First, take stock of your peripherals
Here’s where to start: Take a look at the peripherals you own, or plan to buy. Do you have an old external hard drive that uses a traditional USB-A cable? Do you manually back up photos from an SLR via its SD card? Or is your Wi-Fi connection unreliable enough that you’d prefer ethernet? Figure out what ports you’ll need. This advice is also for Windows users; Macs have their own limitations on USB-C connections.
Next, check out what ports your laptop already has
It’s also important to take stock of your laptop or tablet’s ports: Does it have one USB-C port or two? If your device only has one port, is there a separate charging connection? If your laptop or tablet has a USB-C port and uses it exclusively for charging, you’ll want to buy a USB-C hub with a dedicated charging input port. (In this case, it’s also possible that only the charging port on the hub will work, though this isn’t typical.) Note how much input power it allows, and confirm that will be sufficient for your laptop. Otherwise, you’ll be forced to choose between charging your laptop and accessing other devices, which makes little sense.
Does your monitor have a USB-C port?
Recently, we’ve begun to see more displays include a USB-C port as well as HDMI and DisplayPort inputs. This is a positive sign (kind of) in that your monitor may be able to eliminate the need for a USB-C hub.
This has a couple of wrinkles. First, monitor ports have never been the most accessible, and trying to find the right port on the back of a big, clunky display isn’t fun. You may find want to invest in a cheap USB-C hub just to avoid the hassle.
Second, that monitor’s USB-C port may actually be a video input — so instead of connecting an HDMI cable between your PC and the display, you can simply run a USB-C to USB-C cable and accomplish the same thing. How do you know to do that? First, check out our roundup of the best USB-C displays, then read it carefully. We distinguish between the two to help you out.
Assess your laptop and peripheral power needs
Keep in mind that the hub’s power port is for taking power in to your laptop, and not out to a phone. But your hub may still be able to charge your phone, with some caveats. A “bus-powered” USB hub connects to your laptop and pulls power from it, which it has share with several devices—and it won’t do it that well.
Some docks will include a USB-C port whose only purpose is to accept your laptop’s USB-C charger. That port will power your laptop as well as any ports connected to it. These devices will make more power available for fast charging your phone. (Your hub probably won’t enable specialized charging like the Samsung Galaxy S20’s Super Fast Charging, however, even if you use the supplied Samsung cable. You’ll still need to connect your phone to its charger for that.)
Making sense of the USB-C technologies
A USB-C port on your laptop can either run at 5Gbps or 10Gbps, with the latter being almost ubiquitous these days. That’s plenty of bandwidth for a printer, a mouse, a keyboard, or a hard drive, even all at once. Products like displays, ethernet, and high-speed SSDs gobble up that bandwidth, however.
We find that the display technologies tend to have the most influence over what you should buy. If you simply want to connect to an external 1080p display—or two—a USB-C dongle should work fine, provided that the dongle has the available ports. It’s certainly the cheapest option. Once you start trying to connect to one or two 1440p or 4K displays, however, you may find that you’ll want to consider options like the USB-C docking stations. You can get around this, in part. Instead of plugging your ethernet cable into the USB-C dongle, you can use a separate Wi-Fi connection, for example.
Traditionally, the only other alternative was a Thunderbolt dock. Provided your laptop had a Thunderbolt port, Thunderbolt’s 40Gbps bandwidth allows for two 4K displays, running at 60Hz, plus various peripherals. (You can use a USB-C dock even if you have a Thunderbolt port, by the way.) USB4, a similar technology, is basically the same as Thunderbolt for your purposes.
Now, there are also two intermediary technologies to choose from: a DisplayLink USB-C dock, and a USB-C dock that takes advantage of something called HBR3 and DSC.
DisplayLink, owned by Synaptics, uses software compression between your laptop and the dock to approximate a Thunderbolt experience over a generic USB-C connection. It requires a software driver, but our experience is that it’s an excellent choice for office work, but not gaming. However, until recently, prices of DisplayLink docks haven’t been where we think that they should be: in the $150 range.
HBR3 with Display Compression (HBR3 with DSC) is essentially an industry standard version of DisplayLink. The problem? The technology hasn’t been widely publicized, let alone supported. Our experience has been that docks that support HBR3 work well with laptops using 12th-gen Core processors on up. Laptops with a 10th-gen Core chip inside them aren’t supported, and 11th-gen Core laptops are iffy. If you own a 12th-gen Core laptop, especially a member of Intel’s premium Evo brand, you stand a good chance of success. Otherwise, don’t bother. (We haven’t tested with laptops that use an AMD Ryzen chip.)
Finally, don’t worry about platform branding
Because USB-C is common among Macs, Windows PCs, and phones, some hubs align their branding with a particular platform. Go ahead and use that USB-C that’s billed as being “for MacBook Pro, Chromebook, and XPS” with any Windows PC—we did, and it works just fine. You won’t need any special software or drivers.