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Mac Thunderbolt Docks: Belkin Versus the Clones

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For many of us, I might paraphrase Wallis Simpson’s saying as “You can never be too rich, too thin, or have too many ports.” As such, using a port-poor Apple portable can be a pain in the posterior.

MacBook Air users have it particularly bad with just one Thunderbolt port (compared to two on MacBook Pro models) and no HDMI port (there’s one on the MacBook Pro with Retina Display). No Macintosh laptop has more than two USB ports. An Ethernet port? Don’t be a silly.

Thunderbolt docks are a solution to this problem. They turn one Thunderbolt port into two, and add a variety of other ports such as USB, Ethernet, and audio. This greatly increases your expansion capability, with the option to charge and sync iOS devices via the USB ports, hook up speakers and microphones, make networking fast and reliable via a physical connection, add storage and external displays, and so on.


Expansion options do not end there. Thunderbolt is designed for daisy-chaining up to six devices per port, making it possible to string together multiple Thunderbolt devices (assuming all but the last in the chain also have dual Thunderbolt ports). At one point I went nuts and daisy-chained three Thunderbolt docks together. It totally works.

The Thunderbolt docks I tested using a MacBook Air are attractive and reasonably unobtrusive — and therefore handy desk units — but I would not characterize any as particularly portable, especially since you’d also have to lug around a bulky power brick.

I tested a Belkin version that is a bit of a beast but very elegant and versatile, along with an assortment of smaller Thunderbolt docks that are essentially the same as each other. That is because the vendors are working off one hardware design and adding minor variations. A number of other dock-like Thunderbolt devices are available, too. This is all great given how maddeningly sparse the selection of Thunderbolt peripherals used to be.

One important note: All the docks I tested are based on the original Thunderbolt spec, so Thunderbolt 2 devices plugged into the peripherals will perform at only Thunderbolt 1 speeds.

Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock -- This large, but elegantly designed, gadget offers a trio of USB 3.0 ports, a FireWire 800 port, a gigabit Ethernet port, a headphone port, and a microphone port along with two Thunderbolt ports. At $200, or $100 off its original price, it’s a bargain, too.


If you need to attach FireWire 800 storage devices to a new Mac, this is the dock for you, given that only the Mac mini and the 13-inch MacBook Pro (without Retina Display) still include FireWire 800 ports, and those are likely to disappear soon. The FireWire port in the Thunderbolt Express Dock worked well for me, as did all the other ports.

With no HDMI port, my main external-display option is Mini DisplayPort, which coexists with Thunderbolt (a Thunderbolt port is also a Mini DisplayPort port, but not the other way around). I found a DisplayPort monitor, and used one of its full-size DisplayPort ports and a DisplayPort-to-Mini DisplayPort cable for connecting to the dock.

Thunderbolt docks can be used with external displays, just as if these were connected directly to the Macs. The Belkin dock, however, lacks one common means for linking up a display: HDMI. An alternative technology, DisplayPort, is supported.

DisplayPort connections occur in one of two ways, via full-size DisplayPort ports (like the ones found on my monitor) or smaller Mini DisplayPort variations. As it happens, the Thunderbolt ports on the Belkin dock and all other Thunderbolt ports double as Mini DisplayPort ports. So, to hook my monitor to the dock, I scrounged up a DisplayPort-to-Mini DisplayPort cable, with the big end going into the display, and the smaller prong plugging into the dock.

This arrangement worked fine, but revealed a problem: I couldn’t use my display and an external drive at the same time, since I had only one free Thunderbolt port on the dock for either, and no second Thunderbolt port on the drive for daisy chaining purposes. To use one of the drives, I had to unplug the display. That was annoying, but not the end of the world.

The Belkin dock has a clever design. All ports are located on one of the device’s long sides, and you can point that part away from you to reduce visual clutter (which is soothing for this OCD sufferer). You can then feed only the cords you need through a rubber-sheathed canal cut into the dock bottom, and out a single orifice in the front.


Attack of the Clones -- When I stacked a bunch of other Thunderbolt docks, I noticed something weird: Cosmetic touches aside, the gizmos are identical. They have all the same ports in all the same locations, and their power supplies are even compatible. What was going on here?




One of the dock makers cleared this up for me: “The docks are all based on the same Intel reference design,” he said.

These docks are: CalDigit’s Thunderbolt Station, Elgato’s Thunderbolt Dock, and StarTech’s Thunderbolt Docking Station.

The docks each have three USB 3.0 ports, a gigabit Ethernet port, a headphone port, and a microphone port, along with those two Thunderbolt ports, but no FireWire 800 ports.

Predictably, there was little difference in how the docks worked. As with the Belkin dock, I could plug my MacBook Air into one Thunderbolt port on each dock, with the DisplayPort monitor connected to the other.

HDMI on each dock gave me another option: I could use that port for my monitor, while using one of the Thunderbolt ports for my Mac and the other for an external drive. But there’s a problem: the display’s resolution maxes out at 1080p or 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, which is great for a big-screen TV, but not great for a desktop display. Going the Mini DisplayPort route, I got 2,560 by 1,400 pixels.

Unlike the Belkin dock, which is big enough for all of its ports to be positioned on one long edge, the three dock clones put a trio of ports — audio out, audio in, and one of their three USB ports — on the front. This looks understated and elegant.

In terms of styling, the units run the gamut. The CalDigit model is brushed aluminum in its entirety, matching Apple’s notebooks. The StarTech model has my least-favorite aesthetic with shiny black plastic along the top and bottom, and light-colored metal along all the edges. The Elgato is the opposite, with light-colored metal wrapping around the unit’s longer axis, and black front and back where all the ports go — I find this more attractive than StarTech’s approach.

CalDigit claims its all-aluminum design “helps with heat dissipation.”

The docks, as noted, have minor feature differences. StarTech’s dock includes a stand for those wanting to position the unit vertically.


Elgato told me it “has fixed a nuisance bug of the reference design by eliminating the irritating buzzing noise that the hardware makes when the Mac is no longer connected to the Dock.” The company tosses in an Elgato Thunderbolt Dock software utility that ejects all connected storage devices at once with a click in the menu bar “so you can immediately see when it’s safe to unplug your Thunderbolt Dock and avoid potential data loss.”

The Desktop Dimension -- Thunderbolt docks are positioned as laptop accessories, but there’s nothing keeping you from using them with a Thunderbolt-equipped desktop computer. Since Apple stubbornly continues to make its iMac ports semi-inaccessible by placing them all in the back, connecting a Thunderbolt dock to one of the computer’s two Thunderbolt ports can make things more convenient while adding additional USB ports.

Then there’s Apple’s Thunderbolt Display, which doubles as a Thunderbolt dock.


The display, intended for users of Thunderbolt-capable Apple notebooks such as the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, incorporates a Thunderbolt cable for connecting it to a laptop, along with one Thunderbolt port for expansion. With an Ethernet port, three USB 2.0 ports, and a FireWire 800 port, the display is essentially a Belkin Thunderbolt dock that incorporates a display. If you have a MacBook Pro with two Thunderbolt ports, go crazy and plug in two of the Thunderbolt displays. You know you want to.

This hot display is my dream Thunderbolt setup after several Apple-loaner sessions over the product’s three-year lifespan, but it’s a pricey one at $1,000. Plus, a Retina Display model is surely coming down the pipe sooner than later.

More Thunderbolt Docks -- Dock-style Thunderbolt peripherals extend beyond the ones I was able to test for this article, but some don’t seem worth pursuing while others fit more-specialized needs.

Matrox’s DS1 dock does not seem like a good deal at $250 because it has only one Thunderbolt port (along with one USB 3.0 port, two USB 2.0 ports, an Ethernet port, and audio in and out).


Henge’s Apple notebook docks ($70 to $119) also incorporate Thunderbolt capability. You drop a MacBook Pro or MacBook Pro with Retina Display vertically into one of the docks, with integrated Thunderbolt plugs hooking into the notebooks’ corresponding ports. The docks then provide Thunderbolt ports of their own so you’re not out any expansion capability.


Sonnet’s Echo 15 Thunderbolt Dock means business with a couple of Thunderbolt 2 ports along with dual eSATA ports, four USB 4.0 ports, dual audio inputs, dual audio outputs, one gigabit Ethernet port and a FireWire 800 port, plus built-in hard drive and optical (DVD-burning or Blu-ray) drive, at $400 to $650 depending on specs. What, no beer dispenser?


If the eSATA-compatible Echo 15 is overkill for you, but you want eSATA connectivity, Kanex’s $80 Thunderbolt to eSATA + USB 3.0 Adapter may be exactly what you need. As its name suggests, the compact gadget incorporates a Thunderbolt cord along with an eSATA port for plugging in an eSATA drive. It also has a single USB 3.0 port.

Kanex also offers a Thunderbolt-to-gigabit-Ethernet adapter (shown in the image below).


Akitio’s Thunder Dock is another compact Thunderbolt dock, though apparently based on a design different from the one used by CalDigit, Elgato, and StarTech. This unit, which looks a bit like a compact portable hard drive, builds in two Thunderbolt ports, two eSATA ports, one FireWire 800 port, and two USB 3.0 ports in a “rugged aluminum case.” Given what it offers, the $269 price tag seems more than reasonable. Cable placement seems awkward with ports on three of the four dock edges, though.


Which Dock Would I Pick? -- I like the Belkin dock’s cable-managing design the best, though it is on the bulky side. Its FireWire 800 compatibility comes in handy, too, since I have a number of such storage devices. I’ve been slowly phasing out that old storage technology, though, so I’m inclined to go with one of the dock clones with HDMI capability, which the Belkin dock lacks. One other Belkin ding: A Thunderbolt cable isn’t included.

Picking among the clones, I’m inclined to show a bit of brand loyalty and go with Elgato since I’ve been happily using a bunch of that company’s products — TV-tuning dongles, SSD storage, Bluetooth keychain fobs, video-capture peripherals — for years.

Also, Elgato’s price is just right. For $230 via the online Apple Store you get the dock along with a Thunderbolt cable. The CalDigit model costs only $200, but that doesn’t include a Thunderbolt cable. The StarTech model with a bundled cable is $250, or $20 more than the Elgato dock.

Since the dock clones are all but identical, though, they are all fine products. Keep tabs on the makers’ sites for price fluctuations, and pounce if any of the docks sees a temporary or permanent price drop. You’re golden regardless.

Akitio’s Thunder Dock has me intrigued, too, with a seemingly killer blend of Thunderbolt, FireWire 800, USB 3.0 and eSATA (but zero Ethernet) in a compact package. I hope to get a look at this product soon.

 

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Comments about Mac Thunderbolt Docks: Belkin Versus the Clones
(Comments are closed.)

Can you confirm whether these docks and dongles support booting from external drives via thunderbolt, USB3, eSATA, or FireWire?
Steve Frawley  2014-07-10 20:14
I have not had any luck with any unit I tried. YMMV
Anonymous  2014-07-10 19:12
I need one more port: ExpressCard 34
Steve Frawley  2014-07-10 19:38
The Akitio has a pass thought Thunderbolt port that works fine with my SonnetTech Thunderbolt Cardbus adapter. I have had good results for ESATA ( two more) and pretty good results with dirt cheap USB 3 cards (2 more).
My Macs both have only USB 2 built in and the USB 3 and ESATA both blow away FW 800.
Steve Frawley  2014-07-10 19:23
I bought two of the Belkin docks and received the most disgusting service ever. I have a 2011 MBP and Mini. I tried Caldigit too. Neither was dependable but Caldigit had better service. After I complained on Twitter, Belkin was willing to help after I told the world. I spent many hours on phone to no avail. I extensively tested both units.
The Akitio is not perfect but better. I will probably buy a second.
Thunderbolt docks do not necessarily deliver what they offer. Buyer beware!
Michael Hopp  2014-07-10 19:37
Great article. To pick a nit, the Thunderbolt Display has USB 2.0 ports, not USB 3.0, so it comes up short compared to these hubs in that area.
G’day Julio

I want to connect my FireWire 800 2009 iMac to an external Thunderbolt drive.

Does the FireWire 800 port on the Belkin work as an input or only as an output? If it is bi-directional, will it provide enough power to drive say a LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt drive?

Thanks, Gobit
Michael Paine  2014-07-11 00:19
See also this Apple discussion
https://discussions.apple.com/thread/4683331
and my summary of device features:
http://mpainesyd.com/MikeP/Thunderbolt_Docks.html
I have the Belkin, and I think the design is very poor. It looks nice, but it's impractical. It's only good if you're planning to fill the ports and don't need to plug or unplug items in the future. Otherwise, you need to either have the side with the plugs facing you (hello clutter), or place it sideways, which is what I did.

I think these devices could be smaller, and I'd rather see, say, a two-story design to take up less desk space. It's just too big.
Ian Eiloart  2014-07-11 04:48
Is there nothing with more than two thunderbolt ports? You know, so you can plug in more than one thunderbolt device that isn't a dock?
Julio Ojeda-Zapata  2014-07-14 15:30
Not to my knowledge.
Dave Nelson  2014-07-11 08:31
You have a MAJOR ERROR in your article, the Belkin device does not support iMacs. It only supports MacBook Air, MacBook Air 11”, MacBook Air 13”, MacBook Pro, MacBook Pro 13”, MacBook Pro 15”, MacBook Pro 17”.

I can verify that it works great with a 2011 MBP 15" while it is all kinds of buggy and Firewire 800 is incredibly slow on a 2013 iMac 27".
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-07-11 11:35
Hi Dave, Julio is retesting these now to check this out.
Why would it only support certain models? There's no reason for that. I have one connected to a new Mac Pro and it works fine.
Walter Bixby  2014-07-13 20:09
I am using the Belkin on a Late 2013 iMac 27". No problems at all.
Julio Ojeda-Zapata  2014-07-14 15:31
I am using the Belkin with a current-model 21-inch iMac with no apparent anomalies.
James Katt  2014-07-15 06:26
Sure it supports iMacs.
Lewis Butler  2014-07-21 23:20
I have the Belkin on my iMac. Works perfectly, and is an excellent USB 3.0 hub, as well as giving my iMac a much needed FW800 port.
Brian S  2014-07-14 14:09
Early reviews indicated the Caldigit dock uses powered USB 3.0 ports ( enabling it to power external devices ) but the Belkin does not. Is this still the case?
Julio Ojeda-Zapata  2014-07-14 15:32
All the docks I tested have USB 3.0 ports.
Steven Oz  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2014-07-15 09:24
Brian is asking about whether the port is powered or not... in other words, can it power a device that needs power over USB to operate (like some small HDs, eg)
Brian S  2014-07-14 14:14
Typo on the Sonnet Echo indicates USB 4.0 ports.
John Guy  2014-07-14 15:22
Re maximum resolution via HDMI - my Elgato dock delivers 2560 x 1440 at 60Hz (to a 27 inch HP zDisplay) via the HDMI Output.

Also, installing the Elgato software utility that allows ejection of all dock connected devices, enables higher output charging/power for usb powered peripherals on the USB 3 ports.
Julio Ojeda-Zapata  2014-07-18 07:37
Elgato confirms: "Our HDMI out supports up to 2,560 by 1,600 pixels."

I'm investigating why I was unable to achieve this with an Acer monitor I was using, and any of the TB docks I was testing.
Openreels  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2014-07-14 19:44
Thanks for this useful article! Thunderbolt is a big headache for users in professional audio and video production, where all those ports are still needed--and having to daisy-chain TBolt creates bottlenecks. Then there's the crappy connectors, and the equally crappy cables. We continue to stick with Apple because Windows is so irritating, but Apple keeps stabbing us in the back!

For a while the Belkin dock was the only one you could actually buy. My experience with them has been fine.

BTW, it's likely that those "lookalike" docks are exactly the same devices inside, all made by one OEM manufacturer.
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2014-07-15 00:06
Upon reading Ojeda-Zapata's article I was going to ask if he had read any reviews posted by other users on the Belkin dock - because they were substantially negative. Then I read the comments here and, well, they made the point perfectly well. I was considering getting the Belkin dock when I bought my new 27" iMac, but the reviews dissuaded me.

Instead I got an OWC ThunderBay IV Thunderbolt-equipped 4-Bay SATA Desktop drive case and put four hard drives in it, two from my old Mac Pro and two from two external Firewire drive cases. Unlike many other multi-drive TB chassis, the ThunderBay does not require matched drives of equal capacity from the same manufacturer or that the drives be reformatted before they can be used. Of course, unlike such drives, the ThunderBay is not intended primarily for RAID setups, though it does support software RAID 0. The case is intended for people like me with an eclectic collection of drives that need to be adapted for TB only Macs. It serves that purpose admirably. In addition, the ThunderBay has two TB ports so I can daisy-chain other devices through it - and a lock to prevent casual, unauthorized access to the drives.

My experience with some of my FireWire drives using an Apple FireWire to Thunderbolt adaptor suggests the problems with the Belkin device are not entirely Belkin's fault. With a FireWire drive or drives connected through the adaptor to the new iMac, the computer froze up repeatedly. Without the connection I've had no such trouble (knock on wood). Apple support suggested it was my system, migrated from the old Mac Pro, that was at fault. My personal experience indicates that it's Thunderbolt itself that causes stability problems, both for my computer and for the drives connected through the adaptor (on a side note, the Apple adaptor does not fit snugly into the TB ports on my iMac, frequently coming loose when I move the computer or the connected cables (another significant source of system instability). Whereas, the TB cable that came with the ThunderBay fits snugly and securely in the same ports on the iMac). I suspect the root problem may be electric current fluctuations that interfere with the power settings on the computer. Resetting the SMC relieves the problem temporarily - but only temporarily, making it an inadequate solution.

It remains for further, more rigorous, testing to prove - or disprove - the point, but I think Apple's implementation of ThunderBolt leaves a lot to be desired. And, as a consequence, their decision to drop FireWire was hasty and ill advised. MacBook Airs are one thing, but how hard would it have been to include a FireWire 800 port on the new iMacs? Apple is prone to drastic moves like this that unnecessarily disadvantage their customers - like choosing a slender profile design for the iMacs which made optical drives and side-mounted - not to say front mounted - ports impossible. As is so often the case with Apple, design trumps function, even when, as with the iMac, there is no function for the design.

The question, as I see it, for Thunderbolt docks is which of the numerous connection options is stable and which are not. My ThunderBay IV, which uses a TB to TB connection seems, so far, to be reliable. As reported by others, the FireWire connection through the Belkin dock, as with my Apple adaptor, is neither reliable nor stable. How about the other protocols, USB 3, eSATA, Ethernet and audio? Or on those docks that have it, HDMI? And finally, who is going to test these propositions?
James Katt  2014-07-15 06:24
The Belkin's USB 3.0 is only 2.5 mbps. It is half the speed of USB 3.0. The others have full speed 5 mbps USB 3.0 ports. So hard drives can run full speed on them but only half-speed on Belkin.

Belkin is simply gigantic compared to the others, ruling it out for portable use.

These Thunderbolt Docks RUN HOT to the point you can't touch it or risk a burn. CalDigit has the best capability of dissipating the heat. The heat will eventually kill the electronics for all of these docks.

CalDigit's comes with a OS X driver that allows you to use the USB 3.0 ports to charge in iPhone or iPad. The other may not. And it does come in a kit with a Thunderbolt cable that was missed in the review. The other clones are more expensive in comparison to this kit. I like CalDigit because it is actively supported.

Thunderbolt and HDMI cannot be used simultaneously to run two displays. It is a Thunderbolt limitation. But you can run a USB to DVI converter - up to 3 to run external displays.
Adrian Luff  2014-07-17 06:00
Consider that TB1 is 10Gbps. Belkin's 3 x 2.5Gbps USB3 ports + 1Gbps Ethernet means you can run all ports at full speed.

The other TB docks with 5Gbps USB3 are never going to reach that speed across all ports simultaneously.
G. Douglas Eddy  2014-07-15 08:34
Great review. Excellent detail and analysis. I have a couple docs, some strictly for usb3 but I also have the Belkin and really like it's design, flexibility and ease of use.
I am surprised you mentioned the "vaporware" Sonnet Echo 15. It's been advertised as coming soon for over 14 months and still not appeared. Sonnet Tech used to put out good products till they silently kill off PCIe cards to replace with something similar and more expensive (E2p, E4p,...). And still don't support bus-power USB 3.0 devices.
I would like to see a review of Tbolt storage devices and the "lack of" Tbolt2 devices (though some manufacturers claim "with firmware" they will update eventually (See Promise...)
Thanks for listing what there is in Tbolt hubs. Sadly not enough.
Michael Paine  2014-07-15 15:48
Sonnet claim the Echo 15 will be released in Q3 this year and that the main delay is for TB2:
http://www.sonnettech.com/product/echo15thunderboltdock.html
It remains the TB peripheral with the best features list IF it ever goes on sale. My comparison here:
http://mpainesyd.com/MikeP/Thunderbolt_Docks.html
William Dooley  2014-07-17 11:18
The Akitio also requires a driver to enable higher power output from the USB 3.0 ports. Thunderbolt and eSATA drives boot. USB drives won't boot on Macs with older firmware, such as my mid 2011 Mac mini. I haven't tried booting a Firewire drive.
William Dooley  2014-07-17 11:51
Had to try it: a Firewire drive will boot through the Akitio dock.