Monday, March 28, 2011

Perth's Pointers #1: Do you have more USB stuff than you have USB ports?'s what to do

I ran into this problem yesterday.....on my PS3, I have 3 USB devices I wanted to plug into it, and have only the 2 USB ports that the PS3 is equipped with. But it's not the first time I've had this problem. I've also run into it on my PC, several of them in fact. A lot of the older ones only came with 2 USB ports, and inevitably, at one point or another, I'd have 3 or 4 different things that I'd want to plug into them at the same time. And that's to say nothing of the conundrum one faces when they have a laptop, especially if it too is one that is a few years old. I even had one from around '98 that did have 2 USB ports, but they were stacked on top of one another, making it difficult to plug in 2 devices at the same time.

So what DO you do when you have more stuff to plug in than you have plugins to plug into? You do what I did today, and buy a USB hub. A USB hub will add additional USB ports to whatever machine you plug it into, and only use up ONE port by itself. Most USB hubs have at least 4 ports on them, so on a system or machine that has only 2 built into it, using a USB hub will instantly make that machine have 5 available ports. Here is a picture of a typical USB hub.

*photo courtesy of*

As you can see, there is a cord to connect the hub to the PC or laptop or game system, and then 4 USB ports to connect your various devices. Many of these hubs are under $20 dollars, and are available at electronics and computer stores, as well as online. There are many types of hubs available, some with up to 7 ports, and there are powered and unpowered varieties. Most will also be a simple "plug and play", meaning all you do is plug them in, and they will be functional, without any software to download or setup required.

A few things to be aware of when you go shopping for a hub are: 

Buy the right hub for your needs. Some are designed to be used with desktops, and are big and bulky, and some are meant to be used with laptops, and are small, compact, and even fold for easy storage. While they may both function on laptops and desktops alike, it's obvious that a smaller, compact design is ideal for portability, while the larger, more bulky one may be better suited for applications where it will stay in one spot.  

Make sure that the hub you buy will provide adequate clearance between the ports to allow you to plug in all the devices you will be using. Not all devices have adequate clearance to allow for other devices to be plugged into the other available ports. An example of this would be a USB flash drive that has a wide casing, leaving the ports to the left and right of it virtually useless when it is plugged in, if the ports themselves are too close together.  

Also be sure that the devices you will be plugging into the hub will not exceed the power capabilities of the onboard port on the PC or laptop. There IS a limit, so consult your system's manual or website to find out how much power is available. In most cases, this is not too much of a problem, especially if the devices you are using are things like a keyboard or a mouse, or even a small set of USB powered speakers, but be sure before plugging them in, or you could cause permanent damage to your system. The typical onboard USB port is capable of 5 volts at about 1/2 an amp, but remember, when you plug in a hub, that 1/2 of an amp must be split between all the ports, unless the hub is a powered hub. A powered hub, which has an external power supply of its own, can usually provide each port with the full 1/2 an amp of power. This is especially important to be aware of if the devices you are plugging in have batteries that are charged from the USB port, such as a cell phone, or mp3 player, or digital camera, so be sure to consult the documentation that comes with the hub, to be sure it can provide adequate power. Also keep in mind that some devices will require the full 1/2 amp of power, and will not function when attached to an unpowered hub, so again, a powered hub will be the solution of choice. 

There are many different devices that have onboard USB ports, and not all of them are capable of supporting the use of a hub, so be sure to get all the information you can about YOUR system before you buy one. In many cases, if the machine does not support the use of a hub, it will say so in the documentation. Typically the reason for this is the lack of available power, or in some cases, the software or hardware is not designed to recognize more than one USB port on that particular machine. In that case, using even a powered hub is not possible.

Many of today's cars have onboard USB ports, to power GPS navigation systems and other travel related paraphernalia. While these ports operate a lot like the ones on your home computer, they are directly wired into your vehicle's electrical system, and therefore may not be equipped to handle multiple devices being plugged into them at one time with the use of a USB hub. Consult your car's owner's manual before attempting to use one, because if it warns against it, and one is used, it could cause some very erratic and seemingly unrelated "bugs" to crop up in other systems in the vehicle itself due to the overload. Also be aware that some devices, when plugged into the car's ports, may cause some "interference" in the electrical system, causing at the least a "shutdown" of the USB port, and at worst, damage to the onboard computer system. Granted, these are rare occurrences, but too many unneeded service calls have been made due to an incompatible device being plugged into a vehicle's electrical system.

All in all the use of a USB hub is a safe and effective way of adding more connections where you need them most, and they provide years of trouble free service. As with any accessory or add-on, it's best to know what function a USB hub will serve, as well as any potential problems that may occur while using it, before you buy one. So do your research, find out what you need, and what will fill that need, and buy with confidence. 

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