Laptop computers with docking stations (or port replicators) seem to fall into a special (and expensive) category.
I suppose this is because the manufacturers know that the primary market for such systems in business customers, where the price/pain threshold is considerably higher than with private customers.
It's easy to see the difference — you can get a well equipped and configured laptop which does not have a docking capability for well under $1,000, but the equivalent configuration in a laptop with docking station is likely to be $2,000 or more from the same manufacturer. As far as I can tell, this is true of pretty much all the manufacturers — I have checked HP, Dell, Fujitsu and Lenovo, for example.
For the private customer, one way to get around this premium is "refurbished" systems.
Buying them is similar in a lot of ways to buying a used car: you can get very good value for your money, but you have to be careful and look very closely at what you are buying and who you are buying it from.
There are several resellers here in Switzerland who offer refurbs, and I recently got an email from one of them listing a Lenovo T-400 for 387 Swiss francs (about £270 or $400) including a docking station. OK, that's a pretty old system but it is a ridiculously low price, too. My workhorse Fujitsu Lifebook S6510 is now six years old (see one of my earliest blog posts here), and the cooling fan has started making a pretty obnoxious noise, so I figured it was worth a look — at that price I certainly don't have much to lose.
The ThinkPad line of laptops is certainly well constructed (I have referred to them over the years as ThinkTank systems), and this one is no exception, very solidly built — meaning very heavy too.
It looks like it has been thoroughly "refurbished", cleaned up, polished and checked for proper functioning. One thing to be particularly careful about when buying used/refurbished laptops: it came with a new battery.
Although this one came with Windows 7, it was obviously sold originally with Windows Vista because the Vista key sticker is still on the bottom. Either way I don't care much because my primary use for it will be running Linux.
It's a good hardware configuration, with a 14-inch display, Core2 Duo P8400 2.26GHz processor, Intel Graphics, 4GB memory, 160GB disk, Intel Gigbit wired and Intel 5100 AGN wireless network controllers, three USB ports (but only 2.0, not 3.0), and a DVD-RW drive. That disk is a bit on the small side, but if I decide to keep this laptop I will most likely replace the disk with an SSD anyway.
The docking station adds four more USB ports and DVI video connection. Overall it looks like it is well suited to my desktop needs, a minor step up in configuration and performance from the S6510, a major step down in noise level, and about a quarter or less the price of what a new laptop with docking station would probably cost me. But how does it work with Linux?
I decided to start with openSuSE 12.3, because that is currently my primary operating system on the S6510. I was able to boot a LiveUSB stick with no problem (just press F12 during boot) — with older systems this is not as obvious as you might think — and after a bit of fiddling around and testing various things, it looked like everything was working.
This is, of course, a "legacy" BIOS system (), and the disk partitioning was standard DOS (not GPT), so booting, repartitioning the disk and installing to the hard drive were all dead easy. Once that was done, I booted openSuSE from the hard drive, and went through a more careful check that everything was working.
Then I shut down, put the laptop in the docking station with everything connected (keyboard, trackball, display, network, sound/speakers, printer) and booted back up again. Perfect. Everything recognised and working straight away. The external VGA monitor was configured as a clone of the laptop display, but that was easy to change through the KDE Display Control module. I dug out a Bluetooth mouse, and that connected and worked too. Good stuff!
OK, with openSuSE working, my next stop was Fedora 19.
Once again, shut down, remove from the docking station and boot the LiveUSB stick. I also wanted to check the battery life, so this time I was running without power connected. Everything seemed to be working again, as expected, so I went ahead with the installation to disk, and rebooted — no worries.
After I had been working with it for about two hours, and updates were in the middle of installing, it started complaining about low battery. Time for a more brutal test — I just whacked it into the docking station, without shutting down, sleeping or whatever, still running. I was very pleasantly surprised to see that not only did it detect and configure everything on the fly, but it brought up the external monitor in extended desktop mode, with both the laptop display and external monitor at optimal resolution! Nice touch, Fedora.
I continued through my usual list of Linux distributions — Debian 7.0, Mint Cinnamon 15, Ubuntu 13.10 all installed perfectly, as openSuSE and Fedora had done. Not one problem, not one missing driver that I had to go looking for, not one unsupported device. Good news.
Finally, what about the next round of Linux releases?
I decided to give openSuSE 13.1 a try as well — RC2 just came out, and it is only about two weeks until the final release, so it should be pretty solid by now.
This time, when I booted the 13.1 LiveUSB stick, I still had the T-400 in the docking station. I didn't do that intentionally, I had just been working on it and testing everything, and I didn't think about ejecting it before starting to load openSuSE 13.1.
I was quite surprised to see that it not only recognised the external display, but it also configured it properly with an extended desktop including the laptop display, and it had both of them at their optimal resolution. Fedora was the only distribution that had done this before, so it is nice to see this capability spreading to other distributions. The rest of the installation seemed exactly the same as it had been with 12.3, and once again everything worked just fine.
So, there you have it. For a very low cost, I have replaced the laptop on my desk, with a docking station, and it ran every version of Linux that I felt like trying on it. Performance is good to excellent for my purposes — everyday use, software development, writing, web browsing and correspondence.