If you have found yourself on this page and you are obviously reading this, then you must be thinking of ways to make your digital life more efficient. And the universal laptop USB docking station could be just the thing. In today’s digital lifestyle, almost everything and everyone has gone mobile crazy with most of us working and playing on laptops and other mobile devices. However, there are often times in one’s digital day when the small screens and limited connectivity of those mobile devices are just not adequate or efficient for the task at hand. Enter the universal laptop docking station. This relatively small device can convert just about any small-screened laptop into a powerhouse of a computer, running multiple displays and connecting to multiple devices. It allows us to move our digital workspace on to a far larger setup without having to do any sort of transferring of files or computer synchronisation.
So how does one go about choosing a laptop docking station? And what's the best docking station on the market? Unsurprisingly, in this new digital-everything age, the variety of laptop docking stations on offer is quite broad and deciding on the best one for you can be a bit of a daunting task. This is especially true given the diversity of technologies the docking station employs, each of which can be considered a study in its own right. In this review of laptop docking stations, we first look at the features and technologies that make up today’s machines and try to make clear what to look for when purchasing one. Following that, we then examine what is actually on offer to the UK consumer by taking a look at some of the actual laptop docking stations that are currently available.
What to Look For in a Universal Laptop Docking Station
Connection to the Computer
The first aspect to consider when buying a universal laptop docking station is the mechanism through which it connects to the laptop computer itself. Fortunately, this happens to be a relatively easy decision since the vast majority of laptop docking stations today make use of the USB 3.0 standard (officially designated now as USB 3.1 Gen 1) for the data connection. One stand-out exception to this are the docking stations from Microsoft which have been designed to connect specifically to the company's product line of Microsoft Surface computers via their own 40-pin proprietary connection called Surface Connect.
The USB 3.0 standard is also backwards compatible with older USB specifications, so older computing hardware with only USB 2.0 ports available can also make use of the laptop docking hub if need be, albeit at the slower maximum data transfer speeds of the older standard rather than the lightning fast USB 3.0 ones.
One question that often arises with this single USB connection is how does video get transferred from the laptop to the external screens if there is only a single USB link between the computer and the docking station? The answer to that comes in the form of a recent development known as DisplayLink, which allows not only transfer of the usual USB signals, but also mediates the transfer of video as well as internet data simultaneously over the single USB 3.0 connection.
However, one thing to keep an eye out for when purchasing a laptop docking station is to make sure that the device is compatible with the operating system that you are employing. Almost all (if not all!) laptop docking hardware will work flawlessly with Microsoft’s Windows operating system, although making sure that you have upgraded to a post-Windows XP version is usually a necessity. In addition, many laptop docking stations have been designed to function with the more recent versions of Apple’s operating system for Macintosh computers. Unfortunately for some however, the third major operating system in today’s digital world, Linux, is rarely, if ever, supported by any of the docking devices, so if you are primarily the open-source type, a laptop docking station may not be for you.
One final aspect to note regarding the computer connection to the laptop docking station is that currently, laptops cannot be charged via the docking station’s USB 3.0 connection, so you will still often need to provide a separate power line to the computer. However, a few laptop docking stations have incorporated specific hardware into their designs so that computers can be plugged into the docking station via a separate power connection, although due to the plethora of different power jacks on different brands and models of computer, the implementation of this can be a little messy.
Connection to External Monitors
Probably the single most common reason for wanting to buy a laptop docking station is to be able to connect to multiple desktop screens. This is usually to make use of the increased screen real estate that larger and more numerous screens provide, so that one is not limited to the small display of the laptop. Additional screens are used in either mirror mode, where the laptop display is mirrored onto the external screens, or in extended mode, where the external displays act as additional desktop space adjacent to that of the laptop. Fortunately, most laptop docking stations today can function in either mirror or extended mode which is controlled by display software installed on the computer.
To facilitate the actual physical connections to the external screens, laptop docking stations usually carry a number of different monitor ports. In today’s display hardware, four types of monitor ports are most commonly encountered:
VGA is the oldest of the four and is now only seen on older screen hardware. DVI was developed after VGA and although still found on new hardware, is nowadays slowly becoming more of a legacy technology. DVI tends to be found primarily on computing hardware, while the next type of connection technology, HDMI, which was developed a couple of years after DVI, tends to be found primarily on TVs and other living room entertainment hardware. The latest mainstream monitor port technology today is DisplayPort and of course it incorporates the latest developments in screen connection technologies.
The type of display port technology implemented on the laptop docking station will determine how many monitors can be connected at any one time as well as the maximum resolution each of those monitors can display, with more recent port connection technologies able to handle more screens at higher resolutions.
So in general, one wants to go for the latest technologies when choosing a laptop docking station, but one also has to take in to account the types of screens that the dock will be connecting too. For instance, if much older screen hardware is at hand, getting a laptop docking station capable of connecting via VGA might make more sense (and is usually cheaper too!). Fortunately, practically all of the monitor connection technologies are, in a sense, ‘backwards-compatible’ through the use of both passive and active adaptors. Therefore, connecting to VGA using a DVI-to-VGA adapter is a common occurrence. Also common are the HDMI-to-DVI and HDMI-to-VGA adapters, and now even DisplayPort-to-VGA, -to-DVI, and -to-HDMI are not unusual, once again allowing screens with ports different to those on computing hardware to connect without a problem.
Connection to the Internet
Another common port seen on laptop docking stations is the ethernet port which connects the docking station to the internet via a hard-wired ethernet cable. This can provide the laptop with hard-wired access to the internet which is once again mediated through the single USB 3.0 connection to the docking station, again via DisplayLink technology. Today’s standard of ethernet connection on laptop docking hardware is the Gigabit connection (also commonly represented as ’10/100/1000 Mbps’) which is more than enough bandwidth to handle the data flowing over any of today’s domestic internet service provider connections in the UK, the highest speed of which is currently still only in the hundreds of Megabits.
Now why would you want an wired connection to the internet when WiFi is almost always readily available? In most situations, one actually doesn’t need it but sometimes it can provide a more stable and reliable connection to the internet particularly in cases where electromagnetic interference or distance from the router is an issue. Other reasons include speed - ethernet is currently still faster than WiFi - and security, where the extra cautious (paranoid?) few among us will take comfort in the knowledge that their wireless connection to their router cannot be intercepted by neighbourly good-for-nothings! - something that is particularly important when using ‘http://...’ prefixed websites that are not running cryptographic protocols as opposed to the more secure ‘https://…' ones.
Ultimately, it is usually enough just to verify that the laptop docking station under consideration has a Gigabit ethernet port as part of its specification before moving onto investigating the next feature. This is because the most difficult issue regarding internet access is usually how to get the wired connection to the laptop docking station in the first place!
Connection to Other Computing Peripherals
In addition to the display and internet ports, laptop docking stations also invariably include multiple USB ports to allow the connection of computing peripherals such as keyboards and mice, as well as scanners and printers, USB memory sticks, and so on. Since the range of computing peripherals is wide, one can almost never have enough USB ports, so the key here, when looking to purchase a universal laptop docking station, is that the more USB ports on the device, the merrier!
However, it is not just the number of USB ports included on the docking station that is relevant, it is also important to consider the USB version to which they conform. In today’s laptop docking stations one finds USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports in different quantities. USB peripherals can be plugged into either type and they should have no problem working normally since the more modern USB 3.0 specification is designed to be backwards compatible with older USB 2.0 one. However, for certain peripherals where data transfer speeds are more important, such as transferring data between hard drives, for instance, using the much faster USB 3.0 port will make a world of difference to the user. As a consequence, choosing a laptop docking station with the highest number of USB 3.0 ports available should always be aimed for.
The final category of connection ports one typically finds on today’s crop of laptop docking stations are the audio ports. Once again these are not strictly essential to the function of the computing hardware hub, but they can make the process of outputting sound from your laptop’s limited audio production capabilities on to larger and more capable sound systems a fair bit simpler. In this regard, a laptop docking station should have both a microphone jack and a headphone jack for full audio functionality.