Powered USB Hub in my hotel room, and more

What should be in a good hotel room?

Well, one thing that’s easy to add to the list is a powered USB hub, with as many as 6 ports and a 3 amp power supply. Toss in some mini-USB cables (possibly just built into the hub) as they have become, for better or worse, the present-day universal charging standard. (At only 2.5 watts, USB is a bit anemic as charging standard, but it’s what we have for now.) A mouse would be nice too, but is a security risk.

Alas, we can’t have a keyboard on it, as nice as that would be, since that can’t be trusted. It might have a keylogger put in it (even by the previous occupant of the room) to grab passwords.

Now this is a fairly cheap item (under $20) and like many other hotel items, it could also be available at the front desk, though it’s so cheap I don’t see a reason for that. While you could not be sure it would be there at every hotel, it would still be useful, since it can add to the charging you bring, and most laptops can be a charging station if you are willing to leave them on overnight. It’s also useful as a hub. Indeed, have two, one on the desk, and one by the bed for cell phones.

We’re almost ready to not need the hotel phone unless you are coming from overseas and pay ridiculous roaming charges. But they still need it to call you sometimes, and I don’t want to have to hand over my mobile number at check-in.

Most hotel rooms now are getting a flat-screen HDTV. That’s great, but rarely do they offer up the VGA port that many of these TVs have, or a cable to plug it in. I recommend a 1080p TV for each room, located in such a way that it can be an external monitor for my laptop. As such there should be a VGA cable connected or handy. The TV could also be connected to the USB hub, and use a video over USB protocol for devices that have USB out but not video out. (This usually needs a driver and has some limitations.)

Someday, I would like to see the development of a standardized protocol to let small devices, like phones, which don’t have video out or USB out, get access to the big screen. This could happen over Bluetooth or 802.11, which the phones do have. The protocol would probaby be a mix of a remote screen protocol like VNC, along with the ability to send jpegs and stream mpegs. You need the latter if you want to display video as the wireless protocols don’t have the bandwidth for that. Of course the TV already has a built in mpeg-2 decoder, and many are starting to have MP4/h264 decoders and jpeg decoders. (Many TVs let you put a flash card into the TV to see pictures.)

Imagine bringing your iPhone type device into the room, connecting a small portable mouse and keyboard and being able to use it like a slow computer on the big screen for emails and web browsing, as well as playing music and video stored in it through the big screen and nicer speakers. As noted, you still have to bring the keyboard with you but the hotel can provide the rest, and is already providing the monitor which is the expensive part. (Yeah, I know the stupid iPhone won’t take an external keyboard.)

Of course, for many years, you won’t be able to depend on the hotel having these functions. So you’ll pack your charger anyway. Long ago, you always used to pack a travel hair dryer too. It took over a decade, but now almost nobody has to pack one.

Want to do even more? The hotel should offer one of those universal laptop power supplies for each room. These supplies tend to be designed with a series of tips that can be plugged in. The tip tells the supply how many volts to provide and the current limit, and you can power all the major laptops with it. Permanently mount the supply and have a bag of tips in the drawer.

Why do this, when each person of course has their supply with them? I find it very handy to not have to unpack, unwind and plug in my supply each time I go back to the room, and reverse that when I leave it. In fact, with a long-life laptop or netbook, I want to bring my supply with me outside the room, but I may never take it out. It’s just very convenient to be able to plug in back in the room with no effort. I always have get an extra supply for any notebook I get for this reason.

Finally, though the USB hub helps a lot here — lots of plugs. Spare plugs at the desk, of course, and right on the desk (many hotels do this now) not under it. And a spare plug by the bed too. If you like to put your cell phone by the bed so it can be your alarm clock, you often have to unplug a lamp to make it happen. Or the hotel’s clock, which you can do but only by making it lose the time.

If the hotel has, as is common in asia, a card-slot by the door that shuts down all room power when the key is removed, make the charging station and at least one of the charging plugs not be keyed to that switch. I want to leave things charging in my room. Today I just leave a spare card in the door, defeating the purpose of the whole system (which is mostly to get the lights and air conditioning off.)

As for internet, of course I am in the group annoyed at the fact that expensive hotels charge (and often hugely) for it, while cheap hotels provide it free. It was $22/day at the fancier hotels in Israel and of course free at the cheap ones. At the Crowne Plaza in Haifa we used the internet from the hospital down the hill at $8/day. Even worse, if there are two people in the room who both have devices (and this is getting quite common) they will often charge you double. You can set up internet sharing if you have to but why go through the pain?

We won’t get the hotels to stop this easily. Business hotels know that internet is not an option for the guests who need it, so they can add it as a fat surcharge. Cheap hotels know the guests won’t pay that so they make it free.

But one way to regulate it would be for hotel-shopping web sites to start quoting prices including internet. They already let you do your search only on hotels with internet, but they don’t know the price. I say, if I ask for a hotel with internet, then add it to the price you quote. That might make the hotels actually make the internet free for those who book this way (because they now realize that they are competing with the other hotels on it) even if they charge the sucker guests who didn’t book that way through the nose. They might start offering “Room with internet” just like “room with fridge.”

Update: Readers are reminding me, as they should, of some of the security risks of such an approach. If you plug the USB hub into your computer, it could possibly take it over, by pretending to be an auto-play CD-rom or pretending to be a keyboard or other devices. The hotel would not do this but somebody could put a hijacked hub into the room. In addition, the hub could also suck data from the devices it charges, unless you bring cables with shorted data pins.

It is an interesting challenge to design devices that you can plug into your computers or phones when the devices can’t be trusted. USB isn’t up to it. Input devices are a risk (even mice.) Output devices are easier as long as they can’t pretend to be input devices. This may deserve a later blog post. But for now, power may be the main goal.

let's start with enough plugs

I remember sharing an OSCON room with Eric Raymond once, and between the two of us we used up every plug in the room PLUS the six plugs on the power strip I brought with (and a good thing it was that I did.)

But yeah, everything else you say is correct, too. At least some airports are starting to provide seats with 110V and USB plugs.

Hotel-provided USB hub == security nightmare

I shudder at the thought of the damage somebody malicious could do with a USB hub in hotel rooms. There's no security designed in to USB; the assumption is, if you're connecting to a device via USB, it's "your" device and you trust it. If a drive appears on the USB chain, you mount it. If it's got an autoexec.bat (or equivalent), you run it. You can set your system to be more distrustful of USB-connected devices, but that's not the default. So, imagine a malicious USB hub with a virus-infected drive built in (or hidden between the desk and the wall)...

There is this risk, true

Though of course it is better to run an OS that won’t execute code from a USB device plugged into it!

You may be right that you can’t actually use the hub to access devices. It is still handy of course for recharging. Though you make me realize that if you plug your PDA/phone into it, it could then suck the data out of your phone. So there are downsides of having power and data on the same bus. One could have charging cables that have no data bits, I suppose.

(Though not for my damned RAZR, which refuses to charge from ordinary USB unless you install drivers on the computer to command it to accept a charge, or use a custom USB cable with the data wires shorted.)

I have wished there was a way to trust a hotel keyboard, though there is not. You can probably trust a hotel mouse as a mouse, but since it could pretend to be other things, such as a CD or keyboard, you may not be able to trust even that.

One thing I proposed is a rule that devices which let you plug in external keyboards don’t let you type passwords on the keyboards — only on the device itself. If they see you typing on the external keyboard when a password box is open in the browser, they could beep loudly at you. But it’s not enough.

Theft

The last hotel I stayed in (at F2C) had trouble keeping +Ethernet cables+ in hotel rooms. Unless there's a way to cement them to the wall, they'll get stolen.

The cable in two rooms was broken, and the manager said that people try to steal them even though they have a bulky plastic paperweight / ad attached to them.

nice espionage device

Unless someone carries USB cables without data pins, this would be a great way to steal guests personal data. Cars are starting to have USB ports instead of "12vdc outlets" (former cigarette lighters), also a good target for this.

Regardless of that, I agree. Good idea. Paranoids can carry non-data cables.

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