Review: 5 universal docking stations make quick connections

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

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How I tested

Some universal docking stations have video, networking and other office creature comforts, while others specialize in cooling fans and audio. To sift through all the possibilities, I tried out all five docks with three notebooks of differing size and vintage: a tiny, three-month-old Lenovo IdeaPad S10 netbook, a 15-in. Dell Vostro 1510 that's about a year old, and an antediluvian 15-in. IBM ThinkPad R50 (about five years old). All performance testing was done with the Vostro 1510.

After unpacking each dock, I measured it, weighed it and counted the number and variety of ports it offers. I then connected it to each notebook and made sure that each port worked with nine typical USB devices:

  • Kingston 512MB memory key
  • Western Digital MyBook 500GB external hard drive
  • Toshiba PA 3450U-1DVZ external DVD drive
  • Logitech V-450 wireless mouse
  • Flip Mino camcorder
  • Brother 2170W wireless laser printer
  • Sony ICD-UX70 voice recorder
  • Memorex MX2710 keyboard
  • USB hub with three ports

To my surprise, nearly every device worked with each dock. The one exception was the Toshiba DVD drive, which wouldn't work with the Sakar iConcepts dock.

I set up each dock that provides video support with a Dell E172FPb 17-in. LCD monitor, and I connected each dock that has an Ethernet connector to a 100Mbit/sec. network. I also tried several flash cards on the iConcepts docking station, the only one equipped with card readers.

Finally, I measured how much power each system uses with four USB devices and LAN cable connected. For those with AC adapters, I connected their power packs to a Kill A Watt power meter, and for those that were USB-powered, I used a USB cord with the power cables connected to a multimeter. To see how long each device takes to get to work, I disconnected the USB link and timed how long it took for the dock to restart its video and keyboard after being reconnected.

To see the complete specifications, features and performance results for the docks, see our comparison chart.

Conclusions

While it can't compare with the convenience of a docking station designed for a specific notebook, a universal dock can make easy work of connecting and disconnecting a notebook on a desk. On the other hand, none of those I looked at measured up to all my mobile needs. Each lacked at least one key ingredient that I'd find hard to live without.

Maybe my standards are too high, but in a perfect world, I'd create my own dock from the best attributes of these five. I'd start with the flash-card reader of the iConcepts dock, adding in the Kensington's Mac compatibility, the Toshiba's high-resolution video and digital audio, and the Targus's RS-232 port -- because you never know what you'll need to connect with. I'd package it all into something the size of the Vantec dock, but with a weighted base. Then I'd have a perfect dock to come home to.

In the meantime, though, my choice is the Toshiba Dynadock -- with its high-resolution video, assortment of ports and digital audio, it comes closest to my ideal "welcome home" from the road.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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