Review: Belkin's Thunderbolt Express Dock lets you get plugged in easily
At a Glance
As a MacBook Pro user, I can attest to the hassle of plugging and unplugging keyboards, headphones, ethernet cables, and external hard drives every time I arrive at and leave the office. The Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock should make things a bit easier: With just a single Thunderbolt cable (not included, unfortunately), this dock allows you to connect a deskful of peripherals to a Thunderbolt-equipped MacBook.
At its list price of $300, the Thunderbolt Express Dock isn’t cheap, but you do get lots of ports. The second of the two Thunderbolt ports gives you the ability to add up to five more Thunderbolt devices to the dock by daisy-chaining them together. This Belkin dock also has three USB 3.0 ports, one FireWire 800 port, a gigabit ethernet port, and audio-in and -out ports.
I was able to connect gigabit ethernet, a FireWire 800 drive, a USB thumb drive, and a pair of headphones to the dock, all at the same time. As for Thunderbolt devices, I connected a LaCie Little Big Disk Thunderbolt Series hard drive to an Apple LED Cinema Display, using a Mini DisplayPort connector attached to the drive’s second Thunderbolt port.
When I connected a Thunderbolt cable from a MacBook Air to the Thunderbolt Express Dock, all the drives mounted on the desktop automatically, the keyboard and mouse were recognized, the Cinema Display turned on with the proper resolution, and I was able to connect to the network through the gigabit ethernet connection. When it’s quitting time, you unmount the drives, disconnect the single Thunderbolt cable that connects the dock to the Mac (and the power cable), and you’re ready to hit the road.
I was also able to connect a Dell DVI display to the Thunderbolt Express Dock, using Apple’s Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter and plugging the adapter into one of the dock’s Thunderbolt ports.
I ran AJA’s System Test on the Little Big Disk when it was connected directly to the MacBook, and then again with all of the above connected to see if the dock and all of the other peripherals would affect transfer speeds, but the results were the same in both scenarios.
We’ve reviewed a similar dock, the Matrox DS1 Thunderbolt docking station, but the Belkin product is superior, at least in convenience. The Matrox lacks a second Thunderbolt port, so if you use it on a Mac with only one Thunderbolt port, the dock takes the only port you have. You could buy a drive or something else with two Thunderbolt ports and put the dock at the end of your chain, but the end of a chain seems an inconvenient place for a docking station to sit. The DS1 has only one USB 3.0 port while the Belkin dock has three. The Belkin dock also has a FireWire 800 port—which the DS1 doesn’t have—that’s handy for connecting legacy peripherals. The DS1 does have the choice of either a DVI or HDMI graphics port, which could be helpful if you don’t have a mini DisplayPort monitor, though DVI and HDMI to mini DisplayPort adapters are available.
The Belkin dock offers peripheral connections that are similar to those on the Apple Thunderbolt Display, but for those who don’t want Apple’s glossy 27-inch monitor and want a dock only, the Thunderbolt Express Dock offers an alternative that costs $700 less than the Apple Thunderbolt Display.
The Thunderbolt Express Dock is plug and play, no special software needed. The dock requires OS X 10.8.3 or later and, of course, a Thunderbolt-equipped Mac.
Owners of Thunderbolt-equipped Mac portables tired of plugging and unplugging peripherals each time they arrive and leave the office should consider the Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock. It’s a bit pricey, but the dock’s many and varied connections can really help you realize the potential of Intel’s fast and flexible Thunderbolt technology.