Many places of work nowadays provide you a company laptop to use and a docking station to connect to a bunch of peripherals so you can use your laptop more like a desktop. The advantage is you can remove the laptop from the dock at the end of the day and take it home to maybe do some more work.
Nowadays, with a lot more people working from home, many want their dual monitor office setups at home. Some might just want to have the benefits of both a desktop and a laptop and can only afford one of the two. A laptop dock is the way to solve both of these problems.
If you’re purchasing a dock you may wonder if docking stations are compatible with all laptops? Yes, there exist some universal docking stations that are compatible with many different laptops including both Windows and Mac laptops. Universal docking stations either support USB 3.0 or USB C (Thunderbolt) connections to your laptop. If your laptop has one of these ports available, you can probably find a docking station that will work.
Of course, there are many additional things to consider. This article should be a comprehensive guide to laptop docking stations for beginners. I’ll cover the benefits of using a docking station, help you decide between a dedicated docking station or a universal one, and teach you how to use one. I’ve also added my top and budget picks for universal docking stations at the end.
Why Should You Use A Docking Station With A Laptop?
There are quite a few reasons for using a docking station so I created this table below to map the capability of the docking station to the specific advantages it provides. You may want to purchase a docking station for one of these things, or a bunch of them.
|Connect a bunch of peripherals to your laptop with one cable||Easy to connect and disconnect laptop from your network of cables connecting to all your devices|
|Connect to external displays||Ability to use multiple additional monitors while working (check if graphics card supports the number of displays you plan on using)|
|Wired Ethernet connection||Connect to a wired internet providing a faster and more reliable internet connection|
|Power over cable||Charge your laptop through the dock connection (only works with docks made specifically for your laptop and only if this is a feature)|
|Audio input/output||Ability to use external speakers/headphones and mic|
|Extra ports (USB 2.0, USB 3.0, USB C, etc.)||Extend the capability of your laptop, charge your smart devices while working|
|Connection type (USB 3.0 vs. USB C vs. Wireless)||Improved capability and data transfer rate depending on the connection type. Yes there are some completely wireless docks!|
|External hard drive||Increase the data storage capability of your laptop|
By far the most common use of a docking station is to extend the video output capability of your laptop. Depending on your laptops graphic card, you may be able to connect two additional monitor to the laptop with the built in display. A dock can help you achieve this if your laptop does not have the right type or amount of ports. This is the main reason I have been using a dock for the past few years.
The next most common reason is to be able treat your laptop like a desktop. You may use a lot of additional equipment for work or gaming, like external monitors, keyboard, mouse, wired internet connection, headphones and mic, etc. The beauty of a dock is it allows all of these things to connect to your laptop with only one cable. So at the end of the day when you want to relax on the bed and watch a movie on the laptop, you can unplug one cable to cleanly and effortlessly leave your desk setup behind.
Another reason a dock is used is to extend the capability of the laptop in terms of number or types of peripherals that can be connected to the laptop. Some laptops forego a bunch of ports for sleek and slim designs and only provide a USB C port for a dock. A dock allows you to connect these kinds of laptops to the typical peripherals.
What To Consider When Buying A Dock
When purchasing a dock, you need to make sure the features that you want will be supported by that specific dock as there can be a wide range of differences in docks on the market.
You also want to consider the connection types available on your laptop to connect to the dock with. If you have a USB C or Thunderbolt port (they look the same) you definitely want a dock that is compatible with this port and not a USB 3.0 dock. USB C and Thunderbolt support significantly larger data bandwidth through the single connection and you can connect all kinds of peripherals including two 4K monitors if you wanted. It is definitely the future proof way to go.
Of course your laptop may not have a USB C or Thunderbolt port, and may only have USB 3.0. In this case you need a USB 3.0 dock, but don’t worry you should be able to achieve most of what you want to do. You may be limited on connected multiple displays with super high resolutions.
The other thing to consider, especially for connecting additional displays to your laptop, is the capability of your graphics card. The number of additional displays you can connect to from your laptop is dependent on the graphic card’s capability. Laptops without dedicated graphics cards may only support one basic additional display, if that. And if you want to connect two additional 4K displays, you probably need an appropriately qualified graphics card. Definitely check your graphic card’s specs before buying a dock.
Which Laptops Have Docking Stations?
While universal docking stations can connect to most compatible laptops, there are some laptops that have dedicated docking stations. Dell has a lineup of laptops that they have customized docking stations for and this is true for other laptop brands as well.
The advantage of a dedicated docking station is that you may be able power your laptop through the dock itself. This further removes the need for a separate power adapter for your setup, making your workspace just a little bit cleaner. Even though your laptop may have a dedicated dock, power over cable may not be supported. You need to check for this feature specifically before you purchase the dock.
Another difference that dedicated docking stations have from universal is they may connect to your laptop differently. Instead of connecting a cable to your laptop, some dedicated docks require you to place your laptop on top of them and snap it in place.
Lastly, dedicated docks may have additional features specific to the laptop and may work better and smoother with their companion laptop.
Are There Docking Stations For Dual Monitors?
Many docking stations on the market will support dual monitors. If your laptop has a USB C or Thunderbolt port, I highly recommend getting a USB C dock instead of USB 3.0. You’ll definitely be able to support your dual monitor setup without running into bandwidth problems. Furthermore, if you upgrade your monitors in the future to higher resolutions, you may be restricted if you have a USB 3.0 dock.
If you are further interested in dual monitor setups, I have articles on about them here, here, and here.
Do Dell Docking Stations Work With Other Laptops?
Dell has a slew of different docking stations. Their universal docking stations work with other laptop brands using USB 3.0. They also have USB-C docks that can work only with Dell laptops or sometimes with other brands if compatible. Dell has a list of their docks and compatibility information available on their website.
You should definitely do a little bit of research regarding your laptop and compatible docks for your use case before buying random dock.
How Do I Connect My Laptop To My Universal Docking Station?
While this is fairly straightforward it can be a little tricky for one specific reason which I wanted to bring to your attention. I know a few people (including myself) who have had issues getting a compatible dock to work because of this exact issue.
While connecting a dock to the laptop is as simple as connecting the cable from the laptop’s port to the docks port, you need to be careful to connect to the correct port on the dock. Both USB 3.0 and USB C docks have additional ports of the same type for other devices and only one of them is meant to be connected to the laptop port. If you connect the wrong one, the dock does not work.
If it’s not clear for you which port on the dock to connect to, please refer to your dock’s manual. Usually the port that connects to the laptop is on the side of the dock while the ones meant for peripherals are on the front and back.
What Is The Best Laptop Docking Station?
Hamid Tahir is a Mechatronics Engineer and founder of WFH Overload. He is currently working from home and is dedicated to the continuous improvement of his home office setup. Hamid has extensive experience setting up workspaces and dealing with the related tech. He hopes to share his knowledge to help you create the most productive and comfortable work from home setup. Read More