When you need more ports on your laptop or tablet, do this

Tangled up in Thunderbolt, DisplayPort and so many USB flavors? How to connect all these accessories to your port-constrained computer? Docks and hubs to the rescue.

Working from home likely means you're working on some form of laptop or tablet, and if it was made in the last couple of years, one thing's for sure: It doesn't have near enough ports to connect all of the accessories we've all come to rely on to get our jobs done. 

In the last year, we've all been a bit deprived of different things, but we don't have to be port constrained on our laptops. While I wish we didn't have to use docks and hubs to address these deficiencies, I am not sure I would want to go back to the good old days when these laptops weighed five pounds, and you would break your back carrying them.

However, because there are so many USB versions, many end-users can be confused about the underlying technology and what they need to improve their connectivity with their laptops and tablets. Let's see if we can clear some of this up.

The evolution of Universal Serial Bus (USB)

Universal Serial Bus 1.0 was introduced by the USB Implementer's Forum in January 1996 -- that's exactly 25 years ago. With that introduction, we got the USB-A connector, as well. It's the rectangular-shaped receptacle, a one-way keyed connector that we all know. It's also the connector that we use for thumb drives and device connectivity on legacy PCs and all kinds of peripherals and consumer electronics over two decades. It's in our cars. It's everywhere.

USB 1.0 Jan. 15, 1996 Full Speed (12Mbit/s),

Low Speed (1.5Mbit/s)

Initial release
USB 1.1 August 1998 Full Speed (12Mbit/s),

Low Speed (1.5Mbit/s)

USB 2.0 April 2000 High Speed (480Mbit/s) Significant speed improvements
USB 3.0 November 2008 Superspeed USB (5Gbit/s) Also referred to as USB 3.1 Gen 1 and USB 3.2 Gen 1 × 1
USB 3.1 July 2013 Superspeed+ USB (10Gbit/s) Includes new USB 3.1 Gen 2, also named USB 3.2 Gen 2 × 1 in later specifications
USB 3.2 August 2017 Superspeed+ USB dual-lane (20Gbit/s) Includes new USB 3.2 Gen 1 × 2 and Gen 2 × 2 multi-link modes
USB4 August 2019 40Gbit/s (2-lane) Includes new USB 4 Gen 2 × 2 (64b/66b encoding) and Gen 3 × 2 (128b/132b encoding) modes and introduces USB 4 routing for tunnelling of USB3.x, DisplayPort 1.4a and PCI Express traffic and host-to-host transfers, based on the Thunderbolt 3 protocol

The USB-C connector used with USB 3.x, 4.x, and Thunderbolt devices (left), versus the legacy USB-A connector (right), used for USB 1.x and USB 2.x devices.

(Image: Jason Perlow/ZDNet)

When that standard was introduced, USB 1.x had a maximum transfer rate of 12Mbps. Over the years, that increased to 480Mbps with USB 2.0 and 5Gbps on USB 3.x and, recently, 40Gbps on USB 4. The massive increase in bandwidth has allowed for things like computer monitors, ethernet cards, Wi-Fi adapters, and all sorts of other things to be connected to a PC without having to open it up and use up slots. Remember those?

When USB 3.1 was introduced in 2013/2014, we also saw a new connector, the USB-C connector. That's the small, reversible oval connector that we all now know and love. It is used primarily on Android smartphones, some iPad models, and PC and Mac laptops. But it's making its way onto all kinds of consumer electronics.

The port deficiency problem on modern laptops

Currently, many laptops only have a USB-C connector on them. The biggest offender here is Apple's MacBooks since the company has been very aggressive about ripping out ports over the years. Still, they are not the only ones. Companies like Dell, Lenovo, HP, and Microsoft have all been making their products thinner and streamlined. We are getting fewer ports from them due to a desire to make everything light and wirelessly connected.


You'll only get two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3/USB 4 ports on a 2020 M1 MacBook Pro.

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Apple's current generation of x86 MacBooks has four USB-C connectors, and its latest M1 MacBooks only have two. Each of these connectors can function as a USB 3.0/4.0 port with a transfer rate of 20Gbps and as a Thunderbolt 3 port. 

Thunderbolt, a standard created by Intel, is even faster. It can transfer data at up to 40Gbps. That means you could conceivably connect things like external graphics processors to a laptop with one of these ports if the operating system supports it. Or a high-speed 10Gbps network adapter, for example, if you were one of those people who need to transfer huge data files, like someone working in special effects or a video-editing studio.

But there's also DisplayPort

DisplayPort is a digital display interface developed by a consortium of PC and chip manufacturers, and it was standardized by VESA, the Video Electronics Standard Association, in 2006. So, this was before the USB-C connector. It's a special 20-pin connector. You've probably seen it: It resembles a big rectangle with a notch cut out of it. Virtually all of the desktop monitors you can buy now have DisplayPort connectors on them, in addition to the HDMI or the DVI connectors you normally find on older monitors. 


USB-C-to-DisplayPort cable.

(Image: Jason Perlow/ZDNet)

To output to a DisplayPort-equipped external monitor, you either need an HDMI-to-DisplayPort cable, a DisplayPort-to-DisplayPort cable, or a USB-C-to-DisplayPort cable. But you are probably thinking what I am thinking: If you want to connect two monitors to a MacBook or a PC laptop, you will have to eat up a bunch of USB-C ports on that laptop. That's not already counting the USB-C cable used for USB PD to power the laptop. So, before you know it, you're lucky to have one spare port left. That doesn't leave room for a mouse, a keyboard, or anything else; you'd better hope you have Bluetooth stuff to connect to it.

On a PC laptop with a DisplayPort or USB 4 interface, you can do what is referred to as DisplayPort daisy-chaining. That allows you to use a single USB-C port to connect to multiple external monitors, provided your monitors have both DisplayPort input and output ports. There is an upper limit of five monitors with DisplayPort using a daisy chain -- but at a lower resolution. You can connect one 4K/5K monitor per chain.

However, on a MacBook, the OS doesn't support a daisy chain, so you will need a USB-C port dedicated to each monitor, which gets us to docking stations and hubs.

Laptop and tablet hubs of all kinds

The good news is that on Mac and PC laptops that support USB-C, USB 4, Thunderbolt 3, and Thunderbolt 4, one cable coming out of the laptop can be split into a lot of ports using a hub or docking station. 

Docking stations are becoming not only popular for use with laptops but also on tablets like the iPad. They allow you to connect different types of devices, not just USB-C or USB-A devices -- many hubs include gigabit Ethernet, SD card, headphone, and audio jacks, and dedicated DisplayPort connectors. They also can power your laptop with as much as 94 watts, delivered by USB PD, so they have their own power bricks as well.

Jason Cipriani's Picks

Jason Cipriani, my Jason Squared co-host, is partial to the Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Dock Pro. He uses it with his M1 MacBook Pro and his 2018 iPad Pro. It's pricey, at $250, but that's par for the course for Thunderbolt docks. It has 85W upstream charging, allowing you to charge your laptop through the dock Ports: (2) Thunderbolt 3, (1) USB-A 3.1, (1) USB-C 3.1, (4) USB-A 3.0, (1) DisplayPort, (1) SD card, (1) 3.5mm Audio in/out, and (1) Gigabit Ethernet. 


Jason Cipriani likes the Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Dock Pro.

(Image: Jason Perlow/ZDNet)

Another hub he uses is the HyperDrive 6-in-1 USB-C hub. Even though it's designed for the iPad Pro and iPad Air, he's been able to use it with his MacBook Pro and the Surface Pro X to connect to an external monitor and use the SD card features. It's $90. 

Lastly, he uses Apple's USB-C Digital AV adapter that adds a USB-C port, USB-A port, and an HDMI connection. It's minimal and easy to move between desks or setups but lacks all the extra ports that other hubs have, like the HyperDrive. It's $70. 

My Picks

Until recently, I have been a heavy user of the CalDigit TS3 plus, a Thunderbolt 3 dock designed for MacBooks. It was considered the premier one on the market about two years ago, and it goes for about $300. It has a dedicated DisplayPort and seven USB ports, as well as Ethernet and audio ports. Caldigit has also recently introduced some newer USB-C models and dual dedicated DisplayPort or dual HDMI interfaces.

Currently, I have been using the Kensington SD5700T, which I recently reviewed. This one has four Thunderbolt 4/USB 4 ports. It is designed for the latest M1 MacBooks and PCs and delivers up to 90W of power to the laptop. I only have one Thunderbolt cable coming out of the Mac, which is powering the computer and is driving two DisplayPort monitors, Ethernet, and a whole mess of USB peripherals. It also costs about $300. Kensington has a bunch of other models, depending on what price point you're targeting.


The Hubble for iPad Air/Pro by Fledging.

I also recently got this Hubble dock for iPad, made by Fledging, which I am using on my 12.9-inch iPad Pro. This thing is a real beauty and was just introduced at CES 2021. It has an HDMI connector for doing screen mirroring with a monitor or a TV set, in case you wanted to use this for watching movies in your living room or use Apple Fitness Plus, an SD card slot. It also has a dedicated USB-C port and USB-A port for connecting external peripherals, that missing audio jack, plus a USB-C charge passthrough. It's made out of metal, which matches your iPad's color, and it acts as both a case and a stand. So, really, you could turn your iPad into a desktop computer with this thing if you wanted. It costs $99/$110 and works on the 12.9-inch and 10.9-inch iPad Pro and the latest 11-inch iPad Air models.

There are countless other options available. Ed Bott, my ZDNet colleague, has a thorough roundup of USB-C/Thunderbolt docks you can check out.

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