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Troubleshooting Q&A - February 2, 2006

Installing a Cable Modem: USB vs. Ethernet

Cable modems will operate fine connected to either a USB or an Ethernet port. Your cable provider may not tell you, but one is a much better choice. Plus, everyone talks about using secure passwords, but what constitutes one?

By Ron Pacchiano

Q.   After years of frustratingly slow download times, I finally decided to take the plunge and upgrade my antiquated dial-up line to a high-speed broadband connection. I decided to go with a cable modem as opposed to a DSL (define) line only because I can cancel the cable modem at anytime, while the DSL line requires a one-year commitment. Because the cable modem is user-installed, I had to go down to the cable company and pick up the cable modem installation kit.

When I got the cable modem back to my house and started to look over the installation instructions, I noticed that it offered two different connection options: either USB (define)or Ethernet (define).

I wasn't sure which one I was supposed to use, so I called their tech support department for assistance. The technician I spoke with said that it really didn't matter which port I used and that both would do the same thing. So I decided to configure it on the USB port because I have more experience working with USB devices. It works fine and I'm very happy with it, but this still begs the question: Which is the better connection method to use, the USB or the Ethernet? Why?

A.   As the cable technician indicated to you, either connection method will work fine, but the Ethernet interface is usually the preferred connection type for a number of reasons. Let's take a closer look at some of those reasons now.

A USB 1.0 port has a maximum data rate of 12 megabits per second (Mbps). However, of that available bandwidth, an individual USB device can use only up to 6 Mbps. USB 2.0 (define) interfaces can operate at up to 400 Mbps. A fixed amount of USB bandwidth is shared between all devices that are plugged in to your computer. USB ports can be used to connect your computer to a wide variety of devices. This includes everything from scanners, to printers, to PDAs (define) and many, many other devices. This makes USB ports a versatile and valuable resource for your PC.

An Ethernet interface, however, is intended for network traffic only. It connects directly to the computer's bus (define) so that high-speed transfers occur with the lowest possible CPU (define) overhead. Ethernet interfaces are included with most modern motherboards. Older machines need a PCI-based (define) Ethernet adaptor. Ethernet interfaces can typically connect at 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps (Fast Ethernet define). Newer Ethernet interfaces connect at 10, 100, or 1000 Mbps (Gigabit Ethernet).

In regards to speed, your cable modem will typically operate at 3 megabits per second or less. This speed can be handled easily by the slowest USB or Ethernet connection. Most cable modems can connect with USB 2.0 (up to 400 Mbps) or Fast Ethernet (100 Mbps), but since the cable modem will transmit only so fast, either connection will work find.

In most cases, the advantage of using the Ethernet connection as opposed to the USB connection comes down to two things. The first is that using the Ethernet connection, frees your USB ports (and bandwidth) for other more useful peripherals.

Secondly, in most cases, you will want to use a wireless or wired router in conjunction with your cable modem for connecting other PCs or devices to the Internet, as well as protect all of the PCs on your network from attack. In this case, you must use Ethernet for the modem to router (define) connection.

Speaking of which, if you connect your cable modem directly to your PC, regardless of whether you use the USB or Ethernet connection, you're exposing your system to possible attacks. Most routers have a built in firewall to protect all of the PCs on your network from attack and I'd strongly advise you to consider investing in one.

I hope this helped answer your question and enjoy your new cable modem.

Q.   I have often heard people say not to use the name of your kids or a pet for a password and that a secure password should use something more complex and harder to guess. However, I've never actually seen an example of what constitutes a strong password. Can you tell me how to go about creating a secure password and are there any official rules that outline the elements that make up a secure password? Thanks!

A.   A good password is made up of a number of different characteristics. For instance, it should be at least 6 - 8 characters long and should include at least two uppercase letters, lowercase letters and numbers. As you mentioned, it shouldn't be obvious. Definitely do not use your children's names or pet's names. For that matter, it shouldn't even be a real word person, place or thing. Use random characters. The more random the sequence of characters, the more secure the password will be.

An example of a secure password would be something like this: Hgs3@4j55nKX!sl

This password is 15 characters long and contains a combination of numbers, symbols, upper and lowercase letters. Since it's long and random, it will be far tougher for someone to hack.

For workstations on a Windows network, Microsoft has developed official password creation rules. These rules are as follows:

  1. Passwords MUST be at least 6 characters long
  2. Passwords MAY NOT contain your username or any part of your full name
  3. Passwords MUST contain characters from at least three of the four class characteristics, which are listed below.

Classes Characteristics:

  • English Upper Case
  • English Lower Case
  • Numerals
  • Non-Alphanumeric (Punctuation marks and other symbols)

Remember, having a secure password is meaningless if you write it down and leave it where anybody could find it. However, if you have difficulty remembering a random password, then you can use a common word like "password," for example, but add three of the four class characteristics to it to make it more secure, such as "paSSw0rd." While not as secure as a completely random password, it still meets the outlined criteria, thus making it far more efficient then your kid's name.

Use our feedback form to submit your questions on home or SOHO networking issues. Please be as specific as possible. We cannot guarantee to answer every question we get, but we’ll consider them all.



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