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How do USB Hubs work? And should you use one to daisy chain?

How do USB Hubs work? And should you use one?
(Image credit: Atolla)

USB hubs are useful devices that split one USB port on any of the best laptops or home computers into multiple ports that can each accommodate its own peripheral device. If you're away from home, and you need to use several devices at once, they're prefect companions - small, cheap, and easy to carry in bags or luggage. At home, they work for smaller offices with fewer power sockets. If you're using external hard drives, thumb drives, DVD burners, keyboards, mice and other gadgets like lamps and plasma balls, you'll quickly run out of USB ports on your main device, so a USB hub can be an ideal solution. 

When a user needs more USB ports than can be found in a single USB hub, they will often connect multiple hubs together in a process colloquially known as 'daisy chaining'. This can be a viable solution when several USB ports are needed and many manufacturers list the maximum number of ports that can be made available with this method when using their hubs. Frequently, as many as 127 devices can be hooked up to a computer via a single daisy chain of USB hubs. However, this process raises a few important concerns that mean we simply can't recommend daisy chaining as any kind of permanent solution. We've assembled a few key points to remember when connecting powered USB hubs to your devices, or to each other.

Impact on power consumption

Most USB devices draw power from the ports they are connected to, receiving at most 5.25V from a single port; the same is true for ports made available by USB hubs. Most devices will not require the full power load that these ports make available, but there are several devices that will make use of all of the power this connection facilitates. A select few devices, like high speed external hard drives, will require more power than a single USB hub port can provide. Typically, these devices come with a Y-shaped cord that can be plugged into, and draw power from, two ports simultaneously. 

When connecting multiple high-demand peripheral devices, it may be necessary to have a powered USB hub rather than a hub with no external power. If you have too many demanding external devices connected at once through the daisy chain process, your devices may not receive sufficient power and may turn themselves off to preserve sensitive data or equipment. These problems are generally easy to overcome by attaching the appropriate power supplies to each hub you place in the sequence.

The Anker 4-port USB hub is a good option for low-powered devices. If you need a powered hub, consider the Sabrent 4-Port USB hub.

(Image credit: Atolla)

Slower data transfer rates

The maximum rate at which data can be transferred via a USB 3.0 connection is around 115Mb/s. This data rate holds true for each USB controller on the motherboard. This transfer rate remains constant, regardless of the number of devices you have attached to the computer. Therefore, the more peripheral devices you have connected to the USB hubs you have daisy chained to a single port, the lower the data transfer rate will be to those devices. It creates a bottleneck in the process, slowing the overall transfer rate to these devices proportionate to the demands of the devices attached to it. So, no matter how many USB hubs you have lined up and connected, the single port that you have it plugged into will only be able to provide a total of 115MB/s per USB controller. The number of controllers depends on your motherboard. Things can get slow, very easily.

Should you really daisy chain USB hubs?

When connecting multiple USB hubs together, be sure that you'll have sufficient power for each peripheral device by attaching the included power supply. Also, realize that the data transfer rates to your peripheral devices will be lower if you have connected multiple demanding electronics. Daisy chaining can be a useful process if you need more ports than are traditionally available with a USB hub, but take note of these drawbacks before connecting your sensitive backup drive.