Humans have always been on-the-go. Before personal desktop computers were ubiquitous in the average home, people were already looking for ways to make them portable. Due to rapid advancements in processing speed and simultaneous shrinkage in integrated circuit size and price, a phenomenon referred to as Moore’s Law, manufacturers have been and are projected to continue shipping far more laptops than desktop computers. While modern laptops are quite powerful and can meet the processing demands of the average user, there will always be a tradeoff between available ports and portability. Laptop docking stations help alleviate some of the pain points of using a portable computer and recent improvements in USB-C technology make them more capable than ever.
Why Use Docking Station?
Advances in internet speed and availability, cloud computing, and cloud collaboration tools have led to an ever-increasing workforce of mobile workers. Somewhat ironically, as the necessity to work from an established office has decreased, most people’s work has become more and more demanding. To add insult to injury, laptops are even losing the traditional ports people need as they become thinner and lighter! Because laptops are so powerful, the bottleneck often isn’t the power you can take on-the-go, it’s what external devices you need to be connected to in order to take full advantage of it. Long gone are the days of a dual monitor setup being reserved for the most intensive users, your engineers and data scientists. Now just about anybody can benefit from and may even require dual monitors (among other things) to be fully productive. What are docking stations used for? Everything; not many would argue against the benefits of typing on a full-sized keyboard, using a mouse rather than a trackpad, and looking at an eye-level full-sized monitor rather than down to a laptop screen.
So why use a docking station? Because we want our laptops thinner, lighter, and more portable but we don’t want to sacrifice productivity. Docking stations help give the modern worker the best of both worlds. A common scenario these days is for an employee to be given a laptop and a desk with a docking station connected to all of the necessities. At least one (often two) external monitors, Ethernet for a quicker and more reliable connection, multiple USB ports for connecting external storage devices and a full-sized keyboard and mouse, among other things. For workers who are seldom traveling or working from home, this may suffice. Others may have a similar setup in their home office, or even use a portable dock/hub for connectivity on the go.
In fact, entire industries have cropped up to facilitate the mobile worker. Shared/ flexible workspaces are rented out by companies like WeWork. Traveling workers are able to drop in and utilize external monitors and other connections that are facilitated by docking stations. Many offices are adopting the “hot desk” format where employees can work from their pick of a desk location- many of these utilizing docking stations. This industry movement is due in large part to the introduction of USB-C and Thunderbolt 3, but let’s take a quick look at where docking stations started.
The Evolution of Docking Stations: How do Docking Stations Work?
How do docking stations work? The first generation of docking stations was typically referred to as “port replicators” and did just that. Until the rise of USB-C, laptops were thicker and thus could accommodate multiple traditional ports such as VGA or HDMI for an external monitor, USB ports, an Ethernet jack, and audio jacks. Port replicators acted basically as an extension cable for those existing ports and made them more convenient to access and helped eliminate desktop clutter. The next generation of docks did this and added a few extra of the same ports, USB for connecting more peripherals, for example. Typically, these docking stations utilized a proprietary connector and could only be used with specific laptops.
In 2008 the USB 3.0 protocol was released, increasing a USB port’s bandwidth from 480 Mbps to 5Gbps- about 10 times faster. This brought with it a generation of docks that no longer required proprietary ports but rather utilized the USB 3.0 port found on most laptops. At that time many laptops had one video port (VGA or HDMI), but this allowed a second monitor to be easily added. The downside was that USB didn’t naturally support video signals so USB 3.0 docks required internal conversion chipsets along with software and drivers, such as DisplayLink, to support this. This, unfortunately, can slow down your computer because it draws significant CPU power.
Docking stations were truly revolutionized in 2014 and 2015 when USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 were introduced. For the first time, video signals, along with data and charging, were natively supported on a single port - no software necessary, and no extra system resource used. It is also important to note that before USB-C, most of docking stations were self-powered, meaning they required a power adapter. USB-C allows some smaller, travel-friendly docking stations to be bus-powered, or powered by the USB-C port. Another advantage of USB-C docking stations is that they have far more widespread compatibility than their predecessors. Aside from a few caveats, which will be outlined below, most USB-C computers can work with most USB-C docks.
USB-C vs. Thunderbolt 3 Docking Stations
While the answer to how docking stations work has changed over the years, the answer is definitely much simpler with USB-C. USB-C’s 10Gbps and Thunderbolt 3’s 40Gbps bandwidth makes everything much easier. When selecting a USB-C docking station for your laptop, it is crucial to understand the difference between USB-C and Thunderbolt 3. USB-C is the thin, reversible connector found on most modern slim laptops. Thunderbolt 3 uses the same USB-C form factor to transmit the Thunderbolt protocol. It may or may not be supported by a USB-C port since it requires extra electronic components for a USB-C port to support the protocol. A computer containing a Thunderbolt 3 port will work with both USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 docking stations, but a Thunderbolt 3 dock will only work with a Thunderbolt 3 computer. You can easily distinguish the ports by consulting your computer’s tech specs or looking for the lightning bolt logo next to the Thunderbolt 3 port. You will also want to consult your USB-C computer’s specs to make sure it supports “DisplayPort alternate mode” which allows video over USB-C; though most do these days.
Thunderbolt 3 ports can be found on both Windows and Apple computers, though MacBook Pro or Air (or any Thunderbolt 3 Apple product, for that matter) users looking for dual monitors should seek out a Thunderbolt 3 dock. This is because while the newer MacBook models have Thunderbolt 3 ports, they do not support the MST protocol that allows dual monitors over a single USB-C connection. A Thunderbolt 3 connection is necessary for dual monitors via one port on a MacBook with Thunderbolt 3 ports. Some USB-C docking stations work around this limitation by utilizing two USB-C input ports. A dual-input USB-C docking station may be a good choice for a user not looking to shell out the extra bucks for a Thunderbolt 3 dock, or for a user that wants to set up dual monitors with better compatibility since not all computers are equipped with Thunderbolt 3.
What is a Docking Station Used For?
Once you decide whether you need a Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C docking station, the fun part is deciding exactly what ports you need out of it. Luckily there are a large number of combinations available so you’re sure to find one that works for you. What is a docking station used for? Just about everything! Most docking stations include some combination of extra USB ports, audio jacks, an Ethernet jack, perhaps SD card slots, and one or more display ports (HDMI, DisplayPort, VGA, DVI, etc.). Note that your capabilities will be greatly expanded if you decide to go with a Thunderbolt 3 docking station. Because of the increased bandwidth, a Thunderbolt 3 docking station can support dual 4K 60Hz displays, while a USB-C docking station can only support dual 4K 30Hz displays. Additionally, USB-C docking station users will have to prioritize between using their bandwidth on external display quality, or for transfer speeds. While Thunderbolt 3 docks can support dual 4K 60Hz displays along with full USB 3.1 Gen 1 transfer rate USB ports and Gigabit Ethernet, USB-C can’t handle all of that at once.
Some manufacturers like Cable Matters make this decision a little easier by integrating a dynamic bandwidth switch on their USB-C docks. This switch allows the user to prioritize between faster transfer rates and higher resolution/refresh rate. Transferring or downloading your latest 4K drone movie from an SD card? Done. Need to edit that same movie in 4K detail? Just flip the switch. With the dynamic bandwidth switch, you aren’t locked into a docking station built either for high functioning monitors or high transfer rates - you can switch as-needed. Just decide whether you need to connect to DisplayPort or HDMI displays. Many docking stations, but not all, only have one dedicated video port (usually HDMI or DisplayPort). The second display can be connected via a USB-C to display adapter of your choice, which are widely available.
If you’re wondering if external monitors and USB ports are what a docking station is used for, you’re forgetting one last piece - power delivery! USB-C’s (and Thunderbolt 3’s) ability to deliver up to 100W of power makes modern docking stations all the more convenient. You can get all of the additional ports you need as well as power and charge your laptop through a single connection - be gone the days of desktop clutter! Traditional docking stations require the use of an AC power adapter but can pass anywhere from 45W to 100W of power through to your laptop- just check the charging requirements of your laptop to decide what you need.
Portable Docking Stations / Multiport Adapters
Earlier it was mentioned that some portable docks can be bus-powered without requiring a separate AC power adapter. Often much more affordable and way more portable than a traditional docking station, multiport adapters are a great choice for users looking to stay connected on-the-go. Available in the both USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 flavors, and subject to the rules outlined above, you can accomplish most of what you can accomplish with a regular docking station, though there are typically no more than 2 extra USB ports. It is important to remember that while many of them can pass power through to your laptop, you’ll want to use the computer’s original power adapter. If you were wondering how much is a docking station going to cost, then a portable multiport adapter may be a good choice for you. There are both single display and dual display options available.
For today’s workforce who is largely trading in the desktop for the laptop, the question isn’t so much “Why use a docking station?” but more like “What kind of docking station should I use?” They are indispensable in today’s fast-paced environment and help blur the lines between a powerful desktop setup and a travel-friendly laptop.
What Docking Station to Buy?
Whether you’re looking for a USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 docking station, Cable Matters has a large selection of portable and full-size docking stations. Choose between various display configurations, peripheral connectivity options, and advanced features like pass-through Power Delivery. Check out some of Cable Matters’ docking stations below.
USB-C Docking Station with Dual 4K HDMI (also available as a USB-C Docking Station with Dual 4K DisplayPort)
Aluminum Thunderbolt 3 Dock with Dual 4K 60Hz Video
USB-C Multiport Adapter with 4K HDMI, 2x USB 3.0, Gigabit Ethernet, and Power Delivery