What is a USB Hub?

What is a USB Hub

Almost all modern computer peripherals are connected to a host laptop or desktop through a Universal Serial Bus (USB) port. Over time, all laptops and desktops adopted the USB port interface into their systems to the point where now many personal computers opt out of the optical drive layout completely in favor of the USB format.

Still, due to a variety of factors including size and function, the new computers only have (at most) approximately four USB ports. Since most people use an external mouse, keyboard, speakers and a portable flash drive, those four ports are hardly enough for a user with several other peripherals. Desktop computers present a quite different problem altogether. Desktop towers are usually kept under a desk or out of the way to save room for the keyboard and monitor, and as a result getting to the usb ports on the back of your desktop can be an unnecessary hassle. Laptops usually come with their USB ports on the side of the device, which generally makes them easier to reach for a user, but the number of ports is often the worst problem, especially with most laptop makers opting to go with smaller size models nowadays.

The most basic function of a USB Hub is to provide a user additional USB ports. Once this device is plugged into one of your existing USB ports, it can provide over one hundred additional USB ports per computer without suffering any deficiency in power or data transfer rates.

There are two types of USB Hubs:

  • Bus-powered
  • Self-powered

The bus-powered USB hubs get their power from its host, which in most cases would be the laptop or desktop it’s connected to. These devices typically support fewer peripherals, and it does not have enough power for some of the more power-thirsty USB portable devices such as an iPad.

A self-powered USB hub on the other hand comes with an external power supply, it can support a much higher number of external peripherals and it can usually provide full power to any device connected to it, or the equivalent of what a desktop or laptop would deliver in some cases as well.

These USB hubs can also be described simply as powered or non-powered. Where powered hubs require an external power supply so they can send a full amount of USB power evenly to all ports and non-powered hubs simply split the power available on one laptop port between all the devices which means much less juice for everyone on the train.

If you are using basic input devices like mice, keyboards or basic controllers (without any LEDS) then it’s safe to split a USB port between several items without a power supply. The trouble starts when you introduce large midi controllers like the VCI-100 or sound cards, which demand nearly all of the power available on single port. In these cases, you absolutely need to use a powered USB hub to guarantee that each device has all the juice it needs.

If you are using basic input devices like mice, keyboards or basic controllers (without any LEDS) then it’s safe to split a USB port between several items without a power supply. The trouble starts when you introduce large midi controllers like the VCI-100 or sound cards, which demand nearly all of the power available on single port. In these cases, you absolutely need to use a powered USB hub to guarantee that each device has all the juice it needs.

If you’re still rocking the old school computers with USB 1.1 ports then you’ll need to look for hubs specifically built for that model connection, although nowadays that will be difficult to come by. They do sell some USB hubs that specifically upgrade your USB port connection from the 1.1 specification to 2.0. This is great if you want to connect an older style port to newer peripheral devices. Regardless of the age of the computer, it is necessary to make sure the chosen USB hub is appropriate for it.

Digital cameras, smartphones, tablet computers, portable music players, external hard drives, usb flash drives, printers, scanners, keyboards, mice, microphones, webcams, and card readers are just a few of the potential devices that you can connect to computers using USB cables. With so many different choices available, it is easy to see how a few extra USB ports can be useful for your computer setup. Someone who uses a laptop as a primary computer and as a travel computer with all of their other portable devices would probably find a USB hub incredibly useful.

Someone with a desktop computer would probably benefit from using a USB hub more because of the usb cable that comes with them. This would allow the users to connect and disconnect peripheral devices as well as set up additional device in a more convenient location without moving the actual desktop tower itself. For units with a hard drive inside a desk or on the floor, the USB hub could bring the ports to desk level and make it easier for the cables to reach a USB port.

Another quick feature to look for is what generation of USB the hub is actually for. Each subsequent generation will operate at speeds much faster to its predecessors. For example, USB 1.1 is capable of data transfer speeds of up to 12 megabits per second (mbps) while the present standard USB 2.0 can transfer data at 480 mbps, or up to 40 times as fast. USB 3.0 goes even further with a maximum speed of 625 megabytes per second (MBps).

A USB hub that supports later generations is often backwards compatible, supporting earlier devices as well. The hub automatically detects and runs at the fastest rate the device will support. One that supports 3 cannot “push” a slower device to run faster than its design. Conversely, a hub that only supports 1.1 may or may not support a 2.0 device, but if it does, it will slow it down to 12 mbps — the fastest speed the hub supports.

A USB hub is an inexpensive, handy addition to any system, especially useful with laptops that normally have too few native USB ports and older systems that have rear ports. They can be purchased in a four-port model, a seven-port model, or greater, and multiple hubs can be used for scalable growth.

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Vincent Clarke

Vincent Clarke is the Universal Serial Bus (USB) Guru for USBtips.com. When he's not writing tutorials and catching up on the latest USB news, Vincent is busy preparing his next blog post and answering USB questions from his readers and subscribers.

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