Dell dock brings gigabit wireless to classrooms, conference halls

The D5000 gives users control of multiple devices from a laptop, and the high speeds hold up in rigorous testing.

Standard IEEE 802.11x wireless technology has transformed the workplace in many ways, but speed limitations and over-saturation of the signal is starting to impede that progress. Dell is upping the ante with the D5000 Wireless Dock and its ability to operate at gigabit speeds, which might be a perfect tool for a stand-alone user, or as the centerpiece for a classroom or training area.

The D5000 is more than just a wireless hub. It could also be properly described as a type of keyboard, video, mouse [KVM] switch as well as a collaboration tool. In every case, the D5000 uses gigabit wireless technology, and the high bandwidth at that speed to connect a laptop with multiple devices. Once that connection is made, users can control display technology such as monitors, projectors or whiteboards and also peripherals such as external hard drives.

Using the device requires a computer with a wireless gigabit adaptor with a special antenna that allows one-to-one pairing. Dell has only one notebook that can do this at the moment, the Latitude 6430u, a thin, sleek unit and a good choice to house the necessary pairing technology. For this review, Dell sent along a 6430u so that we could properly evaluate the D5000. The cost of the notebook as configured for our testing was $1,584, a good value considering it had an Intel i7-3687U processor, 8G of DDR3 memory and a 128G solid state hard drive to go along with the required 1601 WiGig adaptor. It's possible, though probably unlikely, that someone might have a WiGig adaptor in another machine. If that's the case, you can purchase the D5000 as a stand-alone unit for $269. As an option with a 6430u purchase, it’s $187.

The D5000 comes with a Gigabit Ethernet port so that it can be used with a wired network. But the ports that really matter are three USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI 1.3 jack and a DisplayPort 1.1 interface. To set up the unit, you connect up to two monitors or projectors to the dock using the HDMI and DisplayPorts. If you don't have those interfaces, the unit also comes with a DisplayPort-to-VGA conversion dongle. For our testing, we used the HDMI port to connect to a DLP projector and the DisplayPort to connect to a large monitor. We also connected the projector's control interface through one of the USB ports, and an external hard drive to a second.

The only thing to do after that is to bring a 6430u into range. Once that occurs, a pretty amazing thing happens: The notebook gains control of every single device connected to the D5000. Given the 4.6 gigabits/sec connection rate offered by the wireless adaptor, there is almost no way to know that they aren't directly plugged into the computer. 

Once the pairing is established, you don’t need to have your notebook open to access the connected peripherals. For a stand-alone user, this means that the D5000 could act as a traditional docking station, except without wires. Users could simply connect a keyboard and mouse to open USB ports and a monitor to one of the display inputs. Thereafter, whenever the notebook got close to the dock, the monitor would turn on upon receiving a signal and everything world work normally. The notebook just needs to be sitting nearby somewhere, open or closed.

That's a nice use case, but where the D5000 could really shine is in an educational or training environment, which is how we set up our test environment in the GCN Lab. Pretending the lab was a classroom or boardroom, we walked in with the 6430u and immediately gained control of the projector, monitor and external hard drive attached to the dock. Within a few seconds, we were sending a PowerPoint presentation through the projector, which we booted remotely, and displayed still images on the large monitor. Yet another private feed was available to us on the notebook's main screen.

There is also an audio combo jack that lets both a microphone and an audio device to use the single port. So you could set up a teleconference using that port. We tested that briefly and it worked fine, even though the unit isn't really optimized to be used that way. 

To really test the dock's wireless throughput, we streamed a movie through the HDMI port to the projector, and a second movie through the DisplayPort to the monitor. For the most part, both signals looked perfect. Only when we started to move around with the notebook a bit did we notice the tiniest bit of stuttering on one of the feeds. According to Dell, the D5000 works best when the notebook driving it remains stationary. You can of course move around within the range of the wireless signal without losing it, but if you are maxing out the bandwidth like we were, it might be best to stay put.

We also sent large files through the wireless interface to the attached external hard drive, which we could control just like any other peripheral. These files achieved near-maximum throughput given the gigabit connection and the USB 3.0 port. Transferring files while running two video feeds did result in a little slowdown, though that is probably not a very realistic use case. And the delay was only a few seconds on very large transfers

For accuracy, we ran the PassMark MonitorTest 3.1 benchmark on the 6430u notebook's main screen to get a quality baseline. It performed adequately given the Intel HD Graphics 4000 adaptor it uses. Quality on the remote feeds will of course never be better than the system driving it, but running the benchmarks again on both the projector and the monitor yielded almost identical results to the internal display. So the D5000 did a great job of maintaining the quality even through the remote link. 

There are a couple limitations that users should be aware of, though they are easy enough to get around. For the technology to work as well as it does, even with the higher speed wireless, it requires that special one-to-one connection the adaptor on the notebook provides. That means that if one user is connected to a D5000, all others will be locked out. To switch users, the current user needs to use the software to disconnect from the dock, which would allow a new person to take control. If used like a regular docking station at someone's private desk, they can turn on automatic docking, which would pair the notebook and the dock automatically whenever they got close to each other. But in an educational or meeting room environment, users will probably want to disable the automatic pairing and have each presenter connect manually. It's a small extra step, but not a taxing one, and it should keep presenters from stepping on each other's toes.

The D5000 can be password protected using WEP just like most other wireless hubs, so that only authorized users can connect to them. This would also prevent users from accidentally logging into each other's docks if their offices or cubicles were within range of multiple D5000s.

Dell says that multiple D5000s can work in proximity of one another, and has tested this in the company’s own labs. We only had the one unit, but given the high bandwidth and performance, we feel this is likely true given reasonable numbers of docks. 

The D5000 could become a game-changer for educational and training purposes. Its performance is equal to or better than using wired devices, but much more convenient. And many federal agencies are also adding gigabit speeds to their wired networks, so it makes sense to upgrade the wireless components at the same time. Just adding a D5000 to a conference room would make it more functional. It also would work well as a docking hub for a stand-alone user who would no longer need to physically connect, or even open, their notebook to sit down at their desk and begin working with a larger screen and keyboard. 

With impressive performance even when both output signals are maxed out, the low price of the unit and its usefulness, we feel the D5000 Wireless Dock is more than ready for federal service at the individual user level, or to become king of the conference hall or classroom.

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