Add USB support to NT 4.0

Here's an inexpensive upgrade to Windows NT 4.0 that allows you to add USB devices. In this Daily Feature, Mike Jackman reviews BlueWater Systems' USB for Windows NT.

If your company doesn’t plan on upgrading to Windows 2000 Professional in the near future, you still may be able to convince your budget makers to upgrade the Windows NT Workstation. One feature users increasingly need is the ability to add USB devices. An add-on from BlueWater Systems could get you Universal Serial Bus (USB) support for as little as $49 per desktop.

About USB devices
More and more computer users need or want USB devices. The number of devices available in this format is growing all the time, and currently includes mice, keyboards, printers, palmtop cradles, joysticks, external storage, USB hubs, midi instruments, graphics pads, modems, PC telephones, and cameras. USB ports are hot swappable, faster than serial ports (up to 12 megabits per second in the current specification), and require little or no tweaking of the settings.

Unlike Windows 98, Me, or 2000, however, Windows NT 4.0 doesn’t natively support USB. It’s a shame to install the OS on a USB capable machine and waste the potential of the hardware. So, when I found out that BlueWater Systems made a USB add-on called USB for Windows NT, I asked for an evaluation copy. I’m happy to report that it does, indeed, give Windows NT 4.0 the ability to run USB devices. My Windows NT machine is humming away with a PS/2 mouse and keyboard running through a USB adapter—something I thought was impossible until now. Installation is easy, the system footprint is small, and the solution is inexpensive. What more could you want?

I need to point out that currently, not all types of devices will work with BlueWater Systems USB for Windows NT. The latest version will enable USB mice (up to 3 buttons and a wheel), keyboards, printers, hubs, and cradles for Pocket PCs. According to Josh Burgel, developer and engineer for BlueWater Systems, additional devices that are compatible with USB mice (such as pens and tablets) will probably work, although you’ll want to test them to make sure. He added that the company, which created the original drivers for Intel to demo USB at Comdex 96, is strongly considering adding support for other devices. In the meantime, if your users are being held back because they need these supported peripherals, but you can’t afford to upgrade to Windows 2000 Professional, here’s your solution.

Installation consists of running one small executable. At 906K, the file easily fits on a floppy disk. As with most setup wizards, this program begins with a Welcome screen, prompts you to accept the license agreement, and then allows you to modify the program group that is added to the Start menu. Once the program is launched, it finishes installation in seconds. You can then either read or skip the short Help file. After a system restart, USB is enabled.

Anticipating that network administrators might find it more useful to set up an unattended install in a multiple-workstation environment, I asked Justin Neddo, who wrote the setup program, if there were any command-line switches to ease installation. While there currently aren’t any, he replied that he’d be happy to add them for anyone purchasing multiple licenses. Now that’s service!

After installation, USB for Windows NT only takes a small amount of system space. If you open task manager you’ll see one service running, called Bprintenum.exe. This is the USB Printer Enumerator, which makes NT see USB printers as standard printers. If you don’t have a USB printer, you can disable this service. You’ll also find about eleven small device drivers added to your Winnt\System32\Drivers directory. These include a USB stack, which consists of three drivers: two USB Host Controllers (Buhci.sys, and Bohci.sys), and a USB Bus Driver (Busbd.sys). Also included are individual drivers for classes of devices. For example, drivers exist for USB palmtop cradles (Vusbcradle.sys), keyboards (Bvboard.sys), and mice (Bvmouse.sys). This modular approach allows BlueWater Systems to add devices without having to rewrite the entire set.

There aren’t many apparent glitches or gotchas caused by USB for Windows NT. But there are three situations you need to know about.
  • USB initializes with the NT kernel. Like any other device driver in Windows NT 4.0, USB drivers don’t get initialized until the NT kernel initializes (when the dots are marching across the blue screen). This means that until then, you may not have mouse and keyboard capability. If you need to go into the BIOS, select an operating system to boot, or select a hardware profile, you’ll have to run a non-USB keyboard and mouse at boot time. This isn’t a problem on laptops, but can be an annoyance when using desktops. However, if your BIOS supports USB, changing your BIOS to enable USB ports will solve this problem. Often, a BIOS upgrade will add USB support.
  • Small conflicts with power management can occur. Windows NT 4.0 doesn’t support ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface) anyway, but computer makers such as Compaq and Dell have add-ons that do. If you have enabled ACPI, your computer can go into standby mode and hibernation mode. I’ve found that when the computer wakes up, the USB mouse and keyboard don’t wake up with it. Of course, lots of devices have trouble with ACPI, depending on how well the drivers are written. But this is a small nuisance with USB for Windows NT. Since the USB ports are hot swappable, simply unplugging the device and then plugging it in again solves the problem.
  • Beware of conflicts with other drivers. An advisory from BlueWater Systems suggests that other USB solutions may cause a device conflict. Contact the company if you have any concerns.

The current suggested retail price for an individual license is $79.00 (US). Ten licenses can be purchased at a discount for $495.00 ($49.50 each). BlueWater Systems also offers developer kits that include USB and Bluetooth support. For more information, see the BlueWater Systems Web site, or contact them via e-mail.

Your company, like many enterprises, may delay rolling out Windows 2000 Professional due to financial considerations. Alternatively, you may do a partial rollout that leaves a large number of NT 4.0 Workstations requiring support. In these cases, if you have users that need USB devices, USB for Windows NT by BlueWater Systems might be a good, inexpensive solution for your enterprise.
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