Scott Hanselman

Asking Permission of your Docking Stations

February 05, 2007 Comment on this post [26] Posted in Musings
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For years I've avoided Docking Stations Port Replicators. Early on, they at least made sense, because they had a bunch of ports that your laptop didn't already have. Now, other than more USB ports and the occasional DVI port, most Docking Stations seem like Port Duplicators. Sure, folks argue that you don't have to plugin multiple cords, but I don't personally find it all that difficult to plug in the monitor and one USB hub.

Anyway, the real point here is this - Has docking/undocking ever worked in Windows? The only docking station I've ever used that hasn't sucked egregiously has been the Toshiba MultiDock II Docking StationIt's for the Portege m200/205 Tablet PC and is not only a docking station, but also a stand that expects you to use the laptop screen as the primary monitor. The docking station experience in Vista with this laptop, so far, seems to be fine. No errors, no troubles, although for some reason when I'm docked I can't go into standby.

However, things aren't so rosy on the Windows XP SP2 totally fresh install side. I just got a Lenovo ThinkPad T60p. A fine laptop indeed. It also happened to come with a Docking Station. The station has lock-and-key on the top with two buttons marked "1" and "2" that I'm apparently supposed to press in order. When I press the first one I get a message telling me that:

"You cannot eject your computer because of of the devices in the docking station, "Docking Station," cannot be stopped because of an unknown error. Since this device is still being used, do not remove the computer."

Sometimes I'll get the same error except it'll say "USB Printing Support" - and I'm not printing.

On the other hand, when I plug my new T60p into the docking station, it just reboots. no blue screen, no How's your Father, just black screen, then BIOs. I'm not going to use the docking station anymore. Sigh.

From my point of view, I need my Docking Station to understand this. When I pressed the Undock button, that wasn't a request. I'm not asking your permission, Docking Station, if I can take my computer with me. Understand this, Mr. Station, I'm taking the computer with me, and I'm taking it now. The fact that I pressed the button at all was a kindness - a heads up, if you will - to you. If you choose to do something about it, cool, do what you have to do and shut down what you need to shut down, but if you have a problem doing that, you should error on the side of "I guess he's not coming back" not on the side of "Don't Leave!"

Seems to me the design of the Undocking experience is sub-par at best, similar to the "Unplugging a Device" experience. Much of the device related errors are like this. When an anonymous dialog tells me that a Device can't do something, why doesn't it tell me WHY not, and offer some suggestions about how I can move forward? If you're going to put up a roadblock, as a designer, always offer a detour sign so I can continue the journey.

Does your docking station experience suck as well?

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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February 05, 2007 23:45
I use a Dell Latitude D810 and a docking station that holds the whole thing at an angle so I can use laptop screen as a primary monitor with Windows XP SP2. There is a button to ask the docking station if I can please have my laptop, but I always just hit the eject button and run. I don't have any problems, but I think my experience is pretty rare here in the office.
February 06, 2007 0:00
I used to have a Dell docking station for my latitude C810 (I think) and it also sucked. Oddly the drivers for it worked much better under NT4.0 than they did under XP and it would often refuse to let me output to the monitor (which makes it tough to see when the laptop is shut, and under a big screen).

I found that making sure it was in standby before docking/undocking was the only way to reliably use the thing.
That experience stopped me getting a docking station for my Toshiba M205. I just use a Targus USB hub that supports keyboard/mouse and ethernet passthru (The wireless coverage in my part of the building is spotty) and live with plugging in the 3 cords each morning (power/screen/usb).

+1 on the useful messages when you want to yank devices out. Having toasted a VPC on my external drive by just disconnecting it I'm now very careful about removing that correctly.
February 06, 2007 0:08
I use a Dell Docking Station with a Dell Monitor Stand (separate monitor, i don't use my laptop screen when I am docked) for my Dell Precision M65. Oddly (or Luckily) enough, I have never had a problem yet using it. I just plop it in, and press the ejector whenever I need to leave. I never even do an un-dock operation.

I am thinking, it could be because I normally keep my external hard drive and my external DVD writer switched off even though they are connected to the Docking Station. This may be why I never get an error as the only other things connected to my docking station are monitor, and keyboard (my notebook mouse goes into the USB on my laptop, as it is always plugged in there).

I guess I am just lucky.
February 06, 2007 0:31
+1 for no problems with my Dell Latitude D820 on a DPort w/DView which props it up to use the laptop as the monitor. I hit the eject request button, the light on the eject button blinks and then goes green, and I hit eject. Everything's still running (WinXP). To dock, I just push the laptop onto the stand, no standby or anything, and everything continues smoothly.
The core technology works, but I suspect there are certain devices with bad drivers that interfere with some people's experience.
February 06, 2007 0:38
I could not agree more. I have my D800 in a dock at the office, and it is nothing but a pain in the ass. If I put the machine into standby mode at home, then drop it in the dock at the office, it will often take 5 minutes worth of button pressing and incantations to get the thing to power up. Sometimes it will simply refuse to power up at all and I'm forced to undock it and pop the lid open and power it down. Somewhere, a Mac owner is laughing. I bought an Intel MacBook as a novelty and I don't use it a whole lot, but it sure appears to me that they have this whole power/hibernate/sleep thing down pat. I'm sure it's because they control the hardware spec, but it sure does work well.
February 06, 2007 1:52
I agree. Docking and undocking sucks. One thing that made things better for me was my accidental discovery that docking and undocking the IBM works best if the laptop is closed and in it's sleep mode (moon icon is illuminated). Give it a try to see if it helps.
February 06, 2007 1:52
I have a HP nc8230 and use the HP Docking Station, but I admit that my usual routine includes putting the laptop into standby mode before undocking. Never had a problem with it.. Yet!
February 06, 2007 2:31
I know you've been fan of maxivista and I've been using it too. I haven't used docking station although I have one. Maxivista 3 works great with Windows Vista.
February 06, 2007 3:14
I've got a T60 with the Advanced docking station and I've never had a problem. In Windows I just click Start -> Undock and two seconds later the lock icon on the dock turns off, and I can press the release button on the dock and take my laptop with me.

No problems plugging it in either. Maybe you need some of the ThinkVantage software installed?
February 06, 2007 6:06
I have a Dell M65 (same setup as Vaibhav mentioned) with XP and never have a problem with it. I usually hit the disconnect button before pulling it but it's never refused to undock. I usually dock and undock at least twice a day while running and the only issues I ever have are with dropped network connections and windows moving from my secondary monitor to the laptop screen.

I once didn't push down the connector hard enough, which worked okay until I bumped it later at which time it gave up functioning completely until I restarted.
February 06, 2007 9:08
In my pre-Mac days, I had a docking station for my Dell Latitude CSx. Man did I love it. The thing about docking stations, and what explains your experience IMHO, is that not enough people use them to get companies to really refine them. Most people who buy laptops never take them off their desk.

Personally, I took my laptop out at least twice a day, and my docking station saved me a ton of time. I guess I got lucky because I never had any errors. I did, however, always press the "eject' button a good full minute or so before I needed to leave, because it had to take time to stop all kinds of devices and put the computer to sleep before I removed it. But it saved me from continuously plugging in: power, ethernet (faster/more stable than wireless), external monitor, speakers, external keyboard, external mouse, backup drive. (Buying a dedicated power adapter to leave at your docking station is recommended.) And it did let me use both my external monitor and the builtin for extra screen space.
February 06, 2007 14:12

In my previous job I had a Dell D810 and docking station and it sucked. Needed to ask permission and go to standby to dock/undock so no quick pick & go. Now I have a HP complete with docking station and it just works! No power down, no panic, just press the blue button pick up your laptop & go. Windows works it all out OK and I can now safely say the docking station makes sense.

February 06, 2007 15:37
I'd have to agree with Adam... I've got a brand new T60 and installed Vista and use it in a dock every day at work.. If I use the start -> Arrow -> Undock command and wait a couple of seconds I can un-dock on the dock properly... and, interestingly enough, it communicates with the dock because during that process the red "no" light on button 2 of the dock goes away letting me know it is "ready".

Placing it in the doc on the other hand, has been a constant problem. I've quite taken to the standby/low-power mode the laptop goes into when I simply shut things down, which works great until I take it from home and drop it in the dock... I get a 30% success rate and most often have a problem with the external monitor not firing up or something like that.
February 06, 2007 17:10
Concerning your error message...

I think it's a case of stupid programmers. They don't want to take the time to fix the error, so they just give you an error message and hope you know what to do.

February 06, 2007 19:04
Scott, I may be wrong for current docking stations... but my past experience in hardware taught me to NEVER undock a laptop while it is on. Most instruction booklets will tell you that it must be turned off before docking and also to undock. I am suprised to see that others have been able to undock and run, but I am not surprised that errors are apparent.

This is, of course, different for USB based docking stations. They are not using a proprietary interface and undock just fine.
February 06, 2007 20:09
Scott, Windows in any flavor, has never supported unannounced undocking. Windows needs to be given the chance to close file handles and commit any uncommitted I/O before disconnecting the machine.

This is accomplished from the Start Menu or by pressing the undock button on the physical dock or port replicator. At Dell, we called this the STUD button: Safe To UnDock. Unannounced undocking is just asking for trouble. The exception, of course, is a USB dock because USB was designed from the beginning to support unannounced disconnection.

That said, it is the device driver that is responsible for handling the undock notification call, closing files, etc, and telling Windows "okay, I'm ready." If a device driver does not support undock notification, it will tell Windows "I'm not budging." Windows is just passing along the bad news.

I can tell you from past experience as a Dell portables software engineer (and I'm happy to see mostly positive comments above) that Dell portables receive extensive dock/undock testing for the most common devices.
February 06, 2007 20:44
"Does your docking station experience suck as well?"

It's been a while since I've had to dock anything. But my usb drive removal experience sucks. I understand file I/O needs to be taken care of. But rather than telling me that I can't remove the drive right now. Put a "more details" link on there so I can find out why and fix it. Or better yet, hurry along whatever file I/O needs to happen and then let me unplug it.

Same with killing a process Mr. Task Manager. I understand that the process I'm trying to kill says that it is very important and shouldn't be killed. But some processes just need killin'. So just terminate it, free up the memory it's using, and let me deal with any consequences, just as locking up the computer or causing my Word Document to go away, that may come about from said termination.
February 06, 2007 22:35
My Dell Latitude D610 has been "running" (hibernate instead of shutdown) for fifteen days so far since the last restart. I have a D/Port dock at work and another at home and don't have any problems docking and undocking from either. I press the undock button on the dock, wait for WinXP SP2 to notify me that it's cool to undock, and then pop the system off the dock. I then shut the screen which I have set to hibernate, wait until the power LED turns off, and go about my business. The next time I dock, either at home or at work, the screen flickers twice, I wait a few seconds for an IP address, and everything is back up and running perfectly.

The only issue I have is an annoyance more than a problem. When I undock or dock, the repeat rate on the keyboard is reset to the lowest setting. Windows still shows it set to the fastest setting, but the actual key repeat is slow. It's easy enough to fix, but very annoying to have to change it each time. I once found a forum post that described this exact behavior with other D610s, but I haven't been able to find that post since then. I seemed to remember a link to software that could be run to change the repeat rate without having to go the Control Panel route.

I think the biggest problem with regard to docking issues is poorly-written device drivers. I don't have a lot of stuff attached to my docks; just Ethernet, mouse, and a secondary monitor on the DVI port (home) and analog VGA (work). Never once have I had my Latitude fail to undock on the first attempt. Removable storage devices have proven to be the most problematic; if something decides it's still using the device, Windows will simply not let go of it gracefully, and this will prevent an undock from succeeding.

With regard to Jeremy's post above, at least in the case of Dell D-series Latitudes (and comparable Inspiron, XPS, and Precision notebooks), there is a BIOS option to control the undock method: hot or warm. Dell fully supports "hot undocking" where the system can be removed while fully powered and in use as long as you warn Windows first either via the hardware button on the dock or the "Undock Computer" button on the Start menu.

The other option, "warm undock," suspends the system first. I found that to be problematic because it apparently only partially suspends the system, leaving the CPU and fans powered. I discovered that after almost dropping my system because it was too hot to touch after removing it from a bag after warm undocking. As it turns out, the system was still powered on enough that it was baking itself inside my case on the way home. When I got home, the bag was warm on the outside, so I opened it, heard the fan running at its highest speed, and the system too hot to touch.
February 06, 2007 22:51
I've never understood the fascination myself. In fact, it's always annoyed the hell out of me, since I have a coworker who insists on continuing to try to use one in the next cube that constantly gives her problems. So she'll come back into her cube, and practically slam the laptop into the docking station, where it makes an annoying beep. Then something won't work right, so she'll undock it (causing another beeping) and then redock with another beep. Sometimes she does this 3 or 4 times before it works.

You'd think she'd eventually give up on the damn thing.
February 06, 2007 22:54 up is exactly what I'm going to do.
February 07, 2007 2:05
My pet peeve is the message you get when you try to remove a USB drive. The thing that kills me, is that it allmost always works the second time.
February 07, 2007 4:08
Yeah, my wife has a Sony Vaio and it's really cool when you hibernate, undock and boot back up. She get's a BSD about 80% of the time on that one. The rest of the time she just needs to needs to reset 'cause it doesn't even boot properly. Sometimes, if she hibernates, docks and boots, it boots fine, but doesn't recognize the docking station. Forget the undock feature.

Oh, yeah it's XP Home. Could that be the problem? It misses it's home?

Just out of curiousity, has anyone tried this with Linux? That would be interesting to find out.
February 07, 2007 5:28
... when you hibernate, undock and boot back up. She get's a BSD about 80% of the time on that one.

The problem with that is that when Windows resumes from hibernation, it expects to still be connected to the dock. Hibernating while docked, undocking, and powering up is essentially the same as just removing the system from the dock without notifying Windows first. As far as Windows knows, the devices it was connected to a moment ago simply vanished, it doesn't know why, and sometimes complains rather loudly.

Should it be this complicated? No, of course not. Ideally, the system would expect to be disconnected from devices at any time and be able to handle it gracefully. The problem arises because some docking stations are more than just simply port replicators. Some have PCI slots, video adapters, hard drives, and other devices that the system must prepare to be separated from.

At least with the current hardware architecture and operating systems, we just have to accept that it's not quite "unplug-n-play."
February 07, 2007 17:45
My most recent docking station experience resulted in the damage of the dock connector on my Dell Inspiron 8600. After several months of use, docking in the morning, undocking at night...the connection mechanism apparently failed, and now the sensor that detects whether the laptop is docked or not is non functional. This results in the laptop always believing it is in the dock...thus requiring the presence of the dock...end result, a laptop that is perpetually tethered to it's docking station.

How does one fix this? Send it back to Dell so they can replace the motherboard, at a cost of around $650. Right..I think I'll be buying a new laptop, thank you very much :) No more docking stations for this guy!

I won't even go into the frustrations of Hibernation and 2GB of ram :)
February 08, 2007 1:47
Yes, my docking station experience sucks. I constantly have to readjust my screen resolutions, hitting the dang FN+F8 key all the time. Sometimes the docking station only shows my "second" monitor. Sometimes it shows nothing. Drives me nuts.

March 09, 2007 16:00
Dave Beauvais wrote:
"The only issue I have is an annoyance more than a problem. When I undock or dock, the repeat rate on the keyboard is reset to the lowest setting. Windows still shows it set to the fastest setting, but the actual key repeat is slow. It's easy enough to fix, but very annoying to have to change it each time. I once found a forum post that described this exact behavior with other D610s, but I haven't been able to find that post since then. I seemed to remember a link to software that could be run to change the repeat rate without having to go the Control Panel route. "


Here's a link with a possible solution...

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.