When I was putting together our guide to the best laptop docking stations, I had a chance to test a dozen of them. After weeks of this hands-on experience, I learned a few lessons you won't discover if you just read the spec sheets.
Superficially, at least, many of these devices look so similar as to be practically identical. They are, for the most part, small boxes that you can connect to one or more large displays, an Ethernet network, a full-size wired keyboard and mouse, an external power supply, and just about anything that plugs into a USB port. The magic happens when you connect that little box to your laptop with a single cable that effectively turns your laptop into a comfortable working environment.
There's a huge selection of devices from which to choose, at prices that start well under a hundred bucks and go up to well over $300. But if you make your choice just on price and specs, you're in danger of making the wrong choice.
Want to increase your chances of buying a docking station you'll be happy with? Ask yourself five questions before you click the Buy button.
Does your laptop support Thunderbolt?
Most modern laptops include support for USB Type-C connections. Even recent Microsoft Surface devices, which still rely on the proprietary Surface connector for charging, now offer a single USB Type-C port.
But not all USB-C connections are created equal. There's no obvious difference between a USB-C port on a laptop that supports Thunderbolt (like Dell's high-end XPS and Latitude PCs and Apple's MacBooks) and one that doesn't (like the aforementioned Surface). You'll notice the difference if you try to connect a Thunderbolt dock to a non-Thunderbolt PC, though, or vice versa. In the worst case scenario, you could pay hundreds of dollars for a dock that doesn't deliver a fraction of the features it should.
For the best results, make sure your dock and laptop support match up properly.
Does the dock have enough power for your laptop?
Most of the docks in our guide can deliver power using USB Type-C Power Delivery (PD). But the amount of power (expressed in watts) might not be enough to keep your laptop fully powered. That's especially true for large laptops with high-end CPUs and discrete GPUs designed for intensive video and graphics editing chores.
The latest 15- and 16-inch MacBook Pros, for example, ship with 87W and 96W power supplies, respectively. A docking station that maxes out at 60W of USB Type-C PD might have trouble charging one of those models, especially when it's under a heavy load.
Compare the power requirements for your laptop against the maximum power output of the docking station.
Are there enough of the right type of ports?
It's tempting to check the specs, count the number of USB ports, and then compare that number against the number of devices you plan to connect. That might work, but you might also find that those ports don't exactly work as expected.
The biggest disappointment is a USB port that doesn't offer the ability to charge a mobile device like a smartphone, or charges it more slowly than it should. Check the format of those ports, too, and be prepared to buy adapters or extra cables if you need to plug a USB-A device into a USB-C port, or vice versa
Can the video hardware handle your displays?
If you're planning to plug your docking station into a generic 24-inch monitor running at Full HD (1920x1080), then just about any dock will do. Things get trickier, though, if you intend to use a high-resolution display, especially a new 5K monitor, or if you want to drive two 4K displays to create your own Mission Control.
Pay special attention to refresh rates, too. Some docks support advanced configurations at a reduced refresh rate of 30 Hz instead of the native 60 Hz. Over time, that can be fatiguing to your eyes.
Get the bigger picture: multi-tasking monitors for power users
Do the ergonomics work for you?
In all likelihood, you've got your desk arranged exactly as you would like it. Will your new dock fit in that arrangement?
Most docks are designed to be placed a specific way, with a bunch of ports in the back for permanently connected devices and one or two ports in front for connecting devices like USB flash drives and smartphones. Where things get tricky is if the cable that connects to your PC is hard wired to one side of the dock but the matching port on the laptop is on the other side and the cable is not quite long enough.
That's where a picture is worth a thousand specs. Check out the product shots and see if the dock configuration will work in your space. If it won't, don't worry; there are literally hundreds of other choices, and one of them is certain to be a better fit.