Introduction and features
With 4K monitors becoming more widely available and with prices falling below £300/$300, one would have expected laptop manufacturers to smarten up and produce 4K friendly products. Well, it seems that this didn’t happen unless you run an Apple MacBook/MacBook Pro/MacBook Air.
Some flagship products like the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro still do not carry a mini-DisplayPort, opting instead for the more ubiquitous mini-HDMI connector. The latter, in its v1.4 iteration, is unfortunately not capable of running 4K.
Which is where the Startech USB 3.0 docking station (USB3DOCKHDPC) comes in and fills a niche. This is a great complementary accessory for Ultrabooks which usually have a couple of USB ports and no Ethernet connector (Apple’s newest MacBook has just one port).
This product, which comes with a two-year warranty, is targeted mostly at Ultrabook users who will want to use their computers in the office remotely, and still be able to connect an array of devices to it in record time.
Externally, this docking station is a slightly tapered, monolithic piece of plastic. Startech opted for that design because it can be tucked neatly under your laptop, but I saw it as an impractical solution, especially if you want to wire it up to half a dozen devices (which is certainly what I did).
It has plenty of ports to satisfy even the most demanding user: a GbE connector, DisplayPort, HDMI, four USB 3.0 ports (one of these on the side is a fast-charge, always-on model), an audio connector and a security lock. You won’t be able to charge your laptop, though, as it is a universal model.
Using it was a treat – just connect the USB 3.0 cable provided to any USB 3.0 port on your laptop and let the device work its magic. I did, however, deliberately choose to install the latest version of DisplayLink, the essential piece of technology that allows the docking station to communicate with your monitor. Startech also provides you with drivers on a CD.
The kit, which uses the DL5900 chipset, is also compatible with various flavours of Windows (both 32-bit and 64-bit), and Mac OS X (from 10.6 onwards), though not officially with Linux. We haven’t tried Windows 10 as well but there’s no reason it shouldn’t work.
As for the dock’s advertised 4K capabilities, I have to say that it worked perfectly well in an office environment (I didn’t try games or graphically demanding applications like Maya). If your laptop doesn’t support 4K natively, the dock will be able to offer 4K capabilities – you will still be able to use your laptop display as a second screen.
Alternatively if you don’t have a 4K monitor to hand, you can always use the HDMI and the DisplayPort in tandem to output to two full HD capable displays.
Another possible setup is using it with a MacBook Pro to power two 4K monitors in addition to the Retina Display of that laptop, giving you access to more than 23 megapixels (or about two 5K monitors). Note that Startech sells a (much more expensive) Thunderbolt 2 4K docking station for your Apple product.
There is a big, big caveat though – your laptop will need to be a powerful one to drive 4K content, possibly one with a dedicated graphics card. Even a Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro with a Core M processor and an Intel HD 5300 GPU was not enough to provide a flicker-free environment.
Switching to a more powerful computer (we used a gaming laptop with a dedicated graphics card) was the solution. Speaking of gaming, this solution is likely to be inadequate for multi-screen, hard-core laptop-based gaming.
Not only does it add latency and would cause lag, the chipset used in the device is still a 30Hz model making the issue worse. On top of that, USB uses processor resources which can have an impact on performance; better stick to a DisplayPort connector if you have one.
Another issue we noted was the fact that the USB 3.0 transfer rate on any of the ports seemed to be throttled, which limits how quickly you can move a file to or from an external USB 3.0 storage device. This might be something to do with the fact that some capacity was earmarked/ring-fenced for display duties.
The Startech Universal USB 3.0 4K Laptop Docking Station is a nice addition for anyone who uses their laptop out and about, and also at a desk. It allows you to plug in your laptop quickly and start working within mere seconds.
The sheer number of connectors that this docking station offers is a real treat. 4K actually works very well if you have a decent laptop, and another bonus is the fact that this isn’t a very expensive setup.
The tapered design is not something I am a fan of, but then this is a very subjective matter. You can’t charge your laptop yet and the USB transfer rate performance could have been better. I am being very picky though.
You can get this docking station for just over £145 from Amazon (around $215, AU$280), which is a reasonable long-term investment in a product that is not, unlike other proprietary docking stations, tied to particular brands or product families. It offers plenty of ports and true 4K capability for that money.
Expect the next iteration to pack a new chipset, offer USB 3.1 (type C – for the new MacBook, and type A) and potentially the ability to charge your laptop, which would bring down the number of cables needed to just one.