Compared to the complexity of purchasing a new graphics card or swapping out your motherboard purchasing a USB hub is definitely a simple purchase; but that doesn’t mean you should just grab the first one off the shelf at your local electronics store. There is an enormous discrepancy between build quality, features, and even safety between the different models. Read on as we show you what you need to get the best results and find the hub that fits your needs.
What’s a USB Hub and Why Do I Want One?
Although we’ve grown well beyond the days of desktop computers arriving equipped with only a few USB ports (it’s not uncommon for computers to now have 4-6+ on the back and 2-4 on the front of the case), most of us have also managed to acquire many USB-based devices. It’s not unusual for a home user to have a USB-based keyboard, mouse, printer, scanner, and memory card readers, as well as charging/syncing cables for iPods, phones, e-book readers and other portable devices. Even though you might reuse the same mini USB cable for a few devices, it’s all too easy to tie up a lot of USB ports rather quickly. Factor in the location of your physical computer relative to your workspace and it can quickly become impossible (because the ports are full) or inconvenient (because the computer is located under your desk) to plug in more devices. As far as laptop users are concerned, well they can just forget it when it comes to an abundance or ports. We all want super slim and super light laptops which leave little room for an armada of USB ports. One of our favorite ultra-slim notebooks we use for work-from-coffee-shop jaunts has a mere two ports.
So where does that leave you, the over-deviced and under-ported computer user? In need of a USB hub. If you’re not familiar with USB hubs, don’t worry. A USB hub is to USB devices as a power strip is to electrical devices: you use a hub to split the capability of one USB port on your computer among many devices just as you use a power strip to split the electrical power from a single outlet in your home or office among multiple electrical devices.
Just like power strips aren’t all created equal (you wouldn’t plug your $10,000 home theater system into a $5 no-name power strip from Wal-Mart, after all), all USB hubs aren’t created equal. Not only do you need to pay attention to features and specifications (despite how simple a USB hub might appear at first glance) you also need to be aware of the existing hardware on your computer (be it a desktop or laptop) in order to get the best performance out of your the hub.
Let’s take a look at a few different USB hubs and use them to highlight why we would select different hubs for different applications as well as the benefits and shortcomings of each.
First, Meet the Models
Just like with the HTG to External Battery Packs, we’re showcasing devices we actually use and endorse. For this guide we’ll be using the HooToo HT-UH010 7-Port USB 3.0 Hub and the LOFTEK 7-Port USB 3.0 Hub. In addition we’ll also be referencing a few other USB hubs which were unavailable for a photo session on account of being out and about in the field with other writers and staff members.
We’ve been quite pleased with both models but, rather than listing off all the reasons why first, let’s dig into the types of features a good USB hub has so you can understand exactly why we’re pleased with the USB hubs in question. You’ll learn how to pick a good USB hub for your own needs in the process.
Spend Cash; Acquire Safety
Before we delve into the features that are obvious (case design, number of ports, etc.) let’s talk about the most important feature that isn’t readily apparent to end user: internal construction and safety measures.
The two USB hubs we’re showcasing in this guide aren’t the most expensive on the market but they aren’t Big Mac meal cheap, either. The HooToo will run you around $40 and the LOFTEK will run you around $45. Even small but high-quality laptop USB adapters run around $15 or so. You can buy both desktop and laptop USB adapters for very cheap; it’s easy to eBay a powered adapter for around $10 or less.
We’d strongly caution you against doing so. In the best-case scenario, you’ll end up with a device that’s a knock-off in name but possibly built to similar specs (and maybe even at the same factory) as the brand name. In the middle-of-the-road scenario you’ll end up with a poorly wired, insulated, and protected device that could possibly lead to one or more of your expensive attached devices getting fried thanks to poor design and construction. In the worst-case scenario where all the stars align against you and both the safety features in the USB hub fail you along with other safety features in either your laptop, the USB hub’s power brick, or other failures, you can end up like this poor woman in Australia: a cheap USB phone charger had a catastrophic failure that killed her.
That’s obviously an extreme case, but it highlights how buying the cheapest peripherals and chargers comes with an inherent risk. If a sub-spec power transformer blows out and starts the back of your desk on fire while you’re at work that extra $20 you could have spent on a higher quality device will be a drop in the bucket compared to dealing with even a small house fire.
Lightning strike probability of a bad USB port killing you aside, you’re typically purchasing better build quality when you spend a little extra. We tested both the HooToo and the LOFTEK with all the USB devices we could throw at them doing all sort of bus/power taxing things like multiple USB hard drive read/writes concurrently, ejecting and remounting other devices during those processes, pulling mobile data through a USB dongle, and so forth all without a single hitch. Flakey hubs are frustrating, but you can easily avoid data drops and safety hazards by picking a high quality and highly rated hub.
Buy the Most Current Standard
The USB standard has gone through several iterations since its public release back in 1996. Each iteration has introduced new features, the most notable of which is increased transfer speeds. Other features include battery charging specifications (introduced in USB 2.0 and upgraded in 3.0), better data handling for concurrent connections, and such.
Although it’s quite rare to find a USB 1.0 hub anywhere these days (unless you discover it on the dusty shelves of a small town electronics store), there are still plenty of USB 2.0 hubs floating around. While the capability of a USB 2.0 hub might be just fine for your present needs the price difference between a quality USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 hub is negligible and there’s very little reason to buy a USB hub based on 2000-era speeds and technology when you can get a USB 3.0 hub for a little more. A year or two from now when you’re using that hub for more than a few lightweight peripherals and wish to plug a USB 3.0 external hard drive (or two) into it, you’ll be happy you’re not dragging at USB 2.0 transfer speeds. Even when buying a hub for an old computer that doesn’t even support USB 3.0, you should strongly consider getting the newer standard. After all, that old laptop could kick the bucket any day leaving you with a hub to repurpose for a new project (or to move onto your new, definitely has USB 3.0 ports computer).
If you’re reading this guide years down the road and the new standard is USB 4.0, the same rule applies. Don’t buy old technology when a few extra bucks will give you better speeds and more features.
Unless Ultra-Portability Is Critical, Buy Powered
Aside from data-speed bottlenecks introduced by using old USB hubs on modern USB 3.0 ports, the biggest shortcoming you can introduce to your USB hub setup is a lack of power. USB hubs come in two flavors, in regard to power, bus-powered (wherein the hub draws power from the host computer via the USB bus/port it is connected to) and self-powered (wherein the USB tether to the computer is exclusively for data and the actual power for the hub and attached devices is pulled from a separate power pack). Although not as common, some USB hubs are dynamic-powered and feature a circuit which can detect whether or not the hub is currently bus-powered or has been hooked up to a transformer to become self-powered and will adjust itself accordingly.
If you’re using a little USB travel hub, like the Sabrent 4-Port USB 3.0 Hub, you’re limited to the maximum amount of power the USB port the hub is attached to can provide. This is more than fine for a simple setup like adding an external keyboard and mouse to your laptop to create a more comfortable workstation, but once you start adding more demanding devices into the mix like USB hard drives and the like the lack of power quickly becomes a problem.
In such a case the problem is completely resolved by using a powered USB hub. Each port on the USB hub will receive full USB-standard power with no dips in power or devices disconnecting for want of a stable connection. Especially for projects like adding peripherals to the Raspberry Pi microcomputer, a powered USB hub is mission critical as the host device just can’t crank out enough juice for a bevy of attached devices.
Both of the HootToo and LOFTEK feature separate power supplies that offer a nice stable source of power for all ports.
The More Ports the Merrier
Again, unless ultra portability is critical, bigger is better. If you need four extra USB ports on your machine today, it’s silly to buy a 4-port USB hub. There’s bound to be another device around the corner you need to add in. Especially if you’re purchasing the hub for a desktop computer where portability isn’t even a factor (and you can easily tuck the USB hub out of sight regardless of how big it might be), it simply makes sense to pay a few extra bucks for a few more ports. Doing so is certainly more economical and convenient than buying a bigger hub next year or adding a USB expansion card to your computer.
In addition, pay attention to how the ports are oriented on the hub. The two units featured here have two totally different approaches to port arrangement. The HooToo features a vertical-orientation design reminiscent of an electrical power strip. The LOFTIS features a side-out arrangement more common in smaller travel hubs. All things equal (number of ports, external power, etc.) the form factor can make or break a purchase depending on how you want to place your USB hub. If you want a strip you can tuck behind your monitor shelf or computer tower, the HooToo design makes sense. If you want a hub that you could, say, adhere to the bottom of your monitor shelf so there were always a few ports facing out for flash drives and infrequently used peripherals, the LOFTIS design is more practical.
Power-Only Ports Are Very Convenient
Although they’re absolutely not a necessity, many larger USB hubs come with charging ports that are quite convenient. USB data port standards limit the output of USB data port power transfer to a maximum of 500 mA (an amount that is stepped up in increments of 100 mA depending on how much power the attached device requires). While that’s fine for sustaining data transfer or powering a device, it’s not so great for charging a power hungry portable device such as an iPad or smartphone.
Premium USB hubs often include, as our two models do, discrete non-data charging ports that provide 1A power (twice the amount of a standard USB data port, like that of a USB phone charger) and 2.1A (a little over four times the amount of a standard USB port, like that of a tablet or large peripheral charger). Not only does this add a big dose of convenience to your user experience but it also frees up electrical outlets as you’re not plugging in individual chargers for your devices.
One tip we’ll share (and born of our own frustrations) is that it’s easy to confuse the data-only/power-only ports when there are similar or identical free cables plugged into both. Our solution was to use all black cables for the data ports and to use white cables for the power ports to eliminate any “Why isn’t my Kindle mounting?” late night frustrations.
The only caveat we can offer in this section is to be sure you read the description carefully. If you’re looking for a 10-port hub, for example, make sure the description indicates that there are 10 data ports plus any charging ports you’d like (a poor or dishonest product description could leave you with an 8 data port/2 charging port hub instead).
Read the Fine Print for Minor but Appreciated Features
Once you get past the basics: solid (and safe) build construction, bus-powered/self-powered, and the number of ports you want, the rest of choices are largely aesthetic in nature or focused on small but appreciated details. Each of the units we showcased today features these kind of details.
The HooToo hub, for example, has tiny LED numbers beside each data-port on the strip. If a device is plugged in and has formed a data connection with the host computer the light turns on. If the cable plugged into the port is not connected (or the connected device is in charge-only mode with no data transfer) the light stays off. It’s a minor design detail but we appreciate it. When configuring our third-party XBOX 360 controller it offered useful visual feedback during the process.
Other handy features you may find on nicer USB hubs include power switches. Some, like the LOFTEK, have a small power button that offers you the ability to toggle the whole hub on and off. Others, like the Etekcity 10 Port USB 3.0 Hub, have multiple power toggles for different individual ports or sets there of. If you have peripherals that can be powered on and off via USB signal or you just want to easily disable access to certain devices without unplugging them, the extra switches are a very handy little addition.
With a little careful consideration in regard to build quality, how much power you need, the number of ports you require, and a little fine-print reading to make sure you’re getting the extras you want, you’re certain to end up with a dependable USB hub that meets all your needs.