Desktop usage have been in decline for a long time. More people are going mobile more now than ever. The internet and the tools for communication that came with it has made working remotely more accessible than ever before.
You are probably reading this because you are looking at docking stations and probably don’t want to have two separate PC’s and the hassles that come with it. Instead, you need to be able to use your laptop computer on the go while still having the desktop experience at work and home.
You might be interested in knowing that dropping the laptop entirely and using a smartphone as a desktop is possible and is something that we will go over briefly at the end.
What Laptop Works Best for Docking Stations?
Any laptop can become suitable for a universal docking station or USB C docking station.
The question you want to be asking is what ports you should be looking for when choosing a laptop to purchase or what ports are available on your current computer.
The docking station solution is all about balancing convenience and performance. Having a bunch of wires that you need to plug in every time can become time-consuming and frustrating. Ideally, you want just one cable; however, sometimes, the limitation comes from having one cable.
That cable needs to handle the varying data throughput coming from all your docking station devices, and thus the ports available to you are the most critical factor when choosing a docking station.
That cable is one that has the best connection standard with the laptop you have or want to purchase—pairing that laptop with the docking station with the capabilities of maximizing your ports benefits.
When looking at options, there are different versions of USB connectors and different speeds in which they operate. We put together a chart to help explain the USB standard and their horrible naming conventions.
Another standard other than USB is Thunderbolt technology, which was spearheaded by Intel and Apple; however, it has started to become standard on Windows computers. For simplicity, we will gloss over thunderbolt 1 & 2 and instead focus on the current Thunderbolt 3 technology.
With USB 4, Thunderbolt 3 benefits and licensing becomes open to all. What this means is that Thunderbolt 3 and USB 4 will be interchangeable. We will use the term Thunderbolt 3 for the sake of this post.
We recommend having a laptop with a Thunderbolt 3 port or at least USB-C 3.1 port as this standard supports charging, data transfer and visual throughput (use of external monitors). Most new laptops come with Thunderbolt 3, and your device will be relatively future-proofed by choosing Thunderbolt 3. The main benefit that comes from Thunderbolt 3 is the ability for the port to be assigned 4 PCI lanes for more intense graphical computing (will be explained in depth later).
Having information flowing to your dock as well as coming back to your laptop is essential, and Thunderbolt 3 has two bi-directional 20 Gbps channels, providing a total of 40 Gbps inbound and outbound. Bi-directional is vital when using a hard drive docking station that gives you extra storage, or if you are using an eGPU on your internal laptop screen (we will over the eGPU later).
What Laptop With What Dock?
Depending on your needs, we recommend an organization use Dell or Lenovo Business laptops. There are other variables to consider that we take into consideration before we quote you an exact model.
Choosing a docking station that is from the same manufacturer as your laptop is often the best solution—pairing Dell laptops with Dell docking stations and Lenovo laptops with Lenovo docking stations. Some models from these manufacturers are better than others, and our experience with docking station issues helps you avoid potential problems when looking for a quote.
Surface Pro solutions are also available but are also best paired with surface pro docking stations due to there proprietary docking adapter. MacBook pro docking stations are not provided by apple (unless you count their monitors). eGPU’s for mac do exist as well, but can get troublesome for compatibility and is not recommended on a mass computer deployment.
Displays as Docks & Alternatives
Displays now use Thunderbolt 3, and you can find many of the ports (Ethernet, USB, Audio and additional Thunderbolt ports) you need on the monitor itself. Monitors are becoming more of an all in one option with the ability to display your screen, charge and share data through one cable. Using a monitor with these capabilities also allows daisy-chaining for multiple monitor setups, something that can be troublesome with regular USB docking stations. Thunderbolt technology was behind the first “apple” docking stations, as apple monitors were the first to support this feature. If this is a setup for personal use, you can try one of the alternative options on amazon. Keep in mind that there can be many issues, including docking station drivers, power and other consideration. Different laptops will behave differently for these docking stations.
eGPU For A More Powerful Docking Station
When considering a use case that requires you to use 3D modelling, the horsepower of your computer will need to be substantial for software like the Adobe Creative Cloud Suite (InDesign, Premiere Pro, After Effects, etc…) and Autodesk Suite. Often these heavy tasks are done while you are docked and not critical when you are on the go.
In this situation, a Desktop can be a cheaper option, but there are docks called eGPU’s you can use with your laptop to make this possible. The popular choice currently are the Razer eGPU (more specifically, the core v2) and the Alienware eGPU. When looking to do an eGPU setup, there are essential factors to consider.
Make sure that the laptop dedicates 4 PCI lanes to the eGPU Thunderbolt 3 docking station.
Have a CPU in your laptop that can handle the GPU in the eGPU case. Use this bottleneck checker to find possible issues.
Even with the latest Thunderbolt 3 technology, you will lose anywhere between 5% to 30% of performance from the GPU compared to a regular Desktop PCI Express connection.
Dell’s Alienware graphics amplifier has a proprietary port. The benefits of Alienware’s port is that the connection is dedicated to running the displays and has no significant performance drop when compared to the competition.
The graphics amplifier is meant for gaming, meaning Alienware laptops are only ones supported and thus requires you to have a laptop computer with a “gamer” look. Hopefully, dell incorporates there proprietary port into the business laptop for professional deployments in the future.
Using Your Smartphone?
You can use your smartphone with a docking station. Currently, Huawei and Samsung support a desktop mode that works surprisingly well. I now carry around a Type-c dongle adapter that can turn any tv into my display. I just connect my wireless keyboard and mouse to the dongle and can have my pc environment at any location with a TV or monitor, for example, any hotel room.
The smartphone solution is a great option when travelling, and I feel it will become more common in the future as phones become as powerful as some laptops. Razer even toyed with a laptop docking station for your phone called project Linda. Other companies have also followed suit, making it easier to use your phone as an all in one computer.
None of them are in mass production at the time of writing this post; however, if you are interested, some of them can be supported on Kickstarter for preorder. IT Partners reminds you that these projects are not guaranteed and that you should preorder at your own risk.