I turned my laptop into a desktop PC and I’ve never been more productive

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The 15-inch laptop display makes a great auxiliary screen without interfering with work

Ed Bott/ZDnet

My office has changed dramatically over the past few years. Part of that change is simply a matter of logistics: Three years ago, I moved from the Southwest to the Southeast. As part of the great downsizing, my office got significantly smaller. It is basically a very spacious cubicle in the guest room. A nice cubicle, a nice guest room! But still, much smaller.

Downsizing is a major factor, but not the only consideration driving the way my office setup has changed. An equally important part of the equation is technological advancement. Over the years, PC hardware has gotten faster, smarter, smaller, cheaper and more fully featured.

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For decades, I did most of my work on a traditional desktop PC, housed in a tower case and usually sitting under my desk. A second desktop PC sat under a second desk. (If you’re curious, I wrote about that configuration a few years ago: “Inside Ed Bott’s Home Office: ‘Two of Everything.'”)

It was all over when we left New Mexico. I donated or sold every bit of desktop PC hardware before we hit the road. But I never left the desktop experience behind. In my new office, I put together a functional yet extremely compact workspace that does everything I need without bulky desktop hardware. The secret is putting everything together with Thunderbolt 4.

Here’s the technique I’m using today to make that transition.

When is a desktop not a desktop?

My desktop PC of choice these days is… a laptop. And not just any laptop. Technically, it’s a Dell Precision 5560 Mobile Workstation, which as the name suggests has better-than-average specs for its class. It’s a two-year-old machine that should have at least three more years of useful life. Its successor, the Accuracy 5680It has a 16-inch display but is otherwise similar in design.

(The list price for the configuration I bought was about $3600; I paid $1850, including tax and shipping, Dell Outlet. (This laptop is indistinguishable from brand new.)

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I’m not sure if this well-built PC qualifies as a real workstation, though it can probably handle light AutoCAD and video editing tasks on its own. But even if it falls a little short of the power most advanced users want, it works just fine for me; No sweat even in business.

The CPU is an 11th Gen Intel i7-11850H; It has a very fast 1TB NVMe SSD that uses PCIe 4 For networking, it offers a WiFi 6E adapter It has 64 GB of RAM. (Yes, 64GB might be overkill, but I occasionally work on projects that require multiple virtual machines to run simultaneously, and it’s nice not to worry about running out of memory.)

The 15.6-inch IPS LCD (non-touchscreen) has a 1920 x 1200 resolution with very thin bezels. Although it has a discrete graphics processor in addition to Intel integrated graphics, its Nvidia T1200 laptop GPU isn’t exactly a powerhouse when it comes to intensive graphics workloads. But it will do for the business software I run mostly.

That hardware is significantly more power-hungry than your average business-class notebook, so this laptop needs a 130W power supply. (This detail will become important later.)

For biometric authentication, this PC offers both an infrared camera and an integrated fingerprint reader for Windows Hello face recognition. Having the fingerprint option comes in handy when I’m working too early (or too late) in a dimly lit office and the Windows Hello camera doesn’t recognize my face.

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And importantly, this machine has three USB Type-C ports, two of which support Thunderbolt 4. Those ports are connected to the next link in the hardware chain.

Selecting a Thunderbolt 4 Dock

Over the past two years, I’ve tested half a dozen Thunderbolt (3 and 4) docks. They all promise a one-cable connection for a full complement of external devices, and each of the Thunderbolt 4 docks I’ve tested offers a fairly similar feature set:

  • You can connect one or more external monitors using your choice of connector types, including HDMI and DisplayPort, typically two 4K displays or one 5K display.
  • An RJ45 connector and a built-in Gigabit Ethernet adapter allow you to access a wired network.
  • A Thunderbolt port (usually clearly labeled) for connecting your Thunderbolt-compatible PC to the dock. This connection provides power to the laptop (via USB power delivery) and manages data flow to and from devices plugged into the dock.
  • The dock itself includes an additional two or three Thunderbolt ports that can connect to high-performance gaming monitors, external storage devices, and external capture devices.
  • And, of course, there are plenty of USB ports (Type A and Type C), capable of charging some mobile devices.

All of this is packaged into a rectangular enclosure device that’s only large enough to accommodate a small mainboard and all those ports. This, for example, is StarTech.com Thunderbolt 4 DockThat goes for under $300 on Amazon.


Back view of the StarTech.com Thunderbolt 4 Dock


If I had another mainstream Windows laptop or MacBook Pro, the 96W available via USB power delivery from the StarTech Dock would be more than enough, and I’d happily use that model.

I would recommend Kensington Smooth SD5760T Thunderbolt 4 Dockor SD5750Twhich has a similar feature set but is designed for use with Thunderbolt 4-compatible Surface devices, including the Surface Pro 8, Surface Pro 9, and Surface Laptop 5. Both models offer 90-100W using USB power delivery.

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Remember earlier when I mentioned that I needed a 130W power supply for my Dell Precision workstation? They are not kidding. If I plug in a dock that offers 90-100W of power delivery, I see a constant reminder that my power supply is insufficient. I can even find the battery draining (albeit slowly) if I set it to a particularly demanding and time-consuming task.

During my testing, I worked around that limitation by leaving the laptop’s main power supply plugged into one Thunderbolt port and connecting the docking station to the other port. This works, but it also cuts off access to that extra port, which I prefer to use for an external hard drive.

And that’s why I finally chose Dell’s WD22TB4 Thunderbolt 4 Dock, which was specifically designed to be used as a Dell-brand laptop. It’s capable of delivering 130W USB PD to Dell devices (but only 90W to non-Dell laptops), which gives it a clear edge in my usage. I find it mildly annoying that the dock doesn’t include an audio jack for output and only has a single USB 3.2 Gen 2 port (the other two USB ports are USB 3.2 Gen 1). But it gets the job done.

How it all works

Now, let me be clear here. I use this laptop PC as if it were a desktop PC. It’s always connected to external power, and it’s always connected to an external display (a 38-inch Dell Thunderbolt 3-compatible monitor) with a full-size keyboard and Bluetooth mouse. I use the built-in keyboard and trackpad whenever I’m doing maintenance when external devices aren’t working or disconnected from the dock.

When I need a PC to use elsewhere, I have a MacBook Air and a Surface Pro 9 synced to the same cloud services I use on the desktop/laptop.

If that sounds weird to you, I get it. But here’s why this setup works for me.

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First, it’s the standard dual display system for what I do.

I spent years working with a pair of 24-inch LCD monitors. But I found this configuration much more practical. The laptop sits on the side and I regularly use its display to keep tabs on social media sites and Slack; It’s also ideal for hosting Zoom and team meetings and watching YouTube clips while I work with two or three apps (usually arranged side-by-side) on the large display.

All that hardware is set up on one Blue Dot Desk 51 Which has a built-in keyboard tray that’s just the right height. The desk is large enough to accommodate both an ultra-wide display and a laptop next to it without cramping. The docking station sits within easy reach.

Being permanently connected means I always have an external keyboard and mouse available, which I find essential for extended work. I also work a lot in Excel, so I really need a full-size number pad, which you can’t get on a normal laptop keyboard.

As for travel weight and battery life concerns, I have none, as this machine is always connected to external power and rarely leaves my office.

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Then there’s wired Gigabit Ethernet, which is about 33% faster than built-in WiFi and better for applications like video conferencing.

And it’s much less cluttered and cluttered than my old desktop. It occupies less space with fewer cables and easier to manage those cables. I’m not constantly bumping my knee on a tower PC case, and the constant fan noise (and heat) is gone for good.

My setup went all-Del for a simple reason related to power requirements and I’m perfectly happy with the dock. But that Dell dock is less than ideal when connected to a laptop from any other OEM. It is particularly unsuitable for use with a MacBook Pro, where you have to deal with a Array of known constraints, something serious. You can do better elsewhere.

If you want to replicate a setup like this, I recommend getting a laptop with at least a 15-inch display to maximize its effectiveness as a second monitor. As long as the dock and laptop both support the same Thunderbolt version, you should have great expansion options. Remember to check that your dock is providing enough power to run your PC. Some low-cost docks top out at 60W USB PD, which isn’t enough for a high-end laptop.

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