Does a USB hub need power?

In the early days of USB, the majority of hubs had power. Today, the market is flooded with cheap hubs that don’t have power. That raises a legitimate question. Does a USB hub need power? Why or why not?

Why a USB hub might need power

Do USB hubs need power
Do USB hubs need power? Not always. And for travel, a USB hub like this one can be useful. But for a home office setup, a powered USB hub is worth the money and trouble because of the reliability it offers.

USB ports provide power, but it’s a limited amount. Typically that amount is enough to power a keyboard or mouse or USB flash drive. It may even be enough to power a scanner. It’s typically not enough to power a hard drive or SSD. And it’s frequently not enough to power multiple devices.

One workaround is to provide two USB ports. Many USB hard drives do this. A single USB port isn’t enough to provide enough power for the drive, but a combination of two ports is. Of course, this only works if you have ports to spare, and your ports are next to each other. And it seems like the more expensive the laptop is, the more likely it is to only have two USB ports, and put them on opposite sides of the case. Well, at least if you buy a certain brand. I won’t name names to avoid getting flamed.

Why to buy a USB hub with power

There’s certainly a perception out there that USB 3.0 hubs don’t need power anymore. If most of what you plug into it has its own power source, then it probably doesn’t. But I’ve also found that I can run into a cascading problem. If I plug a keyboard, mouse, and a USB network adapter into an unpowered hub, the combination doesn’t work reliably.

Marketing-wise, USB hubs that cost less than $20 are magical. They fall into the realm of an impulse purchase. Most powered USB hubs don’t fall into that category. And they’re less convenient too, because you have to find a power outlet for it, and then you have one more cable to manage, or tolerate.

But if you want a reliable system, I recommend paying the extra $5 for a powered USB hub. Mount your surge protector out of sight so you have a power outlet to spare, and can more easily hide that extra power cord. And then you can even mount your USB hub out of sight too, using Velcro, a Command strip, or two-sided tape. Then you can attach all your peripherals, route those cables, and just have the single USB cable from your system to the hub. Which seems to be what the designers of boutique laptops intended when they skimped on USB ports in the first place.

Sure, your surge protector looks like Medusa, and your USB hub looks like Medusa too. But they’re out of sight, out of mind.

Why to buy a USB hub without power

That said, unpowered USB hubs have their uses. An unpowered USB hub, especially one that plugs into the side of a laptop without needing a cable, is convenient for travel. It lets you plug more stuff in in a pinch. And depending on what you’re plugging in, it can probably work fine. Even when I overload an unpowered hub, stuff usually works for a while. For a temporary setup on the road, it’s probably adequate.

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