I peed all over Belkin’s Cable-Free USB Hub when I reviewed several months ago, so I didn’t have high hopes for the company’s next wireless at bat: the $130 Belkin Network USB Hub. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried—this product is brilliant.
Like most people who read Maximum PC, I have several computers in the house (despite the fact that I’m temporarily living in studio apartment while my new home nears completion). I have a self-built home-theater PC in the living room, an HP TouchSmart IQ770 in the kitchen, and a couple of laptops. Everything is connected via a wireless network.
I also have more than one printer: I use an HP multi-function for faxing and printing documents, and I use an Epson inkjet to print photos. I use both PCs for all sorts of tasks, so it wouldn’t make sense to dedicate one printer to each of them. But since there’s more room in the living room than there is in the kitchen, both printers are connected to the home-theater rig.
Belkin's Network USB Hub plugs into your routher via Ethernet. Anything connected to the hub then becomes available to any PC connected to your router.
Having the flexibility to print from any PC on the network meant leaving the home-theater PC running 24/7, but this was an absurd waste of energy. Starting it up and waiting for it to boot just to print a document, on the other hand, was equally absurd—and doubly inconvenient. Belkin’s Network USB Hub not only solved my dilemma, it added even more flexibility to my network.
Here’s how it works: Instead of plugging into a host PC, the Network USB Hub connects to your router using CAT5 cable. When you plug devices into its five USB ports, any computer on the network can access them. Plug a media reader into the hub, insert your camera’s flash-memory card into the reader, and you can access those photos on any PC in your network. Same goes for thumb drives, USB hard drives, and any other USB device you can think of.
I use its print-server function more than anything. You do need to install Belkin’s software on each machine that will access your printer, but that’s a minor inconvenience. If you have a variety of machines that need the printer, it’s best to configure the software so that each PC connects to the printer manually. This adds one step to the act of printing, but it’s not a big deal. The important thing to remember to disconnect from the printer when you’re finished; otherwise, the printer won’t be available to other PCs on the network. Closing the application or shutting the PC down will also relinquish control. You can also use the software to send a message to whatever machine has monopolized the printer, but this won’t accomplish anything unless there’s someone at the other end to respond to it.
I’ve been using it in an environment with both XP and Vista machines, and it has performed flawlessly. But it did force me to dump one piece of equipment: A nearly 10-year-old multi-function printer that just wouldn’t play nice with the software. But I’d had enough other software-related problems with that old beast that I wasn’t sorry to see it go.
If you have Belkin's N1 Draft-N wireless router, the Wireless USB Hub will fit neatly beneath it, but it works equally well with any router--and it's small enough to stash just about anywhere.