Burney's Legal Tech Reviews: Laptop Docking Stations

Brett Burney is the Legal Technology Support Coordinator at Thompson Hine in Cleveland, Ohio. He regularly reviews products for Law.com’s Automated Lawyer and Law Office Computing Magazine. Feel free to e-mail Brett with your legal technology questions .

Laptop, You Are Cleared For Docking

If you use a laptop as your “primary” computer, then a docking station just makes sense. When you go on the road, all you really need to take is your laptop and a power cord. But when you’re in the office, you might prefer to use an external keyboard, mouse, and monitor. Sure you could plug all these items directly into your laptop, but docking stations and port replicators do the job much easier.

A full docking station mirrors all of the ports, plugs, and slots on your laptop. External devices like keyboards, mice, scanners, printers, and monitors all plug into the docking station along with power and network cables and anything else that you normally plug directly into your laptop. When you plug your laptop into the docking station, all of those devices operate as if they were connected directly to the laptop. The docking station becomes an extension of the laptop.

Most laptop manufacturers offer docking stations that are specifically designed for their own models. You can purchase universal docking stations that fit a variety of laptops, but they’re not going to be as seamless to use as ones from your laptop manufacturer.

Feed Your Laptop to an Oyster

Most laptops purchased in the last year or two have a built-in wireless network card. If you don’t have a built-in Wi-Fi card, then you’ll need to purchase and install one which usually come in the form of a PCMCIA card.

Since I didn’t have a docking station for my own laptop, I ventured out into cyberspace to find something compatible and found the Oyster. The Oyster is not so much a true docking station as much as a laptop stand that offers cable management and a USB 2.0 hub hidden inside.

The main benefit of the Oyster is that it stands your laptop upright so that you don’t have hunch over your desk to look at your screen. To work correctly in the Oyster, your laptop must be able to open 180 degrees. A majority of laptops will do this, but if yours doesn’t, you obviously do not want to force it.

The keyboard of your laptop must also be small enough to fit into the slot of the Oyster. This shouldn’t be a problem since most laptop keyboards are less than 1 3/4″ thick which means they’ll fit just fine.

Setting up the Oyster was fairly easy although it does take several minutes to get all the cables and wires managed properly. The one-page instruction sheet is very helpful. There are two Philips-head screws on the top of the Oyster that secure the back of the unit. To get to them you must pop off the rubber “stopper” at the top. Once you unscrew and lift off the back, it reveals a hollow area and a USB 2.0 hub at the bottom. The USB hub will accommodate all of your peripherals such as your keyboard and mouse. The hollow area is big enough to hold the power brick of your laptop if you would like it be out of the way.

The bottom of the Oyster has several insets and small slots that easily accommodate various sized wires and cables. This allows you to thread everything from your power cord to your network cable to your mouse “tail” into the back of the Oyster and out of sight from the top of your desk. A small Velcro strap holds the cables up along the back so that they can stick out of the top and plug into the back of your laptop as it sits in the Oyster.

Using the Oyster for the first time felt a little strange – I’ve just leaned over my laptop for so many years now that looking at it at eye level just felt weird. I was also afraid that the laptop was too far back and would require me to squint to see the screen. By the middle of the day, however, I wouldn’t have traded the Oyster for anything. I realized how sloppy my posture was throughout the day before and the Oyster brought up my laptop to meet me face-to-face.

The Oyster also helped me make my desk look more professional. Before the Oyster, wires were draped everywhere across my desk and made it look cluttered. With all of my wires threaded through the Oyster, my desk looks good and I feel a little more sane. It’s almost like I have a flat-panel monitor on my desk rather than a bulky laptop. And the Oyster is wonderfully complemented by a wireless keyboard and mouse to streamline the look even further.

If your laptop has the CD/DVD tray on the front of the unit, you won’t be able to get to it while it’s docked in the Oyster. Likewise if your speakers are positioned on the front of your laptop, they will obviously be muffled.

At $149 from Amazon.com, some people complain that the Oyster is a little expensive. I would probably agree with that but I also value a nice, clean desk. The Oyster allows me to use my laptop as my “main” computer while in the office, and saves the laptop keyboard for when I really need it on the road.

Clone your Ports

If the Oyster doesn’t suit your taste, then consider a port replicator. While you’re in the office, you can have several external devices plugged into the port replicator instead of your laptop. When you need to hit the road, you simply unplug the one device rather than 4 or 5 items.

One of the products I would recommend is the Kensington Universal Docking Station. Granted, they call their product a “docking station” instead of a port replicator, but the lines are blurred slightly when it comes to these definitions.

The Kensington Universal Docking Station simply plugs into your laptop through a USB port. Once you install the software, the Universal Docking Station provides 2 USB 2.0 ports; 1 parallel port; 1 serial port; 2 PS/2 ports; and 1 Ethernet port. The Kensington Universal Docking Station is a little big, but it is also the only port replicator I found that offers USB 2.0 (rather than USB 1.0) and Ethernet ports. Since you get some additional functionality, Kensington gets a little more green. The Universal Docking Station is priced at $130 although I found some good deals online.

The Mini Port Replicator from Keyspan lives up to it’s “mini” name and weighs just 2 ounces. It only offers 1 serial port; 1 parallel port; and 2 USB 1.0 ports. To make it more portable, the Keyspan Mini Port Replicator can run most external devices off the power from the USB port of your laptop computer so you don’t need to take an additional power brick with you. The Mini Port Replicator only costs $79.

Another port replicator comes from the venerable laptop accessory company of Targus. The Targus Replicator weighs 5 ounces and provides 2 USB 1.0 ports; 1 serial port; 1 parallel port; and 2 PS/2 ports. It can also power most devices from the USB port of your computer but if you’re going to be using all those ports, there’s a good bet you’ll need the power brick. The Targus Replicator is priced at $79.99.

As I said before, the biggest advantage of having a port replicator is simply ease of use when you’re ready to grab your laptop off your desk and go. If you’re interested in getting a better handle on the wires and cables on your desk, then a port replicator is an excellent idea.

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