Docking 301

Fall class is in session.  Since last year’s 201 class, there have been new developments worth talking about.  If you need a remedial docking course, you can check out Docking 101 and Docking 201.  Remember that I use “docking” as a generic term to mean a way to expand the capabilities of your notebook system.  The docking ecosystem encompasses everything from USB attached devices to specialty bottom connector widgets. When we announced the ThinkPad T400s several weeks ago, we also announced our new ThinkPad Series 3 docking solutions.  As we refresh our ThinkPad lineup with new 2010 models, all of them that feature full bottom docking connectors will use this new design.  Unfortunately, the newer ThinkPads won’t be able to use the older docking stations and vice versa.  However, the change does allow us to make some significant improvements.

What’s new:

  • Usability – The new Port Replicator, Mini Dock, and Mini Dock Plus all feature pressure plates that firmly anchor the system in place.  When docked on one of these, the ThinkPad feels much more solid and does not rock back and forth.
  • Technology – The Mini Dock and the Mini Dock Plus are mainly about adding advanced digital video capabilities.  The Mini Dock Plus has dual Display Ports and dual DVI ports.  Only two are active at a time, but we now have a solution to support up to six displays from the back of your ThinkPad with the new Lenovo USB to DVI Monitor Adapter.  The Mini Dock Plus also features an eSATA port.
  • Rip and Go – This has been a much requested feature.  As you may recall, legacy ports such as parallel and serial require operating system permission before they will disconnect.  New technologies like USB do not have this limitation.  By eliminating serial/parallel ports, we no longer needed three step undocking (push button, wait, undock).  You can simply rip your system from the dock and go.

What’s missing:

  • Serial and Parallel ports – good riddance.  As mentioned, their removal allows us to add Rip and Go capability
  • PCI-e slot on the Dock – Now that there are USB options that perform this job well, this isn’t needed any longer.  Plus, we never did a great job with PCI video anyway
  • Ultrabay – Most people did not use this capability.  It made the Dock huge in size.  Optical drives are built into most systems.  eSATA allows high speed external storage attachment
  • 6 in 1 media card reader (dock) – No matter how many-in-one readers we have, we never seemed to have the right reader.  Since many systems now come with optional SD card readers, this is duplicate functionality.
  • S/PDIF - Was anyone actually using this on their notebooks?  (I'm sure someone will write in and say yes.)

If you would like to see more, I put together a four minute video comparing the Series 3 Port Replicator, Mini Dock, and Mini Dock Plus.  I've also included information about the USB to DVI Monitor Adapter as well.

USB Port Replicator with Digital Video

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This is a brand new category of USB port replicators.  Prior to now, there was only one other USB solution available that would offer digital video output.  Every other device in this category has analog video output.  They also tend to offer sub-par video performance. This device is different.  It features an integrated DVI port supporting 1920x1200 resolution.  Our options team worked very hard to make sure that the video output quality was top notch.  I borrowed one of these to see for myself how well it would work.

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I first tried to use it on my Windows 7 machine, since upgraded to RTM code.  It’s the only time I’ve ever blue screened Windows 7.  Now in fairness, Windows 7 isn’t officially supported yet on this device, but we will have full Win 7 support by the time Microsoft announces in October.  (I found out later that this is because the USB Port Replicator has a dedicated video chip and the driver was conflicting with the Windows 7 display architecture.) Instead, I fired up an XP box and tried to stress the capabilities.  I was most interested in video quality while watching full motion HD video and downloading a file.  This device passes quite nicely.  I did not notice any video or audio hiccups, nor did I really notice a slowdown in my Ethernet performance.  The button on the front toggles between mirrored display mode and extended desktop mode and works quickly.

Choosing Between USB and Dedicated Docking If your system supports bottom docking connectors (e.g. ThinkPad T, R, W), you may wonder which of these options is right for you.  Theoretically, dedicated bottom docking connectors would be preferable, but in reality, if you are deciding between the USB Port Rep with Digital Video and our Port Replicator, choose the USB device.  It does everything you’d really expect it to do.  You get second digital display support, take up less space on your desk, and have true rip and go capability.  Yes, there is some concern that everything is going through one USB port with only 400 mb/s data transfer rates, but you’re unlikely to notice a slow down in the real world.  There are lots of benefits, especially if you have an older ThinkPad, IdeaPad, or Lenovo machine without digital video output capabilities.

Wireless Docking This still is the logical end-game for cable management and display expansion.  We have this working in the lab.  I’ve seen a prototype and it works as designed.  So far though, most people have not yet seen enough value proposition to want to pay for the capability.  It’s not technology holding us back any longer.  It’s market acceptance.