A docking station, or dock, is a device that connects a laptop to multiple peripherals. It provides a single connection point that allows a laptop to use a connected monitor, printer, keyboard, and mouse. This allows a laptop to function like a desktop computer.
Laptop manufacturers often build custom docking stations for their laptops. These docks usually have a proprietary input port that connects to a matching port on specific laptop models. Early docks, such as those built in the 1990s, included serial ports for connecting input devices, parallel ports for connecting printers and scanners, and VGA ports for connecting monitors. In recent years, laptop docking stations have become more standardized, with USB ports for connecting most peripherals and DVI ports for connecting displays.
While modern docks provide standardized I/O ports, many docking stations still use a proprietary dock connector, which means when you buy a new laptop, you may need to buy a new dock. Fortunately, the Thunderbolt connector, first used in Apple's MacBook laptops, eliminates the need for a docking station. A single Thunderbolt connection can support USB, FireWire, Ethernet, and DisplayPort connections. Therefore, a Thunderbolt hub serves the same purpose as a laptop dock and is compatible with any computer that has a standard Thunderbolt connection.
NOTE: Docking stations may also refer to hardware used to connect tablets, smartphones, and other portable devices to one or more peripherals. However, these devices are generally called "docks" and typically have fewer I/O connections than a laptop dock.
Updated: July 11, 2013