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September 13, 2001

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Belkin 4-Port USB Switch for Linux, Mac, & Windows

Laptop & Notebook Docking -- Peripheral Device Sharing

By Mike Angelo - 13 September 2001 (c)

Belkin 4-Port USB Switch - Back, 3-D, and Front Views.
Are you one of those people with several computers on your desk that is suffering from desktop clutter -- are too many mice and keyboards getting in the way? Or do you have only one printer, scanner, or other such peripheral device that you would like to share among several computers? Well, in the toys-for-girls-and-boys department Belkin has a nifty solution for Linux, Mac, and Windows users.

The new Belkin 4-Port USB Switch ($39 street price and $45 list price) lets you connect several computers to a single peripheral computer device. Or, you can use the Belkin 4-Port USB Switch together with a USB hub to connect a set of single peripherals to several computers.

How the Belkin 4-Port USB Switch Works

Here is how it works. The 4-Port USB switch has four switched USB ports plus one not-switched USB port. The switch mechanism connects a selected switched-port to the non-switched port.

Note: more technically, the switched ports are called upstream ports because data is moved up to the computers through them. The not-switched port more technically is called a downstream port because data is moved down through it too a peripheral device. The terms switched and not-switched are used in this article to try to make reading easier and the article more understandable.
Simply connect up to four different computers into the switched ports. Then connect your USB printer, or any USB device for that matter, to the not-switched port.

There is a push-button on the front of the Belkin USB Switch. Simply press the button to cycle among the computers to connect a specific computer to the printer or other USB device that you have attached to the not-switched port on the Belkin USB Switch.

You can do this with just about any USB device such as a USB digital camera, USB Web cam, USB CD ROM drive, USB CD Recorder (burner), USB external hard drive, USB scanner, and so forth. Add a USB hub to the mix to connect more than one USB device to the Belkin USB Switch.

Using the Belkin 4-Port USB Switch

For example, suppose you would like to get rid of all the extra mice and keyboards on your desk if you have several computers on it. Simply connect the computers to the switched ports on the Belkin USB Switch. Then connect a USB hub to the not-switched port on the Belkin USB Switch. Next connect a USB mouse and a USB keyboard to the USB hub.

Then take all the other keyboards and mice off your desktop. Now, simply use the switch button on the front of the Belkin USB Switch to select which computer you want to use and viola, your mouse and keyboard are connected to the selected computer and disconnected from the other computers.

It's just as important that the mouse and keyboard be disconnected from the other computers, as it is that they be connected to the selected computer. If they were not disconnected from the not-selected computers, your mouse actions and keystrokes would be going to all the computers. That really could a make mess of things on the not-selected computers.

The Belkin USB Switch makes a nice mini docking-station for laptop computers too. Simply use the Belkin USB Switch to share an external USB keyboard and USB mouse between your desktop and laptop computers.

How We Used & Tested the Belkin USB Switch

Here is what we did to test the Belkin USB Switch. We connected three desktop computers to a USB KVM switch. Then the KVM switch was connected to one of the switched-ports on the Belkin USB Switch.

A KVM switch let's you connect a single keyboard, monitor, and mouse set to several computers much the way the Belkin USB Switch lets you connect a single peripheral device to several different computers. (KVM = Keyboard, plus Video, plus Mouse.)

Next, a Belkin USB mouse and a Belkin USB keyboard were connected to a Belkin USB hub. Then the USB hub was connected to the not-switched port on the USB switch.

Note: there is no switch on the USB hub. So normally, you cannot use a USB hub to connect devices to more than one computer. Meanwhile the USB switch only lets you connect one peripheral device to several computers. By using the USB switch and USB hub together, you can connect several computers to several devices. Unlike the KVM switch, neither the USB hub nor the USB switch can handle monitor/video display switching or hubbing.

Then another desktop computer, not connected to the KVM switch, was connected directly to the USB switch. To finish the test setup, a Hewlett Packard Omnibook 6000 was connected directly to the Belkin USB Switch.

This setup allows us to use only one keyboard and one mouse to input to four desktop computers plus a mini-docked laptop computer. The KVM switch lets us share only one monitor among the three desktop computers attached to it. However, because the fourth desktop is not connected to KVM switch, its monitor display is always visible. On the other hand, only the monitor display for the active computer connected to the KVM switch is visible. The laptop video display also is always visible.

This setup eliminates two monitors from the desktop clutter -- plus saves some on the electric bill. It also removes three keyboards and three mice from the desktop jungle. Additionally, it conveniently let us dock the HP Omnibook 6000 to the same external keyboard and mouse being switched among the desktop computers.

Connecting the fourth desktop computer to the KVM switch could eliminate another monitor. However that fourth computer is used as the Internet gateway for the LAN and for IRC (Internet Relay Chat). Having its monitor display always visible allows for keeping an eye on Internet activity and chat without needing to cycle the KVM to do so.

Incidently, the HP Omnibook works very nicely with Microsoft Word, Adobe GoLive and PhotoShop. This comes in very handy for simply taking the notebook down to the pond, sipping on soda, and munching on popcorn and crackers while writing articles, laying out Web pages, etc.)
Having the use of the Omnibook's high resolution display hooked into the LAN came in handy too. That makes it easy to work with Adobe GoLive full screen on one of the desktop computers connected to the KVM switch and at the same time easily monitor the results in a Web browser on the Omnibook opened to the page being constructed on the desktop computer.


Cautions & Annoyances

An important caution when working with USB mice and keyboards: USB is not as rock solid as it ought to be -- especially if you are engaged in connecting a USB mouse or USB keyboard to your computer through a switch or hub. You might occasionally find yourself in the predicament where your computer is not recognizing the USB mouse or USB keyboard. (This seems more likely to happen with Windows than with Linux.)

A work-around for this USB shortcoming is to keep a standard AT or PS/2 mouse and keyboard connected to your computer. That way if the computer fails to recognize the USB mouse or the USB keyboard, you can use the standard mouse and/or keyboard until you reboot the computer so it again will recognize your USB mouse and USB keyboard.

Nevertheless, you still can use the USB switch and USB hub with a USB mouse and USB keyboard to clear up desktop clutter. Simply put the back-up standard mice and keyboards off to the side or behind the computers.

Also, you can just connect a back-up standard mouse and keyboard to a computer only when it fails to recognize the switched USB mouse and/or USB keyboard. That usually works. However, in some instances if the standard mouse and keyboard are not connected to the computer when it is booted, the computer will not recognize them if they are connected later.

There is a somewhat related annoyance when you switch a USB device among several computers. There is a short delay, just a few seconds or less, between the time you switch to a selected computer and the time the computer recognizes the USB device. So, if you decide to try USB device switching, be prepared for this minor annoyance.

Despite these minor annoyances, the convenience of eliminating extra mice and keyboards when you have several computers on your desk makes USB mouse and keyboard switching worthwhile.

Conclusion

If you have the option of using a network to share peripheral devices such as printers, scanners, CD Recorders (burners), and so forth that likely would be preferable to using a USB switch to share them among several computers. However, if you do not have a network, the USB switch can be a very handy way to share peripheral devices among several computers.

Note: for more information about networking and using a network to share peripheral devices, please see our article, Computer Connections at Home, Office, & School.

The USB switch also is a very handy and economical way to share a keyboard and mouse, plus other peripheral devices between a desktop computer and a laptop. It's also handy to share a single mouse and keyboard set among several desktop computers.


Technical Details & Test Equipment

The three machines mentioned in this article that are connected to the Belkin 4-Port USB Switch via the KVM switch and then the Belkin USB Hub are:

A powerful, multi-boot, dream-machine with a 750-MHz AMD Duron CPU, Iwill KV200-R motherboard (VIA KT133 chipset) with integrated audio, 384-MB of PC-133 RAM, 100-GB Maxtor D536X hard drive, and 3D-Labs Oxygen XV1 video card in an Antec ATX case.

A powerful, multi-boot, dream-machine with a 1-GHz Pentium III CPU, PowerLeap motherboard using a SiS 630E chipset with integrated everything, 512-MB of PC-100 RAM, and 100-GB Maxtor D536X hard drive in a generic ATX case.

A medium power Windows 98 machine with a 300-MHz AMD K6, SOYO SY-5EMA+V1.1 ATX motherboard, 196-MB PC-100 RAM, 20-GB Maxtor hard drive, Intergraph Intense 3D Voodoo graphics card, and Trident 4DWAVE-DX sound accelerator in an Enlight 7101 ATX case.

These three computers are connected to the same monitor through the KVM switch.

The fourth desktop computer, which is connected directly to the Belkin 4-Port USB Switch, is an older machine with a 133-MHz AMD 5x86 CPU, Gigabyte GA-5486AL motherboard, and 36-MB SIMM RAM running Windows 98 SE. This box serves as the ICS (Internet Connection Sharing) host/gateway on the LAN.

Even though this is an older box, it still carries its share of the load in a Network with current 750-MHz to 1-GHz processor boxes. That's certainly a tribute to AMD's chip design and production.

This box predates USB. However, sometime ago a Belkin USB Busport was added to the 133-MHz AMD 5x86 box to provide USB capability. The Belkin USB Busport is a PCI card that provides two USB ports to Windows 98 machines that do not have built in USB or adds two additional USB ports to machines with built in USB and Windows 98.

The Belkin USB Busport requires the Windows drivers to function. Therefore, if you use the Belkin USB Busport, your computer will not recognize it or the devices connected to it until Windows has loaded the Busport drivers.

The laptop used is a Hewlett Packard OmniBook 6000 Notebook PC. This HP 6000 has a 900-MHz Pentium III CPU, 128-MB RAM, ATI Rage Mobility M1 graphics, and a 20-GB IBM DJSA-220 hard drive. Caldera OpenLinux Workstation 3.1 and Red Hat Linux 7.1 boots were added to the pre-installed Windows 2000 Professional installation after the Omnibook rolled in here.

Note: As a matter of course, all boxes that are built at MozillaQuest are set up from the get-go as Linux/Windows multi-boot machines. Any pre-built machines that roll in here with only one pre-installed operating system (OS) are immediately converted to Linux/Windows multi-boot boxes. For more information about multi-booting, please see our article Triple-Boot Caldera OpenLinux, Red Hat Linux, & MS Windows for Best of Three Worlds.

Using the Belkin 4-Port Switch as a mini docking-station to connect both the external USB mouse and USB keyboard to the Omnibook (via the Belkin USB Hub) worked well with all three boot options (Caldera OpenLinux 3.1, Red Hat Linux 7.1, and Windows 2000 Professional).

We did not check the Belkin 4-Port Switch on a Mac.

The USB hub used is the Belkin Multiport USB Hub ($90 list). It has three USB ports, a serial port, and a parallel printer port on the incoming side for your peripheral devices and an USB port on the outgoing side to connect your computer to the hub. By itself, it makes a great mini-docking station to connect peripherals to a laptop computer.

However, the Belkin Multiport USB Hub is more expensive than a simpler Belkin USB 4-port hub ($60 list). That's primarily because the Multiport USB HUB includes additional electronics to convert serial and printer port signals to USB signals. Also, the Multiport USB HUB has five device ports plus a connection for a computer.

Resources

Related Articles

Products

Belkin

Belkin 4-Port USB Switch

Belkin USB Multi-Port Hub

Belkin USB 4-Port Hub


Belkin USB Busport

Belkin USB NetMaster Mouse

Belkin MediaBoard Keyboard


Other Products


3D Labs Oxygen VX1

AMD Processors

Antec SX830 - SX840 Workstation Tower Case

Caldera OpenLinux


Enlight EN-7101

Hewlett Packard Omnibook 6000

Intel Pentium III

Iwill KV200-R


Maxtor 536DX Hard Drive

Microsoft Windows

PowerLeap Renaissance/370S

Red Hat Linux

SOYO SY-5EMA+


Copyright 2000, 2001 -- MozillaQuest -- Brodheadsville, Pa..USA -- All Rights Reserved

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