Which laptop docking station is best?

Today’s most portable and efficient laptops are better at a lot of tasks than full-size desktop PCs from just a few years ago, but they’re still limited to relatively small keyboards and displays. There’s also a lack of USB and other ports on a number of popular notebook PCs. One great way around these limitations is to add a docking station or hub to your setup, so you can plug in your laptop and instantly have an additional display, storage device, keyboard and mouse.

The most full-featured laptop docking station on the market is the Cable Matters Hybrid Thunderbolt 3 Docking Station, which has a wide selection of expansion ports and is certified to meet the high-end Thunderbolt 4 specification.

What to know before you buy a laptop docking station

Docking stations vs. hubs

While they have different names, docking stations and hubs accomplish very similar goals. The best ones connect via USB-C cable and add USB expansion ports, SD card readers, ethernet jacks and the like. The main differences are twofold. Docking stations are generally much larger than hubs, and they usually have their own power supply that allows for USB-C pass-through charging. In contrast, hubs are often compact enough to slide easily into a laptop bag, and you almost always have to supply your own USB-C PD power brick if you want to use the charging function.

Stick with a dependable manufacturer

It’s especially important to opt for reputable brand names when dealing with peripherals that provide power to your sensitive electronics. When possible, give extra consideration to products that are USB-IF certified. This is the organization responsible for setting and upholding USB standards, and their certification means a lot in terms of device safety.

What to look for in a quality laptop docking station

DisplayLink graphics controllers

Most laptop graphics processing units are notoriously underpowered, and some laptop hardware is restricted by design from driving more than a single secondary monitor. The DisplayLink chipsets found in some docks and hubs function as add-on GPUs that offload the graphics workload to the CPU and make it possible to use dual external monitors with GPU-challenged laptops.

They’re remarkably effective when set up correctly. Bear in mind that you may need to update your graphics drivers and tweak your graphics settings slightly to get DisplayLink outputs to work perfectly.

Ethernet jack

Wired network connections are significantly more stable, with lower ping times, better security and often higher speeds than Wi-Fi delivers. However, a lot of new laptops don’t have built-in ethernet jacks, though many of the most affordable USB-C hubs do.

SD card readers

Considering SD and microSD cards have impressively high capacities these days, adding one to a dock essentially turns it into an external storage drive. Card readers are also necessities for photo and video professionals, and not all laptops have them.

Plenty of USB ports

While a quality USB-C hub can do many things, make sure it has the most basic of expansion ports. Consider how many Type-A and Type-C devices you could possibly need to use at once, and make sure the docking station you’re considering can accommodate them.

USB Power Delivery charging

For peak convenience, make certain that your new dock supports USB PD power pass-through. The entire point of these products is convenience, so why get one that requires you to plug in multiple cables?

How much you can expect to spend on a laptop docking station

The most affordable USB-C hubs cost about $30, while the best premium docking stations cost just over $300.

Laptop docking station FAQ

What are the best USB-C power bricks?

This one from Nekteck

A. The best currently on the market are the ones that use gallium nitride technology that results in a compact, efficient charger. For example, this one from Nekteck can deliver 100 watts over a single cable.

Do streaming services like Netflix work over a docking station?

A. Not usually. Unfortunately, the majority of docking stations don’t support the HD Copy Protection protocol that services like Netflix require in order to access their Full HD and 4K streams. Some simple USB-C video adapters do, but even that depends on which protocol your laptop uses to output video via the USB-C port. Ultimately, it’s hard to definitively answer this question because it changes on a case-by-case basis.

What’s the best laptop docking station to buy?

Top laptop docking station

Cable Matters 107044 Hybrid

Cable Matters Hybrid Thunderbolt 3 Docking Station

What you need to know: It has more ports than nearly any other and is engineered to work perfectly with all USB standards.

What you’ll love: Whether your peripherals use base-level USB-C technology or the high-speed Thunderbolt 4 protocol, this advanced dock is compatible. Both of its video outputs support either HDMI or DisplayPort connectors. It’s one of the few docks with a UHS-II SD card reader, which is considerably faster than the more common UHS-I version. There are a whopping seven USB expansion ports.

What you should consider: This kind of full-featured equipment doesn’t come cheap.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Top laptop docking station for the money

Anker 341 USB C Hub

Anker 7-in-1 341 USB-C Hub

What you need to know: While it’s far smaller than a traditional docking station, it offers the basic functionality that most people need and costs very little.

What you’ll love: It can pass up to 85 watts via USB-C Power Delivery, which is enough for a number of popular laptops. There are multiple USB expansion ports in addition to an HDMI port, as well as full-size and microSD card readers. Plus, it’s about as compact and affordable as they come.

What you should consider: Like many compact USB-C hubs, its HDMI output is limited to 30 hertz at 4K, and it doesn’t come with a power supply, so you’ll have to get your own.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Worth checking out

Wavlink 848 Universal

Wavlink USB-C 5K Docking Station

What you need to know: If you’re having trouble getting your laptop to work right with two external displays, this advanced yet reasonably priced dock can help.

What you’ll love: The most notable feature of this docking station is that it’s equipped with a DisplayLink graphics controller that enables nearly all laptops to drive up to two external monitors. This is especially relevant if you’re using a MacBook or an older laptop with limited graphics processing capabilities. There’s also an ethernet port and a few USB slots. Unlike most other Wavlink docking stations, this one does in fact support USB Power Delivery, at a clip of up to 65 watts.

What you should consider: For best results, you may have to reinstall or tweak some drivers on Windows, particularly if your laptop has an AMD Radeon graphics card.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Great for high-powered laptops

Dell WD19

Dell WD19 Docking Station

What you need to know: It’s intended specifically for laptops that draw up to 130 watts.

What you’ll love: The vast majority of USB-C Power Delivery docks are limited to 100 watts or less; in fact, that’s actually part of the USB-C specification. This high-end option from Dell boasts a maximum of 130 watts of USB-C PD charging. That’s technically out-of-spec, but it’s trusted because Dell is a highly reputable manufacturer and it recommends this dock for use specifically with some of its most popular laptops.

What you should consider: It’s remarkably expensive and doesn’t have quite the connectivity options of many others.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

 

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Chris Thomas writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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