If there’s a laptop sitting on your desk rather than a desktop PC you probably chose it because you need mobility more than high performance or expansion potential. But relatively few small business people work exclusively or even predominantly on the road, so chances are your laptop spends much more time sitting on your desk than on your lap.
Thing is, a laptop’s drawbacks—namely the relatively small size of the built-in display and the paucity of external ports—become most pronounced on a desk. The trend toward thinner, lighter laptops (so-called ultrabooks) has only made the situation worse, with smaller screens and very little physical real estate for ports.
Read the full article and learn about USB docking stations. Short on time? Click on the individual links below to go directly to a specific category.
- Laptop Docking Stations Vs Universal Laptop Docking Stations
- USB Docking Station Benefits
- 6 Universal Laptop Docking Stations
The Startech Mini Docking Station
Fortunately, a laptop docking station offers an easy and relatively inexpensive way to give modern laptops a major boost in expansion and connectivity, giving them capabilities closer to that of a desktop.
Now, back in the (not-too-distant) day, laptop docking stations used to be quite expensive. They were also both manufacturer and model-specific, because they connected via proprietary ports on the underside of the laptop
While these types of laptop docks still exist, we’re not looking at them in this article. Rather, we’re focusing on universal laptop docks—so named because they use the magic of USB 3.0 to connect to a laptop (spoiler alert: not really magic—mainly high bandwidth). Unlike old-school docking stations, you can use a universal laptop dock with pretty much any laptop you own, and if you ever buy a new laptop, you won’t have to go out and buy a new docking station.
You might wonder why you need a USB docking station when you can approximate a desktop experience on a laptop by connecting an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse, or even add more USB ports by connecting a USB hub. That method partially bridges the gap, but it doesn’t entirely address all of a laptop’s weaknesses.
For starters, it still leaves you with only a single display. OK two, but only if you use an external display alongside the laptop’s built-in screen. However, that leaves you with mismatched displays in terms of size, resolution, and even elevation on your desk. In contrast, a universal laptop dock can let you use two—or in some cases three—identical external monitors with your laptop. Some docks even support 4K resolution on at least one monitor.
Another benefit of a USB dock: it can give you ports that your laptop simply doesn’t offer. For example, many thin-and-light laptops don’t include an Ethernet port, which remains preferable to Wi-Fi for performance reasons as long as you’re working in a fixed location and don’t need mobility at a given moment. Connect your laptop to a USB docking station, and you can get that missing Ethernet port back (virtually all universal laptop docks have them). The best part is that no matter what or how many things you connect to the laptop docking station—Ethernet, displays, storage devices, and so forth— you only have to disconnect (and then reconnect) one cable for those times when you need to go mobile.
You can choose from dozens of different universal laptop docks with prices ranging from about $80 to almost $200. They mainly differ in terms of capability, the number and type of ports they provide, and physical design—whether they lay flat on desk or stand vertically to save space (some can do either).
One important caveat: USB 3.0 is an absolute requirement for using a USB docking station because of the high bandwidth (5 Gbps/625 MBps) it provides. USB 2.0, which supplies only 10 percent of the bandwidth simply isn’t up to the task. If you aim to use a USB laptop dock with a laptop you’ve had for a while, know that most laptops built within the last five years or so should have at least one USB 3.0 port. You can identify it either by its blue color or the USB 3.0 “SS” logo next to the port. (It’s worth noting that Mac-compatible universal docks frequently operate via Thunderbolt rather than USB 3.0 ports, but many USB 3.0-based universal docking stations support Mac as well as Windows.)
One more thing—a small (but growing) number of universal laptop docks sport the newer USB-C connector, which improves on earlier USB connectors by being much slimmer and reversible (so there’s no such thing as trying to plug it in “upside down”). USB-C can also deliver a lot more electrical power than older USB connectors, so a USB-C-compatible dock may be able to charge your laptop for you.
The catch? USB-C is new enough that it’s still relatively uncommon in Windows laptops, although a handful of the models sold within the past year or so include one, as do the current generation of MacBooks. (As of this writing, Apple was rumored to be close to announcing a redesigned MacBook Pro with a USB-C port.)
We collected half a dozen notable universal laptop docking stations for your perusal. Be aware that each of the manufacturers listed makes many dock models in addition to the one highlighted here, and this list doesn’t represent all the companies making such docks. Most of the product images show the back of the dock so you can see the majority of the ports provided.
This inexpensive dock is available in black or white, sports HDMI, DVI, and Ethernet along with two USB 3.0 and four USB 2.0 ports, and it can stand vertically using the included base ($95; Windows only).
This dock features a slim wedge-shaped design that can support a laptop, and it comes with an adjustable stand. It locates a pair of USB 3 ports on each side, rather than the back, for easier access ($100; Windows only).
As the name indicates, this universal docking station uses a USB-C connector, and it can mount to the back of a VESA-compatible monitor (not included), as well as output 4K resolution via HDMI or DisplayPort connectors ($180; Windows/Mac/Chrome OS).
If two external displays aren’t enough for you, this USB-C docking station can support three of them via two HDMI and one DVI port ($179; Windows/Mac/Chrome OS).
Startech makes many conventionally-sized universal laptop docking stations, but this one can hit the road along with your laptop if necessary. It sports ports for USB 3.0, HDMI, VGA, and Ethernet, and it includes a fold-away connection cable ($118; Windows/Mac).
This dock provides a plethora of ports (DVI, HDMI, Ethernet, USB 3.0 and 2.0), and it includes DVI-to-VGA and HDMI-to-DVI adapters in case your monitor outputs don’t match up to what the dock provides. Best of all it includes integrated charging that’s compatible with most laptops. You’ll find a collection of manufacturer-specific power plugs stored under the flip-up lid ($180; Windows/Mac).
Joseph Moran is a technology writer and IT consultant specializing in services for consumers and small businesses. He’s written extensively for numerous print and online publications, and is the author of File Management Made Simple, Windows Edition from Apress.
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