It was commonplace for consumer notebooks in the mid-2000’s to have proprietary, dedicated docking solutions. That’s still the case in the business market, but almost non-existent in the consumer market. What happened? We explain in this article.
The Rise and Fall of the Dedicated Docking Station
Dedicated docking solutions allow you to greatly expand the connectivity offered by the ports onboard your notebook. They additionally offer the convenience of allowing you to pick up and move your notebook without having to disconnect all of your devices, and vice versa when reconnecting. Docking stations are still popular in the business world, where most mid- to high-end model lines have snap-in solutions. The Lenovo ThinkPad T460s is one example of a business notebook with a snap-in docking solution. (For more on business notebooks, see our feature: What Makes a True Business Notebook?)
The major notebook brands used to offer dedicated solutions for their consumer model lines, but they’ve been largely discontinued since around 2009. HP last offered them on their model lineup on the Pavilion dv5t. Since then, if you wanted a docking station on a consumer notebook, you were largely obligated to go with aftermarket USB-based models. The Targus USB 3.0 DV is one example. So what happened to docking stations in the consumer world?
The Introduction of USB 3.0
Part of the reason proprietary docking solutions existed was due to the limitations of input/output ports. Up until about 2010, USB 2.0 was the fastest commonly-available port in the mainstream. It’s slow by today’s standards, incapable of handling the throughput required by many devices at once, especially monitors and TVs. It therefore wasn’t suitable for comprehensive docking solutions. Proprietary docking solutions worked around USB 2.0’s limitations by using a special connection with higher bandwidth.
2010 saw the mainstream introduction of the USB 3.0 standard, which offered up to 10x the bandwidth of USB 2.0. It essentially eliminated one of the reasons proprietary docking stations existed, but wasn’t itself a decisive factor in why the dedicated docking stations disappeared. Nonetheless, the availability of a standard high-bandwidth port was a factor.
Things Went Wireless
From the beginning to the end of the 2000’s, we saw a massive migration towards wireless in consumer electronics. On the PC side of the equation, that meant everything from mice and keyboards to Wi-Fi. The latter allowed just about any Wi-Fi-enabled device to be connected up to the Internet. Wireless printing and network-attached storage (NAS) became commonplace. The rise in popularity of Bluetooth, arguably a personal form of Wi-Fi, took wireless a step further by eliminating the need for a physical dongle to be connected. A wireless mouse usually requires a USB dongle to be connected, but a Bluetooth mouse would connect directly to a notebook’s Bluetooth signal, thus no dongle is required.
In essence, wireless technology has reduced the need to physically connect devices, which is the main reason why docking stations were initially popular. With today’s Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructure, it seems unlikely the need for plugs will increase. At the same time, it’s a safe bet that there’s going to be an almost perpetual need to plug things in, until the undetermined date when every device in use has wireless capability.
Why Bother with Docks?
Despite high-bandwidth ports, IoT, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other technologies, here we are in 2016 seeing an increased interest in consumer docking stations. Why? The answer requires a bit of story-telling for background. The short version is that technology has advanced so rapidly that the forefront of the market is still waiting for everyone else to catch up. Let’s take a deeper look.
The Thinness Craze
The universal trend with transistor-based devices is that they get smaller over time. It’s Moore’s law; every so often, there will be a technological breakthrough that allows us to fit twice the amount of transistors into the same amount of space. Loosely stated, transistors give electronic devices their processing power, and this is why the same size device today is exponentially faster than one the same size from years before. Today, the limitation in consumer electronic device design is no longer the electronic component, as it’s become small enough to fit just about anywhere. But your fingers wouldn’t be able to accurately tap a one-by-one inch screen, nor would a screen that size fit a whole lot of data anyway. So, there’s a practical limit on how small a screen-based device like a notebook or tablet can be, in terms of length and width. That leaves one dimension where things can still get smaller: thinness. (Weight is also important, but thinness is what makes headlines. Weight usually gets reduced as a by-product of going thin.)
In the mid-2000’s, it was considered normal for a 15-inch notebook like the HP Pavilion dv5000z to weigh almost seven pounds, and measure nearly an inch and a half thick. Today, we’d laugh at that next to ultra-sleek models like the Dell XPS 15 (2016). But the thickness gave those older computers the perhaps-unplanned advantage of being able to fit a lot of ports. Those notebooks weren’t any thicker than they had to be, but technological limitations kept them thick enough to fit the common ports. Remember, at the time, there was a greater need for wired devices than there are now, so ports were more important (pun intended). It just worked out.
Since the days of those old and thick notebooks, the aforementioned advances in technology that allowed us to fit electronics into much smaller places have permitted notebooks and other devices to become much thinner. The race to create the thinnest devices has made the industry come full circle. No longer is electronic technology dictating design, but the other way around. The thinness craze has actually outstripped the pace at which the industry is able to develop technology to match. A prime example of this is micro-USB – you know, the miniature USB connectors on many smartphones used (and continue to use) for charging. Micro-USB exists because of the smartphone industry. It’s the same old USB standard as on computers, but the connector is smaller, because the standard rectangular USB-A connector won’t fit along the edge of a typical smartphone.
The same problem has hit the PC industry. Notebooks and tablets on the bleeding edge of today’s design are so thin that they have trouble fitting USB-A connectors. It goes unsaid that a device too thin for USB-A also wouldn’t fit HDMI or DisplayPort for video out, let alone Ethernet, or a legacy port like VGA. The problem with making a device thicker for the sake of fitting ports is, well, that it would be thicker than it absolutely could be. Consumers are willing to forego function for the sake of getting a device that’s as thin as possible. The sleek Apple MacBook (2016) is perhaps the clearest example of this mentality. It has but one port, which also happens to be used for power, so if you plug it in, you have no ports!
All told, device design has been dragging the rest of the industry behind the wagon, because design is what consumers want. Somehow, all of this has to meet in the middle. The industry standard makers think they have just the solution.
The Introduction of USB-C
To address the frustrations of the thinness craze, and to help bridge the standards gap between mobile devices and regular computers, the industry has developed a new port connector: USB-C. (For a full rundown on this technology, read our primer: USB-C: Do You Need It Now?)
In short, USB-C is a new ultra-slim connector that’s intended to be used for just about everything, including traditional USB duties like connecting devices, and duties decidedly not associated with USB, like video out. USB-C adapters are available to convert it to standard USB-A, HDMI, DisplayPort, VGA, and others. The actual technology behind USB-C is still USB, but it could be very fast in the form of USB 3.0, 3.1, or even Thunderbolt 3.
What USB-C leaves us with is flexibility. The design-focused consumer electronics industry can now get away with leaving out certain ports in place of USB-C, since the latter is supposed to do it all. The question they’re left with is, how many USB-C ports do we need on a given device? We’re early in the adoption stage for USB-C, yet are still seeing relatively high-end devices come out without support for it. It’s exceptionally rare for more than one USB-C port to be included on any given device. It would appear, at least on devices with the thinnest profiles, that designers are betting a single USB-C is sufficient.
The Huawei Matebook is a prime example of a 2-in-1 notebook/tablet that’s designed to look good above all else, and sacrifices ports for thinness. It has just USB-C and a headphone/microphone jack. So what do you do when you need more ports? Well – that’s where the docking station makes a comeback.
The Return of the Docking Station
It may not be as epic as Return of the Jedi, but the return of the docking station in consumer electronics is similar in the sense that we’re re-adopting a practice that largely went by the wayside many years ago. (Remember, this article is about the consumer market, not the business market, where docking stations have maintained their popularity.)
If you’re buying a design-first device with USB-C, like the just-mentioned Huawei Matebook, or the Samsung Galaxy TabPro S, the solution to get more physical ports is to go back to the good ‘ol docking station. The industry has taken a renewed interest in these external devices, mostly because they can charge money for them. Most makers of 2-in-1’s and premium devices offer their own-branded docking stations, and the aftermarket has caught on as well. Even the manufacturer-branded docks should be compatible across USB-C devices. Here are several examples:
Huawei MateDock (https://www.amazon.com/Huawei-MateDock-USB-C-Multiport-Adapter/dp/B01GNL92YY): features 2x USB-A 3.0, Ethernet, HDMI, and VGA; $89.
HP Elite USB-C Docking Station (http://store.hp.com/us/en/pdp/hp-elite-usb-c-docking-station): features DisplayPort, HDMI, Ethernet, and 5x USB-A 3.0 ports; $149.
Dell Dock WD15 USB-C Docking Station (http://accessories.dell.com/sna/productdetail.aspx?c=us&l=en&s=dhs&cs=19&sku=450-aeuo): features 2x USB-A 2.0, 3x USB-A 3.0, HDMI, mini-DisplayPort, Ethernet, VGA, headphone/microphone jack; $200.
Acer USB Type-C Dock (http://us-store.acer.com/acer-usb-type-c-dock): features 2x USB-A 3.0, HDMI, Ethernet, 2x USB-C; $180.
Predictions and Conclusion
As described in our USB-C: Do You Need It Now? article, the adoption of USB-C will be very slow, taking many years to become as commonplace as USB-A is today. Safe to say, it’s not critical to have it right now. The current number of native USB-C devices is extraordinarily small, meaning even if you have a USB-C port, you’ll likely need to buy an adapter (or docking station) to bridge the gap with existing devices. Nonetheless, it’s a sacrifice you’ll have to make if you want a very thin device, considering USB-C is about all that fits on them. Is it a necessary evil? No – you could always buy a thicker device with the ports you need built-in. But the consumer market doesn’t always take a practical direction.
The introduction of USB-C coincides with the release of USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3, two technologies that provide exceptionally high bandwidth. USB-C has the potential to displace proprietary docking solutions when coupled with either technology, as one of the original reasons for their existence was the bandwidth limitations of existing ports. Therefore, one prediction is that we’ll see the proprietary docking station disappear in favor of the USB-C-based docking stations. This has more or less already happened in consumer devices, and it could only be a matter of time before the same changes spill into the business market.
A final prediction is that we’re going to always have a need to plug something in. You could easily get a personal PC setup where everything is wireless (minus power – and even that might change in the future). Problem is, if you need to go somewhere and connect to something, will that device support wireless? It’s not a guarantee, and won’t be until wired-only devices are phased out in favor of devices that are wireless. Considering wired versions of some devices, like displays, still outsell their wireless counterparts, it’s safe to say that’s going to take a very long time. For all intents and purposes, there’s going to be a perpetual need to be able to plug stuff in. So if you’re set on that ultra-thin device that has just USB-C, you might want to budget a little extra for a docking station.