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I turned my laptop into a desktop PC and I've never been more productive

When is a desktop not a desktop? When it's a mobile workstation connected to a Thunderbolt 4 dock. Here's how I've combined this technology in my home office.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor
edbott-desktop-laptop

The 15-inch laptop display makes an excellent auxiliary screen without interfering with work

Ed Bott/ZDNET

My office has changed dramatically in the past few years. Part of that makeover is just a matter of logistics: Three years ago, I moved from the Southwest to the Southeast. As part of the great downsizing, my office became significantly smaller. It's essentially a very spacious cubicle in the guest room. A nice cubicle, in a nice guest room! But still, a lot smaller.

Downsizing is a major factor, but it's not the only consideration driving the way my office setup has changed. An equally important part of the equation is technological progress. Over the years, PC hardware has gotten faster, smarter, smaller, cheaper, and more full-featured. 

Also: The best Windows laptops: Expert tested and reviewed

For decades, I did most of my work on a traditional desktop PC, which was housed in a tower case and usually sat under my desk. A second desktop PC sat under a second desk. (If you're curious, I wrote about that configuration a few years ago: "Inside Ed Bott's home office: 'Two of everything.'")

That all ended when we left New Mexico. I donated or sold every bit of desktop PC hardware before we hit the road. But I didn't leave the desktop experience behind. In my new office, I've assembled a functional but extremely compact workspace that does everything I need without bulky desktop hardware. The secret is tying everything together with Thunderbolt 4.

Here's a look at the technology I'm using today to make that transformation.

When is a desktop not a desktop?

My desktop PC of choice these days is … a laptop. And not just any laptop. Technically, it's a Dell Precision 5560 Mobile Workstation, whose name suggests that it has better-than-average specs for its class. This is a two-year-old machine that should have a useful life of at least three more years. Its successor, the Precision 5680, has a 16-inch display but is otherwise similar in design.

(The configuration I bought had a list price of around $3600; I paid $1850, including tax and shipping, by buying from the Dell Outlet. This laptop is indistinguishable from one that was brand new.) 

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I'm not sure anything about this well-built PC qualifies it as an actual workstation, although it could probably hold its own on light AutoCAD and video editing chores. But even if it falls a bit short on the kind of power that the most advanced users might want, it works just fine for me; it doesn't even break a sweat on business tasks. 

The CPU is an 11th Gen Intel i7-11850H; it has a very fast 1TB NVMe SSD that uses PCIe 4. For networking, it offers a WiFi 6E adapter. It has 64 GB of RAM. (Yes, 64 GB might be overkill, but I occasionally work on projects that require running multiple virtual machines simultaneously, and it's nice not to have to worry about running out of memory.)

The 15.6-inch IPS LCD (non-touchscreen) has a 1920 x 1200 resolution with very slim bezels. Although it has a discrete graphics processor in addition to the Intel integrated graphics, its Nvidia T1200 Laptop GPU is not exactly a powerhouse when it comes to intense graphics workloads. But it will do for the business software I'm mostly running.

That hardware is significantly more power-hungry than your average business-class notebook, so this laptop requires a 130W power supply. (That detail will become important later.)

For biometric authentication, this PC offers both an infrared camera for Windows Hello face recognition and an integrated fingerprint reader. Having the fingerprint option comes in handy when I'm working very early (or very late) in a dimly lit office and the Windows Hello camera can't recognize my face.

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And crucially, this machine has three USB Type-C ports, two of which support Thunderbolt 4. Those ports connect to the next link in the hardware chain.

Choosing a Thunderbolt 4 dock

Over the past two years, I've tested a half-dozen Thunderbolt (3 and 4) docks. They all deliver on the promise of one-cable connectivity to a full complement of external devices, and every one of the Thunderbolt 4 docks I've tested offers a roughly similar feature set:

  • You can connect to one or more external monitors, usually two 4K displays or one 5K display, using your choice of connector types, including HDMI and DisplayPort.
  • An RJ45 connector and a built-in Gigabit Ethernet adapter allow you to access a wired network.
  • One Thunderbolt port (usually clearly labeled) is for connecting your Thunderbolt-compatible PC to the dock. That connection supplies power to the laptop (via USB Power Delivery) and also manages the flow of data to and from devices plugged into the dock.
  • The dock itself includes an extra two or three Thunderbolt ports that can connect to high-performance gaming monitors, external storage devices, and external capture devices.
  • And, of course, there are plenty of USB ports (Type A and Type C), with some also capable of charging mobile devices.

This is all packaged in a rectangular enclosure device that's only as big as it needs to be to accommodate a small mainboard and all those ports. This, for example, is the StarTech.com Thunderbolt 4 Dock, which goes for under $300 at Amazon.

startech-tb4cdock-rear

Rear view of StarTech.com Thunderbolt 4 Dock

StarTech.com

If I had just about any other mainstream Windows laptop or MacBook Pro, the 96W available via USB Power Delivery from the StarTech dock would be more than adequate and I would be happily using that model.

I'd also recommend Kensington's sleek SD5760T Thunderbolt 4 dock, or the SD5750T, which has a similar feature set but was designed for use with Thunderbolt 4-compatible Surface devices, including Surface Pro 8, Surface Pro 9, and Surface Laptop 5. Both models offer 90-100W using USB Power Delivery.

Also: Here's the best way to transfer large files between your laptop and desktop

Remember earlier when I mentioned that my Dell Precision Workstation requires a 130W power supply? They're not kidding. If I plug in a dock that offers 90-100W of Power Delivery, I'll see a constant reminder that my power supply is inadequate. I might even find the battery draining (albeit slowly) if I set it to a particularly demanding and time-consuming task. 

During my testing, I worked around that limitation by keeping the laptop's original power supply plugged into one Thunderbolt port and connecting the docking station to the other port. That works, but it also cuts off access to that extra port, which I prefer to use for an external hard drive.

And that's why I ultimately chose Dell's WD22TB4 Thunderbolt 4 Dock, which was made specifically for use with Dell-branded laptops like this one. It's able to deliver 130W of USB PD to Dell devices (but only 90W to non-Dell laptops), which gives it a clear edge for my use case. I find it mildly annoying that the dock doesn't include an audio jack for output, and it only has a single USB 3.2 Gen 2 port (the other two USB ports are USB 3.2 Gen 1). But it gets the job done.

How it all works

Now, let me be clear here. I use this laptop PC as if it were a desktop PC. It is always connected to external power, and it is always connected to an external display (a 38-inch Dell Thunderbolt 3-compatible monitor), with a full-sized keyboard and Bluetooth mouse. The only time I ever use the built-in keyboard and trackpad is when the external devices aren't working or I'm doing maintenance tasks while disconnected from the dock.

When I need a PC to use elsewhere, I have a MacBook Air and a Surface Pro 9 to choose from, synced to the same cloud services I use on the desktop/laptop.

If that all seems weird to you, I get it. But here's why this setup works for me.

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First, it's the ideal arrangement of dual displays for what I do.

I spent years working with a pair of side-by-side 24-inch LCD monitors. But I've found this configuration is much more practical. The laptop sits off to the side, and I regularly use its display to keep tabs on social media sites and Slack; it's also ideal for hosting Zoom and Teams meetings and watching YouTube clips while I work with two or three apps (typically arranged side by side) on the larger display.

All that hardware is set up on a Blu Dot Desk 51 which has a built-in keyboard tray that's at exactly the right height. The desk is big enough to accommodate both the ultyra-wide display and the laptop on the side without feeling cramped. The docking station sits within easy reach.

Staying permanently connected means I always have an external keyboard and mouse available, which I find essential for extended working. I do a lot of work in Excel, too, so I really need the full-size number pad, which you can't get on a typical laptop keyboard.

As for anxiety over travel weight and battery life, I have none, because this machine is always connected to external power and rarely leaves my office.

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Then there's wired Gigabit Ethernet, which is about 33% faster than the built-in WiFi and much better for applications like videoconferencing.

And it's all so much less cluttered and messy than my old desktop. It occupies way less space, with fewer cables, and those cables are easier to manage. I'm not constantly bumping my knee on a tower PC case, and the constant fan noise (and heat) are gone for good.

My setup wound up being all-Dell for one simple reason related to power requirements, and I'm perfectly happy with the dock. But that Dell dock is less than ideal when connected with a laptop from any other OEM. It's particularly ill-suited for use with a MacBook Pro, where you'll have to deal with an array of known limitations, some serious. You can do better elsewhere.

If you'd like to replicate a setup like this one, I recommend getting a laptop with at least a 15-inch display to maximize its effectiveness as a second monitor. As long as both the dock and the laptop support the same Thunderbolt version, you should have excellent expansion options. Just remember to check that your dock is delivering enough power to drive your PC. Some lower-priced docks top out at 60W of USB PD, which isn't enough for a high-end laptop.   

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