There are two types of people in this world. The type that finds cloud computing good enough, and the kind that needs a whole lot more storage, connectivity, and power than the cloud can offer. The first type doesn’t need to bother much with docking stations. The second type rarely finds their laptop to be sufficient, and requires something extra.
Docking stations are designed to turn laptops into more viable desktop replacements – especially today’s smaller laptops that suffer from a dearth of storage space and ports. But these Ironman suits for your ultrabooks come in many varieties and styles: We’re here to help you find the best.
Dock categories: Replicators, stations, portables, and more
Docks come in several different flavors. Some are tasty, others are more like that fake banana candy you secretly fish out. Before we stretch a metaphor too far, here are the major categories you will run across:
A replicator is not an unstoppable nanobot, but rather a port expander used for ultrabooks and more limited laptops. Essentially, a replicator copies the more popular ports from a desktop and grants them to laptops, too. This lets you always have a port for your mouse, keyboard, external hard drive, etc.
However, that’s all it does. There’s no boost to specs or other features, and connectivity options are limited. You may also run into performance constraints — for example, plugging a bunch of external hard drives in at once may lower the bandwidth available to each, since they’ll likely be sharing a connection to a single port. They may be cheaper, but they don’t have much functionality, especially in the days of Bluetooth.
Desk docking station
A full docking station is more likely to include battery charging, extra storage, and more port options (particularly when it comes to video options like HDMI or Ethernet connections). They are also more likely to have a literal dock where you insert your laptop. Think of it like a replicator, but with a lot more features that you would actually use.
A portable station is a slimmed-down docking station design to be portable instead of just sitting at your desk. These are primarily designed for the more serious class of business traveler who really needs extra computing power and versatility at their destination. A portable station probably isn’t necessary unless you find yourself spending a long time working on projects away from your own desktop – but regular stations are becoming slimmer and more travel-friendly, so there’s some overlap here.
A display stand provides the same features as a replicator or a docking station, but with extra physical support features. The stand typically includes an elevated platform for your laptop and perhaps a shelf for your keyboard as well. The goal is to make your station feel like a desktop while you are working on it. Some users will find this to be more ergonomic.
Key features to watch for in a good dock
The market is filled with docking stations you can buy – some new, some old, some pricey, some discounted. What should you look for? Here are a few features that may make your search easier if you want the very support and options.
- Wired Net connections: To improve your network experience, look for stations that have Ethernet options to give you that desktop-like sense of speed.
- USB 3.0: The newer stations have the newer connections, and that means USB 3.0 ports. This is especially important if you are planning on hooking up external hard drives or similar options.
- 4K support: As the 4K standard continues to grow more common, it becomes a more important part of content work. Some docks might not support 4K, however, if they have restrictive video connection options. Double check before buying if you care about UltraHD.
- Extra external screen compatibility: Need an extra screen or two to get your job done? Watch for docks that have support for multiple monitors. This allows more flexibility when creating your own favorite set-up.
- Charging capability: Some docks, particularly those built for enterprise notebooks (like the Lenovo ThinkPad line) offer additional charging capacity through a priority connector. This saves you the hassle of constantly connecting or disconnecting your charger.
Top docks on the market
Wondering what docking stations in particular have a good set of features? We can help with that.
This Plugable model comes with support for Windows 10 and any other Windows system you may be using, a boon for professionals. It also has 6 USB connections, including both USB 2.0 and USB 3.0. An HDMI port is present with support for resolutions up to 2560 x 1440. It’s also on the small side, with a vertical design that means it cannot act as a cradle for your laptop, but it can function as a travel-sized dock if necessary. This is a good choice if you care about connectivity but don’t need a dock that acts as a stand.
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This LB1 comes with additional support for a second monitor if your work life demands it, and can charge up to 6 devices at once. There’s not as much high-resolution support as the Plugable offers, but you can still choose between HDMI and VGA. Support runs all the way through Windows 10 and includes Mac OS as well. The USB setup once against includes 6 ports with 3.0 and 2.0 standards available.
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Now all three of our docking station picks have the 6 USB ports, 3.0 options included. This Anker model follows it up with some extra compatibility, supporting all Windows OS as well as the latest software for Macs, Android and Ubuntu. You can support up to three monitors and connect both HDMI and DVI video sources. This model also provides some bandwidth prioritization to help with smoother Ethernet connections.
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Keep an eye out for proprietary docks
These recommendations are by necessity laptop-agnostic. They’ll work with almost anything. But a lot of companies offer first-party docks built for specific laptops. These often fit better with the laptop’s style and design, and offer a wider variety of extra features. On the downside, they tend to be more expensive — expect to pay between $100 and $300. Lenovo, HP, and Microsoft are well known for building docks that compliment their devices.