Many home workers are fine with plugging cables into their laptops but are intimidated by buying a hub. The hub marketplace can be very confusing because of the semantics of USB and related standards.
This is the story of my search for a hub: Why I needed one, how I spec’d it, and how I selected one to buy.
I bought a CalDigit Thunderbolt 4 Element Hub.
Here’s how that happened.
My home office setup
I’m a software developer. My home office setup has been simple for as long as I can remember.
- I have a MacBook Pro of recent vintage (currently a MacBook Pro 16” with an M1 Pro) on a laptop stand, next to…
- …An external display with a built-in webcam. For five years it’s been an LG UltraFine 5K display.
- An Apple wireless trackpad.
- An external mechanical keyboard. It’s presently a Drop CTRL.
- Noise-cancelling wireless headphones or good earbuds.
Why I needed a hub
My workday is editing code and video conferencing. It was easy to do the monitor-webcam-and-headphones bit for years. I’ve never needed a hub because I had enough laptop ports to do it. I plug in my earbuds or turn on my wireless headphones and I’m good to go!
Except… my video presence was merely OK. My webcam was mediocre. My headphone’s mic, although a marvel of audio engineering, was a compromise quality-wise. The room’s lighting left shadows on my face.
I recently started a new job at Brex. I used this milepost to take stock of how I’ve been doing video conferencing, and how to do it better. And I wanted to do it better. Better video conferencing would mean better communication in my work and that’s always a good thing. (And I’ll appear smarter to others, too!)
I wanted to, “up my video conferencing game.”
Choosing to improve led to mulling how to improve, which led to discovering I needed more USB ports. Plus, my Brex work requires a hardware authentication device in a dedicated USB-C socket in easy reach of my hands. (The UltraFine’s USB-C sockets, located in the back of the display, aren’t convenient for this.)
Why I needed additional ports
When I worked at Coffee Meets Bagel, two colleagues used dedicated microphones. They sounded noticeably better than the rest of us using our headphone mics. I wanted that! That’s an additional USB-A connection.
Applications exist to turn a smartphone into a Zoom video source. A recent iPhone is a better “webcam” than any built-in display camera. My display is five years old and its webcam sucked when it was first sold, so an iPhone would be a huge leap forward! The phone can be on a wireless connection, but wired is better because you don’t exhaust the battery. That’s another USB-A connection.
My office’s lighting is fine, but it’s up on the ceiling instead of in front of my face. It’s better to use a ring light mounted near the camera so your face is evenly lit. The better ones support multiple color temperatures and light intensities! These things are usually (always?) powered off USB-A. That’s another USB-A connection.
My new Bose 700 headphones are (is? are?) the UC variant, which uses a USB-A dongle. I didn’t want the UC variant but I have a Brex employee discount and office stipend for CDW, and they sell only the UC variant. That’s another USB-A connection.
Brex requires me to use a hardware authorization device to access certain internal systems. That’s another USB-C connection.
I’m presenting these decisions as though I instantly arrived at them. I didn’t. I did some reading and looked at different microphones, webcams, etc. This is where I ended up.
My MBP has one Thunderbolt 4 port (for a display) and two USB-C ports. The keyboard is a wash port-wise because it’s USB-C and provides a USB-C socket.
I needed a hub for the new additional USB-A sockets.
A first sketch of the hub I wanted
Based on how I wanted to upgrade my home office, I needed a 6-port USB-A hub. It was the simplest hub that would do the job.
Hubs with only USB-A ports do exist (e.g., here’s one) and maybe that would’ve been OK.
An improved sketch of the hub I wanted
I then did some reading and research. I learned a few things that led me to change my port choices.
Here’s what I ended up with.
The design evolved because my needs had some “degrees of freedom.”
I wanted to minimize the microphone’s propagation delay to avoid audio sync and wake-up problems. An example of this is when you start talking and your audience doesn’t hear the first second of your transmission. I didn’t have the resources or time to analyze my hardware, so I fell back to first principles: Audio performance might be just fine going through a quality hub, but not going through a hub would be safer.
So, I chose to put the microphone through a C-to-A adapter directly into the laptop.
The iPhone connection could be USB-A or wireless. Wireless would be convenient. But I’m less concerned about propagation delay here than I am with the phone’s battery. So, wired made more sense. Since I added spare USB-C sockets (see three paragraphs below), I tentatively moved this to USB-C with an adapter. Because if I have a couple of spare USB-C ports, it’s easy to use one of them for the iPhone.
My keyboard has two USB-C sockets! Hanging the hardware authenticator off it is more convenient because that’s where my hands are.
The headphones, trackpad, and iPhone all need occasional charging — but rarely simultaneously. They all charge off USB-A. I could use a wall charger but having it on the desk would be a nice convenience. So, one USB-A socket for these charging needs.
The target includes two USB-C sockets for future expansion. YAGNI says don’t do that. But I chose to be a bit irrational and add two spare sockets for future use. Because if I ever want to add a disk or another monitor to my system, I don’t want to have to shop for a new hub. (I first decided I wanted one spare, then I changed it to two. As it so happens, the hub I purchased provides me with two spares.)
Hub market craziness
I don’t understand why the hub/dock marketplace is so complicated. There are probably hundreds of hubs available for purchase with different combinations of USB-A, USB-C, Ethernet, Thunderbolt 3/4, HDMI, DisplayPort, SD slot, VGA (!), etc. sockets. Plus self-powered vs. bus-powered. Plus all the USB, HDMI, and Thunderbolt generations. Plus different max bandwidths.
Maybe all these products do sell and I don’t know what I’m talking about. (Many of my friends would agree with this.) Or maybe it’s so easy to slap connectors and a couple of networking chips on a PCB that companies throw everything they can think of against the wall — and hope some of them stick.
Whatever. I don’t want to pay for an 18-port hub with lots of sockets I’ll never use. I just need some USB-A and USB-C sockets! Preferably self-powered because that’s better for many reasons.
Another spanner in the works is until recently, hubs with multiple USB-C sockets have been rare. The two most-cited reasons are the ever-evolving USB-C specs, and bugs in the first generation of USB chips. So any hub not introduced very recently was a non-starter for me.
USB naming woes
It doesn’t help things that the USB naming scheme is a hot mess. I barely understand it. Bus/interconnection cognoscenti say it’s consummately logical. Consumers, even highly technical ones, are flummoxed by it.
It’s absolute crap.
I ended up doing numerical comparisons (e.g., 3.2 > 3.1) and hoping for the best. It also helps to buy products from companies that unambiguously document their products’ port protocols and bandwidth.
Companies that take pains to carefully explain their ports, and backward compatibility, can command a price premium. I passed on hubs that might have been decent contenders if I had the slightest confusion when reading their product’s description!
A friend suggested CalDigit
I had spent a couple of hours searching for hubs and found a couple possibilities that weren’t great matches but I could maybe make them work. Then a friend suggested I look at CalDigit’s products.
I’d never heard of them before. Maybe not surprising because I’m not a networking guy. When I need to buy new hardware it’s usually a burst of research, followed by a purchase, followed by years of giving it (and its product group) zero additional thought until it needs replacing!
So… CalDigit sells docks, hubs, and adapters. The online reviews were great and I liked how their web site clearly laid out each product’s specs. After some poking around, I narrowed my focus to their Thunderbolt 4 Element Hub.
It’s powered, so it can simultaneously supply more power to the ports than a bus-powered hub. Total throughput is spec’d at 40Gb/sec, which is more than I need but I’ll be ready if I ever need to use external disks.
Its succinct value proposition:
- It has four Thunderbolt 4/USB4 ports, which are compatible with Thunderbolt 4, Thunderbolt 3, USB-C, and USB4.
- It has four 10Gb/sec USB-A ports. (These are “USB 3.2 Gen.2” ports. FFS this naming scheme sucks!)
- It has no other ports.
This hub’s port configuration was a match for my search!
One of the USB4 ports is for the host computer. All of the ports are power and data ports.
If I want to upgrade my external display in the future, it can handle dual 6K 60Hz displays or one 8K display.
This sucker seemed super flexible and capable. I couldn’t find it used or refurbished, so I bought it new from the company.
I have the hub connected as shown in the “final target hub” sketch. It works like a champ. I don’t have a disk handy with which to do a performance test, so I’ll have to trust the company’s word on its performance. 🙂
I have run into one problem. When I plug my iPhone into its charging cradle, macOS gives me an error popup.
I don’t get this error if I unplug everything, plug my iPhone into its cradle, and then re-attach everything else.
I’m thinking this is a hub firmware bug or, conceivably, a macOS bug. I sent CalDigit a query and I’m waiting on an answer. Regardless, I’m still happy with the outcome. I can recharge my iPhone off a separate charger if it comes to that.