Pros: An attractive four-port USB 2.0 hub designed to be used with your computer, the iPod shuffle and three other devices at once. Includes power adapter and hub-to-computer cable. Roughly the same price as Apple’s substantially less useful iPod shuffle Dock.
Cons: Though power adapter is an “optional” connection, you’ll need it for use with the iPod shuffle, reducing the Hub’s portability.
Competition is wonderful. Three months ago, Apple introduced a line of five iPod shuffle accessories priced universally at $29, a number that was more reasonable for some of them – an excellent hard case and a very nice battery pack – than others. One of the harder accessories to price justify in the bunch was Apple’s iPod shuffle Dock (iLounge rating: B), which while attractively designed to connect shuffle to computer and hold it vertically on a flat surface, did nothing more. Twenty-nine dollars for nothing more than an USB extension cable and plastic mount was a bit hard to swallow.
Thankfully, two companies have taken advantage of the price gap to offer shuffle dock products that represent better values for the dollar.
Speck was first to announce a cheaper Shuffle Dock with similar functionality, but we haven’t seen reviewable hardware yet. Now Belkin has wisely developed the Hi-Speed USB 2.0 4-Port Hub (we’ll call it the Belkin Hub, $29.95), which deftly avoids stepping directly on the iPod shuffle Dock’s toes by avoiding its direct mention in its name, but nonetheless is attractively designed and marketed for use with the iPod shuffle and Apple’s recently-released Mac mini computer.
The Belkin Hub package includes three pieces: a four-port USB 2.0 hub made from glossy white and gray metallic plastic, an attractive transparent USB cable that attaches to hub and computer, and a small black power adapter that is less optional than Belkin’s box currently suggests.
The box claims that you can use the hub with “up to 2 devices without the power adapter,” but we were surprised to discover that the iPod shuffle wasn’t one of them – a fact Belkin is going to remedy on its packaging and web site. That’s probably the single biggest knock on the Hub – if you were planning on carrying it around without the adapter, expect to find its functionality limited. You can still use it with many other peripherals without a problem, but the shuffle draws too much current to be used unassisted.
That aside, the Hub is an attractive alternative to Apple’s shuffle Dock design, a tapered box with a concave USB port and yellow power light on its top, then three more USB input ports, a USB output port, and a power adapter port on its back. You insert your shuffle into the concave slot at the top – which not surprisingly also accommodates any other USB device – and add other peripherals to the back as you desire.
The difference between this and some of the generic USB hubs is obvious – the shuffle is guaranteed to actually fit in one of the USB ports. Like the shuffle’s power indicators, the Belkin Hub’s top light is invisible unless it’s turned on, an Apple design touch we continue to like.
Because of the taper and its use of plastics rather than metal, it complements rather than matches the shape of the Mac mini and similar aluminum Apple parts, which is fine considering that much of its potential audience consists of PC owners. The glossy white top does a nice job of matching the shuffle, while the sides are as good a match with a plasticy Dell laptop, for example, as anything Apple’s made.
As performance goes, the Hub performed virtually identically to a directly connected shuffle in our testing when it was powered by the adapter: both transferred 393.5MB of music to the shuffle in a little over 4 minutes, with the Hub running around 5 seconds behind the directly connected shuffle. Other devices we tested worked on the Hub’s other ports without problems, including a memory card reader, a microphone adapter, a USB-based remote control, and other plug-ins, even when a total of four were connected simultaneously.
While it’s possible to find powered USB 2.0 four-port hubs at lower prices – particularly if you’re willing to take the risk with a no-name product – they’re not guaranteed to fit the iPod shuffle, and are even less likely to fit one that’s in a case, as Belkin’s does without a hassle. The primary question we ask as an iPod-centric site is whether the Belkin Hub outperforms currently available alternatives marketed directly at iPod owners. As the only such alternative today is Apple’s own Dock, the answer is fairly obvious.