I recently upgraded my office computer to a newer, shinier system, as is necessary from time to time. Actually, this was somewhat beyond necessary, as the desktop system I’d been using as my primary workhorse dated back to 2009, and it was seriously starting to show its age.
Back in 2009, it had made the most sense for me to buy a straight desktop machine, but this time around I switched back to making a laptop my primary work system. I’ve used laptops in an ad-hoc way in the meantime, and prior to the desktop I’d been using a laptop, so it wasn’t some huge step to undertake. At the same time, however, it did mean a few compromises when it came to flexibility of connections, screen display and available ports — right up until I plugged it in to a handy desktop dock, at which point I could work with exactly the same number and type of ports I’d had on my desktop machine.
A good dock can really change how you work with a laptop, because you remove the limitations of a single keyboard choice, touchpad or even screen resolution, which is great if you’re somebody who primarily works at a desk but needs the flexibility of mobile working from time to time. Not that you can’t do quite well from a straight laptop, but with the current focus on thin and light systems, there’s always a few compromises to be wary of. It’s also worth knowing what kind of dock is going to best suit your needs. In some ways it can just be a question of matching the kinds of ports you’re going to want to the dock in question, but there’s a few key areas you should look out for no matter what kind of dock you choose to buy.
Most of the more business-centric laptop vendors will offer a dock that’s specifically shaped and purposed for a specific line of laptops that they produce. It’s not just limited to laptops, either; Microsoft make a range of docks for their line of Surface tablet computers as well. The advantage here is one of style and comfort; because it’s a custom built dock it’ll often match your laptop quite nicely, making for easy docking and a consistent look and feel. The downside here is that a lot of custom docks only work with a particular laptop line. Change vendors, or even find that the vendor you use has changed dock styles, and you could be left with a less-than optimal dock.
Your other option is a more generic dock, connecting generally via USB 3.0 connectivity using the DisplayPort standard, although some docks use alternate methods such as the Thunderbolt port found on many Mac computers. It’s even feasible to use older, USB 2.0 connections with this type of dock, although you may find that the overall throughput suffers a little as a result, which isn’t great if you’re doing lots of video-heavy work.
There’s an extra advantage in this method, as most docks will duplicate and/or add to the number of available USB ports, while only taking a single USB port away from your laptop. As such, it’s very easy to hook up a keyboard, mouse, ethernet connection and monitor to your dock, quickly attach your laptop when needed and get to work. At the same time, if you’ve got peripherals that travel with you, they can be easily plugged into the other USB connectors on your laptop directly. DisplayPort is a well understood standard that works across both Mac and PC platforms, so even if you do change between manufacturers or operating systems, you’re still going to be good to go.
A good dock should expand the capabilities of your laptop in a simple and effective way, but they’re not something that everyone will need. If your needs are more modest, you can cover a lot of what a good dock can do with a simple (and considerably less expensive) USB hub, of course.
So what’s next for docks? The group behind DisplayPort has already certified USB-C for DisplayPort purposes, and we’re seeing more and more devices with USB-C connectivity built in; docks will follow that make use of the single speedy connector to make things even more streamlined.