How to choose the right laptop docking station in 2021 | PCMag

2021-12-06 12:44:45 By : Mr. Alan Zheng

Connect a large number of peripherals to your laptop every day? You need a docking station for your desk or handbag. Here is how to choose the calculation method that best suits you.

At your desk or on the go, do you always unplug the device from your laptop and buy countless port adapters and dongles? The docking station can save you from these troubles, provide additional connections and act as the central hub for all devices and displays. (Also, it may allow you to carry a leaner laptop with fewer ports.)

You may only be familiar with the old-fashioned proprietary docking station, where you can click or slide into your notebook. The docking station will connect to your laptop through a vendor-specific port or slot. In contrast, today's universal USB and Thunderbolt docking stations can do everything with a single cable. Some can even power your laptop through the same wire for maximum convenience.

We have selected the best laptop docking station and the best MacBook docking station on the market. (Depending on the wider type of laptop you have, click on these links for product-level options.) This guide will provide you with more detailed and nuanced recommendations to help you gauge the laptop that best suits your specific needs.

Let's first look at the docking station from the top level. Straightforwardly, here are the four key factors you need to consider when choosing one:

Port selection. The port is mainly the focus. Needless to say, the docking station you choose should have all the ports (type and number) you need.

The connection between the docking station and the laptop. The docking station can be used for USB Type-C and Thunderbolt to connect to your computer. However, if your laptop lacks one of the newer ports, you can also find models that connect via the older USB Type-A standard.

Portable and fixed use. Fixed bases are best for home office settings, but portable bases are great for adding some extra ports on the go. You will see that there are fewer ports on portable docking stations because of the simple fact that they are smaller.

Apple compatibility. Don't worry, most universal docking stations are suitable for Mac. However, if you are connected to a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air, you still need to check.

We will now discuss each of these factors in more detail.

Port selection (number and type) is the key reason for choosing one docking station over another. You probably know which ports you use frequently, so when looking at different models, you want to make sure that you can plug everything you need into your docking station at one time and avoid excessive cable swaps.

The desktop monitor connection is the port that needs to be figured out the most. If you plan to connect multiple monitors, make sure that the video outputs on a given base not only support the maximum resolution of your monitor, but they also support the number of monitors you want to connect. Support for one monitor is common, two is less, and you will find a maximum of three. (More on the external monitor considerations below; there are some subtle differences in docked display output.)

If you plan to connect Thunderbolt peripherals to the Thunderbolt docking station, please verify that the latter has its own Thunderbolt port, which is not a given. (The connection of the computer to Thunderbolt in the Thunderbolt docking station is one thing; the ports for connecting peripherals are another.) In addition, please make sure to distinguish between USB Type-A and USB Type-C ports for peripherals; otherwise, If your cable does not match that of the docking station, you may need to use an adapter or obtain a different cable.

Before high-speed USB and Thunderbolt ports became popular, it was common practice to see laptops with proprietary docking connectors. This is because a special docking connection is required to push video and data signals through a single interface. However, today's faster ports can do this kind of thing, and docking stations that don't use USB or Thunderbolt are fuzzy enough that we won't mention them further here.

Most docking stations today use one of three ports to connect: traditional USB Type-A, newer USB Type-C, or Thunderbolt style. In the case of Thunderbolt, it could be Thunderbolt 3 or Thunderbolt 4 (both use physical USB-C connectors; see our explanation of the differences). Most universal docking stations, especially Thunderbolt-based docking stations, are compatible with Mac and PC. The description of the dock will definitely tell you.

Speaking of USB and Thunderbolt, which is more suitable for docking? Due to the licensing costs associated with Thunderbolt and its cabling, Thunderbolt docking stations often require high prices, so if your laptop does not support Thunderbolt (because AMD processor-equipped laptops do not support it because it is Intel technology), please make this Decided for you. (If you plug in a USB-C port, the Thunderbolt dock may still work, but it may limit bandwidth and may lose some functions.)

If you need a lot of bandwidth for high-speed storage drives and external displays, Thunderbolt 3 or 4 docking station (or one of the latest USB4 docking stations) will provide you with the best service. Thunderbolt 4 is the most reliable choice, although only the latest laptops will support it. USB4 is more difficult to find because it is a newer specification (and Thunderbolt 4 itself is very new). Although USB4 is backward compatible with Thunderbolt 4, it may be limited to 20Gbps instead of the 40Gbps provided by Thunderbolt 3 and 4. (If there are such ports, your laptop's user manual will indicate how much bandwidth its USB4 port provides; you will only find them in some of the latest models.)

Modern Apple laptops equipped with Thunderbolt 3 or Thunderbolt 4 are compatible with any Thunderbolt 3 or 4 docking station. They can also be powered by the docking station, provided that the laptop does not need to exceed the power that the docking station can provide. (The power transmission will be described in detail later.)

Thunderbolt 3 is the standard configuration of the new MacBook, including the first generation of M1 Mac, such as the 2020 MacBook Air. Thunderbolt 4 comes with M1 Pro and M1 Max-based 2021 MacBook, 14-inch MacBook Pro, and 16-inch MacBook Pro (2021). However, the 2021 Mac includes the new MagSafe 3 connector, which complicates things; you need to use MagSafe to power your daily laptop, but you can charge through the Thunderbolt 4 port. (Different configurations of the 2021 MacBook Pro have different power consumption and adapters.)

Many cheap USB docking stations are also suitable for Apple laptops, so if you are primarily looking for additional ports, don’t exclude them. The description of the dock will indicate Mac support.

In addition: this may be a small factor in your purchase of a docking station, but some docking stations compatible with Apple MacBook are designed to complement the beauty of the MacBook. If you find a model that works well, but it is a black box that conflicts with the Apple-led desktop environment, keep looking. At the very least, you will find many products that match the classic silver MacBook.

Traditional docking stations are fixed and designed to be used in a single location like a home office. A key difference is that this type of docking station has its own power supply. Therefore, it does not take up your laptop to power any connected peripherals. Depending on the design, this docking station can also power and/or charge your laptop.

On the other hand, portable docking stations are smaller and therefore provide fewer ports than fixed docking stations. The difference here is that they don't have their own power source, so they get power from your laptop to power external devices. Think of them more as port replicators or small hubs than as docking stations.

Depending on how you will use it, you will want to know what the specific docking station you are viewing actually is before you buy it. If the docking station will not be carried with you, the docking station with its own power supply is usually the best choice. It is mainly used to connect monitors, desktop storage drives and input devices.

Fixed USB Type-C and Thunderbolt docks have the potential to power and/or charge your laptop, although by definition, plugging into a wall power supply does not guarantee this. The three factors that determine whether it is feasible are your laptop, the docking station itself, and the cables that connect them.

Let's start with your laptop. The laptop must have a Thunderbolt 3 or 4 port (which can provide up to 100 watts of power to a PC, or 85 watts of power to a MacBook) or a USB Type-C port that explicitly supports power supply through the port you want to use ( PD) is used to connect to the docking station. 

After that, you must also know how much power your laptop needs, which you can determine by looking at the rating on its power adapter. (If the adapter does not have a wattage rating, multiply it by the amperage and volts to get the wattage.) Most everyday and ultraportable laptops consume less than 100 watts, but large desktop alternatives and gaming laptops usually need more. In this case, they cannot be fully powered by Thunderbolt or USB-C, although they can be charged by them. (Of course, you can still use the ports and other functions of the docking station, even if it cannot power your laptop.)

The dock itself is the next obstacle. It must support powering your laptop. This is usually the case with Thunderbolt 3 and 4 docking stations, but this is not always the case with USB-C docking stations. This is a feature carefully looked for in the specification sheet or feature list of the terminal. Again: look for what is clearly stated. In addition, the important thing is how much power the docking station can provide to your laptop, which will be listed in these specifications. Obviously, it must be able to provide as much power as your laptop needs. 

The cable is the last obstacle. Thunderbolt 3 and 4 cables can always provide up to 100 watts of power, but for USB-C docking stations, a special USB-C cable is required to provide more than 60 watts of power. You need to make sure that the base is bundled with such a cable. If not, you need to purchase a USB-C charging cable that can handle power, such as this Anker model. Important note: Not all third-party USB-C charging cables with a power rating of up to 100 watts support USB 3 speed! Many (and indeed many) only support USB 2.0. Shop carefully.

As with power supply, it is very important to match the video output function of the laptop with the video output function of the docking station. The first thing to consider is the monitors you own or you might plan to add. Please pay attention to the maximum resolution and refresh rate of the monitor you intend to connect. It is important to ensure that your docking station and laptop support these two specifications.

For your laptop, if it has Thunderbolt 3 and 4 ports, external display support is simple: Both Thunderbolt specifications support DisplayPort video output through these interfaces. You can connect the docking station to your laptop via a Thunderbolt cable, and then connect the docking station to one or more monitors based on the physical video output on the docking station.

USB and video output make things more complicated. USB-C supports video output only when the port on the laptop specifically supports the "DisplayPort over USB-C" specification. Your laptop’s user manual will indicate whether it’s possible; be sure to pay attention to the maximum resolution and refresh rate it supports. This also applies to the docking station. A docking station that supports a higher resolution and refresh rate than the USB-C port of a notebook computer will not magically extend these functions to a notebook computer.

This is true even if your laptop supports the new USB4 standard, which can (but is not guaranteed) to match the functionality of Thunderbolt 4. No further research is needed to think of Thunderbolt 4 as a fully functional USB4. Also note: not every USB-C port on a laptop has the same function. You will want to know which ports can provide the video output signal you will use, if the location of the laptop port and base on your desk is important to cable routing, aesthetics, or range.

What if your laptop does not have a USB-C or Thunderbolt port? You are not out of luck; some USB Type-A docks provide video output (may use special software drivers), but be aware that the laptop will be connected via USB instead of a dedicated video output like DisplayPort. In addition, the bandwidth limitations of ports and cables will limit the maximum supported resolution and refresh rate. This is not the ideal way to connect an external monitor, but it works.

When it comes to evaluating display support, the docking station's function is a close second. It’s worth repeating: it’s important to refer to the maximum resolution and refresh rate supported by the dock to make sure they match your monitor. This is especially true if you plan to connect multiple monitors. Just because the dock can run a monitor at a given resolution and refresh rate does not mean it can run two of them at the same high level, even if the dock has multiple video output connectors.

For example, take Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Dock Pro as an example. It supports up to two 4K monitors with a 60Hz refresh rate, provided that it is connected to your laptop via Thunderbolt 3 or 4. However, if it is connected via USB-C, its function will be weakened. In this case, it supports one monitor up to 4K/60Hz, but two monitors only have 4K/30Hz. Keep this in mind: avoid any situation where the display must be run at a 30Hz refresh rate, as this is a slow and eye-straining experience.

For home office settings, the ability to wake the laptop from sleep without using the power button is very convenient. Some older proprietary docking stations provide this function through the power button of the docking station itself, but modern universal docking stations lack this function.

The closest you are today is that Thunderbolt 4 supports waking from sleep via a connected keyboard or mouse. USB4 also supports this, but unlike Thunderbolt 4, the specification does not require this. Therefore, if waking up from sleep is important to you, then you will need a latest laptop equipped with Thunderbolt 4 port and a matching dock.

The other thing to consider is the length of the cable that connects the laptop to the docking station. Some docking stations have integrated cables that cannot be replaced, so make sure it is long enough for your desktop setup. The integrated cable can be used well for the mobile docking station, because if you remove it while traveling, you won't lose the cable. However, if you have a choice, for flexibility and the ability to replace the wires if they are damaged, stick to a docking station with a detachable cable.

Another warning about detachable wiring is specific to Thunderbolt 3. If you are looking at a Thunderbolt 3 connection between a laptop and a docking station, know that an active cable is required to get the full bandwidth of more than half a meter of cable length. Thunderbolt 4 eliminates this requirement and supports 40Gbps through passive cables up to 2 meters long.

Our guide to the best Windows laptop docking station and the best MacBook docking station (mentioned above) contains our favorites, including pricing and notable features. We also added some of our top picks to this story. However, as we have clearly pointed out throughout this article, docking stations vary greatly in terms of ports and functions, and the exact combination that best suits your desktop settings or travel plans means that no two users’ docking needs are Exactly the same. You can choose the right product according to your own hardware and habits.

Deciding whether you need a portable or fixed dock will greatly reduce the scope. (Bottom line: fixed is the best, unless you need additional ports on the go.) To further condense the list, consider how to connect the docking station to the laptop, whether via USB Type-A or USB Type-C. Or Thunder. The latter tends to be more costly, so unless your laptop has a Thunderbolt port, it doesn't make sense to get a Thunderbolt dock. Finally, please remember that the docking station must have the ports you need and a long enough power cord (especially if the cable is not detachable), and don’t forget convenient functions, such as the docking station that can power your laptop and It wakes up from sleep. Happy hunting!

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Charles Jefferies is a Philadelphia native and has been reviewing laptops and related hardware since 2005. He graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology and enjoys all aspects of consumer and business technology, especially personal computers, tablets, and photography. His profession is a human resources salary consultant, and he can be found outdoors, on the ski slopes or on the track when he is not working.

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