A Tiny USB Hub For All Your Hardware Modding Needs

Going all the way hack to the heady days of Eee PC modding, hardware hackers have been on the hunt for small USB hubs that can easily be liberated from their enclosures and integrated into whatever project they happen to be working on. From time to time you see recommendations out there for makes and models which lend themselves to this sort of repurposing, but it’s seemed more difficult than necessary to source such a basic component.

Which is why [RETROCUTION] has developed a USB hub that’s not only extremely small, but relatively easy to assemble with only six components. Plus best of all, they are dirt cheap.

When you add up the cost of getting the PCBs made and buying all the SMD components, the per-unit price of these hubs is only going to be a few dollars. If you’ve got what it takes to make the PCBs in-house, even better. Considering how much easier these things could make other projects, it seems more than worth the upfront cost.

The star of the show is the FE1.1s, a four port USB 2.0 controller in a SSOP-28 package. As of this writing, it goes for about 25 cents from the usual overseas sources (even less, for larger orders). Add to the mix a few 10 μF ceramic capacitors, a 2.7 kΩ resistor, and a 12 MHz crystal.

There’s no provision for actual USB ports in the design, but they would just take up space anyway; this hub is intended to be directly soldered to the other devices. Incidentally, to reduce the number of traces and pads on the PCB, there aren’t power lines for the downstream devices either. So you’ll need to power them separately.

The passives are 0603, but the crystal is a good old fashioned through-hole component. [RETROCUTION] assembles the boards with a solder paste stencil and a hot air station, but if you’ve got a little practice, it’s certainly something you could do with an iron. With such a straightforward design, you could build a lifetime supply of these itty-bitty hubs in an afternoon. That’s certainly our plan, anyway.

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Keeping A 3D Printed NAS Updated With The Times

Back in 2018, [Paul-Louis Ageneau] created a 3D printed network-attached storage (NAS) enclosure for his Raspberry Pi. The design worked well, the Internet liked it when he posted the details on his blog, and all was right with the world. But of course, such glories are fleeting. Two years later that design needs updating, and thanks to the parametric nature of OpenSCAD, he’s been able to refresh his design for another tour of duty.

In our book, this is as much a cautionary tale as it is a success story. On one hand, it’s a testament to the power of CAD and desktop 3D printing. That a design can be tweaked and reproduced down the line with only minimal hassle is great for folks like us. But it’s also a shame that he didn’t get more than two years before some of the parts he used in the original NAS became unobtainium.

The main issue was that the integrated USB hub he used for the first version is no longer available, so the design had to be modified to accept a similar board. Unfortunately, the new hub is quite a bit wider than the old one. Resizing the entire case isn’t really an option since the Pi has to slide into it, so the hub now bumps out a bit on one side. He’s added a printable cover that cleans it up a bit, but the asymmetrical look might be a problem for some. While fiddling with the design, he also changed around the cooling setup so a larger fan could be mounted; now that the Raspberry Pi 4 is out, it can use all the cooling help it can get.

We covered the original version of the printed NAS back when it was first released, and it’s always good to see a creator coming back and keeping a project updated; even if it’s because hardware availability forced their hand.

Ham Radio Gets Embedded RTL-SDR

We usually think of the RTL-SDR as a low-cost alternative to a “real” radio, but this incredible project spearheaded by [Rodrigo Freire] shows that the two classes of devices don’t have to be mutually exclusive. After nearly 6 months of work, he’s developed and documented a method to integrate a RTL-SDR Blog V3 receiver directly into the Yaesu FT-991 transceiver.

The professional results of the hack are made possible by the fact that the FT-991 already had USB capability to begin with. More specifically, it had an internal USB hub that allowed multiple internal devices to appear to the computer as a sort of composite device.

Unfortunately, the internal USB hub only supported two devices, so the first order of business for [Rodrigo] was swapping out the original USB2512BI hub IC with a USB2514BI that offered four ports. With the swap complete, he was able to hang the RTL-SDR device right on the new chip’s pins.

Of course, that was only half of the battle. He had a nicely integrated RTL-SDR from an external standpoint, but to actually be useful, the SDR would need to tap into the radio’s signal. To do this, [Rodrigo] designed a custom PCB that pulls the IF signal from the radio, feed it into an amplifier, and ultimately pass it to the SDR. The board uses onboard switches, controlled by the GPIO ports on the RTL-SDR Blog V3, for enabling the tap and preamplifier.

In the video after the break, you can see [Rodrigo] demonstrate his modified FT-991. This actually isn’t the first time somebody has tapped into their Yaesu with a software defined radio, though this is surely the cleanest install we’ve ever seen.

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Concrete Table Even Includes A USB Hub

When designing furniture, material choice has a huge effect on the character and style of the finished product. Wood is a classic option, while more modern designs may use metal, plastic or even cardboard. Less popular, but no less worthy, is concrete. It’s heavy, cheap, and you can easily cast it into a wide variety of forms. [KagedCreations] thought this would be ideal, and whipped up this nifty piece of furniture with an integrated USB hub.

A pair of melamine shelves were scrapped to build the form, in which the concrete table is cast. Melamine is a popular choice, as it’s cheap, readily available, and releases easily from the finished concrete. Along with the USB hub, a wooden board is cast into the base of the concrete table top. This serves as an easy attachment point for the pre-made hairpin-style legs, which can be installed with wood screws.

The final result is a tidy side table that has plenty of heft to keep it stable and secure. It’s not the first concrete USB hub we’ve seen, but it’s likely the heaviest thus far. We’d love to see a version with an integrated charging pad, too – if you build one, be sure to let us know. Video after the break.

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Cement Shelves Double As USB Hub

Some of us are able to get by in life with somewhere between 0 and 1 USB ports. We typically refer to these people as “Mac users”. For the rest of us, too much is never enough, and we find ourselves seeking out expansion cards and hubs and all manner of perverse adapters and dongles. [JackmanWorks] was a man who found himself in need of more connectivity, so he built this beautiful shelf with an integrated 12-port hub.

Material choice is key here, with this build looking resplendent in mahogany and cement. As the core of the build, the USB hub is first disassembled and sealed up to prevent damage from the cement. Hot glue is used to protect the PCB, while electrical tape helps cover the individual ports. The cement is then poured into a form which creates the overarching structure for the shelf, with the USB hub being cast in place. With the cement cured, mahogany boards are then cut and waxed, before installation into the structure. These form the individual shelves which hold phones, hard drives and other USB accessories.

The shelf was designed so that the entire structure is supported through the bottom shelf, which then sits on top of the desktop computer case. It’s an attractive piece, and the weight of the cement construction makes it pleasantly stable in use. It’s rare, but we do occasionally see shelf hacks around these parts. Video after the break.

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Concrete USB Hub Isn’t Going Anywhere

When starting a new project, the choice of material can have a big effect on the character of the finished product. Wood is stylish and has a certain elegance to it, while polished or brushed aluminium is great for a more futuristic feel. Sometimes though, you just want big, cheap and heavy – in which case, concrete is your friend!

[BALES] was short on USB ports, and needed a hub with plenty of connectivity. Concrete had the benefits of being solid and heavy, and also impervious to beverages. Thus, a melamine form was produced, chosen as its surface doesn’t give the concrete anything to grab on to. A foam skull was cut out and added to create an inlay for decoration, and the 7-port octopus-style hub was placed inside.

With careful attention paid to the mixture consistency, the concrete was poured into the mold and allowed to set. Care was taken to avoid air bubbles and to ensure the mixture flowed completely into the mold, without leaving air pockets behind the inserted components. After allowing it to set for a few days, the part was demolded, with care taken to minimise edge crumbling. The foam skull was removed, and infilled with black epoxy, with a little more used to coat the top and sides of the hub. As a finishing touch, a foam pad was fitted to the base to allow it to sit on a desk without scratching everything up.

In the end, [BALES] has ended up with a hefty hub that won’t skitter around when plugging and unplugging devices. It should also serve admirably as a sturdy drink coaster on those cold winter nights. If you’re trying a similar project yourself, note that sometimes concrete can be surprisingly conductive. Video after the break.

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Biometric Authentication With A Cheap USB Hub

It’s fair to say that fingerprints aren’t necessarily the best idea for device authentication, after all, they’re kind of everywhere. But in some cases, such as a device that never leaves your home, fingerprints are an appealing way to speed up repetitive logins. Unfortunately, fingerprint scanners aren’t exactly ubiquitous pieces of hardware yet. We wouldn’t hold out much hope for seeing a future Raspberry Pi with a fingerprint scanner sitting on top, for example.

Looking for a cheap way to add fingerprint scanning capabilities to his devices, [Nicholas] came up with a clever solution that is not only inexpensive, but multi-functional. By combining a cheap USB hub with a fingerprint scanner that was intended as a replacement part of a Thinkpad laptop, he was able to put together a biometric USB hub for around $5 USD.

After buying the Thinkpad fingerprint scanner, he wanted to make sure it would be detected by his computer as a standard USB device. The connector and pinout on the scanner aren’t standard, so he had to scrape off the plastic coating of the ribbon cable and do some probing with his multimeter to figure out what went where. Luckily, once he found the ground wire, the order of the rest of the connections were unchanged from normal USB.

When connected to up his Ubuntu machine, the Thinkpad scanner came up as a “STMicroelectronics Fingerprint Reader”, and could be configured with libpam-fprintd.

With the pintout and software configuration now known, all that was left was getting it integrated into the USB hub. One of the hub’s ports was removed and filled in with hot glue, and the fingerprint scanner connected in its place. A hole was then cut in the case of the hub for the scanner to peak out of. [Nicholas] mentions his Dremel is on loan to somebody else at the moment, and says he’ll probably try to clean the case and opening up a bit when he gets it back.

[Nicholas] was actually inspired to tackle this project based on a Hackaday post he read awhile back, so this one has truly come full circle. If you’d like to learn more about fingerprint scanning and the techniques being developed to improve it, we’ve got some excellent articles to get you started.