Why A Dock?

I have been testing some laptop docks and will post my experiences soon. But with apologies to the Marx Brothers, I thought I might talk a little about docks and why you might need them.

Laptop docks were originally actual docks— you slid your laptop into one. There was a special “dock” connector on the back of the laptop that fit a matching connector on the dock. These connectors were specific to the make and model of the laptop and carried connections for power, networking, video and accessories like printers and scanners.

But today’s laptops are getting thinner and thinner. The hinge at the back of the laptop is more sophisticated and able to swivel nearly 360 degrees. As a result, traditional docks have disappeared.

Today’s docks are really expansion devices. Rather than physically sliding your laptop into a device, you connect a single cable, typically Thunderbolt or USB-C. From there, the dock becomes a breakout box with various connections, similar to a traditional dock.

It should be noted that I/O technology like Thunderbolt and USB-C really has enabled the growth of docks. Without the ability to carry high-speed data and video over a single connection, docks would require multiple connections and, frankly, wouldn’t make much sense.

So, do you need a dock for your laptop? Since I’m an editor and I write about editing, I’m asking about a laptop used specifically for editing (or production).

Let’s take a look at what a dock does for an edit laptop.

I will avoid a long discussion of Mac vs. Windows, but if you’re on the Mac platform, you already know about the diminishing number and variety of ports. (You smug Windows users probably won’t be far behind at some point.) So first and foremost, a dock gives you more ports. That’s why I called docks expansion devices.

More Ports— Different Ports

For those with laptops that have only one or two ports, a dock is a godsend. For the rest of you, you might say “meh.” But consider the type of ports you get with a dock.

If you need to upload files, you normally use your laptop’s built-in Wi-Fi. But if you upload large files, wouldn’t you like to maximize the upload speed of your connection?

Recently, I was at a location that had both Wi-Fi and an ethernet connection. Without a dock, I could only use Wi-Fi and I had a connection speed of 92 Mbps. When I used a dock with an ethernet connection, that speed jumped to 302 Mbps.

A dock also lets you attach multiple monitors. The dock might have a DisplayPort connection that can drive multiple monitors. Or perhaps it has an HDMI connector for one monitor, and you can use Thunderbolt or USB-C to support another monitor.

Keeping a Safe Distance

A dock lets you move the function of connecting and disconnecting peripherals away from the laptop. There are a couple of reasons why this seemingly mundane advantage is important to me.

First, attaching and detaching connectors to the dock lessens wear and tear on the laptop’s connectors. Those connectors are sometimes tied to the laptop’s motherboard. If they get abused, the whole computer can go down and repairs can get expensive.

Second, I mentioned that laptops are getting thinner and thinner. Docks, while small, are thicker than laptops. The connectors have more room. You can more easily insert connectors, particularly when there are several things to connect.

While that might seem like a minor thing, if you can insert connectors easily there is less chance that they are only partially connected. Partially inserted connectors can lead to disconnects, which can lead to a disk unexpectedly unmounting during a file copy.

Lastly, when you use a dock in the field, connected devices are moved away from the computer. If someone connects a card reader or disk drive to the dock, there’s less chance that they’ll accidentally press a key on the laptop or knock over a coffee cup on it. Docks give you a buffer space.

It might seem that the reasons for having a dock are just conveniences, but when you’re on a deadline, your system has to work. That’s more than a convenience; it’s a necessity.