Laptop Docking Station Buying Guide

Owning a powerful, lightweight, and portable laptop feels incredible. However, to deliver a sleek and lightweight device, most laptop manufacturing companies compromise on some hardware features. Often, this leaves laptop owners short-changed on the connectivity options available, thus limiting flexibility.

Fewer number of ports -USB, HDMI etc.- means that you cannot connect all the peripheral devices you might want at a go. In most cases, you are left with no choice but to make do with what you have, which may limit you from experiencing the true potential of your laptop.

If you’re in such a case or foresee one in the future when you buy a laptop, then a laptop docking station is what you need. But before you buy one for your laptop, here is what you should know.

Laptop Docking station buying guide featured image

What Is a Laptop Docking Station?

A laptop docking station is a piece of hardware that allows laptop owners to convert their ultra-books or note-books (basically any type of laptop) into workstations. It is also known as a universal port replicator.

With a decent docking station, you can exploit the full potential of your laptop. Plug it into your notebook via a single cable, and you get extra ports for connecting anything else. With a docking station, you can hook up anything from additional displays to gaming controllers, printers, storage devices, you name it.

Reasons Why Should You Get a Laptop Docking Station

Getting a docking station for your laptop can help you save some cash that you’d have spent on getting a desktop. Aside from that, there are other significant reasons why you should consider buying a docking station.

Extra Connectivity Options

Most laptops have two to four USB ports. This is quite limited, especially if the number of devices you may need to plug in exceeds the ports available. A single cable powers the docking station. So, all you need do is hook up your docking station to your laptop then plug in all your devices to it.

Quick and Easy Setup

Plugging devices in and out each time can be a nuisance, especially if you’ve got too many peripherals. With a docking station, you can quickly transform your laptop into a workstation without extra hustle.

Whenever you need to use the other devices all you have to do is dock your station and once you’re done undock it.

Access Multiple Displays

By default, most laptops support only one external display. On the other hand, some docking stations support dual display. This means you can connect additional displays without any problem. The Kensington USB 3.0 Dual Display Docking Station, for example, supports VGA or DVI, and dual display resolution of up to 2048×1152 including 1080p video via HDMI.

Types of Docking Stations

There are different types of docks present in the market. The main differing points between docking stations revolves around build and capability. Below we go through the main docking station types you are likely to come across when shopping.

The Portable Station

Portable stations are designed to be carried around. This means that they are smaller and lighter than the other types. The mobile docking station is an excellent addition, more so if you spend much of your time outdoors or traveling.

Desk Docking Station

The desk docking stations are more like the whole deal. They are packed with all kinds of necessary ports, including one for wired internet connectivity, also known as Ethernet. Some also come with a unique design that you can slide your laptop in for extra support and aesthetics.

The Port Replicator

Port replicators, also known as hubs (e.g. USB hub) don’t offer much other than recreating the standard desktop ports. With a replicator, there will be a port for your keyboard, mouse, and flash drive. In most instances, it is just a single port being re-shared, which limits connectivity options.

One common downside of port replicators is that you might experience lags in data transfer whenever you connect a couple of storage drives simultaneously. However, for normal operations like connecting a wired mouse and keyboard, they perform quite well.

Display Stand

A display stand offers more than just extra connections. It gives you an option to transform your laptop for a fantastic desktop experience. Other than your laptop it can support huge external displays. It also allows you to adjust the tilt and height to your liking.

Other additional features include a shelf for your keyboard and an adjustable platform where you can place your laptop.

Laptop Docking Station Features: What You Should Check Out For

A lot of factors come into play when shopping for a docking station. Here is a walk-through of the significant factors you should consider when buying a laptop docking station.

Your Working Environment

An excellent docking station is one that fits and blends into your working environment.

For instance, if you use shared workspaces, then you will probably want to go for a universal docking station. A universal docking station will eliminate hardware compatibility issues.

If you are a frequent traveler, then you will want something lightweight, probably a Thunderbolt 3 hub.

Compatibility

Compatibility issues are always the main talking point when it comes to getting the perfect docking station. You need to check things such as USB types and standards. Nowadays, it can get confusing more so with the emergence of the Thunderbolt 3 port, USB3.0, and 3.1 technologies. We will talk more about these in subsequent parts of this guide.

4K video is also the in thing now. So, if you want to enjoy videos and games in high definition, you will need a docking station that supports 4K resolution.

Your Laptop’s Operating System

Make sure that the docking station you intend to buy supports the OS you are using. However, if you can afford a docking station with cross-platform support -Windows OS, macOS, Android, and Linux just to name a few- then go for it. With it, you can hook up any device, be it a MacBook or a Windows laptop without any fuss. Remember, not all docking stations are cross-platform (can work with any operating system).

Number of Peripherals

The number of external devices you plan on hooking up is also a vital aspect. Ideally, you want a docking station that has enough ports to fit all your devices. So apart from your keyboard and mouse, you must note down other gadgets you are going to plug.

Space Physical Available

You don’t want a docking station that will make your desk look all clamped up and disorganized. You must consider the available space. This will help you choose between a docking station with a vertical placement or one with the horizontal installation.

A vertical docking station is ideal if you have got limited space on your desk. Keep in mind a docking station with the right ergonomics will help boost your productivity.

Proprietary Docks

A proprietary dock is a type of dock that is laptop or brand specific. What this means is that they are designed for use with specific laptop brands. An example is the Kensington SD7000 Surface Pro Docking Station.

Unlike universal docking stations, laptop specific docks bring in hardware compatibility issues. As such you may not use it with other types of notebooks other than the one it is tailored for.

A proprietary thinkpad docking station next to a T61 laptop
A proprietary thinkpad docking station next to a T61 laptop | Image by Ximeg

Setup

One of the reasons why you may need to buy a docking station is better mobility. You want a dock or hub that you can quickly set up without extra hustle. Docking stations with plug and play support are simple to set up as they are compatible with most USB connector types.

Drivers and firmware can come in handy if you run into compatibility issues. Also, important to note is that some original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) may provide software updates for your specific dock or display stands which is an added advantage with regards to future proofing the docking station.

Gigabit Ethernet Port

The presence of a Gigabit Ethernet port signals that you can use a wired internet connection. Go for a docking station with an Ethernet port for extra options and flexibility. Wired connections are generally faster than wireless (Wi-Fi).

USB Fast Charge

You can use the USB ports to charge your smart devices. The power output from each USB version varies. Below is a table on the USB Charging Standards.

USB VersionVoltageCurrentMax. Power
USB 1.05V0.5A2.5V
USB 2.05V0.5A2.5V
USB 3.05V0.5A/0.9A4.5V
USB 3.1

(USB-C + USB-PD)

5V-20V0.5A/0.9A/1.5A/3A/5A100V

Source: Digital Trends

Build Quality

The build quality determines the durability of your docking station. Always go for a dock built out of sturdy material. However, docking stations with quality build and premium finishing will certainly cost you extra bucks.

USB Types and Speed Standards

USB Types

USB technology is developing at a fast rate, which can leave you a little bit confused. You are probably wondering why some universal piece of hardware design is being released in so many versions.

We will first briefly discuss the USB cable types in the market before moving on to the USB standards present that separate each.

Type A

A USB type A plug
Image by Inductiveload

It is the most used type of USB connector; a good example is the flash drive. They have a flat and rectangular-shaped interface. Most people refer to Type A as the original USB. Are commonly found on gamepads, keyboards, and mice.

Type B

A UDB type B plug
Image by Inductiveload

Its connector is somehow square-shaped. They are mostly used for connecting printers to a computer. However, they are slowly disappearing from the marketing.

Type C

A USB-C plug
Image by Xxmarijnw

These are the latest version of USB cables that come packed with excellent features. Type C cables are reversible, meaning you won’t fiddle a lot with them when hooking them to your laptop. Aside from data transfer rates, they can also be used for charging mobile devices and laptops. They are now a standard feature for newer smartphones, laptops, and gaming consoles.

USB Speeds

USB 2.0

It is the slowest USB standard available in the market. It is still used by devices such as keyboards, mice, and some flash drive brands.

USB 3.0 and USB 3.x

This is the latest technology offering faster speeds than the USB 2.0. USB 3.0 and 3.1 ports are denoted by the SS acronym which stands for super-speed. On the other hand, USB 3.x ports and connectors parts are colored blue. Most modern PCs come fitted with at least one USB 3.0 port.

Thunderbolt 3

The Thunderbolt 3 is the latest tech built upon USB Type C technology; however, it is only available for devices that use the Intel processor.

With just a single cable you can connect your Thunderbolt 3 dock and drive one 5K monitor or dual 60Hz 4K displays delivering both audio and video simultaneously. Besides that, it offers USB, FireWire, and Gigabit Ethernet connectivity. You also get up to 60W power supply which you can use to charge other devices.

One thing though is that not all USB Type C ports support Thunderbolt 3.

USB4

Set to be launched later in 2019, the USB4 will be the latest USB standard. The USB4 will work over the Type C connector and is set to come with some excellent features. Some of the features include improved resource allocation for video and top data transfer rates of up to 40GBps. What is even more impressive is it will be compatible with Thunderbolt 3 gadgets. Think of it as the open source Thunderbolt 3.

USB Technologies Data Transfer Speed Comparison Table

ConnectorsUSB 1.0

1996

USB 2.0

2001

USB 3.0

2011

USB 3.1

2014

USB 3.2

2017

USB 4.0

2019

Data Transfer Speeds12 Mbit/s

(Full-Speed)

480 Mbit/s

(High Speed)

5 Gbit/s

(SuperSpeed)

10 Gbit/s

(SuperSpeed+)

20 Gbit/s

(SuperSpeed+)

40 Gbit/s

(SuperSpeed+ and Thunderbolt 3)

Conclusion

Buying a laptop docking station can be quite challenging more so for non-techies. When shopping for a docking station, compatibility and connectivity options available should top your priority list.

In a nutshell, an average docking station should support the following:

  • USB 3.1 and USB Type-C.
  • At least one 4K display.
  • Have excellent cable management features.

However, this will largely depend on how much you are willing to spend. Besides, if given a chance always go for a universal docking station over the proprietary type.

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