If you have a laptop system, you might be familiar with the frustrations that can be involved with using it in a desktop environment where you might need to clear a space on your desk to set it up, or have it sit awkwardly to the side while you connect a keyboard, mouse, an adapter for an external display, and other peripherals.
There are several options available to help in these situations, with one that I recently outlined being the new Thunderbolt docking solutions that are beginning to enter the market. While these options reduce the number of cables to attach, they do still leave you with the problem of where to put your system. While smaller systems like the MacBook Air are relatively easy to tuck away, the 15-inch and older 17-inch systems are substantially larger and may still take up space on a desk. If you find yourself in this situation, then one solution is to use a full system dock like the horizontal dock from Henge Docks.
Henge Docks is a company based in Virginia that since 2009 has made form-fitting docking cradles for Apple's laptop systems, which offer a convenient way to not only attach all of your peripheral devices, but additionally hold the Mac in a way that both does its natural style a bit of justice and ensures it stays ventilated and accessible.
For its uses, the dock takes advantage of the MacBook's "clamshell" mode of operation, where if you close the lid and attach an external keyboard and monitor, you will be able to use it as a desktop system. The advantage that the Henge Docks dock offers is the ability to hold the laptop in a vertical position conveniently off to the side, and provide a means to attach your needed peripherals simply by seating the system into the dock.
The Henge Docks dock works essentially as a frame that grips the ends of power, USB, FireWire, audio, and Thunderbolt connectors, and holds them in-line with the system's chassis so all you need to do is press the system into the dock to connect them all at once.
While this setup is ultimately convenient in the long run, it does take a little assembly to get going. Out of the box you get a molded plastic dock cradle and a set of extension cables for USB, FireWire, and audio, along with a set of adapters for Apple's various MagSafe power connectors.
You then have to configure the dock for your uses by choosing which connections you want and then mounting them in the dock using the provided set-screws. This process does take a little time, though one easy approach is to attach the needed cords to your system and then feed them through the dock, followed by seating the system into the dock and tightening them down. While you can configure the dock with a select set of connections, one option is to simply connect them all so they are available for use at any time down the road.
Even though it's a touch cumbersome, the setup of the dock is relatively straightforward and should for the most part be a one-time deal.
Using the dock
Once set up, you can then attach your system to the dock by sliding it into the cradle, where it should align with the attachments you have chosen and then seat into them when you press down. This works well for the most part; however, in using it with my 17-inch MacBook Pro there have been times when a connection was slightly off and needed a slight jiggle to seat down properly. This can be prevented by ensuring the system is both vertical when seating it and also inserting it with care, but it does mean that the dock is not an option in which you can quickly plunk your system and be off and running, since doing so may chance scratching or nicking the edges of your ports.
When connected the system behaves as it would in any clamshell configuration, and is quite pleasant to have cranking away at the side of the desk instead of obtrusively laying flat and being in the way.
One detail to note is the ports on the MacBook will be hidden within the dock, so if you need to attach a temporary peripheral such as a USB flash drive then you will need to be sure to configure the dock with one of the included USB extension cables to leave dangling for such purposes. The same goes for the audio and FireWire ports, so even though the system is customizable in what ports you can add, if there is a chance you may need them at a later point then you might consider simply adding them all to the dock when setting it up.
Like most MacBook systems, my 17-inch MacBook Pro has all of its I/O ports on one side of the system so the dock only requires the system be inserted to be powered and connected; however, some systems like the MacBook Air have the power port on the opposite side than the I/O ports, so you will have to be sure to attach the power after inserting these systems into their docks.
While the dock does have its benefits, it also comes with some limitations. The first is that being molded plastic, the dock is lightweight enough so if you lift the system then the grip of the connections will carry the dock along with it. Therefore, in order to disconnect it you will have to grip the system and pull it from the dock while providing resistance against the dock's base. This is a bit cumbersome since the aluminum shell on Apple's systems is not the best gripping surface.
Additionally, for the larger and heavier 17-inch MacBook Pro, the grip needed to pull the system out of the dock is a bit concerning, so I've found myself preferring to pry it up from the side. Granted this may only be a requirement for the larger and heavier systems, but in this respect, one detail the dock could benefit greatly from is a quick-release latch that could be used to push the system up from the ports and allow it to be gently lifted, instead of having to grip and pull.
A final issue with the Henge Docks dock is it form fits to the closed MacBook chassis, and thereby requires the system to operate in clamshell mode at all times. While this is the intent of the dock, it does limit you from using the display both for extended desktop purposes and for troubleshooting. If for some reason your system stops outputting video to the external monitor, then the only way to manage the situation is to pull the system from the dock, which will unplug everything, including sensitive storage drives that may experience corruption if pulled while in use. Granted in these situations you can undo the set screws for the connectors and slide the system out of the dock with everything attached, but having a quick means to open the MacBook's display if needed would be nice.
Even though the Henge Docks dock has its limitations, the device is still a remarkably effective and attractive docking solution. The dock would benefit from a lever release of some kind, especially for larger systems, and it would be nice to have an option for quickly opening the display if needed; however, despite this it does function quite well.
While Thunderbolt docking options may provide additional capability to your system, the Henge Docks docking station offers a quick way to hold the system in a convenient place and give you most of what is needed to dock your Mac. In addition, the price makes it an attractive alternative.
Currently Thunderbolt docks start at around $250, but this dock costs between $55 for the MacBook Air to $75 for the 17-inch MacBook Pro. In addition to the docks for MacBooks, Henge Docks makes a holder for Apple's Bluetooth keyboard and trackpad called "Clique," and a number of docking options for iOS devices.