Given the present-day global situation and remote operation quickly becoming a day-to-day routine for hundreds of thousands of people, a safe, reliable, and handy way to access a USB peripheral via Ethernet is an absolute necessity.
When it comes to extending a USB peripheral over Ethernet, the first thing that will probably come to your mind is some hardware gadget, like an adapter, a hub, and a cat5e/cat6 Ethernet cable extender compatible with USB. It’s just one of the ways to extend USB through Ethernet (and not even the best one), it’s still quite popular, so it’s most certainly worth a weighted analysis.
In this article, we’re going to have a proper look at the USB extension gadgets, tools, and methods today’s market has to offer. You’ll find out a lot more about different adapters, wires, cables, and habs, as well as some typical bottlenecks to watch out for. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll know exactly how to extend USB over Ethernet to all popular operating systems in the most convenient and trouble-free way possible.
Almost all USB devices (especially printers) come with cables so short you'll need to buy longer USB cables, a.k.a. USB extenders. Choosing the best USB extender over cat5e for your scenario isn’t easy and depends mainly on the type of USB device you’re going to connect and physical distance.
It’s a very common mistake to think that if you connect several cables, you get a very long extender and will be able to connect a USB device in the next room. But that won’t ever work. The longer the 5e cable is — the weaker the signal and power level it transmits. For some bandwidth-sensitive peripherals like scanners or cameras, the maximum recommended distance to any of your computers can’t be more than 3 meters (that’s less than 10 feet) for USB 3.0 or 3.1 and 5 meters (roughly 16.4 feet) for USB 2.0. Not that much, isn’t it?
Sure, you can get an active (repeater) cable and extend the said distance for as much as 30 meters (a little short to 100 feet). Then again, those cables cost about three times more than regular 5e ones. So if you’ve got more than one machine that needs remote access to some dongles or webcams, gets a software USB-Ethernet extender instead, e.g., FlexiHub.
A hardware extender over Ethernet that can extend a USB peripheral up to 60 meters using a cat5e or cat6 cable instead of a USB one is known as a USB hub. Usually, these are compact devices with an RJ45 port and a receiver with a few USB ports you can use to connect several USB dongles, printers, cameras, or other USB devices to one of your computers.
To choose the right hub for your specific scenario, you need to consider lots of different aspects. For one, cheaper bus-powered hubs may only be good enough for low-power devices like webcams or USB dongles. Also, all the devices connected to a hub will have to share the bandwidth available to them. This means you’ll only have around 480 Mbps in total, even if you’ll connect it to ultra-high-speed 2.5 Gbps USB 3.2, no matter how many USB ports the hub has. Naturally, a software-based USB extender (e.g., FlexiHub) has no such limitations.
Another important thing to take into account before opting for this USB extension method is that all habs add latency. You’ll probably not notice that with a USB keyboard or mouse, but for the storage devices and dongles, the difference can be pretty notable.
To successfully implement the hardware method of extending USB to Ethernet, you need to know how to choose the right hardware tool and use it in your setup.
You can turn your PC into a USB server or just make a single USB device remotely accessible from other machines in your network — it’s totally up to you to decide.
Once you’ve made your mind what wires and/or gadgets will work best for you and purchased everything you’re going to need, it’s time for a set-up process. Note that while USB cables and extenders don’t need any drivers, all hubs do, so make sure to download the latest versions from the official brands’ webpages.
If you plan to chain your habs to even more stretch the distance, it’s critical not to have more than 5 in a row. If you do, the whole set-up just won’t be working at all. And there is one more reason why connecting hubs into a cascade is in no way the best option: the infamous static electricity problem. Any USB port tends to accumulate static electricity and randomly stop working because of it. Thus the whole hub chain will stop working too. You’ll have to unplug every single USB connector you have, then plug them back again after half an hour of waiting. Not to mention that any data that was transmitted through the chain at the moment of hub failure might end up permanently damaged.
The main selling point of a hardware method is its universality. It works on all popular platforms and USB peripheral types and brands. Then again, a whole slew of modern software tools is cross-platform and has perfect compatibility with all operating systems too. Plus, they can, in a few clicks, turn any PC into a USB server for sharing USB over cat5/5e Ethernet, so that said devices become accessible from all machines in your network and even via the Internet. And some of these tools (like FlexiHub) even offer a month-long free demo period you can use to put the app through the loop while getting any freebies from hardware distributors is highly unlikely.
The choice is yours, and that goes without saying. Yet, it’s always wise to consider all possible options to make sure you’ll not settle for some second-best solution.