This is the sixth part in our series on how to choose the most suitable laptop for your needs. Please see the links at the bottom to the other parts in the series.
The chances are you’ll probably want (need) some form of docking station or port extender to conveniently connect all your different external devices to your laptop.
The more ports you have, the more convenient any computer becomes, with less need to swap connections and cables from one device to another. But choosing a good docking station/hub/port extender involves more than simply counting the number of ports it offers and assuming that more is always better than less.
In this part of our series on buying a laptop we help you to make an appropriate choice of hub.
Docking Station/Port Extender/Hub
The term “docking station” has changed from its original meaning. A docking station used to be something you physically connected your laptop to, via some sort of special multi-pin connector. This essentially extended the expansion bus of the computer into the docking station. The docking station could directly “talk” to the computer and could add extra expansion capabilities, as well as simply giving more connection ports. In years past, some docking stations even had expansion slots, the same as on the motherboard of a regular desktop computer.
When a laptop was connected to this type of docking station it would become more like a desktop computer, with no need to ever open the laptop. because you were using an external screen, keyboard, and mouse. There was even an external power button on the docking station to spare you the need to access the laptop’s power button.
This was (and still can be) an ideal approach to make your laptop dual-purpose; allowing it to act as a desktop in the office (and/or at home too) while still being fully portable when traveling.
But now a “docking station” is more likely to be just a port extender. It simply connects to the laptop via a USB or Thunderbolt cable. This is – in some aspects – a good thing, because docking stations are no longer uniquely designed for the proprietary connectors of specific laptops. If (when!) you change laptops in the future, you’ll not need to spend some hundreds of dollars on a new proprietary docking station, too.
While this is good, sadly the true docking station concept of sparing you the need to ever physically access the laptop has been lost. You still need to power the laptop on with its power button – and not only that, but also use the power button of course also to “wake” the laptop from standby mode as well. This is a pinprick of inconvenience, and to minimize it, I have adjusted my laptop’s power settings, so that if it is connected to mains power, it takes a very long time before it automatically goes to a standby mode that would require accessing the power button. I allow the screen to switch off quickly, but not the laptop itself. Of course, the power-savings modes are all left the same for when it is on battery power.
The Importance of the Docking Station’s Connection to Your computer
On the face of it, a simple USB type connection might seem inadequately slow to connect external devices with, especially compared to directly extending the computer’s internal bus, but USB connecting speeds have become much less a limiting factor. The connecting speed of a USB 4.0 or Thunderbolt 4 connection can now reach as high as (theoretically) 40 Gbps. This contrasts with earlier speeds – USB 1.1 promised 12 Mbps, USB 2.0 promised 480 Mbps, and USB 3 went ten times higher, to 4.8 Gbps. That is starting to get super-fast, although it has always been uncommon for devices to deliver anything close to these speeds in real life.
Data transfer rates of up to 40 Gbps (ie 4 – 5 GB per second) are faster than most devices connected to the connection are capable of. Even the fastest SSDs seldom reach these speeds in real life. 40 Gbps is a speed generally similar to the data transfer speeds within the computer’s internal data bus, and so using the latest USB/Thunderbolt connections have become acceptably similar to internal connections for most purposes. The very high speed of USB 4 and Thunderbolt 4 also means you can have a number of different devices all sharing the same connection without any appreciable slowdown.
Using Docking Station(s) For Best Convenience
Ideally you can use one of these external hub type devices so there is only one cable running between your laptop and everything else. This means if you need to move the laptop, there’s only one thing to connect/disconnect – it might seem like a very trivial benefit, but there is a second part to that as well.
At the risk of spending your money for you, we suggest you buy duplicates of most external devices – one for the office, perhaps another for home, and even a third for when you are traveling. Of course, some things you don’t need to have multiple copies of – you surely would be unlikely to travel with a full size scanner and printer, for example. Happily, most things that you do need to duplicate are low cost.
Our objective here is to try and avoid the frustration of having forgotten to bring something with you. Especially if you’re traveling, and inconveniently far from the forgotten object, and unable to conveniently arrange a substitute or replacement item, it is vastly preferable to avoid such oversights.
You should have your home and office environments fully optimized with all that you need in each location, as little as possible shared, and therefore not need to ever change them. Doing this also means creating a separate “go bag” with whatever you need when traveling. That way, you never need to worry about forgetting anything, or having it in the wrong place when you need it somewhere else. The freedom from worrying about forgetting things is very liberating and much more appreciated than the less important simplicity of setting up the laptop in various locations.
As part of having multiple devices at home, work, and in your road warrior kit, the docking station itself will of course need to be duplicated. You might choose to have two the same for at home and at work, and possibly a different one for traveling – one with fewer ports and smaller size, because you are unlikely to have the entire collection of accessories with you on the road. On the other hand, having them all the same makes it easier to configure and swap them over if necessary.
What to Look For in a Docking Station/Hub/Port Replicator
Things to look for in a docking station/port replicator include :
The unit’s size and weight – This is more important for a travel unit than a “stay in one place” unit, of course, and in reality, not usually important in either case. For example, my “14 in 1″ hub measures about 5.5″ x 2.2″ x 0.65” and weighs only 5 oz. This contrasts with my “4 in 1″ hub (one Ethernet and three USB ports) connector, which is 3.6″ x 0.9″ x 0.7” and 1.6 oz.
Does 3 1/2 ounces less weight and 5.5 cu ins really make a huge difference?
Type of connection between itself and your laptop – Ideally both the hub and your laptop support Thunderbolt 4 or 3, otherwise USB 4.0 or 3.2. The faster this connection, the more devices you can have sharing the hub without slowing any of them down, and without experiencing problems like devices spontaneously disconnecting then reconnecting again.
Powered or unpowered hub – Some hubs take power from the connected devices to power their own internal electronics. If you are connecting something that can’t “give” power but instead needs to take power through the USB connection, it either won’t work or might work very poorly. Examples of devices that are powered through their USB connection can be external disks and screens, and, to a greater or lesser extent, pretty much everything that doesn’t have its own battery or power connection.
Ideally, you want a hub that will not only connect things but also power them, and in addition to providing the power for simple operation, provide enough power for devices to simultaneously charge up – devices such as phones and tablets, for example.
The current “USB PD” specification anticipates up to 100W of managed power, so the best hubs will describe themselves as 100W hubs. Others may support a lesser amount of power.
This means the hub is a powered hub, which brings us to the next point.
Power supply included? – Some hubs come with a power supply included, others require you to either use your existing laptop power supply (assuming it to be a USB-C PD type power supply) or else buy one. A good power supply (ie 100W or so) will cost you over $50 and probably under $100, so if you don’t already have one, this can be a substantial point of differentiation between units.
But, talking about “good” power supplies, if the unit comes with an included power supply, make sure that it is adequate for your intended needs. That probably means the best part of 100W.
Laptop charging capacity – Most of these docking stations have an external power input, either a USB-C PD port, or a proprietary type of perhaps 12V input connector. The power that is input into the hub can be used for four things – first, to power the hub itself (probably 5 – 15W of power), and then variously to power and charge your laptop, to power other connected devices, and to charge other connected devices.
For this reason, you probably want a hub that will take in about 100W of power. After powering itself, and maybe four other devices, it might have already used 30W or so of the 100W, leaving perhaps 70W to both power your laptop and also to charge up its battery at the same time. The chances are your laptop wants to have access to at least 50W of power to simultaneously run and charge, and probably would prefer closer to 65W. Hence the recommendation to feed 100W of power into your hub.
Providing power to your laptop through your hub is a further point of simplification. You have one less connection to your laptop and one less thing to hassle over when switching your laptop between home, office, and travel modes. There’s no need to remember to unplug and take your charger with you, and with multiple generic USB-C PD chargers, you can get multiple chargers at reasonable cost (and size/weight).
Other device charging capacity – How many of the USB ports on the hub can also charge devices connected to them, and at what current (amp) rates? If you have two or three or more “powered” USB ports, you might be able to avoid the need to travel with a separate multi-port USB charger to keep your various other mobile devices charged (things such as phones, tablets, headphones and music players). Ideally, you want some ports with at least 1A charging capabilities, and one or two with 2A – 2.5A charging ability (for tablets and phones).
We’ll talk about USB PD in a separate article, for now, suffice it to say it would be really nice to have some ports that support this capability.
The quantity and types of ports – While of course, the more ports it offers, the better, you should first identify what ports you need (and however many more ports you’d like to also have) and make sure the hub gives you those ports. No-one cares if it has lots of a type of port that you don’t need, if the ports you do need are not offered. So, before you can evaluate hubs, you need to know what you need.
In my case, the most important thing to me was an ethernet connection, power for the laptop, an SD card reader, and as many USB ports as possible. The 14-in-one hub I chose (see image, above) actually ended up with only 8 ports that I needed/wanted/used, with some ports, such as the VGA port, being puzzling and useless to almost everyone (VGA has not been used as a connection type for many years).
A Good Choice of Hub?
I hesitate to currently recommend a hub, because there are so many, we all have different requirements, and our laptops have different connectivity issues. I purchased a “no-name” low-cost Chinese 14-in-one type hub after reading through the facts and features of literally a couple of hundred options on Amazon.
Alas, while the unit seemed great on paper, I’m having problems with it. It won’t allow a monitor connection at 4K 60Hz resolution as claimed, and the ethernet connection keeps briefly dropping then reconnecting again. Carefully sifting through the generally glowing but meaningless reviews of the product shows this to be a recurring problem that is often raised in the less gushingly positive reviews.
Because it seems the same unit is offered by a number of companies, I’m struggling to find something comparable in cost but which is reliable and works as promised.
So I’ll pass on recommending a unit until I’ve found one that works correctly.
Please now click on to any other parts of this series.
Connecting it All (An External Hub) – this article!
Bonus Article : Choosing a New Desktop – Beware The Huge Lurking Trap! – to be published