Best Laptop Docking Station of 2021
The CalDigit TS3 Plus Thunderbolt 3 Dock is a veritable Swiss Army Knife of a docking station. For starters, the dock supports both macOS and Windows via a high-speed Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C style) connection. It's also compact, with rubber feet that support both a vertical and horizontal orientation, depending on which fits your needs. This unit will fit all but the tightest spaces while keeping the commonly needed inputs like the SD card port on the front for easy access. Further increasing its usefulness is the 87-watt charging capacity which allows users to work on their machine hour after hour without depleting the batteries. Finally, the CalDigit supports dual monitors at 5120 x 2280 60Hz for the first screen and 4096 x 2160 60Hz for the second.
When connected to the CalDigit TS3, the user has no less than 15 ports — ranging from Thunderbolt 3 to analog audio in/out — to which almost every conceivable peripheral can be connected. Want to run dual monitors? No problem. Ethernet? Yup, it has that port, too. The unit also boasts a variety of USB-A and USB-C ports. So, what's the catch? Well, the TS3 is expensive, it can only support one laptop at a time, and it sports an industrial look that might not be to everyone's liking. However, we think that if you need a high-performance docking platform for your laptop, it's well worth the money as it's easy to use, lacks operating system restrictions, and the plain exterior speaks to its sturdy build.
The StarTech.com Triple Monitor USB 3.0 Docking Station connects seamlessly to both Windows and macOS machines via a USB-B to USB-A adapter cable (included). This slim unit houses 5 USB 3.0 ports (one of which is a 2.1 amp port for high-speed device charging), 2 Display Ports, and 1 HDMI. The StarTech also has Ethernet, microphone, and headset ports to round out the dock's peripheral device accommodations. Finally, the unit can manage up to 3 displays simultaneously — pretty impressive, in our minds.
While there is much to like about the StarTech dock, it is not without its shortcomings. Our main criticism is that the device will not charge the laptop when connected — though this may appeal to the consummate traveler as it eliminates an additional power adapter for the dock. As it is, the user must charge their laptop with a separate cord. Also, the max resolution of the display connected drops with each additional monitor added. For example, if running three monitors, the first will be 3840 x 2160p, while the other two will be just 2048 x 1152p. Regardless of these limitations (and the high cost), this unit will be a go-to for jet-setters as the power cord comes standard with common international power plug adaptors.
The VAVA USB C Docking Station, 12-in-1 Type C Hub is a fantastic deal as it balances high-end features with a manageable price tag. The unit comes with a built-in USB-C cable to connect to your computer, which means that it'll charge your battery (with 65 watts of power) as you work with devices attached to the dock. The myriad of ports on the VAVA will accommodate up to three screens at a time (with some limitations) while managing devices connected via USB 3.0, USB 2.0, HDMI, and audio ports.
While this unit certainly has a great deal to offer users, its low cost does not come without some performance issues. First off, there are some limitations when using this dock with Macs. Only newer MacBooks will support 4K resolution at 60Hz when using both HDMI ports — anything older than 2019 will go down to 4K resolution at 30Hz. Additionally, the dock will not support 3 independent displays with any macOS platform. As far as portability goes, the dock itself is sleek and slim. However, the AC/DC converter on the power cord is quite large, thus offsetting the dock's convenience for travel. However, we think that consumers on a budget will be willing to tolerate these limitations as the 15-inch USB-C cable connecting the dock to the laptop allows one to push the dock, and its mess of wires, out of the working area.
The economic ikling USB C Hub supports both Windows and macOS laptops, and, as the name suggests, it connects via a built-in USB-C cable. This connection type allows the station to charge (up to 87 watts) the computer's battery while connected. The dock supports wireless charging for a phone, too. Thus, the ikling makes the most of the desktop real estate and the often limited time to charge one's devices. Given that this device also has an impressive array of ports ranging from USB 3.0 to VGA, it might seem odd that it didn't rate higher in our estimation.
On the surface, the ikling has all the trappings of the higher-rated devices reviewed here. However, our investigation shows that this device does not have the same attention to detail and quality components. For example, the port layout encompasses the perimeter of the unit, producing a mess of wires when many devices are attached. Additionally, the monitor ports (VGA and HDMI) have a lower resolution which drop-off even further when more than one screen is in use. While we won't claim that this machine is of a superior design and construction, we do think it offers good value to those who can't afford a high-end docking station.
The Plugable USB 3.0 and USB-C Universal Laptop Docking Station for Windows would just be an average docking port if it weren't for its unique ability to accommodate laptops with both a USB-C and USB-A 3.0 cable (both included with purchase). Its vertical orientation is great for those working off the dock because the ports are easy to access, and the connected cables are all oriented in the same plane. All in all, the unit facilitates a shipshape workspace which is needed because it will support dual monitors at 1920 x 1200p with its 2 HDMI ports and a variety of other devices ranging from headsets to printers.
The gamers digesting the Plugable's list of features might be thinking that they've discovered a cheap way to get a gaming-quality dock. Unfortunately, they will be disappointed, because this model is designed for office-type work such as accessing the web and using productivity software. Additional performance shortfalls include an inability to charge the connected laptops and an inability to play HDCP video. While these are not insignificant shortcomings, we think that its competitive price tag earns it a spot on a thrifty consumer's shortlist.
The Kensington Thunderbolt 3 SD5300t is a premium docking station made for heavy use with both Windows and macOS laptops. Its low profile and unassuming flat gray exterior houses 14 ports that support, among many other devices, dual monitors, Ethernet, and audio. Frequently accessed ports, like an SD drive, are placed on the front. This unit weighs enough that it will stay in place when adding and removing items. Speaking of staying in place, it also has the Kensington security slot that allows the owner to tether it to a workstation — a great feature for shared workspaces. Furthermore, it charges the docked computer (up to 60 Watts) to keep cords to a minimum.
While the Kensington certainly has a lot of features to be proud of, they come at a premium. Given the high cost, it's surprising there is only one USB 3.0 port, and its laptop charging capacity is quite low compared to similarly priced models. That said, this device has some unique features, such as the security slot, which makes it worth the money in the right context. Further sweetening the deal is the USB-C to HDMI adapter that is included with the purchase.
For those that are constantly on the move, the pared-down, sleek design of the Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Dock Mini will be appealing. The unit has just 5 ports (2 x HDMI, and 1 x USB 3.0, USB 2.0, and Ethernet) and connects to the computer via a Thunderbolt 3 cable. Unlike other models using this connection type, this dock lacks an independent power source, so it draws power from your computer. This last feature can be positive or negative depending on the availability of power to charge your computer. However, it certainly reduces the cables one has to carry with the dock. Additionally, the Belkin doesn't suffer from compatibility issues as it plays well with macOS, Windows, and Chrome machines.
While the Belkin is great for traveling with a laptop, its value and appeal will decrease if used as a permanent desktop docking station device. The main reason for this is that it has few ports — audio and headset ports are noticeably absent. Also, as a desktop device, it wants for an independent power source that would charge it and the attached computer. Despite these desktop deficiencies, we think that travelers, college students, and freewheelin' freelancers will appreciate the small size and quality of this dock.
The Hiearcool MacBook Pro Docking station meets Apple's standard for thoughtful designs that look sharp and function smoothly. It makes use of the two USB-C slots on contemporary Macbook Air and Pro models. This design allows the dock to "pass through" power by plugging the laptop's power cord into the device while still maintaining plenty of bandwidth to operate peripheral devices such as monitors. Speaking of monitors, this unit has 2 HDMI ports that support a resolution of 4k at 60Hz for HDMI-1 and 4k at 30Hz for HDMI-2. The dock has 9 ports in all, including an SD and TF card reader, Ethernet, and 2 USB-A 3.0.
While we definitely like the Hiearcool's design, the cable that connects to the laptop is a little awkward to get hooked up as it must connect to two ports simultaneously. This also means that the device is limited to Mac models with the matching USB-C port configuration. Another drawback of this device is that the addition of a second monitor to the dock comes with a corresponding decrease in the frame rate from the first screen to the second. Finally, this device lacks a headset and audio port. Despite these criticisms, we still believe that this dock is a great deal if it matches your laptop.
The Acodot USB 3.0 Universal laptop docking station is a generic device that houses a wide variety of ports and includes several adaptor cables to help older devices limp along in the modern world. The Acodot supports two monitors with its built-in HDMI and DVI ports — each output resolution up to 1920x1200 at 60Hz. However, the HDMI port supports resolutions up to 2560x1440 at 50Hz with a single display. Finally, it has a few commonly accessed ports such as audio in and out as well as 2 USB 3.0 ports on the front of the device.
While the Acodot seems to have it all, in reality, it struggles to compete with its peers in convenience and efficiency. For example, the dock claims to support both Windows and macOS but struggles to accommodate the latter. Also, the Acodot requires a driver that involves a protracted download from the manufacturer's website. Adding fuel to a fire of faults, this model does not charge the attached laptop. All in all, we found that the Acodot was a subpar machine whose shortcomings are not mitigated by its below-average price.
The Plugable USB 3.0 Universal Laptop Docking Station Dual Monitor is a Windows general use device that attempts to cover a broad range of ports, both contemporary and antiquated. The dock house no less than 13 ports, as well as including three extra adaptor cables. Additionally, the Plugable supports a monitor resolution up to 2560x1440 at 50Hz (via its HDMI port) and a secondary screen up to 1920x1200 resolution at 60Hz.
The Plugable USB 3.0 Universal is a competitively priced, generic unit designed to be compatible with a wide range of devices. But, in the attempt to meet a broad set of needs, it fails to do any one thing at a high level. As such, the manufacturer warns that the device can not handle high-demand tasks such as gaming. Moreover, the unit lacks pass-through charging. As it is, one must use independent power cables for the laptop and docking station. Given these limitations, we recommend looking at some of the higher-rated devices here reviewed to get a more satisfying product.
Why You Should Trust Us
Senior Research Analyst Austin Palmer and Senior Review Editor Nick Miley have been working together testing and writing reviews for computer-related devices for the last two years. They have diverse but complementary backgrounds that make them uniquely suited to providing accurate and pertinent information to laypersons and experts alike. Specifically, Nick draws on years of scientific research where a laptop and a docking port are the indispensable tools of the trade for hooking into diverse devices of various vintages ranging from digital microscopes to AV systems. Conversely, Austin is a mega gamer who is constantly updating both his professional and private rigs to keep him at the cutting edge of the industry.
Our analysis of laptop docking stations is organized along four lines of investigation that collectively cover every aspect of laptop docking station use and functionality. The compatibility metric looks at laptop operating system compatibility and limitations. The dock physicalities metric looks at dock dimensions, orientation, and port locations. The port type metric catalogs the various port types housed in the units, laptop connection type, and power source. Finally, the displays metric investigates the number of monitors the units support, the connection type, and resolution.
Analysis and Test Results
The laptop docking market is saturated and as a result, picking the right device to meet your needs can be challenging. That's where we can lend a helping hand. This review of docking stations is an in-depth analysis of the leading devices on the market. We researched, bought, and tested each unit. Our evaluation included the range of functionality including port types, charging method as well as dock size and orientation. Additionally, we evaluated the number of displays supported and the corresponding resolution and refresh rate. Read on for the details of our analysis, including which models performed the best and why.
The first thing to do when shopping for a docking station is to make sure it will meet the requirements of one's laptop operating system. The most common operating systems used today are Windows and macOS. Most docking stations here reviewed support both of these operating systems. However, the Plugable models are limited to Windows machines.
On the other hand, the Hiearcool MacBook Pro Docking station is limited to Macbook Air and Pro models 2016 or later. The VAVA USB C Docking Station supports both operating systems but provides better monitor connection options if using a Windows machine. Finally, the Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Dock Mini supports not only macOS and Windows but Chrome OS as well.
Connecting one's laptop to a monitor is perhaps the most common cause for purchasing a docking station. As such, we made an evaluation of the connection ports supporting these devices, the number of monitors the docks can accommodate, and the resolution that the docks will maintain when one or more monitors are in use. As a general rule, the resolution goes down with each additional monitor added. With few exceptions, these docks max out at two monitors. Common connection ports are DVI, HDMI, VGA, DP, USB-C, and Thunderbolt 3. We recommend that one check their monitor(s) for connection type before deciding on a dock as this will narrow the list of candidates. However, if high-resolution over multiple screens is what you're after, the CalDigit TS3 Plus, Kensington Thunderbolt 3 SD5300t are the go-to devices.
The CalDigit TS3 Plus has two display ports, Thunderbolt 3 and DisplayPort. The prior supports 5120 x 2280 and the latter 4096 x 2160; both maintain a refresh rate of 60Hz. The Kensington Thunderbolt 3 SD5300t also supports a dual monitor set-up and maintains the same resolution and refresh rate as the CalDigit. However, the Kensington connects via HDMI and USB-C ports. While these units are the leaders in resolution and refresh for dual monitor set-up, many other docks have high resolution and refresh rates for single monitor systems. The VAVA USB C Docking Station and Hiearcool MacBook Pro Docking station maintain 4K resolution at 60Hz, which is plenty good for common computer applications.
The port types metric looks at both how the dock is connected to the laptop and what ports are housed in the dock itself. Connections to the laptop will be made with one of three cables, either USB 3.0, USB-C, or a Thunderbolt 3. While Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C ports are physically identical, the latter does not necessarily meet the performance standard set by the prior. Once the connection port is established, consider what peripheral devices will be connected to the dock. These devices could be anything from a printer to a couple of monitors or even a headset for video conferencing. Knowing at least some of the devices that will be used will make the specs discussed below much more valuable to the reader.
If your laptop and peripheries are fairly modern, then the CalDigit TS3 Plus Thunderbolt 3 Dock is a great choice. Thunderbolt ports offer great bandwidth, as will be shown in the displays metric discussion below. Alternately, if your laptop lacks a Thunderbolt port, the StarTech.com Triple Monitor USB 3.0 Docking Station connects via a USB-A 3.0 port. Both the CalDigit and the StarTech house a wide range of common ports, including USB ports, headset input, Ethernet, and HDMI, to name just a few.
Photographers and videographers will be happy to know that many docks have SD card readers for uploading visual media. As SD cards are rarely left in the dock when not actively being used, we preferred models such as the CalDigit TS3 Plus and the Kensington Thunderbolt 3 SD5300t that have located this port on the front of the dock as it provides easy access.
A final but important consideration is whether the dock has its own charging port or if it will draw power from the laptop. While some might not find this to be inconsequential as they carry a charger with their laptop at all times, we found it annoying to plug into a "convenient" docking station and then have to get down on hands and knees to plug our laptop into an electrical outlet. As such, we favored machines like the CalDigit TS3 Plus, VAVA, and ikling because they have their own power source and they charge the laptop when connected.
At their best, docking stations provide all the connectivity required to turn a laptop into a desktop while largely going unnoticed. We took stock of the physical dimensions of each unit, the orientation of the device (vertical or horizontal), and the location of the ports — particularly those ports that one will frequently access. The StarTech.com Triple Monitor is a good example of a well-organized flat unit, while the Plugable USB 3.0 and USB-C Universal Laptop Docking Station is a good example of a thoughtfully designed vertical unit. For those that want options, the CalDigit TS3 Plus Thunderbolt 3 Dock can be oriented either way. Regardless of orientation, we favored units like the CalDigit TS3 Plus and Plugable USB 3.0 and USB-C Universal that place frequently connected/disconnected items such as SD cards and headphone jacks on the front, facing the user, while the ports that support devices that tend to remain hooked up to the hub are on the back.
Unfortunately, vertical docks are often the largest and take up the most space. If desktop space is at a premium, the 9 x 1.7 x 0.6 inches VAVA USB C Docking Station is a good pick. If the VAVA is still just a little too big, check out the Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Dock Mini, which measures slightly smaller at 5.1 x 2.75 x 0.75 inches.
While some shoppers may want a compact device, a dock with larger dimensions is not always a bad thing. For example, if you need a dock that can support more than one user, the Plugable USB 3.0 and USB-C Universal Laptop Docking Station for Windows is the ticket. This unit is large for the class at 7.4 x 5.25 x 2.75 inches, but the size and vertical orientation make it ideal for placement in the middle of a large workspace so that it can be accessed without having to pick up or move the device.
This hands-on review of laptop docking stations is designed to make head-to-head comparisons of the products possible. We achieve this end by analyzing the product's features and performance in a series of metrics. Specifically, these metrics are compatibility with computer operating systems, port types, display/monitor capabilities, and physical characteristics. Despite the breadth of our investigation, this review's purpose and design are aimed at making the selection of the best docking station for your needs and budget a breeze. With that, let's get to work!
— Nick Miley and Austin Palmer