In a household with multiple PCs and users, it can be a bit of a pain to share USB peripherals without losing track of who left what where. If your wireless router doesn't have a print/storage server built in, consider Belkin's Network USB Hub. This simple device combines a regular USB hub with a print/storage server and lets you network up to five USB devices through a router. So you can corral your peripherals--external hard drives and printers and the like--in one central area and access them wirelessly while roaming about your home. The Network USB Hub lives up to Belkin's claim of simplicity and ease-of-use; we think it's worth the $130 price tag.
We haven't seen a similar device cross our desks yet. To be sure, there was a recent flurry of wireless USB devices, but don't confuse the two technologies. The wireless USB hubs establish a direct point-to-point contact between the hub and the adapter that's plugged into your PC. This technology reaches up to 30 feet and requires a line of sight. Belkin's Network USB hub connects your PC to USB devices over a Wi-Fi network, but tricks the PC into thinking it's making a direct USB connection to those devices. And as it works over your wireless network, you can use it from wherever you can maintain the wireless signal.
The Belkin Network USB Hub's design is the essence of simplicity. The all-black hub is 6.5 inches square and stands one-quarter of an inch tall; it looks like a short, black version of Apple's AirPort Extreme Base Station. (The Extreme Base Station does offer one USB port for a printer or hard drive, to be fair. But just one.) On the back edge you'll find a single Ethernet port, three USB ports, a power port, and a reset button. On the front edge reside two additional USB ports. And that's the entire product. It ships with a power cable and an Ethernet cable.
Setting up the Network USB Hub was also simple: connect the hub's Ethernet port to a WAN port on your wireless router and power it up. If you've enabled DHCP on your router, you won't have to manually set up the hub, but if you haven't, you'll need to enter information such as the hub's Ethernet code (from the hub's underside). Then install the Control Center software that comes on a CD on each PC that will be accessing the hub (you won't be able to use the hub if you don't install the software). We should note that currently the Hub only works with Windows XP and Vista PCs; Mac users will have to wait until September.
The Control Center shows you all the hubs on your network and the devices that are attached to each hub. You'll be able to see whether a certain device is connected to the PC you're using, as well as information such as the type of device, whether you've set it up to autoconnect, and the device's status. Devices connected to the hub can only be used by one user (i.e., PC) at a time. If you want to connect to a device that's in use, you can send a request to the current user, who can accept or deny your request. You can also configure the hub so that all connections are automatically established when you start up the Control Center, though again, you won't be able to make a connection to a device that's in use by someone else. We connected a flash thumbdrive, a hard drive, and an inkjet printer to our test hub and were able to use all three devices without problems. We played music off the hard drive, transferred files between our laptop and the flash drive, and printed several documents--all wirelessly and from the living room, while the devices all sat next to our hub, installed in the back bedroom.
One issue we ran into while trying to connect to installed USB devices was that software firewalls can get in the way. Belkin's help center acknowledges this issue and provides step-by-step configurations for several third-party firewalls that will allow the connections to be made. In our case, Belkin provided instructions for the 2007 version of PC-cillin, but not for the 2006 version we're using (the interface has changed). Still, we were able to use the 2007 directions as a general guideline to correctly configure a firewall profile that allowed for the connections.
In the included literature, Belkin warns that certain types of USB devices may not be compatible, including TV tuners and Webcams. If you've connected such a device, a warning will show up in the control center. The Network USB Hub can support up to 16 connections at once, but be aware that a single device does not always equal a single connection. Multifunction printers, for example, often require up to four connections (one for each function).
Belkin backs the Network USB Hub with a three-year warranty. Toll-free phone support is provided 24-7, or you can fill out a Web form at Belkin's site for e-mail support. Belkin's site also includes documentation, downloadable drivers, and FAQs.