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5 Things to Consider When Choosing a USB-C Hub or Docking Station

  • 6 min read

It seems like every year, laptops and notebooks get thinner, lighter, and more compact. While that might be great for those who are looking for portability, it doesn't come without its drawbacks. One side effect of this trend is that, generally speaking, these ultra-thin notebooks come with next-to-no ports. You'll be lucky to get more than 2.

So what are you supposed to do if you love the portability of notebooks, but you still want to be able to connect multiple devices, plug in external hard drives, or hook up to an external monitor?

That's where USB-C hubs and docking stations come in. With one of these, you can transform just 1 of your laptop's USB-C ports into multiple ports allowing you to reclaim the connectivity options that we used to have.

But if you rush straight to Amazon and buy the first hub or docking station that looks cool, there's a good chance you'll end up with something that either doesn't work, or doesn't do everything you need it to do.

So, instead of pulling out your wallet, you'd be better off putting on your reading glasses and checking out our list of 5 things to consider when choosing a USB-C hub or docking station.

1. Connector Type

At present, there are two USB-C hub connection types. The first is the classic wired connection, and the second is a wire-free hub which plugs directly into your laptop.

Wired hubs have a built-in cable which connects to your laptop. This allows you to move the hub around more on your desk, but the cable can also get in the way or affect portability.

Wire-free hubs have built-in connectors which plug directly into your laptop's ports. With this kind of hub, you can easily carry your laptop around with you and keep the hub connected the whole time.

If you can't quite picture the difference, here's an example:

Anker PowerExpand 11-in-1 USB-C PD Hub is a classic wired hub, while Anker PowerExpand Direct 7-in-2 USB-C PD Media Hub is a wire-free hub that plugs directly into your MacBook.

2. Number of Ports

When it comes to the number of ports, there are two things to consider:

"What do I need today?" and "What might I need tomorrow?"

If you're just looking for something to do the basics, then you can choose a hub or docking station with fewer ports that will be able to connect most common devices like external hard drives, keyboards, and mice.

But if you think you might consider upgrading your home office in the future, then it's probably best to get something with more ports than you can use right now, but will keep you covered for the future.

And if you are looking for something future-proof, you can't go wrong with Anker PowerExpand 11-in-1 USB-C PD Hub.

3. Type of Port

Next is the type of port. It's not enough to say that you want to transfer files, or stream video, because there are so many different types of port. You need to understand which type of port you actually need.

So let's take a look at them one by one.

(1) Media Display

① HDMI:

 

HDMI is currently the most commonly used video transmission interface. HDMI transmits both digital audio and video signals, and is relatively good at combatting interference.

Of course, the resolution that you can achieve doesn't just depend on the HDMI type, it also depends on the specs of your USB-C hub / docking station and laptop.

② DisplayPort

 

DisplayPort is still fairly uncommon, but it generally has better specs than HDMI, making it a popular choice with gamers. Like HDMI, DisplayPort also transmits both audio and video signals.

DisplayPort Version Transmission Rate 1080p 2K 4K
DisplayPort 1.2 21.6 Gbps 240Hz 144Hz 60Hz
DisplayPort 1.4 32.4 Gbps 240Hz 144Hz240Hz 60Hz120Hz

 

DisplayPort 1.2 is much more common than DisplayPort 1.4. If you want to get a display output of 4K@60Hz you need to confirm the following 3 things:

  • Your laptop's USB-C port must support the DisplayPort protocol. You can check your user manual or ask your laptop's manufacturer to confirm
  • Your USB-C hub's DisplayPort must support 4K@60HZ
  • The monitor you want to connect must also support 4K@60Hz

When it comes to data transmission, whether that be video or audio, the results are only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. This means that if you want to achieve 4K@60Hz display, then your monitor, your laptop's port, and your USB-C hub must all be able to support 4K@60Hz. If only one of them falls short, then everything else will fall short too.

(2) File Transfer

There are three main types of file transfer interfaces: TF card, SD card, and USB.

① TF card and SD card

TF card and SD card interfaces are used for memory cards. With these interfaces, you not only need to pay attention to the size of your memory card, but you also need to check whether or not your card is UHS-I or UHS-II.
  • UHS-I cards only have a single row of chips on the back of the card, and a UHS-I interface is only designed to read this row. The theoretical transmission speed is 104 MB/s
  • UHS-II cards have two rows of chips and the theoretical transmission speed is 312MB/s. UHS-II interfaces are backwards compatible with UHS-I cards
So when purchasing a USB-C hub for use with memory cards, you need to check what kind of card you are using, and then choose the best USB-C hub to match that card.

② USB:

When it comes to USB, we need to look at both the type of USB, and also the protocol.
  • Interface Type:
USB interfaces can be roughly separated into USB-A, USB-B, USB-C, and Micro USB. Of these, USB-A and USB-C are by far the most common, but let's take a closer look below:
  • Protocol:
Some of the main USB protocols are USB 2.0, USB 3.0, USB 3.1 Gen 1, USB 3.2 Gen 1, USB 3.1, USB 3.1 Gen 2, USB 3.2 Gen 2, Thunderbolt 3, and Thunderbolt 4.
Now, there's a good chance that the above looks like some bizarre alien language, so let's look at it a bit more simply. The protocol of a USB port will determine the maximum bandwidth, which will affect the maximum data transfer speed that the port can support.
For example:
  • USB 2.0: Maximum bandwidth of 480 Mbps (60 MB/s)
  • USB 3.2 Gen 1, USB 3.1 Gen 1, USB 3.0: Maximum bandwidth of 5 Gbps (550 MB/s)
  • USB 3.2 Gen 2, USB 3.1 Gen 2, USB 3.1: Maximum bandwidth of 10 Gbps (1050 MB/s)
  • Thunderbolt 3, Thunderbolt 4: Maximum bandwidth of 40 Gbps

When buying a USB-C hub, another thing to consider is that this bandwidth is shared between all of the ports, and often the majority of the bandwidth is dedicated to the high-speed USB ports. This can reduce the performance of other ports including the ports that are used for media display.This also means that if you buy a cheaper USB-C hub, it's likely that the manufacturer will sacrifice display resolution and instead save that bandwidth for file transfer or other functions.

So if you need to make sure that all of your ports can perform at full capacity, then it's a good idea to invest in something with a higher bandwidth. To do that, then the best option might be to spend that bit more to upgrade to a Thunderbolt 4 docking station.

(3) Ethernet:

At present, really the only choice in terms of network connection on USB-C hubs is a gigabit Ethernet port. This can provide you with a 1 Gbps transmission rate and theoretical download speeds of 125 MB/s.

(4) Charging:

If your laptop only has 1 USB-C port, and that happens to also be the port that you use for charging, then you're probaby wondering how it's possible to use a USB-C hub while charging your laptop.

Fortunately there are some USB-C hubs on the market that can support Power Delivery (PD) pass-through charging. Pass-through charging is where you connect the hub to your laptop, and then connect your laptop's USB-C charger to the hub's PD input port. Some hubs with this feature can even support up to 100W charging.

4. Compatibility

The best way to make sure that the USB-C hub you're interested in can work with your laptop is to check the product page online or to ask customer service.

5. Portability

If you need something that's lightweight and compact, then you're better off going for a USB-C hub. While they do range in size, they are generally small enough to be carried around easily.

If size is not an issue, and you are mainly focused on performance, then a docking station would be a better fit.

Docking stations are heavier, larger, and some even come with bulky power adapters. However, they also feature higher specs than USB-C hubs.

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