How do docking stations work?

Docking stations combine the portability of a laptop with the practicality of a desktop computer

Wednesday, 21 April, 2021

If you’ve never used a docking station before, it’s easy to underestimate the transformative effect they can have on a laptop or notebook computer.

These monochrome plastic boxes may be unattractive, but they’re incredibly useful, giving portable computers a welcome dose of desktop practicality.

Like many modern electronic devices, they’ve evolved from humble beginnings, and a 2021-spec docking station will cost a couple of hundred pounds.

It’s money well spent.

Any port in a storm

Docking stations were originally known as port replicators, because that’s pretty much all they did.

Plugging a laptop into one of these devices effectively allowed you to run several peripherals through a single port.

This was useful since many laptops only had one or two USB sockets, and often lacked VGA interfaces or HDMI ports.

It’s still possible to buy standalone devices which provide multiple inputs through a single socket – usually with a blend of HDMI, USB-A, USB-C and possibly microSD inputs.

However, docking stations have evolved to become much more powerful and effective than a mere multimedia hub (as port replicators are now more commonly known).

A docking station will plug into the mains, supplying power to a laptop as soon as it’s connected to ensure the battery is fully topped up in readiness for being taken elsewhere.

They support external speaker inputs through 3.5mm audio jacks or optical input cables, enabling desktop speakers to beef up notoriously puny laptop sound output.

They can either be used to provide a second display output alongside the laptop’s own screen, or to redirect visual output to a larger desktop monitor without any latency or interference.

Crucially, they generally have Ethernet ports. In tandem with Powerline adaptors, that effectively allows you to hardwire a computer to your WiFi router, anywhere in the house.

Robots in disguise

The transformative nature of docking stations can be harnessed by plugging in a single cable – typically one of the modern USB-C or Thunderbolt cables.

These can support significant volumes of data throughput per second (10Gbps and 40Gbps respectively), as well as underpinning up to 100W of power transference.

Older connectors like the ubiquitous USB-A sockets can’t handle this many processes, while they also tended to slow down computers because docking units needed their own chipsets.

Some modern docking units support dynamic bandwidth adjustment, enabling users to prioritise either transfer rates or resolution/refresh rates.

They wake a laptop from sleep in a couple of seconds in response to any peripheral being activated, whether it’s a hardwired keyboard or wireless mouse.

Providing the USB connector for these devices is within a few feet, it should be possible to operate multiple wireless peripherals without line of sight being required.

And if you don’t have a cupboard to hide a docking station in, some of today’s models are finished in brushed steel with curved edges and vertical stands, for added aesthetic value.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!