Why is hardware so hard?

Written on January 21, 2021

I’m looking to refresh my home office computer hardware. In summary, it’s doing my head in!

I guess I’m mostly a software guy, so selecting hardware (and trying to ensure that my selections are going to be compatible) seems to take far longer than I’d like. I know it’s a simplification, but I wish hardware was more like Lego. You’re confident that different kits, even years apart in manufacturing, are still going to work together.

You only have to go searching vendor support forums to read numerous posts of people struggling to get hardware that should work playing nice together. Docks seem to be a sore point here. I’ve seen first hand how troublesome those can be, even with the laptop and dock from the same vendor.

The desktop PC I’ve been using is being decommissioned and I want to replace it with a new laptop.

Almost 5 years ago I bought an Dell XPS 15 9550 (with my own money). It’s an Intel i7 6700HQ with 16GB RAM, 512 SSD and a 4K (3840x2160) touch screen. I’d like my new device to be at least on par with this.

My shopping list:

  • Intel Core i7
  • 32GB RAM
  • 512-1TB M.2 SSD

Chris Walsh came out of left field suggesting the new Apple M1 hardware could be worth considering, though Jeff Wilcox suggested waiting for the next models. I’ve never owned any MacOS / OS X hardware, and I am hearing good things about the new M1 stuff, but the timing isn’t quite right to be making a big platform jump like that right now.

I’m also thinking this is a chance to update my displays. I currently have 3 Full HD (1920x1080) displays, and two of those are at least 6 years old. I didn’t realise how poor the colour/contrast was on them until one broke on the journey moving from the office to working from home, and I had to replace it with a relatively cheap newer model. But now 4K is a thing, so could I run 1, 2 or even all 3 4K monitors?

But how do you run more than a single 4K monitor? Probably with a dock of some kind, but does the dock use Thunderbolt, USB-C or DisplayLink?

Apparently you can run 2 4K displays if you have Thunderbolt 4. That sounds useful, except Thunderbolt monitors are really expensive (and that’s just the Thunderbolt 3 ones, not even TB 4).

I called out on Twitter, asking about docking stations:

and to summarise the replies:

and Chris Walsh also pointed out that Thunderbolt is mandatory if you want to drive more than one 4K monitor.

I’m leaning towards another Dell laptop and might as well go with the Dell WD19TB dock. I thought it would be wise to review the WD19TB supported resolutions. That mentions DisplayPort 1.4.

I had been looking at some 4K monitors, but most of those only support DisplayPort 1.2. Time to do some more reading up on what is the difference between DisplayPort 1.2 and 1.4. Not surprisingly, 1.4 is better, but is 1.2 good enough for my needs?

If I have a laptop that supports DisplayPort 1.4, does the dock and display also need 1.4 or is 1.2 ok. Another question posted, this time to the Dell Community forums, and a few hours later I got some helpful responses. It sounds like I should be fine. Just as well, as there’s hardly any docks around that support DisplayPort 1.4, and likewise the only monitors I could find were the pricey top-end models.

That ‘supported resolution’ table for the WD19TB dock didn’t list ‘2xDP and 1xHDMI’ as an option for 3 monitors (though it did have ‘2xDP and 1xUSB-C’). Could I use a HDMI port on the laptop (instead of the dock)? Maybe, or the other option is to use a USB-C to HDMI adapter. Turns out even K-Mart have those for $10!. I later realised that I actually have one of those already in the form of a Dell DA200 USB-C Multi-Port Adapter that I’d bought to use with my XPS 9550. It was sitting on the desk right in front of me the whole time🤣.

Hopefully that’s the display stuff sorted. Then there’s storage. Are you fine with the stock SSD, or do you upgrade. You might be better ordering with the smallest drive and then replacing it with a larger (faster?) 3rd party SSD. But if you do that, have you got a way to migrate your data to the new disk (or don’t you care). More things to consider.

Anyway, I think I’ve made some progress. So, a big thanks to the community for advice and suggestions (though let me know if there’s anything else I should consider). Now to put together a final selection and make the order!

Categories: Hardware