by J.R. Nelson
StarTech recently released a new USB VGA dock. The universal dock (so-named because it can be used with any Windows computer that has a USB 2.0 port) lets notebook users quickly add functionality and expandability with a single USB cord. The real draw to an item like this, however, is the VGA port, which means anyone can add another display to their machine regardless of video card support or external ports. At $129.99, though, the VGA functionality is what you’re really paying for. Read on for our full review.
The USB VGA 4-in-1 Dock offers the following specifications:
- Four USB 2.0 ports
- One 10/100 Ethernet jack
- VGA port: supports up to 1600×1200 resolution @ 32 bits; 1920×1200 @ 16 bits
- Stereo out and microphone in jacks
- Dimensions: 8"x2.8"x0.8"
- Weight: 7.6oz
- One-year warranty
The Star Tech 4-in-1 USB VGA Dock supports Windows 2000, XP and Vista, and is available for $129.99.
Build and Design
It seems that most accessories in this vein seem to look toward design as an afterthought, so it’s a pleasant surprise to see StarTech buck the trend. The unit is constructed entirely of black plastic, but it’s of a high enough quality such that it avoids feeling cheap.
The dock has four rubber feet on both sides so that you arrange however you want without fear of scratching either your desk surface or your new device. StarTech bundles a small ‘wall wart’-styled adapter to supply power to the unit as well as a mini-USB cord to plug the dock into your computer. Since the unit requires power to run the networking, audio and video subsystems, the unit does need to be plugged in to work. On the plus side, this means that the four extra USB ports are externally powered, making this an excellent means by which to charge portable devices.
The dock cannot function without installing the proper software, so let’s take a look at what’s involved. Once you get the driver installed (it is, unfortunately, Windows only) and reboot, you’ll have a little icon in the taskbar labeled UVD. By right-clicking on it, you’ll be presented with a series of self-explanatory listings.
You have four different settings available for the external monitor: Primary, Extended, Off and Mirror. ‘Primary’ sets the external display as primary, although when I used this with my Latitude d630, the notebook always took primary regardless of how I changed the settings. ‘Extended’ will span the display (just like using a secondary display in Windows), ‘off’ is self-explanatory and ‘mirror’ will force the second display to show the exact same content as the first display.
Real World Use
Obviously, the big draw to this device is that it lets you use an additional display over USB. You don’t need to have any free VGA ports or even a video card that supports multiple displays. Once plugged in, if you bring up the display properties window, the USB display will appear as an extra (in my case, #3) choice. The effect works as advertised, with a few caveats. If all you need another monitor to do is display text, webpages, or other static content, this will more than likely work beautifully for you. It’s very plug and play, and works essentially like plugging a monitor directly into the VGA port on the back of any computer. The big difference is that USB cannot transfer the same amount of information that VGA can. If you’re displaying simple webpages or a lot of text, that’s not really an issue. If you plan on gaming or watching a lot of video content, however, you will run into some serious issues.
I used this with an external 1280×1024 4:3 display and at 32-bit depth, the display would be sluggish when moving windows. Video content was iffy at best, with VLC unable to adequately play SD content full screen. I will note that YouTube (even in high quality mode) and Hulu played just fine for the most part. On Hulu, however, some completely black parts of scenes would flash white. When I switched to 16-bit color depth, however, these problems largely went away.
Windows were easier to move, videos could be full-screened with fewer issues, and the black/white issue on Hulu disappeared. This isn’t that surprising, considering that you’re transferring significantly less information in the reduced color mode. It still won’t be as smooth as a native video connection, but it is better. On the downside, you will notice things like color banding in gradients because of the reduced bit depth. Furthermore, while I didn’t get the chance to test out the dock with a WUXGA (1920×1200) display, I have to wonder how well video and other dynamic content would work with it (I suspect text and other static content would still be fine).
Fortunately, audio requires much less data to stream than video. After listening to several different types of content, I never had any issues with stuttering or hissing noises. There was a bit of background noise when the connection was silent, but it’s no worse than most notebook headphone audio, and not noticeable when actively listening to content. The only downside to the audio aspect of the dock is that it entirely monopolizes your computer’s audio system. When the dock is connected, you can only listen to content through the dock; not even built-in speakers will work until you completely sever the connection.
I used the extra USB ports with an external keyboard and mouse, and they worked fine with no weird lag or timing issues. Network performance was adequate for Internet use, but I would hesitate to use this as the only network connection on the computer while simultaneously taking advantage of the other USB ports, VGA and audio capabilities of the StarTech dock. The reason for this is that USB ports have a limited throughput with which to deliver information, and all of these activities — video, sound, networking, USB ports — have to each share fractions of that limited stream.
In all, StarTech’s dock works pretty much as you expect it would. The sound applications work well. It’s also handy for adding extra USB ports (and powered ones, at that) and networking, but as I mentioned earlier, the main draw is the ability to add video where none was before. In that area, I would tentatively say that it succeeds, but the nature of USB is limiting at best. If you’re buying this with the intention of using another monitor for working in Office, browsing the web or other low-bandwidth activities, then I can recommend it. If using secondary displays for video content (excepting, largely, flash) is more up your alley, it may better to look elsewhere.
- Can add extra display without video card or VGA port
- Powered USB ports are always handy
- Video playback is less than stellar
- Dock audio ports completely monopolize computer’s sound system