How to choose a USB-C hub versus a Thunderbolt dock
Here’s where to start: Take a look at the peripherals you own, or plan to buy. Do you have an old external hard drive that uses a traditional USB-A cable? Do you manually back up photos from an SLR via its SD card? Or is your Wi-Fi connection unreliable enough that you’d prefer ethernet? Figure out what ports you’ll need.
It’s also important to take stock of your laptop or tablet’s ports: Does it have one USB-C port or two? If your device only has one port, is there a separate charging connection? If your laptop or tablet has a USB-C port and uses it exclusively for charging, you may want a USB-C hub with a dedicated charging input port. Note how much input power it allows for, and confirm that will be sufficient for your laptop. Otherwise, you’ll be forced to choose between charging your laptop and accessing other devices, which makes little sense.
Keep in mind that the hub’s power port is for taking power in to your laptop, and not out to a phone. But your hub may still be able to charge your phone, with some caveats. A “bus-powered” USB hub connects to your laptop and pulls power from it, which it has to share with several devices. A “powered” or “power delivery” USB hub will take power from the wall, route it through your hub, and share it with any device connected to it. These devices will make more power available for fast charging your phone. (Your hub won’t enable specialized charging like the Samsung Galaxy S20’s Super Fast Charging, however, even if you use the supplied Samsung cable. You’ll still need to connect your phone to its charger for that.)
Some newer, pricier laptops now come with Thunderbolt connections, which offer a greater amount of bandwidth than a traditional USB-C connection. Remember, every device that connects to a hub shares bandwidth, but often the USB-C port delivers enough so as not to cause a problem.
The main exception is displays. USB-C delivers enough bandwidth to drive an external 1080p or 4K display, even two (provided your hub has a pair of HDMI or DisplayPort connectors). But while USB-C can drive a pair of 1080p displays at a good 60Hz, it can only run 4K displays at 30Hz, which can be fatiguing on the eyes.
If you want to run at 60Hz with your 4K monitor/s, you’ll need a generally more expensive Thunderbolt dock. Our pick for Thunderbolt docks is the IOgear GTD300, but you can find lots of options in our roundup of best Thunderbolt docks. If you pursue this route, pay attention to details: You’ll need to ensure the dock and monitor support Dual-Mode DisplayPort 1.2 (DP++) ports, and the HDMI ports are rated at HDMI 2.0. The cables, too, need to be rated at the appropriate speeds. A DisplayPort 1.1 connection supports 4K at just 30Hz.
There’s one more wrinkle. Some of the latest laptops (including the Surface Pro 7) include DisplayPort 1.4 and Display Stream Compression (DSC) 1.2, which allow the PC to run a pair of 4K@60Hz displays (or a single 4K@120Hz display) plus the attached USB hardware at full speed. For that, you’ll need to have a specialized hub like the CableMatters 201046 USB-C hub , which allows for 60W host charging with the needed bandwidth to drive a single external display, or something more expensive for a pair of 4K displays over 60Hz refresh rates.
Because USB-C is common among Macs, Windows PCs, and phones, some hubs align their branding with a particular platform. Go ahead and use that Anker hub that’s billed as being “for MacBook Pro 2016/2017, Chromebook, and XPS” with any Windows PC—we did, and it works just fine. You won’t even need any special software or drivers.
How we test USB-C hubs
We originally divided this guide into three categories: USB-C to USB-A hubs; a second group that added microSD and SD card slots; and a third, “kitchen sink” collection that would add a variety of additional ports. We were very pleased to discover that some manufacturers offer SD/microSD slots for the price of USB-C to USB-A hubs, so we consolidated those features into one “Basic” category.
We used bus-powered peripherals to test each hub: an SSD, a hard drive, and a rewriteable DVD drive, all to make sure enough power was being delivered. We also ran speed tests on those hubs with ethernet connections, just to detect any anomalous results. We performed spot checks with other peripherals.
We conducted standardized tests to transfer a file from the SSD to the laptop; from the hard drive to the SSD; and then from an SD card to the PC, while simultaneously transferring files from the hard drive to the SSD. In some cases we used AJA’s System Tool app to run read and write tests on connected drives. In almost all cases, the performance was identical, with a spread of about 3 percent—good news for you, as that’s one less thing to worry about.
We measured the surface temperature while these tests were run. You’ll see some buyers on Amazon pages complaining about how hot a hub gets; some do get on the warmer side.
We looked at how SD cards were inserted—you’d be surprised how many don’t work unless they’re inserted upside down!
We noted the cord length, as shorter cables limit your options when positioning the hub around your laptop or tablet. Worst case, a short cable causes a hub to dangle from a tablet whose USB-C port is mounted toward the top. We’d also recommend avoiding any hubs that connect directly to the port rather than using a cord, as they can block other ports.
After testing about a dozen USB-C hubs, we can confirm that some no-names perform just as well as their more well-known counterparts, and for less money, too. One thing to keep in mind: Because price is so critical to our recommendations, know that some of the prices may change as manufacturers offer sales. Therefore some hubs we didn’t recommend primarily based on price could become more purchase-worthy.
Updated on May 5, 2021 with additional recommendations and more reviews.