Review: 5 universal docking stations make quick connections

Link your laptop to an office full of peripherals with one USB cable.

Whether you're away from the office for an hour, a day or a week, the last thing you want to do when you get back is fumble with a slew of cables in order to get your notebook connected. A docking station can make it a lot quicker and easier to reconnect to your wired network, human-size keyboard and mouse, easy-on-the eyes external monitor, printer and other peripherals.

In other words, it's a notebook accessory that says, "Welcome home."

While consumers haven't been buying docking stations in great numbers, businesses have embraced them as a way to quickly make and break notebook connections in the office. Last year, companies outfitted 63% of laptops with docks, a proportion that has increased from 35% in 2006, according to figures from analysis firm The NPD Group Inc.

Not all docks are created equal, however. Docking stations made for a specific notebook let you snap the computer securely into place and immediately connect the video to an external monitor, link to peripherals, exchange a Wi-Fi network link for a faster wired connection and begin to charge the system's battery in one step.

Universal docking stations, on the other hand, work equally well with a multitude of laptops. Instead of being built for a specific machine to snap into, they connect to your laptop via a single USB cable, making them easy to connect and disconnect.

But while most universal docks connect to your network, monitor and peripherals with ease, they don't charge your notebook's battery, which is their biggest drawback. A less important downside is that USB-based docks can't display the entire boot-up procedure, making troubleshooting an errant machine difficult. However, you can always just watch the start-up on the notebook's screen if there's an issue.

I recommend getting a dedicated dock if there's one made for your notebook -- but it might not be that easy. Many notebooks don't have a dedicated docking station for sale. For example, Dell Inc.'s business-oriented Latitude E4300 has a capable dock for $110, while the Inspiron 13, a similar machine aimed at home users, has no dedicated dock available.

If you can't buy a dedicated dock, a universal dock is a great solution. And it does provide one advantage: It can be used with a new notebook if you switch systems.

Some docks lie flat; others stand up
Some docks lie flat; others stand up.

Universal docks have two basic designs: Some stand up; others lie down. For instance, products from Kensington, Sakar and Targus are designed to fit underneath the notebook, and some provide a comfortable tilt to the keyboard. Others, like those from Toshiba and Vantec, sit upright alongside the notebook.

Regardless of their shape, they provide connectors for audio, networking and video, plus a bunch of USB ports for connecting everything from a keyboard and mouse to a memory key and DVD drive. Some even have specialty items like old-school RS-232 serial and PS/2 connection ports, speakers, and fans that can cope with an overheating notebook.

I put five universal docks through their paces by mimicking how businesspeople come and go. I set up each dock to my office infrastructure, including an external monitor and several peripherals, and gave each one a good workout, connecting, disengaging and reconnecting many times. (For details, see "How I tested.")

One thing is for certain: Every notebook deserves a welcoming dock to come home to. Which one you choose depends on how and where you work.

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