by Michael Crider on
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There’s nothing quite like plugging in a single cable to turn your portable laptop into a full blown workstation. Here are the docking stations to do just that.
Having a powerful laptop is great, but if you ever think “Man, I wish I could enjoy a desktop experience with a more spacious keyboard and a bigger monitor” without, you know, buying a whole new desktop PC, then a docking station is definitely the solution for you. A good docking station allows you to seamlessly expand the capabilities of your laptop by offering additional ports for everything from extra monitors to Ethernet connectivity and, of course, USB ports for your favorite peripherals.
So what should you be aware of when shopping for a docking station? Most of the options below rely on the new USB-C standard, thanks to its built-in video delivery capability, massive data bandwidth, and ability to deliver power on a single cable. That’s great if you have a newer laptop with a USB-C port, but it complicates things a bit for older laptops. There are USB 3.0 options (and you can use an adapter), but they’re generally far less capable.
In addition to focusing on USB-C docks, we’ve also focused on universal, multi-platform docks from third party suppliers here. Your laptop manufacturer may have made a custom purpose-built docking station, like the Surface Dock or various ThinkPad docks, that works better for your specific model—but remember, if you switch manufacturers or even models you’ll likely need to buy another dock.
Pluggable features heavily on this list, and with good reason: they’ve dominated this particular accessory niche with rock-solid hardware, drivers, and support. Their top-of-the-line model supports three massive 4K-resolution monitors, if your laptop can even handle pushing so many pixels—but don’t worry, it’ll work with lower-resolution displays too.
The external displays are connected via a single HDMI and two DisplayPort connections, with extra functionality offered by four USB 3.0 ports, a single Type-C input port, gigabit Ethernet, and headphone and microphone jacks. All of that runs to your laptop with a single Type-C cable outputting up to 60 watts for power. If you want to save a little dough, or your monitor needs legacy DVI support, a slightly cheaper model offers both.
These external PCI-Express-based graphics card docks have become popular as of late for gamers and media producers, allowing them to keep a svelte ultraportable laptop on the go while beefing up the graphical power at home. Curious about the ins and outs of GPU docks? Here’s a How-To Geek article that covers the basics.
GPU docks are great but most are still designed for specific manufacturers with limited hardware options, and are quite expensive. The Akitio Node beats them on both counts, offering a Thunderbolt-based graphics connection that should work with any laptop with a USB-C port, and it comes in at under $300.
Do note that you’ll still have to provide your own graphics card for a simple installation, and unfortunately, that low-ball price means that there’s no built-in extras like a USB hub or external hard drive bay. Mac users should be able to use this external GPU tool, too, so long as they update to High Sierra and use AMD cards. For those who don’t have a card and want a similar all-in-one solution, the Gigabyte AORUS Gaming Box comes with an NVIDIA GTX 1070 card in the box for about $400 more—a fairly competitive deal at today’s GPU prices.
Most of the docks in this market segment are well over $100, thanks to some complex tech inside. If you’re looking to expand capability without breaking the bank, this less complex model from Pluggable comes in at just $89 at the time of writing.
For that you’ll have to go without USB Type-C input or output, which unfortunately means no single plug for power and data, either. But USB 3.0 is still more than enough to support dual monitors on DVI or HDMI (up to 1900×1200 resolution, or 2560×1440 on one), four USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports, gigabit Ethernet, and audio input and output. For an all-in-one fixed solution, you’d be hard pressed to find anything better at this price. Note that for full monitor support over the older standard, your laptop will need to run its processor and integrated graphics pretty hot, and you may need to unplug and re-connect after your laptop comes back from sleep mode.
MacOS used to support the DisplayLink technology that powers most of these external docking stations, but that changed with a recent update: now it wants a direct connection to the GPU for all monitors. That means most of these big combination docks won’t work on the latest versions of High Sierra.
Pluggable’s dedicated Mac dock is an exception, thanks to explicit support for Thunderbolt 3’s display profiles powered by a MacBook or MacBook Pro’s onboard graphics. The dock supports two Thunderbolt displays with a third DisplayPort option for kicks, and up to five compatible monitors can be daisy-chained from the dock. You also get five USB 3.0 ports (one with enough power output to quickly charge an iPhone or iPad), a combination headphone/microphone jack, and 60 watts of power for charging up your laptop. And, if you’re a stickler for details, the “Space Grey” aluminum case will match your spiffy Apple laptop’s finish. The dock is technically compatible with Windows machines, too, but there are better, less-expensive options on this list unless you want to use Thunderbolt-capable monitors.
There are a ton of gadgets that can give you extra ports with a little plastic brick that fits in your bag, but this Targus model gets extra points for supporting both external monitors and power delivery over a single USB Type-C cable. It’s an excellent solution for both quick expansion and a dedicated work session. Video-out options include HDMI, mini-DisplayPort, and VGA for those dusty projectors in the conference room.
In addition to gigabit Ethernet, two USB 3.0 and one Type-C port, it has mobile-focused comforts like a Kensington lock port and a USB cable that folds right into the plastic housing. The only bummer is that it lacks dedicated audio jacks, and at less than $100 retail it’s a little pricey for a travel accessory. For those without a USB Type-C port, an older model offers similar features without power pass-through.
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