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Top ten obsolete ports

One minute you're happily using a port or socket and the next it's been rendered totally obsolete by a new power requirement or pin configuration. Dead ports, we salute you

Who chooses which ports make it, and which are shuffled off to the retirement home for the permanently disconnected? The fickle finger of gadget fate has left many inputs by the wayside, and they often weren't the worst. Here we've rounded up ten of tech evolution's most endearing and infuriating oddities, obsolete ports we mourn or bemoan.

Every day we plug something in to something else, and every time we think, "That's clever, and it works really well," or, "For the love of all things multi-pinned, why do they make connecting things together so damn hard?" So we invite you to join us in a celebration of sorts -- a wake for the world's redundant inputs.

All of the ports are on our list because we love them, or love to hate them. You'll almost certainly disagree with some of our selections, so don't forget to harangue us, question our parentage and call into question our right to write about technology via the comments section, or our lovely forums. On the off chance you actually enjoy the feature, you may be interested in the top ten off switches.

Come, join with us as we tour our favourite ports that have slipped into obscurity -- or are well on the way... -Ian Morris

Our old friend the parallel port -- seen here in happier days, in a lovely pink outfit -- was ultimately a victim of that young upstart USB. There was a time when printers, scanners and even tape-backup devices used to hang off this port. But slowly its popularity waned and USB started stealing its lunch money and flushing its head down the toilet during break time.

It's a great shame good old parallel is no longer with us -- for simplicity in printing, there was nothing finer. The cables were very sturdy and it had those little screw holes -- or clips in some cases -- that meant a stray leg under the desk could never kick it out of its home.

If you've ever used a keyboard or a mouse, we'll wager at some point you've dealt with PS/2 connections. The PS/2 itself took over from the delightful DIN socket, which had previously been the port of choice for keyboards. The best thing about PS/2 was its relative compactness.

PS/2 does present a slight problem, namely, how do you plug the keyboard into the keyboard socket and the mouse into the mouse socket? Of course, we hear you shout, "they're colour coded" -- but what use is colour when you're grovelling around underneath a desk at 8:30 at night trying desperately to make the mouse point and the keyboard type?

Sadly, PS/2 was yet another victim of USB, which doesn't care what you plug into it, the electrical slut.

This is sure to enrage a few people, who will almost certainly point out that FireWire is quicker than USB, has a more sustainable speed and is still common on Macs. But the truth is it's not as popular as USB, and it never will be.

For some reason, despite the incredibly shaky start USB had -- we can surely all remember the near certainty that plugging in anything in the early days of USB 1.1 would result in either a blue screen of death or some other virtual plume of smoke -- it still managed to beat FireWire to be the most popular data-transfer system. Sure, you could argue popularity isn't everything, but try telling that to all the dorky kids at schools across the world.

For the time being, FireWire lives on as a way of transferring video from camcorders to PCs, but as time goes on and USB gets ever better, and wireless, we'll see the eventual demise of FireWire. At the very least, it's on the verge of obsolescence.

For a long time, there was quite simply nothing better than SCSI. It was everything IDE wasn't: fast, stable and reliable, plus it offered RAID functionality, which wasn't really practical with early IDE drives.

It was SCSI disks that made the early Macs suck considerably less than their cloned IBM counterparts. While everyone was struggling to load Windows 3.11 off a crazy-slow IDE 5,200rpm drive, Mac users were enjoying the productivity afforded them by drives with much quicker data transfer rates and which could be daisy-chained in far greater numbers than IDE.

SCSI wasn't perfect, and if we're totally honest, termination and device IDs are the work of the dark lord Beelzebub himself. These days, SATA has done for SCSI by being cheap, supporting RAID easily and allowing hot-swapping of drives. Don't worry though, because all the current formats will be seen off by InfiniBand anyway.

For some reason, us Europeans decided that instead of sticking with RCA connectors, and maybe slowly moving over to component video, we'd invent a whole new way of getting video from a DVD player or other device to our TVs. Regrettably, we left the design up to the French, and the result was Scart.

Designed by a group called Comité Européen de Normalisation Electrotechnique, the Syndicat des Constructeurs d'Appareils Radiorécepteurs et Téléviseurs or Scart socket was intended to reduce confusion. Despite its utterly, utterly stupid name, the idea of the socket is pretty good. Place all the connections you'd ever need into one cable and force electronics manufacturers to put it on every piece of equipment they make -- in Europe, it's mandatory to have at least one Scart socket on every TV.

Easily the worst thing about Scart is that it's impossible to tell what output or cable can carry the type of signal you're trying to send. So while an output might allow RGB video, a cable may not be wired for it. Also maddening is that cheap cables are unbearable and will ruin your picture quality, while expensive cables are, by and large, a total rip-off. Oh, and it will fall out of the back of your TV if anything as heavy as an ant sits on it.

Scart is slowly being killed by HDMI, which is basically the digital version of Scart, and has the potential to be every bit as annoying and unreliable.

Okay, okay, we admit it. ISA isn't a port at all, it's a bus. A very, very clunky one. It had only the most rudimentary support for Plug and Play -- essentially, to make it work, you put the card in the slot and if your PC didn't explode, or Windows didn't delete itself, you might be able to get a driver off a CD or maybe even the Internet. If you could brave ultra-slow dial-up, that is, and it wasn't a modem you were trying to install in the first place.

That said, there were some things ISA was great at. Namely things that required a more pedestrian attitude to matters of speed. It was especially well equipped to handle mice, 9,600 baud modems and at a push TV tuner cards that used the port for power only and passed their video to a PCI graphics card.

We were really cross to see AGP slip quietly into obsolescence. We'd all bought or built jolly nice computers, and they all had rather spiffy AGP cards in them. As is traditional, processors were replaced with quicker ones, which was fine, because our motherboards would just accept a new chip, but suddenly the graphics industry decided it would move over to PCI-Express.

Where did that leave those of us with AGP motherboards or, worse, those of us with AGP graphics cards we were happy with and a stupid new motherboard we couldn't use our cards with?

Furious doesn't even begin to cover it, really.

We have a mountain of love for PCMCIA cards, and at the same time, a small amount of contempt. Firstly, like the video world's Scart, we consider the name to be ridiculous. But worse than Scart, it's nearly impossible to say PCMCIA at all, without getting all the letters jumbled up and your technological pants tied in a knot, so we generally have to refer to the cards that use the system as 'PC Cards'.

But we'll miss PCMCIA, which is, generally speaking, being replaced with USB peripherals. The problem with USB is that it doesn't have a lovely convenient place to store the device: with a PCMCIA card, you just popped it into the side of your laptop and off you went. That said, the most useful PC Cards were ones that did Wi-Fi and Ethernet access, and that functionality is built-in to most laptops these days.

Interestingly, PCMCIA lives on in digital TV recievers and TV sets, as a way of adding smart card decryption of pay-TV channels to devices sold in most of Europe. Perhaps rumours of its demise are slightly premature. 

Kryten's groin
With Red Dwarf sadly ending its long and reasonably successful run on British television in 1999, Kryten's multi-function groin attachment has passed into obscurity. One of the triumphs of the DivaDroid International model 2X4B-523P was its groin port, into which one can plug a number of useful attachments, including a vacuum cleaner, buzz saw, power drill and a hedge trimmer. Kryten can even make an omelette with his egg-whisk attachment.

No matter how disturbed you are by an omelette made by something plugged into a robot's groin, it's worth remembering that Kryten is charged up using a port located somewhere that, er, only usually deals with expelling waste.

Game cartridges
There's one port we really do mourn, and that's the one we eagerly stuffed into our console games, right up until the point where Sony launched the PlayStation and decided it would be better if we all played games on stupid, slow-loading CD. Okay, Sega started this idiotic trend with the ridiculous Mega CD, but as no one bought one of those, we're going to let them off.

Anyway, the cartridge-based game and its receiving port was one of the world's great inventions. Cartridge games load virtually instantly, and are resistant to scratches in a way that CDs can only dream of. That makes them ideal for children who have zero patience and absolutely no ability to look after something as ridiculously fragile as a CD.

What's more, cartridge systems were so flexible, you could even extend the console's functionality using one. Micro Machines 2 was one such cartridge -- it was special because it included an extra two controller sockets. That's right, the game cartridge improves the console. Brilliant! Try doing that with a CD that spins constantly -- quite clearly impossible.