So you bought a new laptop like MacBook Pro or a Dell XPS 13, but it only has USB-C ports, meaning you can't connect a lot of the accessories you're used to, like a wired mouse, your smartphone (to charge), a micro SD card (from your camera, or a portable hard drive. This is a problem, especially in this work from home environment where we need our laptops to function more like a desktop.
The solution is pretty obvious: get an accessory that can turn one of your laptop's USB-C ports into many. However, when shopping for one of these laptop accessories, you'll notice that they vary price — like a lot.
For instance, the HooToo USB-C hub costs around $20, while the Belkin's docking station, the Thunderbolt 3 Dock Pro, costs $300. Both connect to your laptop via a single USB-C connection and do essentially the same thing — turning one port into many — but they are priced very differently. So, what exactly is the difference?
Beefier hubs require their own power source.
While both of these devices turn one port into more-than-one port, there are major differences between them. A USB-C hub like the HooToo is simply an accessory that plugs into your laptop and expands its number of ports. A docking station, like the Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Dock Pro, does this and then some. To do the "then some," a docking station like the Thunderbolt 3 needs to be connected to a separate power source other than your laptop (i.e. the wall) to work, and therefore isn't really designed to be moved.
The docking station's extra power can be used to do a few things. It can charge peripheral devices, like your smartphone, while also keeping your laptop at 100 percent. It can also be used to transfer data super quickly; for example, a docking station will allow you to be able upload photos and videos to your laptop significantly faster if you were just using a USB-C hub. And it can be used to ultra high-definition monitors.
You're paying for the extra connections (and then some).
You can still find USB-C hubs with numerous connections for surprisingly cheap; the HooToo USB-C hub costs just over $20, for example, and adds three USB-A ports, one HDMI port, an SD card reader, and a USB-C port that supports pass-through power with Power Delivery (PD).
However, most docking stations put those specs to shame. The Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Dock Pro has almost twice as many connections, including five USB-A and three USB-C ports. Its added DisplayPort and Ethernet ports allow it to function more as a workstation, too, enabling it to hard-wire into a network connect to an external monitor. It's a much beefier solution for a full suite of gear.
Expensive hubs can handle more and handle it much faster.
It's not just that expensive docking stations and USB hubs are going to have more connections, but they're most likely going to be better, too. The most advanced USB-C docking stations have newer ports with technologies, like Thunderbolt 3, that support faster charging and faster data transfer. The more expensive the laptop accessory, the more likely it is to support a high-resolution monitor, too.
The Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Dock Pro can actually support two 4K displays (up to 60Hz), so you can create a larger, more advanced workstation. The more affordable HooToo USB-C hub does allow you to connect your laptop to one monitor via its HDMI port, however, although it's not as good (4K up to 30Hz or 1080p up to 60Hz). And the more expensive options are going to be able to charge your devices (and transfer data, in the case of the docking station) faster.
Both have their purposes, depending on the extent of your needs. Just make sure you're grabbing the right one.