Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

USB connection problems can be due to many things, including bad ports, bad software, or bad devices. I'll discuss the difficulty in telling which is which.

Do USB ports go bad or does the software just get confused? Sometimes, they just seem to stop working for certain devices.

USB issues can be particularly problematic to diagnose - both hardware and/or software-related issues can easily come into play.

In this audio excerpt from a recent Ask Leo! webinar, I'll review some of my thoughts around USB-related connection issues.

Listen:
Download the mp3 (2.5M)

Transcript

Do USB ports go bad or does the software just get confused? Sometimes, they just seem to stop working for certain devices.

Yeah, I've never come to a clean answer on this. The implication certainly is that USB ports can go bad. My guess is that it's more 'dirt' related than anything else; the connectors are getting a little dirty over time since they are exposed to the elements.

The software can get confused, certainly, but that's normally something you can clean up. One of the best ways to diagnose the difference might very well be to boot into something like a Linux Live CD (like Ubuntu) and see if the USB port is acting properly for it. If it is, then you know you've probably got a software issue and you may be looking at reinstalling drivers or (worst case) doing a repair or full reinstall of Windows itself.

On the other hand, if Ubuntu or some other operating system running on that same machine on that same hardware also fails to see things plugged into a specific USB port, then the balance tips in the favor of it being some kind of hardware-related issue.

Because USB ports are physical, because they are externally accessible, they do get abused. Connectors get pounded on all of the time; things get bent. It doesn't surprise me at all if there was a physical component to a lot of the USB problems that we do see getting reported here from time to time.

And sometimes, they just seem to stop working for a certain device. If you move the device to a different USB port and it starts working, then it's pretty clear that you've got - that the original USB port is having some kind of physical problem. On the other hand, I've seen entire USB controllers have problems that could just easily be static as well. When you end up connecting something, it ends up sending static electricity and potentially damages the USB controller.

Unfortunately, these are very difficult things to try and diagnose even when you've got the machine in front of you. So the only thing I can say is I throw it out there as a possibility; both hardware and software are suspect. I tend to typically suspect hardware a little bit more often in the case of external USBs.

Article C5149 - March 30, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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9 Comments
Liz Morton
April 3, 2012 8:28 AM

The front case USB ports work with an external USB drive but not with USB memory sticks. The memory sticks work when plugged into the back ports!

njorl
April 3, 2012 8:30 AM

INFCACHE.1

I had a USB device that had ceased working, and after hours of trying different driver versions I eventually found (on the Internet) a reference to "INFCACHE.1", a component of which I'd been completely unaware.

Deleting this cache solved the problem. (I probably used Linux to do the deletion, but the administrator command prompt might let us do it too.)

The file, I think, lives in different folders in different versions of Windows. For Windows 7, It's in C:\Windows\System32\DriverStore\ (if Windows is on C:, of course).

PsillyPseudonym
April 3, 2012 10:05 AM

I have 3 USB 2.0 ports on my HP laptop. One of them has various malfunctioning issues. One being that sometimes, if I plug a USB 2.0 device into the problem port, a notification will pop up saying something like: “...the device will function faster if plugged into a USB 2.0 port...” (?!) After pulling it out and sticking it in again, it will function normally.

Bob D
April 3, 2012 3:52 PM

My Windows XP Home SP3 decided not to recognize mass storage on any USB port. My USB printer worked fine. Power cycling had no effect. I looked inside the machine -- no glop, dust piles, rodents, etc.
I got it working by disconnecting everything, including the power cord, and driving the machine to the computer store, where their tech guy eyeballed the machine. It then passed their tests, and I drove it back home. Worked fine ever since. Sometimes the machines like to meet new people.

I refer to this as the "proximity effect". The closer you get the problem to the person who can fix it, the less likely the problem is to occur. I've seen it many, many times. Smile
Leo
03-Apr-2012
BaliRob
April 3, 2012 9:18 PM

My experience with USB ports on the front of the tower is that, being manufactured in questionable countries, are of poor quality and do not like modems, etc., being constantly removed and reinserted - this makes the 'jaws' of the port weak and unable to make good contact - just a little impedence will cause the computer to reject/deny the device. To avoid this, connect a second extention to the female socket and use it as the port - in this way only the second extention has to be replaced. Alternatively insert a twin connector to the USB port which will give you two ports to wear out before replacement - much better than stripping down and re-soldering new ports to the pcb, etc. Also, beware ports at the rear of the tower they sometimes are very fussy and can wear even though they have only had one connector/plug permanently installed.

Vaidya
April 3, 2012 11:05 PM

Some times these can resume work, once you have pulled up the connecting pins, in side the ports. Take a small pin and try to pull them a little. How much is every once guess. I have used successfully three times so far. People may try it at their own risk.

Roger W. Stone
April 7, 2012 6:54 PM

Recently had a hacker take over any search engine that I used. Had to reconfigure my computer back to basics and in the process lost the use of all my USB ports. They seemed to have power but no communication. Finally went into access manager and deleted any association
with my USB ports. Restarted and when I inserted a USB device, my computer loaded the
proper drivers needed for it. All ports working well and also my printer when pluged into any of the ports.

Gabe
April 20, 2012 8:53 AM

@Bob and @Leo

This reminds me of a funny story. I'm not trying to make light of Bob's issue as it was very real and he was doing all the right things to troubleshoot it. It's just that I have a friend that capitalizes on the fact that computer problems sometimes just go away. He makes it a habit to growl and scowl at someone else's computer when he sits down at it to start fixing it for them, especially if he knows it's not a big issue. When the problem doesn't present itself or when it's just not behaving as badly as it was when they called him, they see the problem as solved (and obviously he did nothing). They always ask, "How did you do that?". He replies, "you just have to intimidate it...show it who's boss". LOL. He says it's a little awkward when the problem is still there and he has to explain why he was growling but when it works they see him as having some sort of super-power. :-P

Bob
June 6, 2012 11:36 AM

I, too, have been touched by the "now-you-see-me" "now-you-don't" USB syndrome. In my last episode, I tried the following.. I was able to plug my "disappearing" USB2 Drive into a different computer and after a few minutes - "blink" it was gone too - then suddenly as it disappeared - "blink" it was back. I keep a good supply of Electronics Cleaner handy (no oils here) and after powering down everything that I had planned on spraying, I spray both connectors and before the liquid evaporates, do a little plug-in plug-out three or four time. Of course the best way to protect you computers USB connectors is by keeping an extension connector plugged in and just connecting your USB device in and out there. It's a lot cheaper to replace those extenders than the whole magilla. I also believe that those USB connectors can open for a microsecond or two and if there's any window traffic there, it looks like the software just see's an open and thinks to itself - "oh my - where did that thingy go". So Bill, if you're reading this, put a USB add-on that compensates for this hardware screw-up. After the opening software setup see's everything, it remembers that it saw at setup, and if it disappears, how about something a little more relevant, like "One of your devices has been unplugged - either re-insert it or plug it into a different USB connector" - then have a box open that lets you tell the system to check those USB connectors again. It always used to drive me nuts when the power would fail and the system rebooted and comes up with - "you did not power down your computer correctly - shame on you - we will now do a check disk while you beat yourself about the head and shoulders".....Have fun everyone... :)

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