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USB Connectors Are Lousy

I finished Chapter 6 yesterday, and have only one more chapter to write. When I was exporting my Visio drawing files to .png for submission, I discovered that a figure I drew two weeks ago had gone bad. It went bad in a way I’ve seen before: It was smaller than similar figures…and it crashed Visio. That happened to another Visio drawing file of mine a couple of years ago, when the front-panel USB port on my Antec 900 case went intermittent. I’m guessing that the data connection opened up while the file was being written, and not everything made it from the Windows filesystem to the Cruzer Micro Skin on which the file was stored. This happened to another couple of files, most of them Word documents. In those cases, I found out before I did my weekly backups. This time I didn’t, and the bad file had already propagated to my backups and overwritten the intact copy of the file. I have a hardcopy and can probably redraw it in an hour or so. Mercifully, it’s not anywhere near as complex as some of the 79 other figures I’ve drawn for the book in Visio so far. But man, I don’t want to go this way again. The Thermaltake V9 BlacX case has worked very well for me since I first described it in this space. I don’t think it’s the case’s fault, nor the fault of the Antec 900 before it.

It’s the USB ports. And I don’t know quite what to do about it.

I’ve had a personal computer since 1979, and have trudged my way through generations of removable storage since then. Here’s the list:

1979: 8″ floppies

1982: 5 1/4″ floppies

1985: Original “cafeteria tray” Bernoulli box. (Tick…tick…tick…)

1991: Original Syquest 44MB cartridge hard drive

1995: SyQuest EZ-Drive cartridge hard drive.

1996: Zip 100

1997: Zip 250

1997: Jaz. Got rid of it almost immediately, went back to Zip 100s and 250s.

2004: Thumb drives

Trouble is, I don’t know what, if anything, comes next. The problem isn’t with thumb drives themselves, nor with the Flash technology inside them. Granted, MLC makes me nervous, and I’d pay extra for SLC thumb drives if they still exist. (I don’t think they do.) The problem is entirely with the crappy connectors on the front panels of modern PCs, and with how badly we’ve abused them.

The USB interface wasn’t designed with removable storage in mind. USB was intended for interfacing to things like printers and scanners, for which you plug a cable into the port on the PC and leave it there. IBM invented the USB thumb drive in 2000, and I bought my first one in 2001. They work beautifully, but plugging and unplugging thumb drives all day can’t be good for the thin shim stock from which the port’s electrical interface is formed. It may also put stress on the copper traces on the circuit board behind the port socket. However it happens, the damned things die, and when they die, they take files (and cases) with them.

We have to be able to do better than this. The obvious solution is to recess the ports behind a channel that aligns the USB plug and keeps it from putting angular force on the port–i.e., a wiggle suppressor. Alas, there’s no standard for the bodies of USB plugs, whether for printers or thumb drives. A recessed port would keep all those rubber duckie-shaped thumb drives from plugging in, and who knows what Federal intervention that would trigger.

There have actually been eSATA thumb drives for several years now, but because eSATA ports don’t provide power (big mistake!) you have to run a cable from the thumb drive into a nearby USB port. Furthermore, even if there were eSATA ports on the front panels of tower cases (I have yet to see one) I’m not sure that the physical port would fare much better than a USB port with constant plugging and unplugging over a period of years. The eSATA spec didn’t anticipate that either. Both USB and eSATA ports seem to be made of the same flimsy stuff.

Carol made a suggestion that is functional but not elegant: Find a short USB adapter cable with a male Type A on one end and a female Type A on the other end. Leave the male plugged into the desktop, and swap out thumb drives on the female end of the cable. I actually found a 40″ specimen in the bottom of my cable snake pit, and it works. Shorter cables of that species may be available. Needless to say, it looks like hell. Cables are cheaper than cases, though.

Now, a clever hardware hacker could build the female end of the cable into some sort of base that sits beside the tower and plugs into the back. I could see that. Can see that. Will see that.

When I do, you’ll see it here.


  1. Bob Fegert says:

    I have had the same problems with those crappy USB ports!

    I finally bought some powered USB hubs that were small,flat, rectangular units with 4ports on the front and I velcro’d them on the
    top front of my PC cases. They have nice 3amp 5v supplies that cost
    extra but are worth it.

    These USB hubs with beefy switching supplies are also great for powering the Pi.

  2. NAS is probably overkill… but it would work. One might also consider using sd cards, which were made to be removed and inserted over and over again. They make SD card readers that go where your (now-not-very-useful) 3.5 inch drive is/was. I have one that I stopped using (needed the floppy bay for a floppy drive.) I’ll bring it next time I visit.

    Having said SD cards were made to be inserted over and over again, I’ll also mention that, while I’ve never had a USB key fail on me, I /have/ broken the wiggle preventer on an SD card, whereon it stopped working entirely for my Raspberry Pi. (Different socket on my CP/M box – it’s a mighty fast card for that application, but it works there.)

  3. Jon says:

    I agree wit h Bob – small USB hub will relocate the problem^h^h^h^hcess off the system unit. I do have a single USB socket that came with a WiFi dongle; it’s just what you said “a clever hacker could build”. Belkin, IIRC. NewEgg sells short (maybe 6″) USB M-F Type A cables, too.

  4. Jon says:

    I forgot to say; I’ve had several USB thumb drives fail on me over the years, mostly mechanical (the case has cracked open allowing the USB contacts to break free of the memory board), but a few due to one form or another of internal failures. But then, I spent a fair number of years carrying one or two around in the same pocket with my keys and Swiss Army Knife, plugging them into my work and home computers every day (sometimes several times a day). Into hubs, not directly into the computer most of the time.

  5. Tom Roderick says:

    I have been using the suggestion Carol made for a number of years. Not so much due to failures, but because my tower case is just above the floor and the front USB ports are down very low and hard to see and reach. I have a cable run from a rear USB port to a cork board next to my desk and just leave the end looped over a large push pin.

    I have also used a Rosewill RNX-N180UBE WiFi adapter which has a Male A to Female A mounted in a weighted base. The WiFi USB dongle plugs into the base. I bought two on sale from New Egg when I needed one for WiFi a few feet from where there was good signal. It looks ok and sounds exactly like what you were wishing for in your last paragraph.

    One final comment on backups. Back in the day I had an annual project that HAD to be ready right at the end of each year. It was a combined Mainframe/Spreadsheet analysis where the final project was took about three months work to produce. I did NOT use my normal backup cycle for critical points in that project. At each milestone point I pulled a separate backup, ran a verification that all the data was good and then pulled it out of cycle until the project was complete. I even convinced managers that this was cheaper than risking missing that deadline. For project type work it is a bit more trouble, but it saved my bacon several times.

  6. Denis says:

    Just a datum point: my CoolerMaster Cosmos case has
    4 usb ports, a firewire port, and an eSata port on the
    front/top of the case, along with the usual motherboard usb/eSata
    ports on the back.

  7. RH in CT says:

    I think Carol’s idea of using extension cables is excellent, but don’t plug them into the front. There are probably USB connections on the back that never get used. Get longer cables, plug them into the back, and fasten them down somewhere in the middle so it is not possible to ever pull on the end and stress the connection on the computer. Not enough ports back there? An add-in card is cheap.

    As to where to buy cables, I’m totally sold on Monoprice. Great quality and great prices, low enough that with things like cables I will stock up. They have more than cables though. I picked up two of their 8-port ethernet switches and they’ve worked great.

  8. Roger G. Smith says:

    I’d pay extra for SLC thumb drives if they still exist.

    I think Lexar and Triton have used SLC in the past, but offhand, MX Technology SLC flash drives are all I know of today. (MX Technology is a well established brand.)

    Have not used these, but may now since you’ve brought this up.

    MX-Technology USB 3.0 MX-ES Series SLC Flash Drives

    I’ve made several purchases from MyDigitalDiscount. They’re a solid vendor (…and their MyDigitalSSD branded drives have proved to be a reliable, solid value).

  9. TC Chuah says:

    Trying using some “Contact Cleaner Lubricant”. I use a product called Electrolube EML from England but I think DeoxIT Gold is more commonly available in the US.

    My blog post ( have a description of the problem that I had with my PCI TV card. There is also 2 links describing problems when you have metal-to-metal contacts in electronic equipments.

    I have since used this “contact cleaner lubricant” on my USB flash drives, USB port on my media player and on my RAM chips. It did not disappoint.

    Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliiate.

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