Aug 16, 2023

Dockcase Smart USB

Sometimes a single device isn't enough. You'll buy what is almost your dream PC, laptop, or phone — but will have to put up with some compromises. These compromises often come in the form of missing ports, which manufacturers cut because of obsolescence, budget, or the space the sockets would ultimately take up.

Dockcase is one of the companies that has your back and is hoping to plug the gap with its Smart USB-C Hub 10-in-1 Explorer Edition. Assuming you have a USB-C port, which most recently released smart devices do, you'll be able to connect the hub to your PC and benefit from all of the additional connections it can forge. If your computer is still using USB-A, you can also connect the hub but you will either need an adapter or an additional cable — and performance may suffer based on the cable used or the port you're plugging into.

Dockcase has provided us with a sample of their 10-in-1 Explorer Edition for testing purposes. Here's what we found out after putting it through its paces.

As its name suggests, the 10-in-1 Hub has ten different ports you can use. Ports on the device include one USB Type C port, running on USB 3.2 Gen 2 with a maximum transfer speed of 10GB/s, and one USB-C port capable of carrying 100w of power. There's also one USB-A port, also running on 3.2 Gen 2 and boasting the same transfer speed as the Type-C port. A pair of slower USB-A ports are also on the hub, each capable of a 480 MB/s transfer rate. The hub has one Displayport capable of conveying 4K at 120hz, and one HDMI port which can theoretically be used for 8K at 30Hz. The hub also has a single gigabit internet port and a pair of ultra-high-speed SD 4.0 slots that can handle both standard and micro SD cards.

After racking our brains for a while, we could only conclude that the only things really missing are a headphone/mic jack and a Thunderbolt port. The latter is a bigger issue which we'll discuss in a bit more depth later on. As far as the former goes, connecting audio devices to most other things isn't that much of an issue, particularly since HDMI, Displayport, and USB-C can carry audio.

Clear tech has been around forever, but it's often hit-and-miss. Dockcase's effort is undoubtedly a hit for a number of reasons. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, quality doesn't seem to have been compromised. The USB-C hub's body appears to be made of brushed aluminum, and the see-through part is a clear brass panel. At the center of everything is an LED display, which is colorful and surprisingly practical.

Sections will light up depending on what is connected, and errors will cause a different colored light to successful connections. So not only is it aesthetically pleasing, but it is also a handy troubleshooting tool that allows you to work out where a problem is occurring. That said, there may also be some teething problems with the panel as we discovered it had a habit of indicating errors when everything seemed to be working perfectly fine.

The design itself, with the LED panel in the middle, has an oddly-cyberpunk feel about it. There's just something about that combination of circuitry and metal that screams retro-futurism. Even the included connection cable is of high quality. The metal part of the Smart USB-C Hub comes in a choice of two colors — black or silver. While this is a fairly limited choice, there's a good chance you can pick one that will pair well with your other equipment.

Don't get us wrong, there's a clear attempt to cram a lot of high-quality ports into a well-designed hub here. But given the hub is six inches long, and around one and a half inches wide, it isn't exactly portable. It's not the kind of thing you'd naturally throw into a pocket. Then there's the price tag, $159.99 is a lot of money.

If you don't need more than a couple of its features, then there are smaller, cheaper, products on the market that do one or more of the things Dockcase's effort is capable of. They aren't as complete, and this may be a good option for you, but if all you really need is a way to get your Mac to read an SD card or something that allows you to attach an HDMI cable to your phone, then there is a lot of solid competition around. On the other hand, if you have the budget it may be worth getting one of these "just in case."

If you do get one of these for the occasions when you need it, you may find you need it quite often. Is someone you know taking pictures on an SLR? Good luck finding an SD card slot on a modern laptop. You sometimes still see them on the cheaper models, but on anything high-end SD slots were possibly the first commonly used port to die. It's a similar story with USB-A, if your laptop still has these common ports, it probably doesn't have enough of them. The chance to turn a single USB-C port into a couple of USB-As may be welcome.

Need to connect a laptop to a projector, but you're lacking an HDMI port? This has you covered. WiFi trouble? You can hardwire in with the Smart USB-C Hub and get online that way. We encounter these things quite often, and it's a "you don't know how much you needed one until you have one," type device.

There are some gaming applications with the hub too. As owners of the Nintendo Switch and/or the Steam Deck will likely know, being able to plug a powered USB-C cable into one device and an HDMI cable into another is pretty handy. If you want to play your handheld console on a larger screen, then this is an easy way to do it. Oddly enough, it may also turn a phone into a gaming machine. If you're a Samsung user especially, you can connect a keyboard or mouse either via the hub or by Bluetooth and play your pre-installed games on a big screen.

The Dockcase Smart USB-C Hub's output runs through a USB-C port, and a wire capable of getting the most out of that port is included. That wire can transmit 10 GB of data per second and can carry up to 100 watts of power. This is enough to run most (if not all) current USB-C-powered laptops.

Many compact notebook and MacBook owners will know how vital these kinds of adapters are as ultra-compact machines tend to ship with one or two USB-C ports and nothing else. This usually means you're going to need some kind of dock to connect to something via HDMI, plug in a USB-A flash drive, or even connect to the internet via an ethernet cable. So if you want to retain the use of these ports, you're likely to need this or something similar in the future. And having access to usable ports is a good idea. It's sometimes vital if you need to get a printer online or recover data from an old device.

It also allows connectivity with phones, though you will need an adapter to connect with an iPhone. Samsung's Dex will launch on whatever screen you connect it to, and you can even use the hub to connect to a flash drive or external SSD — though you may need a third-party app to do this on iPhone. If you're using it for Samsung Dex, it is also worth considering plugging an additional USB-C cable into the power port. Your phone battery is unlikely to last long if you're running a monitor off it.

The fact it is a USB-C hub may actually be the Explorer Edition's biggest shortcoming. The hub itself features a wide selection of useful, powerful, ports. Unfortunately, this bottle has a particularly tight neck. A Thunderbolt port can hit speeds of up to 40 GB/s, which means there was a lot of potential headroom in this device's design. In fact, the 32.08 GB/s you'll need for 8K 30 Hz at 4:2:0 means one of the dock's ports is severely bottlenecked by the USB 3.2 output. On paper, this cable should support 8K at 30Hz, 10-bit 4:4:4.

We couldn't test that, because we lack both an 8K display or anything capable of churning out 8K footage — and you probably do too. As things stand, this is a niche and a waste of resources. While an 8K port gives the illusion of futureproofing, it is just that. Dockcase would have been better off dumping the 8K port and putting the resources towards a Thunderbolt output if that was at all possible. USB 4.0 would have been another decent option, though many buyers may have to get new machines before they see the benefits.

Even if none of the other connections require the same bandwidth as the 8K port, the extra headroom a Thunderbolt port provides would be useful to anyone connecting a pair of 4K monitors or intending to use one or more of the 10GB/s USB inputs while doing literally anything else. Yes, you can get a lot of use from this hub, and a good number of its users will likely never encounter a bottlenecking issue. But this one decision seems to have severely limited the product and is absolutely the worst thing about the Dockcase Smart USB-C Hub.

While it may use up a good chunk of your bandwidth, the ability to turn pretty much any laptop with a full USB 3.2 port into a three-monitor machine is pretty awesome. But there always seems to be a catch, and this is no exception. If the port list hasn't given it away, you can't just grab two HDMI cables, plug everything in, and go. There is only one HDMI port, and the other is for a Displayport cable. You may have one of the almost-specialist wires kicking around, but they're only really used by folks with gaming PCs and high-end monitors. If HDMI is VHS, Displayport is Betamax... in about 1998. There's also a chance the screens you're using won't have a socket for a Displayport cable, so you may have to get a converter to make it work with an HDMI port, which is nice to have but ultimately an extra purchase.

The hub itself can handle two 4K monitors, though opting for 2K, 1080P, or a combination of the two will free up some bandwidth for other functions. Freeing up other functions is especially useful if you're using that dual or triple monitor setup for work while taking advantage of the other ports on offer.

With the exception of the output port, Dockase has done a very good job. The connections provided are all very useful and provide more than the average PC user likely needs. This is a high-end piece with a few caveats, and on balance, it does enough to justify its price tag.

However, with cheaper options on the market, you really need to have a particular use in mind that the Smart USB-C Hub 10-in-1 Explorer Edition can fulfill better than any of the similar products on the market. These needs may include a reliable way to get your Switch or Steam deck on the TV. Or connecting a pair of 4k monitors to your laptop. Or if you're an early adopter with an 8K monitor and a complete disregard for your personal finances. Or you're regularly transferring massive amounts of data from SD cards and a variety of flash drives. If you have one of those specific uses, it's a good buy.

Beyond that, there are cheaper options that can perform most of the same tasks, albeit to a lower standard. That said, if $160 for something that's going to spend a lot of its life in a drawer doesn't seem a lot to you, then it is worth buying one and keeping it around. You will find plenty of uses for it in the long run. This device will appear in a Kickstarter campaign before it goes on general sale in October 2023 (expected launch).