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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 10 Issue 6
June 2016
Too many USB devices? Get a USB hub!

The problem
Whether you have a desktop computer or a laptop, you may find yourself with more USB devices than USB ports on your computer. It's a common problem. Your collection of USB devices may include:
  • Keyboard
  • Mouse
  • Printer
  • Backup drive
  • Flash drive
  • Smartphone
  • Digital camera or card reader
  • Digital voice recorder
  • Scanner
  • Webcam
  • Headset
  • Network or wireless adapter
  • Fax modem
  • CD/DVD drive
  • Floppy drive
On the other hand, most computers have anywhere from one to six USB ports.

The clumsy solution
If you find yourself with just one or two more USB device than you have ports, one simple solution is to "time-share" them, i.e., unplug something you're not using at the moment (like your printer) in order to plug in the device you need right now (like your flash drive).

While not a great long-term solution, this approach is cheap and expedient but it's also clumsy, especially later when you forget that your printer isn't connected and try to print something, and then have to figure out why it's not printing.

The better solution
Getting a USB hub is usually the best approach. It will plug into one of your computer's USB ports, and in turn give you a number of additional ports.

When selecting a USB hub, the following are the most common features:
  • Number of USB ports: 2, 4, 7, and sometimes more; most of the time I recommend getting a 7-port hub because such models are very common, they only cost a little more than 4-port models, and it can be difficult to predict your future needs.
  • Protocol: USB 2.0 hubs use the older, slower protocol, but they're very common and a little less expensive, so if your computer and equipment are all USB 2.0 devices, that would be the most expedient choice. However, if your computer has at least one USB 3.0 port and any single device (like your backup drive) is also 3.0, then paying a little more for a 3.0 hub (and plugging it into your computer's 3.0 port) will make that device run faster now. Or, if you expect to be getting a new computer in the near future (which is likely to have at least one 3.0 port), getting a 3.0 hub now may well pay off later. Some hubs have a mixture of USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports.
  • Power: Unless you know that all of your USB devices will have very low power needs (both now and in the future), it's best to get a "powered" hub, i.e., one that also has a power cable which you'll need to plug into a power source.
  • Size: Some hubs are compact or "travel-sized," but that may also mean that they're unpowered, so be careful to confirm that such models do have a power cable.
More on USB 2.0 and 3.0
Here are a few more things you should know about USB 2.0 vs. 3.0:
  • USB 3.0 is the newer, faster protocol, and it's backward-compatible with 2.0, which means that a 2.0 device will work in a 3.0 port (at 2.0 speeds). What's more, a USB 3.0 device will also work in a USB 2.0 port, although only at 2.0 speeds.
  • How can you tell if a USB port or prong is 3.0? It may be labeled "SS" for "SuperSpeed," and the little piece of plastic inside will probably be colored blue.
Additional considerations
Here are some other things you should know:
  • Clutter: The hub will be another small device near your computer that will add two cables to your desk: a USB cable that connects the hub to a USB port on your computer, and a power cable that connects the hub to your surge suppressor.
  • Lights: As you plug your various USB devices into the hub, you may see little lights that will turn on to indicate which of its ports are active.
  • Location: For most of your USB devices, it won't matter whether they're plugged directly into your computer or into the hub.
  • Location for disks: However, if you use a USB disk drive or flash drive (e.g., for backup or external storage), you may find that it works through your hub, but it's also possible that it will only work (or work better) plugged directly into your computer.
Also, if you do plug any USB storage devices like a disk drive, flash drive, or external CD/DVD drive into your hub, you have to be very careful to do one of the following before disconnecting the hub from your computer:
  • "Eject" the disk from the computer ("safely remove" on Windows, "Eject" or "drag to Trash" on Macintosh), which asks the computer to "let go" of the disk. You will then need to wait for the computer to acknowledge that it can, or
  • Shut down the computer (not Sleep, Hibernate, or Standby), which enables you to unplug any device or cable, in any order you choose.
Otherwise, unplugging the hub from the computer (with disks attached) while the computer is on will also disconnect those disk(s) from the computer without warning, which might cause problems if the computer was busying using those disks at that moment. Preventing this from happening by accident is another reason to plug USB disk drives and flash drives directly into the computer if possible.

You may already have some USB hubs and not know it
If you use a wired USB keyboard, it may have a built-in 2-port hub. If you can plug other USB devices into the keyboard (like your wired USB mouse), or if you see open USB ports on it, then you can know this for sure. On the other hand, in my experience wireless keyboards do not have built-in USB hubs, so if you replace a wired keyboard with a wireless model, you may lose whatever USB ports the older keyboard provided.

Also, if your external monitor has USB ports around its edges, then it's got a built-in USB hub. However, those ports will only work if you connect a USB cable from the monitor to a USB port on your computer. And, if you leave the computer on but power off the monitor, any devices you've plugged into the monitor's USB hub may also turn off, so don't use those ports for devices that will need to operate when the computer is on but the monitor is off, like a backup drive which your backup software is expecting to use when it runs at 2am.

Do you need even more USB ports?
You're in luck! If you get a second USB hub, you can either plug it directly into your computer (if it has an available USB port), or you can plug it into your first USB. In theory you can "cascade" or daisy-chain up to five USB hubs in this manner.

Where to go from here
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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Copyright (C) 2016 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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