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Issue #851: November 12-18, 2023

Q: I have followed your column for years and learned so much! Thank you.  My question: I bought a new computer loaded with Windows 11. I wanted to use my old keyboard (Logictech SR 34 – about 7 years old) and bought a PS2 to USB converter to make it work. It didn’t. Bought two more converters to be sure the first one wasn’t defective. All that happened every time when the old keyboard was plugged in was that the lights for the keyboard settings flashed momentarily and then went out. Tried rebooting the computer with negative results. What can I do to activate the old keyboard? Thank you.

– Bill S.
Shalimar, Florida

A:  Congratulations on the new computer, Bill.  I’m a little surprised that it didn’t come with a keyboard, since most manufacturers bundle at least a cheap keyboard and mouse with a new computer.  After all, not everybody has existing hardware already on hand like you do.

It seems like you have some sort of personal attachment to that keyboard.  No problem here – I don’t judge.  I tend to develop such attachments to inanimate objects too, especially ones that perfectly suit my needs, and have served me well over time.  I’m guessing that’s where your desire to keep your reliable old keyboard friend stems from.  But I do need you to understand that from a technology perspective, your keyboard has been left in the dust bin of history.  Nevertheless, let’s talk a little about the tech.

The name PS/2 comes from the original computer that introduced it way back in 1987: the IBM Personal System/2.  On mice, the compact, round connector replaced (for the most part) the older 9-pin serial mouse connector, while on keyboards, it replaced the larger 5-pin DIN connector that IBM had used on its PC/AT platforms.  Electronically, PS/2 keyboards have a distinct communication protocol that uses two main signal lines: Data and Clock.  Both the keyboard, and the device it’s plugged into must implement the PS/2 protocol for the devices to talk to each other.

USB ports are quite different.  Instead of simple data and clock lines, they have a programmable Universal Asynchronous Receiver-Transmitter, or UART chip that uses a driver to implement the protocol of whatever device connects to it (hence the U in USB – “Universal”).  Once the right protocol is in place, you can even look at the Windows Device Manager, and instead of showing a USB port, it will show the actual device that is connected to your computer. 

So, why won’t your adapter work?  Well, generally, those cheap little PS/2 to USB converters that you can buy off places like eBay and Amazon only change the shape of the plug and attempt to connect certain pins such as power and ground.  The presence of power is likely why your keyboard lights up briefly when it plugs in.  But PS/2 and USB are not electrically compatible with one another.  So, finding no PS/2 protocol on the port, the keyboard goes silent.

All is not lost if you’re determined to stick with that old keyboard.  What you need is a dedicated keyboard adapter that implements the PS/2 protocol on one side and the USB protocol on the other.  Think of it as a kind of go-between, or translator that does a programmatic job instead of just a simple electrical job.  You can get such an adapter for under $10 on Amazon.  Look for a device that has the USB plug with a short cord that enters a small box, maybe an inch or so square.  On the other side will be one, or possibly two cables with PS/2 ports.  The reason for two is that this is full PS/2 support for both mouse and keyboard.

With Black Friday shopping coming up, I would encourage you to consider retiring that old hardware and getting something new.  There are lots of nicer feature-packed options, out there, including many wireless keyboard/mouse combinations that have long-lasting batteries, and which free you from wires and the burden of obsolete tech.

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