For those who want to use a laptop as their main PC, it makes a lot of sense to have an expansion dock. An expansion dock is a secondary backplane for a portable machine, which normally plugs into a multi-contact, proprietary socket on the back of the laptop.
With notebooks continuing to drop in price, though, expansion docks designed for specific models are now not always available. Kensington has grabbed this marketing niche with its USB-based Notebook Expansion Dock with Video.
With a clever bit of design work, the company provides external network, audio and USB ports, as well as VGA video output, all from a single USB connection to your portable. The advantage of this over a proprietary dock is that you can use the Kensington device with virtually any portable PC, as long as it’s running Windows XP or Vista, or Mac OS X above 10.4.10.
A simple installation of the supplied CD provides all the software you need and things like audio are redirected to the dock, without requiring any manual settings.
The four USB sockets on the back of the dock are all separately powered from a plug-in supply, ensuring there’s the standard 500mA per socket available for USB devices which draw their power as well as data from the connection. A 10/100Mbps Ethernet port completes the set of utility sockets on the device’s back panel.
The Kensington dock is designed to sit under a laptop, to provide extra ventilation and raise the back of the keyboard, though on small ultra-portables the rake angle is rather steep.
The cunning part of the whole product is its VGA port, using proprietary compression algorithms and hardware from DisplayLink (www.displaylink.com), a company which specialises in providing dual-screen solutions for desktop and notebook PCs.
The video signal is compressed, passed along the USB connection to the expansion dock and decompressed in real-time to feed the standard VGA output. The system supports resolutions up to 1280 x 1024 and you can configure your laptop screen and the external monitor either as clones or as one large desktop, so you can drag objects freely between screens.
Running a quick test, using a modestly specified netbook to play back a video, while saving files to an external USB hard drive and listening to audio through the expansion dock’s headphone port, showed the system to be pretty robust. There was no sign of stuttering in the video and no noticeable drop-off in transfer speed to the hard drive.
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