To connect the hub or dock, your computer will need to include either a Thunderbolt 4 port for a separate cable connection (often included with the hub/dock) or an integrated T4/USB4 cable.
Thunderbolt 4 / USB4 ports The TB4/USB4 technology allows for four of these ports on a hub or dock–one of which is reserved for the computer connection (called the ‘Upstream” connection, compared to the “Downstream TB4 ports that you use to connect new devices). Previously, TB3 allowed for only two in total.
These are very adaptable ports that can connect to a USB-C display or a display adapter—for example, USB-C-to-HDMI or DisplayPort.
Modern SSDs and other devices also have USB-C or Thunderbolt connections, and so you can attach these using the hub when your laptop or tablet has just one or two.
Look out for the charging capabilities of these ports—many can offer 15W power, enough for most smartphones, SSDs etc.
USB-A This is the old-school, frustratingly non-reversible USB that is common with memory sticks and older devices and chargers. If you still have a few of these hanging around, make sure your hub has one or two to hand. Look for faster USB 3.2 Gen 2 ports that have a decent 10Gbps bandwidth. 5Gbps is fine, but faster is usually appreciated.
If you want to use one for charging, check out the wattage—7.5W is common and enough to slowly power up a phone. Some USB-A ports are of the older, slower USB-2.0 variety, which can muster a mere 480MBps, and so are mostly used for weedy 2.5W charging rather than data sync, but are also capable of 4.5W or 7.5W charging. If you plan to use these ports for charging, check out the wattages on each hub or dock.
Display ports Less common on hubs than docks, look out for one or two HDMI or DisplayPorts. You can use the TB4/USB4 ports to connect to a USB-C display or use USB-C (to DisplayPort or HDMI) video adapters if the hub/dock doesn’t include these, but that will use up your spare downstream ports.
Display adapters are inexpensive, costing under $10/£10 each for an unbranded adapter or around $15/£15 for one from Anker. USB-C-to-DisplayPort adapters are available, such as this generic adapter.
Or you can really splash out with an Apple USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter for $69/£75 that comes with a further USB-A port. Belkin has an HDMI adapter priced somewhere in between.
Check that the adapter cable you are using supports 4K at 60Hz if that is your requirement.
Look out for DisplayPort 1.4 or HDMI 2.1 for the best resolutions. Gamers and video professionals should consider docks that offer a higher refresh rate—the Plugable UD-4VPD supports two 4K displays at 120Hz.
Ethernet For wired Internet access you need an Ethernet port, at least rated as Gigabit Ethernet (1Gbps). You can also get faster 5Gbps or 10Gbps Ethernet ports as adapters for the TB4 ports. If you have the right setup, 2.5 Gigabit Ethernet will significantly boost your network speed and is becoming more mainstream on Thunderbolt and USB4 docks.
SD and MicroSD Card Readers Known mainly for camera cards, these slots also offer affordable access to extra storage, with 500GB cards costing around $60/£60, and capacities up to 1TB. Look for faster UHS-II card readers that transfer data at 312MBps rather than UHS-I’s 104MBps.
Audio jacks Headphone and microphone jacks are also handy ports on a hub or dock to save you locating the same on your computer if it even exists.
Some docking stations include higher-quality digital audio connections for serious audio technologies.