Review: Matrox DS1 Thunderbolt docking station

Apple’s MacBook Air is thin, light, and great for traveling—but when you get to your desk, the ritual of plugging in a keyboard, an external monitor, speakers, and an external hard drive can feel anything but convenient. For ethernet users, the MacBook Air’s (as well as the Retina MacBook Pro’s) lack of an ethernet port can be problematic if you don’t have an Apple Thunderbolt Display or a Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter.

The DS1 from Matrox can help. This docking station has a single Thunderbolt connector, and when you link it to your Mac with a Thunderbolt cable, the DS1 provides connectivity for audio, gigabit ethernet, USB 3.0 (one port), and USB 2.0 (two ports). It does not have FireWire ports.

Matrox sells two different models of the DS1: one with DVI video output and one with HDMI video output. If you have a DVI or HDMI display, you can connect it to the DS1, instead of using a Mini DisplayPort adapter and connecting it to your Mac’s Thunderbolt port.

The DS1 creates what Matrox calls “one-cable convenience,” eliminating the need to connect and disconnect individual devices as you come and go from your desk. Simply unplug the Thunderbolt cable and power adapter from your laptop, and you’re free to take your MacBook wherever you need to go, without having to unplug other cables.

If you have a Mac with one Thunderbolt port (such as the MacBook Air), you'll find one major drawback to the DS1: It too has just one Thunderbolt port, through which it connects to your Mac. When you're using the DS1, you can’t connect a single-port external Thunderbolt drive and the DS1 at the same time. However, if you have a device with two Thunderbolt ports (such as LaCie’s Little Big Disk, which we tested with the DS1), you can connect the DS1 to that device, and then connect that device to your Mac. Since the DS1 has only one Thunderbolt port, it must be at the end of a Thunderbolt daisy chain.

To test the DS1 in our lab, we connected it to a number of different peripherals. First, we made sure to update our MacBook Air to OS X 10.8.2, since the DS1 won’t function properly with previous operating systems. After completing the OS update, we connected a LaCie Little Big Disk Thunderbolt SSD to our MacBook Air, and hooked the DS1 to the LaCie drive. We also connected a DVI display to the DS1 and used it in a mirrored setting (you may also configure the display to extend your desktop). We then added a USB keyboard and a mouse, using the two USB 2.0 ports on the back of the DS1. Finally, we connected a gigabit ethernet cable and headphones to the back, and attached a USB 3.0 external drive to the front. Everything worked as expected.

Bottom line

Offering a nice complement of connectivity options, the DS1 docking station lets you turn your Thunderbolt MacBook into a full-fledged desktop workstation without having to spend $1000 on Apple’s Thunderbolt display. The DS1 provides gigabit ethernet, extra USB ports, and audio-in and -out, as well as DVI or HDMI monitor output, with just one cable to connect and disconnect between your computer and the device. Its lack of a second Thunderbolt port for attaching peripherals is unfortunate, however, especially for MacBook Air owners who have only one Thunderbolt port.

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