For an accessory that you set and forget, docks can be expensive. All but one that we have reviewed so far have been over $150. Although Plugable's UD-CA1 docking station is a slightly more affordable $130 and delivers power and outputs video over USB Type-C, it proves that being cheaper doesn't necessarily mean a value buy. It only outputs to a single monitor, and Alt-mode technology, which lets you use a dock without a driver, still doesn't work perfectly with all USB-C computers. The UD-CA1 ultimately ends up being a compromise between value and potential, as long as you have a computer that works with it.
This may be Plugable's best design yet. Many of the company's previous docks stood vertically, but the UD-CA1 gives users a choice between its traditional upright position and a horizontal position, which is how I prefer it. When laid horizontally, you can push the 10.8 x 5.5 x 3.7-inch dock under your monitor and out of sight. A stand comes with the dock for those who want to save more desk space.
The matte black plastic isn't the most premium material, but it feels a bit more solid than Kensington's SD4600P Universal Dock. Instead of going for an understated elegance, Plugable chose to add a rather large, gauche gray stamp on top that includes Plugable's logo, "USB-C Docking Station" and a series of stripes.
The UD-CA1 has plenty of ports for peripherals, but its choice of video outputs is limited. The front of the dock features USB Type-C and two USB 3.0 ports, an audio output and a headphone jack. On the back are a pair of USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI port, Ethernet and a power jack.
The USB Type-C port on the back of the laptop is the one that connects to your computer with an included cable.
Unlike other Plugable docks we tested, the UD-CA1 doesn't ship with adapters for legacy ports, including VGA, DVI or even DisplayPort, which means that you'll need to buy adapters. While you can get HDMI adapters fairly cheaply (opens in new tab), it's still a shame that Plugable didn't continue the trend of including one.
Using the UC-CA1 yielded mixed results. It worked flawlessly on the latest MacBook and the Lenovo Chromebook ThinkPad 13. It even played nice with a Dell XPS 13 running Ubuntu, delivering power and connecting a second monitor.
However, when I switched to Windows-powered laptops, I started encountering problems. Neither the HP Spectre x360 nor the Thunderbolt 3-powered Acer TravelMate P648 charged when connected to the dock. However, both still managed to output video. Meanwhile, the Windows version of the Lenovo ThinkPad 13 charged but didn't output to a display. This surprised us, as we've tested other Alt-mode docks with that ThinkPad.
Alt-mode docks don't require drivers to run, they send video, power and data using USB Type-C's built-in protocols. Many popular docks use DisplayLink, which requires software to be installed, so Alt-mode should technically be easier because it's meant to be plug-and-play.
This isn't the first time we've had compatibility issues with Alt-mode docks. Plugable responded to my inquiries by pointing me toward a compatibility chart on its website that users can consult. However, that lists only a handful of existing laptops with USB Type-C support.
When I used laptops that actually worked with the dock, it output at 3840 x 2160 on the monitor and played 4K video smoothly. I didn't notice any lag while I worked on the ThinkPad 13 Chromebook despite running a video in the background.
The Plugable UD-CA1 has a clever design, but that's where my love affair with it ended. It supports just one display, and at $130, it's cheap for a dock but isn't exactly a bargain-bin price. When you use a compatible laptop, though, it works without any issue. But there are several docks out there that have more capability for not much more money.
Plugable also offers a $179 USB-C Triple Docking Station (opens in new tab) (UD-ULTCDL), which hooks up to three monitors (one at 4K), charges over USB-C, includes an adapter and uses DisplayLink technology. Although you'll have to install a driver, it's nowhere near as finicky as Alt-mode. The one downside is you can only use it in the vertical orientation.
If you only need one monitor, then it's hard to argue with the UD-CA1. It's an easy way to save a little bit of money compared to other docks. But if you want the option to add more displays and the security of knowing your dock will work with any computer, you'll want to check out some other options.