Your work from home hardware dilemma: Desktop or laptop with docking station?

When you're working from home, the best way to increase your productivity is to go big with the components you interact with the most: Display, keyboard, and mouse. Here are four options for making that workspace more productive.

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As businesses worldwide respond to the spread of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), one of the first actions most companies take is to encourage employees to work from home. You can, of course, just throw your company-issued notebook in your messenger bag and set up shop at your kitchen table, the same as you would at your neighborhood coffee shop.

But there are ways to be more productive, and if you expect the work-from-home order to last for more than a few days, it's worth looking into those options.

Before you plug in any peripherals, think about what kind of remote work you'll be doing. Is most of your remote work saved to your company's cloud? Do you do a disproportionate amount of email and video conferencing? Does your company allow remote access from personal devices? If the answer to all those questions is yes, you can probably use your own PC as a work machine and leave that battered old notebook in the corner.

On the other hand, if most of your work involves creating, saving, and editing files on your company notebook, you'll want to center your work around that device. In that scenario, even if your IT department allows use of a personal device, you'll need to sync its contents with the official, company-issued device, which is (trust me on this) a recipe for frustration.

From a hardware perspective, the most important upgrades involve super-sizing the components you interact with the most. Instead of a compact laptop display, give yourself the benefit of a big screen monitor or even a dual-display configuration. Add a full-sized keyboard, a mouse, and a wired network connection, and you've got everything you need to maximize your productivity.

Also: Which laptop is best for you? 10 essential specs and options to consider before you go shopping

So, how do you get to that ultimate home workstation? Here are your four options:

The dirt-cheap DIY approach

In this scenario, you start with the notebook your IT department gave you, and then add whatever hardware you can beg, borrow, or scrounge to make your work environment more pleasant. Spoiler alert: You're going to need a lot of cables.

On an older notebook with a dedicated HDMI port and at least two USB Type-A connectors, you'll need to keep your notebook power adapter plugged in. You'll also need a cable (and possibly a mini-HDMI adapter) to connect your monitor. Don't expect this configuration to support anything fancy like a 4K or 5K display or multiple monitors; this setup works best with a 24-inch full HD monitor.

With two USB Type-A inputs, you've got room for a keyboard and a mouse, but not a wired Ethernet adapter. But that's probably not a dealbreaker, and of course, you can always use a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, or pick up an inexpensive USB hub.

If you're lucky, you have a newer notebook with one or more USB Type-C connectors. If that's the case, your job is much easier. For 20 bucks or less, you can pick up a port extender for that Type-C port into which you can plug a USB keyboard and mouse, an HDMI cable, and an Ethernet adapter. You'll still need to keep your external power adapter handy.

Disclosure: ZDNet may earn an affiliate commission from some of the products featured on this page. ZDNet and the author were not compensated for this independent review.

See it now: Targus universal USB 3.0 DV4K docking station with power Apple USB-C digital AV multiport adapter TOTU 8-in-1 USB Type-C hub | StarTech Dual-4K universal docking station | Plugable USB-C 4K triple display docking station

The dedicated dock

Perhaps you prefer not to deal with a rat's nest of cables and connectors every time you step into your home office. Perhaps your IT department has a budget for this sort of peripheral. Either way, your next obvious upgrade is to a dedicated docking station designed specifically for your laptop hardware.

A dedicated docking station powers your laptop, drives one or more displays, connects to a wired network, and allows you to keep USB devices (including a full-sized keyboard and mouse) attached. Plug in a single connector, and you're ready to get to work.

Examples of this category include Dell's WD19 Modular Dock and WD19TB Thunderbolt Dock, both of which use USB Type-C connectors. Microsoft's Surface Dock, which uses Microsoft's blade-style Surface Connect cable, is the equivalent solution for any member of the Surface Pro, Surface Laptop, or Surface Book family; it doesn't currently support Thunderbolt technology. HP and Lenovo also offer USB Type-C Thunderbolt docking solutions for their laptops.

See it now: Dell's WD19 family of docks | Lenovo's USB-C Mini Dock | HP's USB-C Dock

You pay a premium for one of these dedicated docks, which typically cost $200 or more, but the convenience is hard to beat.

The all-in-one option

Does your work-from-home space look like something Architectural Digest would put on its cover? Then you definitely don't want all those cords and dongles to add clutter. Instead, consider an all-in-one PC/Mac for that space.

All the leading PC OEMs offer business-class Windows 10 all-in-ones, with 24- and 27-inch display options and wireless keyboard and mouse options. The HP EliteOne 800 G5, for example, offers a 24-inch display at a starting price under $1,300. Lenovo's IdeaCentre AIO 500 series includes space-saving models with 27-inch QHD displays that range from $720 to $1,150.

Apple's 21.5- and 27-inch iMacs, which start at $1,099 and climb to $2,299 for a fully loaded 5K model, are also an option. You might have trouble getting management to approve your request for an iMac Pro, though, given its starting price of $4999.

Using an all-in-one might be a great way to make efficient use of your desktop space, but it does require some effort to keep your work in sync. This option is best for people who work primarily in the cloud and can remain device-independent.

The dedicated desktop

Desktop PCs? You mean, like, towers with internal PCI expansion slots? Who still uses that prehistoric technology?

Gamers, that's who. And repurposing that sort of desktop might be the best option if you want to switch into gaming mode when the workday is over.

The good news is that a PC that performs well for gaming is already, by definition, perfectly suited for productivity tasks. The video subsystem, in particular, should be capable of handling any task you throw at it.

My recommendation if you already have a Windows 10-powered gaming PC connected to a large desktop monitor is to set up a Hyper-V virtual machine for desktop tasks. (Use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Alt+Pause to switch the VM between a window and full-screen mode.) That configuration keeps an effective wall between work and play and makes it far less likely that you'll accidentally mix your game chat with a team video conference.

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