One of the infrastructure issues that has kept me from from upgrading my laptop until recently has been the lack of docking station solutions in modern laptops. In my office, I run a KVM switch that allows me to share a killer monitor, cordless keyboard, and a cordless mouse among four different computers – my laptop, my new quad-core tower, a Mac-mini, and any one of my old towers that I choose to shove into a space I’ve set aside in the right-rear corner of my office. In fact, my laptop support includes a second docking station that I can take to a client site allowing me to painlessly move my laptop back-and-forth.
Alas, newer laptops have abandoned docking stations in favor of USB based universal port replicators. The promise is that by hooking up one USB cable, you can hook your computer up to all your peripheral devices. If you look beyond flashy promise on the box, you will note a few problems including:
1. Your networking is connected – provided your notebook has wireless networking and this is supported in your environment. If you want to use a networking cable, you have to hook up two cables.
2. Your laptop is powered – until your battery gives out. If you want to hook up power, now you’re up to three cables. I’ve seen USB port replicators that claim to charge your laptop while it is plugged into the replicator, but I haven’t seen any that claim to run your laptop.
3. You spent the extra bucks to get the upgraded graphics card for your notebook but as soon as you go to one of these port replicators you have to install software (often Windows only) to burn up your CPU cycles while dumbing down your graphics to a compressed stream that can be pushed through a USB port.
Where are we? Assuming that you could plug in a dedicated video cable (and that’s a big assumption for reasons that will be discussed below), you have now spent $70 – $120 on an on/off switch and USB hub (a $20 value).
I understand the argument against docking stations – that every new computer requires a new docking station. This has certainly been the case in the past but I don’t think this “requirement” is real. I think it reflects:
1. A failure to drive any standards for the size, shape, and position of the docking connector. On every laptop, it’s always different and in a different place – thus requiring a custom docking station for each machine.
2. A failure of imagination stemming from (1). If the connector was always in the same place (for example in a defined orientation on the bottom of the laptop at a defined distance from the left edge of the computer, the front edge of the computer, and the bottom plane of the computer – i.e. the “surface of the tabletop” when the computer is resting on it’s feet – in other words, a known X, Y, and Z position) I can easily imagine a framework that could be adjusted in width and depth so that you could push your laptop over a front rail and into the frame against the resistance of spring loaded pockets in the rear corners and then engage the connector on the bottom of the computer by dropping the front edge of the computer behind the front rail and pushing it down. Trivial.
3. A failure to separate form from function. Docking stations have traditionally focused heavily on form – holding the notebook and guiding it into the docking connector and less so on the core function – give me a place where I can tuck my closed laptop out of the way and interact with it as though it was a desktop machine. I personally would not care if I the docking station was little more than wiring harness / umbilical that I had to connect by hand before shoving my computer under my monitor stand. The only two important functions are to minimize the number of cables I have to plug in (preferably to one) and to expose an on/off switch.
Anyway, having given up on finding a real solution, I set out to solve this problem as best I could by building a PVC frame to fit my laptop and then tie wrapping the four cables I need to connect (counter-clockwise from the left-front edge: network, video out, power, and USB to a hub) right next to the connectors that I need to plug them into. The trickiest part was securing the cables in the right orientation so that I could bend them easily without twisting during the connection process.
It works quite well and lifts the computer off the desk so that it gets better airflow.
The only thing that it does not do is provide an on/off switch. For this, I have to pull the computer out from under the monitor stand and flip open the lid. The upside of this is I get to use the fingerprint reader to log in before flipping the lid closed and shoving it under the monitor.