Yet More Dell Docking

Dell’s dock didn’t work. The Belkin USB 3.0 hub did. For a while, at least. After a few months of fairly solid performance driving the 2x LG 34UC97 ultrawide monitors using 2x Plugable USB3.0 DP adapters, problems started to appear. One monitor wouldn’t come on.  Or the other wouldn’t come on. Or they’d flicker wildly when actual work was being done. The bosses declared them “unusable” and worked from a meeting room, rather than stare at the pile of failing technology in front of them. Shame upon my family name!

It looks like the issue is the Belkin dock, rather than the Plugable adapters. While these docks are happily pushing twin 1080p monitors elsewhere in the business, it seems that pushing two lots of 3440×1440 monitors is too much for the chipset. I’ve kept them, and at some point I’ll test them out to see if they’re properly wrecked or whether they can enjoy an easy retirement pushing the same twin 1080p as their comrades.

So it was back to online shopping, trying to find something that would do the job. I have to say, the market for USB 3.x docks is moving at a serious pace now. It seems like none of the options I checked out in January were really available six months ago. In the end I settled for the Kensington SD4600P, a dock that advertises as supporting dual 4K, via one DP port and one HDMI port. They’ve been working for nearly two months now with fairly minimal issues; occasionally the XPS15 forgets which monitors go where, but that is quickly solved.

They seem fairly nice units, however there is one thing I will note. Of two installations on the same Dell XPS 15s, one was significantly easier than the other. The easy one was just checking that the video drivers were up to date, and we were away. The other struggled to drive both monitors at the same time until a firmware update was performed. And something in the firmware update had a terrible effect on the laptop’s onboard graphics. The lower half of the screen flickered and froze constantly after the firmware update (which should only have affected the dock!) and nothing I tried would fix it. Eventually the boss needed to go, so I shut it off. When it was turned on the next morning, it was fine. I have no idea what happened there. I had tried turning it off and on again, but it appears the extended power-down was the answer.

A Dell Docking Follow-Up

After the unbelievable faff of installing the Dell WD-15 docks, I thought I’d do a little follow up on the working solution I found for connecting a Dell XPS15 to two LG 34UC97 ultrawide monitors.

Unfortunately, the single connector for everything was a no-goer, but I did get everything down to two connections. The power connector is the first, the second is a USB connection to a Belkin USB 3.0 hub which is our standard laptop dock. Plugged into that USB hub are 2x Plugable USB 3.0 to DisplayPort adapters. These aren’t the cheapest, but they are rated for resolutions up to 4K, which covers the ultrawide’s 3440×1440, and they won’t need replacing if the bosses decide that they want to upgrade to 4K.

The solution isn’t as neat as I would have liked, as it leaves only one free USB port on the Belkin hub. Plus, the USB connection means the monitors are powered by the XPS 15’s integrated CPU graphics rather than the discrete Nvidia card, but the result is fine for office work and the odd video.

Only one driver was required for the Belkin dock, and after two weeks they have been been rock solid. Dell, take note.

Update 02/03/2017: this wasn’t the end of it. More here.

On Dell and their WD-15 Dock

Dell are usually pretty solid, as a brand. A bit pricey maybe, but they’ve survived because they are usually as good, if not better, than their rivals at HP and Lenovo. I had no issues recommending my bosses replace their outgoing MacBook Pros with the 2015 Dell XPS 15, billed by reviewers as the “Windows […] MacBook Pro”. The XPS 15, by itself, absolutely lives up to that moniker. But something terrible must have happened within Dell, because the docking station they built for their latest laptops, the WD-15, is an abject failure.

We needed the docking stations because the bosses wanted dual monitors. On the MacBooks, this was astoundingly simple; purchase two Thunderbolt Displays, plug one into the other and the other into the MacBook and watch as the MacBook receives power and outputs video. The Apple mantra of “it just works” writ large.

The Windows ecosystem is rarely as straightforward, and I accept the need for docks to go between a laptop and multiple monitors. Our users get a Belkin USB 3.0 hub to power twin 1080p displays, and they work really well, requiring only the generic DisplayLink driver. Unfortunately these wouldn’t work for my bosses, as they wanted a one-port devices and charging solution like the MacBook. No problem, the WD-15 is what Dell recommend for this exact scenario.

As a reminder, the Apple way requires you to plug in a cable and you’re good to go. The generic Windows way requires you to install one bit of software and then plug your cables in. The Dell way needs you to install five individual software packages, with a reboot between each installation. Their driver download page doesn’t even highlight that the correct process, which has only been noted in their community support forum, varies from Dell laptop to Dell laptop, and requires you to install those patches in a specific order to expect them to work at all! What the hell, Dell? Who OK’d this out-of-box experience? Upwards of half an hour to install the patches on a brand new system, and if you miss the unmentioned instructions, having to uninstall them all and start again?

The real kicker, then is that even after that arduous process, it still might not work. Ours didn’t output video. Other reported issues include displays turning off at random. I called up Dell Support, and after confirming that I’d run through their hidden process, the rep admitted there had been “some issues” with the model, and suggested I get a refund. The alternative was to wait “a month or so” for a new patch which “may” resolve the issue. At this point I’d wasted so many hours uninstalling and reinstalling Dell drivers that I opted for the refund.

TL;DR? Dell has released a product that’s pretty fundamentally broken to accompany one of their flagship devices. Even if it wasn’t fundamentally broken, it has the worst out-of-the-box install experience of any device I have ever used. This should not fly in 2016, do not buy a Dell WD-15.