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Dell Wireless Dock D5000 laptop dock review: free your PC from wires

Laptop docking stations can offer a perfect mix of productivity and convenience. They transform your portable computer (with its cramped keyboard, smallish display, and limited connectivity options) into a workstation connected to multiple monitors, a full-size keyboard, and oodles of connectivity options. See all laptop accessories reviews.

But the bad thing about notebook docking stations is that you can have a rough time disengaging the laptop from its dock. Connections at both ends - the dock and the laptop - tend to be fragile, and they can become unreliable over time.

Dell has a better idea: A docking station and a wireless network adapter card based on the IEEE 802.11ad standard - more commonly known as WiGig. Plug all your cabled devices up to two displays, gigabit ethernet, keyboard, mouse, hard drives, and other USB devices - into the dock, and your laptop establishes a wireless connection to the dock. Your notebook doesn't need any cables (unless it's running on AC power). And since the combination operates on the 60GHz frequency band, it won't interfere with your Wi-Fi network operating on the 2.4- and 5GHz bands.

There's just one significant drawback: Dell is offering the internal adapter card (the Dell Wireless 1601 WiGig and 802.11n 2x2 Wi-Fi Half Mini Card) that's required for pairing the notebook to the docking station as an option with only one laptop: the Latitude 6430u. You can't buy the adapter card separately from the computer, so you can't add it to a Latitude 6430u you might already own. And there are no third-party adapters that would enable you to use the D5000 with other notebooks.

That will change in time: A Dell representative told me the company "absolutely" expects to offer its WiGig adapter "with additional products in the coming months." The spokesperson also said "the D5000 is fully standards-compliant," which means it will work with future WiGig adapters from other manufacturers. When those will arrive is anyone's guess.

Still interested? Of course you are! Even if you have no intention of buying one, you must be curious to know how a wireless docking station performs. In my tests, it performed remarkably well. The D5000 has two video outputs (one is DisplayPort 1.1 - which means there's no support for multistream transport - and the other is HDMI 1.3), three USB 3.0 ports, one gigabit ethernet, and one 1/8-inch stereo audio jack.

I connected two 24-inch displays, one of which had native resolution of 1920 by 1200 pixels, and the other had native resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels. (Another bummer: The dock doesn't support HDCP, so you won't be able to watch copy-protected DVDs or Blu-ray discs.) I connected the dock to our corporate network, plugged in a Dell wireless USB transceiver (for a wireless keyboard and mouse) into one of the USB 3.0 ports. I connected a 1TB Seagate Wireless Plus hard drive into the second USB 3.0 port, and left the third vacant. If you don't have a networked printer, that third USB port could be used for a printer, scanner, or any number of other peripherals.

Dell says the D5000 delivers up to 10 meters of range (with the dock and laptop in the same room), but I found that claim wildly optimistic. I lost connection between the laptop and dock if I separated the two by more than six feet. Still, the fact that you can drive two displays and transfer files between a host PC and a docked hard drive without any wires is an impressive trick. If you've used a laptop with a conventional dock for any length of time, you know what a pain it can be to make that physical separation and connection over and over again. With the D5000 and the Latitude 6430u, you just pick up your notebook and walk away. When you come back to your desk, the system automatically reconnects and you can get back to work.

While I noticed very little video lag with the wireless dock, I wouldn't recommend playing games on the system. Transferring files over the wireless connection was also significantly slower than when we hardwired a USB 3.0 hard drive to the notebook. When writing our single 10GB file to the drive using a hardwired USB 3.0 connection, we saw throughput of 99.2 MBps. When we wrote the same file to the drive via the D5000, the transfer occurred at just 31.5 MBps. Read speeds were even worse: 101.1 MBps hardwired versus just 47.4 MBps wireless. We had a similar experience when transferring our 10GB collection of files and folders: Write speeds went from 76.4 MBps to 41.5 MBps, while read speeds dropped from 93.9 MBps to just 44.2 MBps.

Of course you don't have to subject yourself to that slow data-transfer speed. If you're in a hurry, simply hardwire the drive to the laptop and go. I never found this necessary while I was using the combination. In terms of performance, the convenience factor far outweighs the sluggish wireless file-transfer speed.

This implementation of WiGig is awesome. The fact that you can use it today with only one notebook - and you can buy a WiGig adapter only when you buy Dell's Latitude 6430u - is problematic at best. The Latitude 6430u happens to be a good Ultrabook, but it's an older model that's not available with Intel's latest fourth-generation Core processor (Haswell). See all laptop and tablet accessories reviews.

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