Can my home office hardware situation be improved?
December 4, 2020 10:41 PM   Subscribe

I am considering getting a docking station or widescreen monitor. Please help me think this through.

At my office at my actual workplace, I used a regular desktop computer, plus three monitors.

At home, I have a laptop, keyboard, and extra monitor, all on loan from my workplace. These items are all set up on the kitchen table and live there until the pandemic is over.

I have been working from home since March. I will continue to do so until the pandemic is over. My colleagues and I were recently told informally that after the pandemic is over, we would be allowed to continue working from home if we prefer.

Between the time the pandemic is over and 18 months from now, I might get some desk and office space in my home. And so I might work some days at the regular workplace, and some days at home. But I would likely need to return all my loaner equipment.

So, would a docking station help me? Would it allow me to have more working room? Would it make it easier to move my own laptop to and fro?

And can you tell me anything about widescreen monitors? It’s been a little hard to get used to fewer monitors.

I might put either or both of these items on my wish list this year. Or wait until next year.
posted by NotLost to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The docking station will make your laptop more portable in the sense that you can leave the monitor, keyboard, mouse, and power supply set up while you move the laptop (on its own) elsewhere. The dock won't necessarily decrease the number of cables on the desk, but at least it moves the majority of the cable "rats' nest" from the laptop to the docking station. FWIW I've found it preferable use a docking station that connects to my laptop via USB 3 over a docking station that requires lining up pins on the bottom of my laptop.

By the way, different monitors use different input connectors (e.g display port, HDMI, etc.). Docks vary on the number and types of ports, so you are going to want to choose a dock that is compatible with your particular monitor set up or choose monitors that are compatible with your dock.
posted by oceano at 12:16 AM on December 5, 2020

There's a product that's basically an LCD screen magnetically attached to the back of your laptop that you can slide out as a secondary screen or flip back as a presentation screen. You can even stack them to have three screens for your laptop! They will bulk up your laptop when attached, but the magnets make them easy to leave behind if you wish. Note: haven't used them, but just got one for my son for a Christmas present.
posted by rikschell at 6:35 AM on December 5, 2020

What display outputs does your work laptop have? What graphics processor? It's probably Intel UHD ####, but the numbers matter. This will control the resolution and refresh rate of external displays you can attach! Also: what refresh rate do you expect? For instance, most people at my company have circa 2018 Lenovo Thinkpad Carbon X1s, and even though that machine in theory supports 2x 4k DisplayPort through a USB-C/Thunderbolt docking station, they're limited to 30Hz refresh and it sucks. I can get 4k60, but only if I connect direct to a MiniDP port on my higher-end laptop.
posted by Alterscape at 7:47 AM on December 5, 2020

With a laptop, it's pretty much required to get a docking station if you want to run more than one external monitor, unless you have a DisplayPort 1.2(+) and monitors that support daisy-chaining.

I am in a similar boat. I was used to having multiple monitors at work, so I got a docking station and now run dual monitors. If I want to take the laptop somewhere else, I just unplug the power cable and a single USB-C cable and it's now free. All the other cables are under the desk with the dock.
posted by SquidLips at 8:31 AM on December 5, 2020

This is also dependent on what laptop you have, but there are monitors that can act as a dock or hub over USB-C and also supply power to it as well. So if you're also using a wireless keyboard and mouse, the tidiest possible set up would be a power cord to a single ultra widescreen monitor, and a usb-c/thunderbolt cable to your laptop, with no other wires.
posted by Pryde at 9:07 AM on December 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you are trying to replicate the feel of having multiple monitors with one monitor, the term you should be searching for is "ultrawide" monitor. A "widescreen" aspect ratio is actually very normal for computer monitors. My current ultrawide monitor is basically the equivalent of two monitors side by side. Using the normal diagonal measurement for screen size on ultrawide monitors is often misleading.

They often come with software that easily tiles windows into equal portions, because people often need more options than full-screen and half-screen.
posted by meowzilla at 9:45 AM on December 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

The simplest solution that worked for me was to get a widescreen monitor (as meowzilla says this is pretty much the norm) as big as I could reasonably afford/fit on the desk and a cheap USB hub. When I want to switch between personal and work laptops I have to unplug the monitor and the USB.
A proper docking station would get that down to one cable (nowadays I would get a USB-C one if your laptop will support it) but it isn't worth it to me.
posted by crocomancer at 12:06 PM on December 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

A widescreen takes care of your benefit of a docking station by taking the role of multiple monitors, except as one wide desktop and one connection. You can also use your loaner (or any) laptop to function as a second screen to the widescreen. Windows and Mac have apps that help you snap windows to parts of the screen or to each other to better take advantage of the space. Some also have built in [mediocre] speakers, but if it's a feature that you want it's out there.

I think that Dells have a pretty good combo of price / features / quality panels. Also, their mid-tier monitors usually have a built-in USB hub, so you can connect things like thumb drives or mice into the side of the monitor.
posted by homesickness at 4:49 PM on December 5, 2020

Would it make it easier to move my own laptop to and fro?

I have two work laptops and two personal laptops in common use and all of them will charge over USB C. A USB C docking station lets me swap any of them into the primary position with keyboard/mouse/giant monitor. I'm a big fan to the point I'm setting up a second one for the secondary position.

One caution if you're swapping between personal and work systems on a dock - if you attach a USB drive of personal stuff to it and forget to take it out before switching over, your employer might see the files on it. Not a big deal most of the time but if you want to make sure that something stays private, avoid doing so.

And can you tell me anything about widescreen monitors? It’s been a little hard to get used to fewer monitors.

For me, I like to keep stuff maximized on individual screens which is made easy by just hitting maximize, which doesn't work on an ultrawide. You can use software to partition high resolution screens or many of them have the ability to hook up two or three physical connections to the same monitor and present to the operating system as if they were discrete monitors.
posted by Candleman at 8:16 PM on December 5, 2020

For what it's worth, some monitors also supply power over USB-C. At that point the monitor is basically a dock, because the single USB-C cable is all you need for power, video, and other peripherals (because the monitor also has a additional USB ports). I use this monitor that way. Since March I almost never move my laptop off my desk, so the portability advantage is a little wasted, but I guess it does reduce desktop clutter a bit.

There are a number of office ergonomics guides out there that will help you figure out whether your chair, keyboard, monitor, etc. are positioned correctly. Might be worth going through one.

A monitor arm is another way to clear a little more space on your desk and give a little more range of adjustment.
posted by bfields at 5:47 AM on December 7, 2020

Thank you all. This is more complicated than I realized. I think for now, I will just get another loaner monitor from work.
posted by NotLost at 6:18 AM on December 9, 2020

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