by Greg Ross
The Belkin Network USB (NetUSB) Hub is a relatively new device, and one of the first of its kind. It finally promises to release us from the tangle of USB cables without needing to upgrade your PC to support WUSB (Wireless USB) by using your existing home WiFi network. Does it deliver?
Reasons for Buying
After I moved into my new apartment, I had a problem. There was no cable jack in my room with which to use my Hauppauge USB TV Tuner (reviewed separately), so no TV for me. The nearest cable jack was 30-40 ft away, but running a cable around the walls and trim would have required me to place about 60 ft in cable and that would have been a huge hassle and a trip hazard.
The package. (view large image)
So about two months ago, I spotted this brand new device by Belkin. And when I found it on sale at Circuit City at $99.99 (down from $129.99) I could not resist. I could finally get TV anywhere in the apartment! Or so I thought…
My first impressions of the device were very positive. The NetUSB hub itself is slender Apple Mac Minip looking device that can fit just about anywhere in your home with measurements of 8.1″ x 3.4″ x 8.1″ and two pounds in weight. It is built from solid plastic that feels firm and strong, and you should have no problem stacking something relatively light on top…like say your WiFi router! As a matter of fact, Belkin specifically recommends that as a space saving idea.
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The NetUSB Hub also comes with the AC adapter required for operation, and a complementary 18″ long 10/100 Ethernet cable to connect it to your WiFi router.
Setup and Configuration
After installing the hub into the network infrastructure at my apartment, I had to configure my PC to work with the device. This device does not just instantaneously work, but driver installation and set up was very easy. Pop in the CD, and you only have to navigate through two menu choices in order to get everything working. All you have to do is choose which hub you are configuring (as if you need more than one!) and choose how you want to assign an IP address to the device (DHCP or hardcoded).
Install … (view large image)
Choose Ethernet … (view large image)
and Configure DHCP. Easy? Definitely! (view large image)
Connecting USB Devices
After installing the driver, you can navigate to the Belkin Network USB Hub Control Center where you can further customize the operation of your device and connect to various USB devices connected to the hub. The only really important setting within the General Control Settings menu is one that allows the Control Center to start up automatically when you boot Windows.
Again, easy! (view large image)
As you can see in the screen shot above, USB devices by default are automatically connected to your PC when you start the Control Center (either manually or during booting). One of the largest advantages of the NetUSB hub is that you can also share your USB devices with anyone else on the network.
However, the hub only allows every USB device connected to communicate with a single PC at a time. This is a limitation of the USB specification and is no real surprise. Additionally, if you connect multiple devices to the USB hub you can have one PC accessing one device while another PC uses something entirely else. In theory you could connect five devices and have five different PCs communicating with one device each. Each PC will need to have the Belkin driver installed however, but set up will be very easy.
If you want to share a device, you can configure the Control Center to not automatically connect to specific USB devices. But if you want to request the use of a device that another PC is currently using, you can also “Request Use” of a device and a pop up window will show up on your friends PC asking for permission to take control of the device.
As mentioned, devices can be easily connected or disconnected from a PC. So, with our TV tuner connected to my PC, what does the OS see?
Using a USB device viewing tool I obtained via Microsoft’s support pages, the OS has this mysterious device connected that supposedly has 64 different USB ports. That is our software emulated USB hub that the Belkin NetUSB hub has installed. The hub itself only has five USB ports on it, and the software claims to support up to 16 different USB endpoints if you want to daisy chain additional standard USB hubs to the NetUSB hub. Keep in mind though devices can have multiple device endpoints.
As Belkin mentioned in one example a multifunction printer can have as many as four or five endpoints. In all reality I really do not see this NetUSB hub handling more than five USB connections anyway, so I would play it safe and assume you will only be able to share five devices over the network.
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After connecting to the TV tuner, what does the OS see though? As you can see in the picture above, the TV tuner is natively recognized by Windows. This means that the OS sees the device as if it is physically connected to my PC. All devices are going to operate that way, so this transparent software WiFi <- -> USB driver will not interfere with normal device operation at all.
As you might have seen earlier, the TV tuner listed in the Control Center has a side note that it might not be compatible. Yes, this could be a problem …
USB specifications allow for up to 500mA of current to power a connected USB device. If we were to use a USB memory key, this would not be an issue as power requirements are small. Printers or 3.5″ external hard drives would not have a power problem either, as those devices typically have their own AC adapter anyway. But my TV tuner is self powered, and requires a full 500mA of current to run.
So can the NetUSB hub output 500mA? Probably not, and the Belkin instruction manual specifically says that some devices will not be compatible with the hub so be sure to test your devices before keeping the hub.
I tested this using another device – my 2.5″ external hard drive. The USB cable that came with that drive allows you to connect to one USB port to get a data connection and power, and also has a secondary connector that allows the device to obtain some additional power from a second USB port. It also requires about 450-500mA of power.
When connecting the hard drive to the USB hub with only one USB port, the drive was incapable of starting. When connecting with two ports, there was no problem. Clearly, the ports on the USB hub will not easily be able to provide enough power to high-powered, self-powered devices but a majority of devices will be okay.
What about the devices that do work? Using my self-powered 2.5″ hard drive that is compatible with the hub, a range of tests were performed.
At the time I was testing, I was occasionally browsing the internet which has no impact on the performance of my drive. The bouncing bandwidth chart occurs even with no PC browsing.
Performance at 10 feet. (view large image)
Performance at 30 feet. (view large image)
As illustrated above, the bandwidth available with the device really does not change much with distance at all. As long as you have a semi-strong connection to your network you will get a strong connection to the USB devices on the network.
Unfortunately, there is also another problem here. The speed of the device is rather poor. At a maximum speed of about 1.3MB/s, clearly devices are going to have a hard time if they run faster than USB 1.1 speeds. While USB 2.0 devices are supported, apparently USB 2.0 speeds are not. An 802.11a/b/g network supports up to 54Mbps (6.75MB/s) so the network itself is clearly not the limitation. The NetUSB hub is the limitation.
To confirm the WiFi network was not the problem, I connected the NetUSB hub and my PC directly. The speed results were the same. The NetUSB hub has a bandwidth problem but anything that does not really need much speed will still be okay.
Two additional tests were also run just to rule out the possibility of my 2.5” hard drive being the problem. A self-powered USB key (which doesn’t require much power at all) as well as an AC-powered 3.5” USB external hard drive were tested, and both devices experienced the same bandwidth limitation issues.
Is It Right For You?
In the end, for my specific needs this hub does not perform. But again, I’m trying to get a high powered and high bandwidth device running. So the question remains: Why purchase this?
For one, this is the only device out there I have found that allows you to quickly set up wireless USB. It works with an existing WiFi network, and does not require any additional hardware to be installed on a PC so long as the PC is WiFi capable. The same device can be shared over many PCs (provided you have some type of sharing etiquette and disconnect/reconnect to a device only as necessary) so it also cuts down the amount of hardware you may need for all your PCs.
A majority of USB applications do not need much bandwidth at all. Printers, scanners, hard drives, and media card readers will all work okay provided that they are AC powered. Even some self-powered devices will work fine, but not all. Transfers might be a very slow on large file transfers, but for some/many people this will not be an issue. 1.0MB/s is plenty fast for sharing standard definition video and music files, but is not for backup related applications. High definition applications will be bandwidth limited though.
For TV tuners and webcam related applications you may find yourself scratching your head. Some devices will work, others will not. There is currently no documentation as to what devices will not work, so be sure to purchase this device from a reseller that allows returns if you have initial doubts. If the Belkin Control Center says the device may not be compatible, there really is no way to fix it pending a hardware or software update for the NetUSB hub.
For media applications, uses are limited as multitasking is slow but it is definitely useable. Any video viewing including 1080i/p video is fine, but it will choke if you watch videos and copy large files at the same time. Music runs well, and pictures are viewed with ease.
The Belkin Network USB Hub can be a great tool for many applications like small file share devices, printer sharing, or camera sharing. But when the hub has a 1.0-1.2MB/s limitation that is imposed by the hardware, I find myself scratching my head as to why Belkin advertised this as working well with hard drives and other USB 2.0 devices that need high speed connectivity. Even an 802.11g network can output data at a rate almost seven times faster!
If the device were able to output about four times the bandwidth (4.0-5.0MB/s) almost all USB devices would certainly do well enough as most USB 2.0 devices do not need the full 60MB/s bandwidth anyway. 4.0-5.0MB/s would not slow down most WiFi networks either, and does not even come close to saturating 802.11g, let alone 802.11n. If the ports could actually output 500mA of power, most devices would never have a problem either.
In the end, this is a great first try from Belkin but some major improvements are needed. Some will like the device, others will not. Some USB devices work, others do not. As stated in this review, understand what these limitations of the device mean to you, and decide for yourself whether this hub is right for you. Overall, I do have a positive impression of this device even though my intended application does not work on it. There are many possibilities despite the limitations.
- Great way to share USB devices with multiple computers.
- Easy to setup, install, and configure to work with existing WiFi networks.
- Allows for sharing of low-speed NAS (network attached storage) devices, printers, cameras, and scanners.
- Most media watching (including HD videos) runs well.
- Can only output about 1.2MB/s of data at best, so it does not work well with high-bandwidth devices. This limitation further hinders speed when multiple devices are being used!
- Does not fully utilize the available bandwidth of an 802.11g or 802.11n network.
- Cannot provide 500mA of power per port as per USB specifications.
- Will not work well for backup drives, webcams, or TV tuners.