How to Choose a USB-C Dock
Docking stations used to be proprietary accessories that locked onto a laptop, not only expanding its ports but also providing additional heft to smaller computers. Some docks added CD-ROMs and other mechanical features. While some more traditional docks persist, most laptops neither need them nor are they designed to use them. Modern docks tend to be USB-C devices that add ports for laptops and desktop computers. This post will focus on how to choose a modern USB-C dock.
The post assumes a modern laptop likely powered by USB-C (or optionally by USB-C). If you have an older computer without USB-C, you will likely be buying a USB A 3.X hub with a number of USB-A ports coming out of it, some capable of charging. USB-A docks do exist, with additional ports, but USB-C has revolutionized docking so much that even a brand-new USB-A dock looks like an antique. As a note, USB-A ports may require drivers for features like video that won’t be needed for most USB-C configurations.
A Simple USB-C Dock Decision Tree
- Identify the ports required by your workflow
- Identify the most capable port on your target computer
- Select a dock that:
- Leverages the maximum features of your computer and provides the ports you need to work.
- Matches your travel profile. If you travel a lot, but also work from a stationary location, you may want to consider a portable dock and a stationary desktop dock.
- Includes a cable long enough to connect to your devices port (some USB-C dock cables are too short, for instance, to reach an iPad port when in standing position, leaving the dock dangling off the desktop).
USB-C Docks: It’s All About the Ports
It used to be that docks offered a wide variety of ports, including parallel ports for printers, DisplayPorts of various types from full-sized to mini, VGA ports for older monitors, audio ports in and out, Firewire, a serial port, Ethernet for hardwired connectivity, and of course, a few USB ports for connecting peripherals—perhaps even PS/2 ports for keyboards and mice. Docks usually include a power interface as well. More recently HDMI joined the roster—and as computers slimmed down, so too did card slots, making SD card adapters a popular feature on modern docks.
Start with a list of the ports you need to support the kind of work you do—then perhaps imagine the kind of work you might do or would like to do.
Here is a convenient list to cut and paste into your favorite checklist app for your USB-C dock evaluation.
- USB-C Power Delivery
- USB-A (single or in multiples)
- Thunderbolt 4
- SD Card
- MicroSD Card
- Audio Out
- Audio In
- Audio Out/In
- HDMI (Single)
- HDMI (Dual)
Now make sure you know what ports your device includes. If it has one USB-C port, is it a Thunderbolt port? Look for the lightning bolt and 4, though not all devices are clearly labeled. Does that port also support DisplayPort over USB-C? Keep in mind that not all the ports on a computer are equal; some models ship with one Thunderbolt port and several USB-C ports, and some with all Thunderbolt ports. In most cases, drive your dock buying off of a configuration that assumes you will connect it to the most capable port on your device.
USB-C Port Connectivity
I’m not going to go into all of USB-C’s various configurations, but you need to know your device before you purchase a dock. Most USB-C docks will work regardless of the configuration, and for light workflows, you probably won’t notice the difference. Those editing video on high capacity SSDs, however, will note a significant speed difference between a standard USB-C dock and one that supports Thunderbolt 4. And if you own an AMD device, you need to know you don’t have Thunderbolt.
Thunderbolt 3’s specifications increase speeds from USB 3.2’s 20GB/s to 40GB/s—while maintaining the Thunderbolt speed threshold, and Thunderbolt 4 upgrades connectivity to two 4K displays, versus 8K display. Thunderbolt 4 also includes a 100W laptop charging specification for docks and the ability to wake from sleep, along with DMA protection to stave off Thunderspy compromises.
There are plenty of other subtle issues with Thunderbolt and USB-C. Suffice it to say here that to choose a dock, know the specification for the port you will be using with the dock. If you have a standard USB-C port without Thunderbolt, buying a Thunderbolt 4 dock will cost you more money without increasing performance.
That said, as with most hardware buys, if you anticipate a future device with Thunderbolt 4, then it may make sense. Attaching a more capable dock will limit its performance and features, but will it still work at the basic level. A Thunderbolt 4 dock, for instance, connected to a non-Thunderbolt computer will not offer transfer speeds or video out available to more modern devices, but the USB-A, SD card slots, and other items should work just fine.
Also think about the monitor configurations you want to drive, and the capabilities of the monitors you will likely encounter. If they are USB-C monitors, and your computer supports DisplayPort over USB-C, you shouldn’t have an issue beyond a USB-C cable long enough to connect the monitor to the computer.
If you are driving more than one monitor, make sure the dock supports the configuration. Most monitors also support HDMI, but some older monitors may require DisplayPort, DVI, or VGA—the latter two becoming increasingly uncommon. Make sure your dock includes enough video port options to support all of the configurations you are likely to encounter.
Make sure the dock supports the monitor sizes and adequate refresh rates. Some dual display monitors only support a second monitor at 30Hz which isn’t production-level quality.
USB-C offers the most versatile of ports with support for power, connectivity, and video. Many bemoan the loss of legacy ports, but a machine packed with Thunderbolt 4 ports will connect to more things more seamlessly than a device with a bevy of specialized ports. Sure, you need a dock or a dongle, but USB-C with Thunderbolt can’t be beat for flexibility.
Powering Up with Your USB-C Dock
Some USB-C docks draw power from the computer’s USB-C port, others rely on external power supplies. The docks powered by a power supply are probably best aimed at the desk market, regardless of their use for desktop or laptop computers. If you want to power other devices, ensure the dock supports USB ports for charging a phone or earbuds or driving a graphics tablet or a USB-C monitor.
If you need to power another device, make sure your dock clearly includes the ability to charge or power other devices, ideally using the Power Delivery standard that supports up to 240W over USB-C, though typical devices commonly max out at 100W. Devices can negotiate with the port for just the power they need.
On the input/passthrough front, make sure the dock supports at least 60W, so when connected to your laptop, it will charge it at the maximum rate. With the new Power Delivery standard, eventually, USB-C will power desktop and gaming computers, eliminating the need for heavy cords and proprietary power supplies.
Make sure the dock you buy clearly states that it supports output at the wattage required by your computer.
How to Choose a USB-C Dock: Travel versus Desktop Docks
As noted above, some docks come with their own power supply, usually attached via a proprietary input. Powered docks should be left on the desk unless you need one to power a demo station at a trade show booth. Most travel docks will use the native device’s power supply, such as that from a laptop or tablet, with power passed through the dock’s USB-C connector to the computer.
Some people may be able to get by with a travel dock for day-to-day use, packing it alongside the laptop when traveling. Others will want a more robust solution in the office, and a travel dock in a bag always at the ready for travel. I recommend a desktop dock complemented by a travel dock to maximize flexibility and as a contingency against forgetfulness.
Do I need a dock if my device comes with multiple USB-C Thunderbolt 4 ports?
The answer is yes and no. Yes, for convenience. A dock with a variety of ports provides a more elegant solution than a bunch of dongles hanging off the other ports. A dock also frees up those other ports for things like fast storage or other high bandwidth peripherals.
Should I buy a cheap dock?
You do get what you pay for. The housing, components, chipsets, and cable quality all matter. You can buy a cheap USB-C dock, but you run the risk of failure. I have even had some quality docks lose their ability to connect via USB-C, usually via a fault in the USB-C power port (it is the one that receives the most stress from plugging and unplugging).
We all have our budgets, but a good USB-C dock is essential equipment so buy from a quality manufacturer with a good track record of standing behind its warranties.
How do I know I purchased the right USB-C dock?
The simple answer: you don’t think about it. The dock supports your power and workflow needs. You aren’t constantly looking for dongles or removing one device to put on another—and you aren’t feeling regret over unfilled slots because you bought too much dock.
Apple owners also need to consider specialized docks designed for their devices, such as docks that snuggle up to the edge of an iPad or that fit the footprint of a Mac Mini. All of the considerations remain. Only buy one of those purpose-built docks if it also includes the features you need to serve your work or hobby.
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