May 27, 2024

State of the Art: Docking Your Laptop, Wirelessly

Think of all the wires we’ve eliminated so far, thanks to inventions like the remote control, Wi-Fi, cellphones and tiny Bluetooth earpieces. Each time, it’s magical. Each time, it’s more convenient. And each time, the world becomes a better place.

In a couple of weeks, the Cable-Extinction Hall of Fame will gain a new member: the Samsung Central Station.

On your desk, it looks exactly like a sleek, high-definition computer monitor, clad in shiny black. The picture is bright and vivid. The screen comes in two sizes: 23 inches ($450) and 27 ($600).

That’s about $200 more than regular desktop monitors of the same size — even Samsung monitors. But that’s forgivable, considering the Central Station’s secret: It doubles as a wireless docking station.

A docking station, in case you’ve never met one, is an ugly desktop contraption, usually costing $100 to $200, that accommodates certain laptops. The point is that when you’re on the road, you want the compactness of a laptop. But when you’re at your desk, you want a bigger monitor, a real mouse and keyboard, wired Internet (faster and more secure than Wi-Fi), a printer, real PC speakers and maybe an external hard drive or two. You can leave all that gear plugged into the docking station; then, when you return from the road and snap in your laptop, all of that external equipment is connected to it simultaneously. You can get to work with much nicer trappings.

The Central Station is like that. But with this docking station, you don’t snap in or connect anything; it’s all wireless. The linkup is automatic and quick — about 10 seconds. All you do is take the laptop within five feet of the Central Station.

Suddenly, the Central Station’s enormous flat-panel screen bursts into life, showing whatever’s on your laptop screen. (It can either duplicate what’s on your laptop, or it can act as a second monitor — an extension of the laptop’s screen. It even offers “crouch mode,” where you can bend the hinges behind the screen all the way until its edge rests on your desk. That way, it’s down at the same level as the laptop screen.)

If a movie was playing on your laptop, it suddenly appears on the much bigger monitor, and the sound jumps from your laptop’s cheesy speaker to the much nicer-sounding ones connected to the Central Station. If you left your iPod, iPad or iPhone plugged into the base, iTunes suddenly opens and begins syncing it automatically. The mouse and keyboard you’ve plugged into the Central Station now work exactly as if they were plugged into the laptop a few feet away. (The laptop’s own trackpad and keyboard continue to work, too.)

When you have to head out to a meeting, you don’t have to disconnect anything. You just grab the laptop and leave. Without its brain, the Central Station goes black and silent after about 10 seconds. It’s a jaw-dropping sight.

Two huge questions should be popping into the techie’s head right about now. First, how does it work?

The Central Station comes with a transmitter that plugs into your laptop’s USB jack. It’s really tiny — about the size of your middle toenail.

It transmits all of the necessary signals to the Central Station: a 1080p high-definition video signal, two-way information on its four USB jacks, an Ethernet network signal and audio from the laptop. Transmitting that much data wirelessly, with no lag whatsoever, is quite an engineering feat; as far as Samsung and I know, it’s never been done before. (Samsung says it’s using a “proprietary protocol over the ultra-wide band spectrum that is not, and does not interfere with, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.” Huh.)

Thanks to the existence of this USB transmitter, the Central Station works with any laptop on earth, not just Samsung’s. Or it will, anyway. At the moment, Samsung offers driver software only for Windows XP and Windows 7. The company says that it will have software for Windows Vista and the Mac in October.


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