Laser's shAIR Hub is about the most multi-function iPad accessory I've ever seen. It promises big things — but does it deliver?
LASER's shAIR Hub isn't much of a looker; a nondescript white box the size of a packet of playing cards with ports and buttons running along three of its four sizes. It may be out of deference to the dominant iColour that it's built in white plastic — or perhaps white plastic is just cheaper.
That's an important distinction because if there's one thing that LASER sells itself on, it's that it's a budget provider of gadgets generally. As such the shAIR Hub stands out a little, in that it's not simply a cheap GPS or DVD-R disc. It's a combination SD/USB storage hub, portable battery backup and Wi-Fi/Ethernet range extender and Internet sharing hub as well. That's quite a lot of functionality to throw into a $99 box of tricks.
I tested the shAIR hub both from my office and while in New York last week, on the grounds that there's nothing like on the ground testing to reveal the best and worst of a given product. The shAIR hub can work while connected to the mains, with charging via microUSB, or as a standalone device due to the included 1200mAh battery. That's a notable weak point of the shAIR hub if you wanted to act as a battery backup as well; 1200mAh is below the battery point of most smartphones these days, so you'd only add a small trickle of power to a fading portable device.
As a straight connection sharing device, the shAIR hub worked very well across an iPad and iPhone; it does so via a free App that reveals the device's origins as an Alphaeus Toaster Pro. It also highlights a slight weakness in it being a "sharing" hub if you're using an iPad or iPhone. It'll read files on connected SD or USB storage devices, but only those already compatible with iOS. If you've got a movie that's in an incompatible format, or a document that iOS can't natively read then you're plumb out of luck, even if you do already have an app on the device that can happily read such files. There's a transfer window, but it's strictly a one-way transfer process off the iOS device to the storage media connected to the shAIR hub. Connecting via PC or to an Android device gives you a little more flexibility in terms of file formats, but the actual web-based interface is incredibly plain.
Sharing out an ethernet connection as its own WiFi point to tablets and phones worked quite well, and from that viewpoint if you were staying in a hotel that charged a per-device Internet connection fee it could be a canny way to save a few dollars — although you might be breaking the hotel's terms and conditions doing so. As most hotels place the room ethernet cable right next to a power point, it's also relatively trivial to keep the shAIR hub charged.
If you were just using the shAIR Hub as a single device — be it repeater, sharing hub or SD/USB card reader — it'd be a fair but not exceptional device for the money. At the asking price for the combination of functions, as long as you're likely to use more than one of them it's a good option.