Standards: A tech user's best friend

In a massive housecleaning a few weeks ago, I rediscovered my beloved TRS-80 Model 100, the first notebook I ever bought. Maxed out to 32KB (no misprint), it cost over US$1,000 (AUD$1274) back in 1983. But was its memory as good as mine? I tossed in four fresh AA cells and flicked the power on.

Glory be! The little cutie booted up instantly. I bowed gratefully to the god of standards, the one that specifies using batteries you can find in any drugstore instead of proprietary rechargeables.

Then I came back to reality. A day or so before, in a frenzy of discarding old cables, I had apparently tossed out the one for the Model 100 -- thereby rendering its only connection to the outside world, a blazingly fast 300-bps modem (no misprint there, either), unusable. And that was one cable I knew I wasn't going to find down at my neighborhood RadioShack.

But inside the little pocket manual carefully tucked into the plastic case were complete diagrams and descriptions of the cable's connectors: the familiar phone RJ-11 on one end and a big, round eight-pin DIN plug on the other. (The unusual design let you also hook up an acoustic coupler -- youngsters, don't ask.) With a soldering gun and a little talent, you could assemble that cable today. Turns out you can even buy one on the Web -- for US$5.

Standards can rescue you. On a recent trip to Spain, I discovered that my revised packing system for the new "liquids, gels, or aerosols" air-travel rules had somehow left out not only the obviously solid AC charger for the very nonstandard jack on my Palm Treo 600 phone, but also the charging cable that works off my computer's USB port. The standard that won the day was on the inside: the universal SIM card in my GSM Treo.

Once I bought a cheapie phone to tide me over, I stuck in the SIM, which gave the new handset my phone number. True, getting it to handle data required a call to customer service, but it saved my bacon when folks back home needed to find me. Simple. Effective. Interchangeable.

But just when you think you have the standards thing figured out, something comes along to bite you. During my Spanish trip, one hotel's Wi-Fi service simply didn't work with my laptop. The machine could see the wireless network. It would let me enter the passcode the front desk had given me. But connecting would fail, and I'd be returned to the list of wireless nets in the area.

After considerable discussion with a savvy clerk, I figured it all out. The hotel's wireless router was cleverly using the WPA encryption standard -- the newer and better alternative to the WEP encryption more typically used (when there's encryption at all) at public hotspots. But my machine is too old to know from WPA. Not only did it fail to make a connection, but it couldn't tell me what was wrong (though I bet Windows could have helped if its wireless services had been designed better).

As new standards supplant and augment old ones, figuring out where your gadgets fit into the current scheme can be frustrating. A USB 1.1 device may cause Windows to send up a scary howl of protest when you plug it into a USB 2.0 port -- but at least the thing will work. Maybe I'll buy one of those $5 cables to see if 300-bps modems still do.

Join the newsletter!


Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Stephen Manes

PC World
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill


I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Laura Johnston

MSI GS65 Stealth Thin

If you can afford the price tag, it is well worth the money. It out performs any other laptop I have tried for gaming, and the transportable design and incredible display also make it ideal for work.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?