Best Tools for the Job

Empower Your Notebook Computer with a Dock

- 2007.03.27 - Tip Jar

Do you use a laptop as your primary computer? Is it your home computer, work computer, and travel computer all rolled into one?

Many laptop owners use a desktop computer at home and perhaps another one at work, with their laptop functioning as a travel computer - and perhaps also as a spare, if the desktop is having issues or being used by someone else.

Use Desktop Peripherals

If you use your laptop in place of a desktop, especially in more than one location, you owe it to yourself to look into docking stations. Docking stations range from dedicated devices made for a specific model of computer (and completely incompatible with anything else), to generic devices that connect to almost any computer you choose. A docking station can be as simple as a powered USB hub connected to an external keyboard and mouse, or as a massive device as the old Apple DuoDock or some current IBM ThinkPad docks that have their own video cards and hard drives.

Most docking stations fall somewhere between these extremes.

At a minimum, a good docking station should connect and disconnect quickly (one cable, one connector, or a design that the laptop just clicks into) and should have at least the same ports on it that the laptop itself does. My tablet PC, a Toshiba Portegé M400, has a docking station that comes very close to docking Nirvana, but it just misses the boat on account of its strangely absent headphone jack, requiring me to manually plug in my external speakers every time I dock.

Apple hasn't offered a docking station for a laptop since the PowerBook Duo series of the 1990s. There are third party docks for Apple laptops, such as BookEndz, but they're a bit clumsy, requiring you to line up and connect all of the ports with the matching plugs on the dock while juggling with all of the (often thick) cables running between the dock and your peripherals.

A good dock is a device that can be set up once and then stay put on your desk, not moving at all while connecting everything you need.

Consistency

I have a docking station at my house, one at my primary office, and one at the remote office I often use in another city. Each of these docking stations is connected to a similar 19" Samsung LCD monitor (for consistent monitor resolution, color depth, color balance, etc.), an old IBM Model M keyboard, a Microsoft laser mouse, and an identical Canon USB scanner.

At the main office and at home I have external speakers, and at all three locations I have wired ethernet. No matter which desk I sit at, I'm using full-featured desktop peripherals with none of the ergonomic compromises of a laptop's tiny keyboard, mouse, and screen.

When away from my desks, I have a small and light portable that - while nowhere near as comfortable - is far better than not having a computer at all.

The key to working with docking stations is consistency. Whatever you set up at your office should be the same as what you set up at home.

The key to working with docking stations is consistency. Whatever you set up at your office should be the same as what you set up at home. On a Mac, it's much more elegant, but you still want to use similar monitors because your documents remember the screen and window size from the last time you worked on them, and opening them with a different monitor attached can put things in strange places, sometimes completely out of reach.

You also want everything to use the same drivers, so your computer really can't tell the difference between being at home and at work.

OS X and Windows both do a good job of knowing the difference between docked and undocked, but Windows doesn't really understand the difference between dock number one and dock number two. OS X has no such issue, but you still want your default monitor, scanner, keyboard, and mouse to have the same buttons do the same thing by default. Identical peripherals make this possible.

Honestly, I would love to see Apple move back to docking stations. With a machine like the Axiotron Modbook it would make even more sense. A slate-type tablet that can just drop into a dock and give you monitor, keyboard, and mouse while propping the slate up at an angle and using it as a secondary monitor would be a wonderful setup for multiple location use.

As it is, I'm quite annoyed every time I have to plug in or unplug my external speakers to the port on my laptop, but it's far better than dealing with all of the other USB and video cables or a plastic brick to which they are all attached. My laptop drops onto the dock with a light push, comes out with the pull of a large lever, and, once docked, becomes a full desktop.

More Ports

My laptop itself has the following ports: 3 USB, FireWire (unpowered), line in, line out, headphone, VGA, modem, ethernet, and AC power. My docking station has 4 USB, VGA, DVI, modem, ethernet, and AC power.

FireWire, which I don't use (due to the lack of bus power), and audio are all that are missing, and the dock adds extra USB and digital video capability (it can drive two monitors through DVI and VGA simultaneously). The best part is that in addition to the four USB ports on the dock, the three on the laptop remain easily accessible and activate when the laptop is docked, providing a total of seven USB ports. That's a lot of versatility and connectivity, though if I replace my laptop with anything other than another Toshiba Portegé or Tecra, I'll need to invest in three completely different docks - and at $200 each, that's not a very attractive proposition.

Ergonomic Benefits

I used to use my laptops as they were, with their built-in screen, keyboard, and pointing device. After 14 years of using them that way, I have problems with my neck, shoulders, and wrists that forced me to look into switching to a desktop or alternative portable formats (tablet computing is great for reading email and browsing the Web).

Since switching to a large desktop monitor that can be properly positioned, a good desktop keyboard with firm keys, and an ergonomic mouse with a scroll wheel (much better than any scroll-zone or two-finger scrolling), the pain is largely gone, and my enjoyment of the more entertaining computer content (Web, DVD, writing for pleasure) is far better than it was with an undocked laptop.

Desktop computers were never an option for me, because I really want a consistent experience wherever I am, without worrying about whether I have all of my documents with me. A docked laptop gives me that. LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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