one, getting my own place to live and proper unplugging of a USB device.

We all use USB nowadays. Digital Cameras, Blackberry's, external hard drives, web cams -and the list goes on and on. To accommodate my many devices, a USB hub sits on my computer. I can plug up to seven devices into it. Some are rarely unplugged -like my scanner, web cam and printers. Other devices, like my Blackberry, USB storage drive and camera are plugged and unplugged frequently.

When it is time to unplug a USB device from my PC, I often contemplate whether I should just pull it out, or use that little icon down by the time that says "Safely Remove Hardware." Sometimes I yank it out, and sometimes I go through the patience-demanding steps to remove a device carefully. Before I tell you how I decide, some background may help.

Sudden removal of a USB device was known to make Windows 98, 2000 and early XP unstable. In some cases, the computer screen went black and the computer restarted if a USB device was unplugged without warning the operating system.

Back in USB's infancy, Microsoft tried to get hardware manufacturers to install locks on USB devices to prevent removal while in use. Hardware vendors said, "No. It's too expensive," and dug their feet in. This left safe removal up to the operating system. Microsoft answered with a pop-up message notifying users of "unsafe removal," which, of course, is useless after having removed a device. Windows XP service packs improved USB handling, but the responsibility of protecting a device during surprise disconnections still falls largely on its manufacturer.

How do I decide whether to follow the USB removal rules? It depends on what device is as risk. The current standard of USB (2.0) carries a steady flow of 5 volts. The concept of yanking that voltage from a delicate device while it is in use makes me nervous -even though safety precautions for doing so should accommodated by the device manufacturer.

When it comes to my cell phone cradle or game pad, I am unworried about damage so I yank their USB connection at will.

For devices that store data like my digital camera, USB flash drive and external hard drive, I am more cautious. The risk that comes with surprise disconnects of these devices includes file corruption. If a USB drive is disconnected while it is still writing data you are saving, you can expect lost data or file corruption or, worse, corruption of the devices entire file system -making it unreadable.

Using the "Safely Remove Hardware" icon allows Windows to better protect itself and the device in preparation to disconnect. To feel better about being patient and responsible, I remember the days when I couldn't add or remove a new device without shutting the computer down.

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