A comment I hear frequently from small office/home office (SOHO) users is that they need inexpensive peripherals. A number of readers have asked me to recommend inexpensive scanners; they're tired of having to give up their computer--which happens to have the only scanner in the office attached to it--to another user who has to scan something. I get similar complaints from home office users who don't want to leave multiple computers on to ensure that their printers are always available, especially when such printers provide various functions (e.g., printer, fax, copier) that other people need to use regularly. I also often hear from readers who simply bought extra printers or scanners on sale at the local office supply superstore and then complain about their lack of desk space. My suggestions to readers about network-attached printers and print servers tend to generate responses about those machines' high costs.

Last week, an inexpensive solution to the peripheral-sharing problem turned up in my mail: Keyspan USB Server. This accessory, which lists for $129.99, lets you attach USB 1.x devices, such as printers and scanners, directly to your network, where Windows 2000 and Windows XP users can then access them.

I tried out USB Server and found that it was easy to use and worked as advertised. I installed the product by plugging an RJ-45 cable into the small USB Server device (approx 4" x 3" x 1") and an available port on my network hub. I then attached to the hub two USB devices--an HP 3500c scanner and an HP 7150 printer.

USB Server includes application software, which I installed on two clients on my network. Be aware that although USB Server lets you share devices, the product doesn't allow concurrent use. You use the USB Server application to connect to an available device and disconnect from the device when you're done using it, freeing the device for the next user who needs it.

USB Server isn't a perfect solution because it doesn't allow any sort of concurrent access (such as spooling for printers) and supports only USB 1.x connections (Keyspan expects to have a USB 2.x version out this year). However, at a low price, USB Server solves the problem of sharing multiple devices that get a moderate amount of use, which in my case are a photo printer and a scanner. I no longer need be concerned that peripheral devices attached to a computer I'm upgrading or patching remain available to the other users in my SOHO environment. I'm looking forward to the USB 2.0 version of USB Server, so I can find out whether I can use it to create a backup solution for a USB-attached 250GB hard disk that keeps the critical files on my family's computers safe and secure. For more information about USB Server, go to http://keyspan.com:16080/products/usb/server.