Thunderbolt docking stations can be expensive and have a large number of ports-but more and more manufacturers are designing low-cost options to fit more budgets.
Mark Hachman (PC World (AOL)) November 5, 2021 01:30
As Thunderbolt ports become more common in notebook computers, Thunderbolt docking stations may be an important accessory. Think of the Thunderbolt docking station as a more powerful and higher-speed alternative to the USB-C hub, adding I/O expansion to your laptop in the form of additional ports for the mouse, keyboard, external drive, SD card, and most importantly, show. It can even charge your laptop and smartphone!
In short, laptops are losing weight. Although cheaper laptops still include microUSB ports, HDMI, SD card slots, etc., advanced laptops choose a clean appearance and push all these traditional ports to external devices-the choice here is a USB-C hub And a Thunder base.
the difference? Price and bandwidth. USB-C hubs are much cheaper, but they provide much less bandwidth. This is especially important where displays are involved, but external hard drives and other storage devices are also involved. Although a USB-C hub can support a single 4K display, usually at a dizzying 30Hz refresh rate, a Thunderbolt hub can support up to two 4K displays at a comfortable 60Hz. They are also more likely to make your PC face the future. You can also use Thunderbolt to enable an external GPU for your PC.
If your laptop includes a Thunderbolt port, it most likely supports the Thunderbolt 3 or Thunderbolt 4 standard, both of which provide 40Gbps. Intel helped launch the updated Thunderbolt 4 specification in July 2020 as part of its 11th-generation Tiger Lake Core laptops, which are becoming more and more popular on productivity laptops. The bandwidth behind Thunderbolt 4 is sufficient to drive these displays and transfer data back and forth between peripheral devices without causing your display to flicker or video streaming to be choppy.
What is the difference between Thunderbolt 3, Thunderbolt 4 and USB4? The simple answer is that they are all similar. A longer answer explaining the difference can be found in the Thunderbolt buying guide below our recommendations. If you want to learn more about the advantages of Thunderbolt docking station, what to pay attention to when buying, or how to know if your laptop supports it, please also check here.
As of November 2021, we have updated our selection and added the latest pluggable Thunderbolt docking station to our tests. More updates are coming soon.
Not surprisingly-budget usually means basic. but it does not matter! You will still find a mix of commonly used ports, and there are usually two monitor outputs—for example, HDMI or DisplayPort. Make sure you have the right video cable, or plan to buy one.
In addition, some cheap Thunderbolt hubs are bus-powered, which means that although they do not require an external charger (which makes them more portable), if your laptop does not have them, they may not provide enough power to charge your phone. Power on. However, the price makes them worth looking at.
Although it is listed as a travel terminal, IOgear GTD300 is a very good daily work companion. However, the Thunderbolt 3 docking station is bus-powered, which means you need to plug in a laptop for best results, although the hub itself does not require its own charger.
IOgear's plastic base measures only 2.2 x 0.91 x 4.06 inches, which is one of the smallest sizes we have tested, so it is very suitable to be put in a backpack when traveling. At its bottom, a green plastic case hides a corner to store the 5-inch short cord of the docking station when not in use.
Minimum ports: 1 HDMI 2.0 port, 1 DisplayPort 1.2 port, 1 5Gbps USB-A port and Gigabit Ethernet port. If you can use the USB port for a mouse or keyboard instead of high-speed external storage, then the GTD300 will be perfect for you. (Of course, we at least prefer 10Gbps ports.)
Some Amazon customer reviews are a bit confusing: In our experience, the Ethernet port works as expected, as does the USB-A port. Perhaps because of its compact size, the GTD300 will become very hot, but it is not very uncomfortable in our opinion.
Belkin’s Thunderbolt 3 Dock Core comes in a basic packaging and the product is also unpretentious: it is an ingeniously designed active Thunderbolt 3 travel dock.
Thunderbolt Dock Core black is almost square 5.2 x 6.5 x 1.5 inches, not taking up much space, and the included 8-inch Thunderbolt 3 cable provides enough length for flexibility. The ports are well spaced around the flat black plastic cube, and the HDMI 2.0 and DisplayPort 1.4 ports provide a stable 4K/60Hz experience for my two 4K monitors. There are Gigabit Ethernet and 3.5mm audio jacks, but good luck, tell us about USB 3.1 and USB 2.0 Type A ports-they are not marked.
There is a problem: the additional USB-C port on the docking station is a normal USB-C port, which needs to be connected to a 60W charger to power the docking station, but it is not provided. If your laptop is charged with a USB-C charger, that's fine; if not, you need to buy one. This means additional costs and other things that need to be carried.
Except for the annoying lack of labels on the USB-A port, the Dock Core worked as expected with stable performance. The plastic shell has never heated up to a worrying level.
Other World Computing (OWC) focuses on Mac products, where Thunderbolt displays are more common than in the Windows world. This is important because the relatively small OWCTB4HUB5P only provides one 10Gbps USB 3.2 Type A port, one Kensington lock and three Thunderbolt 3 ports.
If you connect directly to a Thunderbolt display (we do not recommend this in 2021) or a directly connected Thunderbolt device, then it makes sense to design a Thunderbolt 4 dock with three Thunderbolt 3 ports. You can connect up to five devices in a daisy chain. However, if you are considering purchasing an OWC hub to connect to another Thunderbolt docking station (which will further expand your I/O options), please be aware. Our testing and OWC support staff confirmed that although the OWC Hub can drive two 4K displays at 60Hz, plugging in another dock will limit the output to one.
This is unfortunate because the small (4.7" x 2.9" x .7") metal hub can fit neatly on your desk, although its 110W power brick dwarfs it. At 7.4 ounces, it is absolutely portable. The hub provides 60W of power for the notebook computer and 15W of power for the downstream devices-even if the host PC is asleep. The I/O rate of all ports is the same, even when other ports are active. OWC's Thunderbolt hub becomes quite warm during use, but it is not uncomfortable. The Thunderbolt 4 cable is very long, about 2.5 feet long.
This is a specialized Thunderbolt design, and we recommend that most people ignore it. But for those who are committed to the future of Thunderbolt, OWC Thunderbolt Hub makes more sense.
Most full-featured Thunderbolt docking stations were originally designed for content creators, especially the Mac market. At this level, power docking stations are the norm, accompanied by a fairly large power block of the kind usually associated with gaming laptops. Unlike our budget options, these docks are really fixed to the desk.
It is expected that the 40Gbps bandwidth common to all Thunderbolt 3 docking stations will be shared among a large number of ports, including multiple USB-A ports, one or two USB-C ports, SD card slots, etc. Audio jacks are common, and you can even find an external Thunderbolt 3 port and additional equipment for daisy chaining. All these ports take up space, so models that can be placed on their edges or in vertical positions are more suitable for narrow work surfaces.
We will notice that although Plugable's terminal is our favorite, it sold out very quickly. This may be due to supply chain issues. If you are buying a Thunderbolt docking station in the market, please buy it as soon as possible!
Plugable's TBT3-UDZ is just one of the best Thunderbolt 3 docks we have tested, although it is also one of the most expensive. The TBT3-UDZ has a large number of ports, including the option to use DisplayPort or HDMI for two displays, providing flexibility, and then some. There is even a sturdy stand to mount it vertically on your desk.
On the front, TBT3-UDZ includes a 10Gbps USB-C and a 10Gbps USB-A (USB 3.1) ports, microSD and SD card slots, and a headphone jack. On the back, five USB-A (USB 3.0 ports) and Gigabit Ethernet complement a pair of DisplayPort 1.4 ports and HDMI 2.0 ports. (All of this is based on Intel’s Titan Ridge chipset.) A 29-inch 40Gbps Thunderbolt 3 cable connects the dock to your laptop and can provide 96W of power through a 2.6-foot Thunderbolt 3 cable. Naturally, this is an active docking station with a large 170W (!) charger.
The performance is excellent, driving two 4K monitors at 60Hz, and transmitting our test files at near peak speeds, while playing two 4K/60Hz videos on both monitors via Ethernet. The fascinating metal chassis of the gun never makes people uncomfortable, even though it weighs 4.1 pounds—probably heavier than the laptop it drives. The extra weight, coupled with the chassis bracket, keeps the TBT3-UDZ rock solid in a vertical, space-saving orientation. It is about 8 inches long/high, 3.75 inches wide, and 1 inch thick.
Includes a two-year warranty for limited parts and labor.
Plugable's TBT3-UDC3 is a smaller and cheaper version of TBT3-UDZ, with lower I/O flexibility but more focus. There is a pair of USB-A 5Gbps ports on the front of the dock for connecting a mouse and keyboard, and a second USB-A (10Gbps) port on the back. A pair of two 10Gbps USB-C ports are located next to it for further expansion. There is also Gigabit Ethernet. Cleverly, Plugable includes an HDMI 2.0 port and a DisplayPort 1.4 port for display connection, and an HDMI to DisplayPort dongle, in case you have two HDMI displays.
A 2.6-foot Thunderbolt 3 cable provides 96W of power for the laptop, which is great.
The performance is comparable to TBT-UDC3, and the docking station emits very little heat. Once the dock stopped working, but it resumed working a second time when we plugged it in after a week or so. This seems to be an excellent terminal, but therefore we have slightly lowered the rating. Plugable provides a two-year warranty in case you receive a damaged device.
CalDigit’s Thunderbolt Station 3 Plus is one of the most popular Thunderbolt 3 docking stations. It’s easy to understand why: space-saving vertical orientation, 87W charging, a large number of available ports, and even S/PDIF fiber optic connections and daisy chain devices External Thunderbolt jack.
The TS3 Plus measures 5.15 x 3.87 x 1.57 inches and weighs 1.04 pounds. Although it does not have a support frame, it can be easily placed vertically. CalDigit includes small rubber feet for positioning the aluminum base in the horizontal direction.
Port options include: two Thunderbolt 3 ports (one from a laptop and one for external connections) and one DisplayPort 1.2 port. This is ideal for a single 4K display, but it is awkward for two displays. TS3 Plus includes 1 full-size SD (SD 4.0 UHS-II) card reader, S/PDIF port, Gigabit Ethernet and two 3.5 mm audio jacks-one in and one out. It also includes five USB Type A ports (all 5Gbps USB 3.1 Gen 1) and two USB-C ports (one 5Gbps port and one 10Gbps port).
To enable two 4K/60 displays, you need a second USB-C dongle running from a Thunderbolt or USB-C docking station-or a forward-looking display with a built-in Thunderbolt/USB-C connector. These are still rare in the Windows world.
Connecting the Thunderbolt port in a daisy chain to enable the second monitor works fine, but when playing videos and transferring files on both monitors, the connection on both monitors will be temporarily disconnected. Otherwise, high-bandwidth video playback is completely smooth. The external audio jack didn't work initially, but it worked in subsequent retries. CalDigit's TS3 Plus hardly heats up under load.
Your choice of Thunderbolt docking station goes far beyond our recommendations. Hubs mix and match different port types and different shapes. Please pay attention to our ratings, prices and the characteristics of each product to find options that suit your specific needs.
The out-of-the-box CalDigit Thunderbolt 3 Mini Dock (dual HDMI 2.) seems to be a perfect fit for a purpose-built, bus-powered Thunderbolt Dock: quite cheap, only the ports you need, not much else.
The version we reviewed has Gigabit Ethernet, a pair of USB Type-A ports (USB 3 and USB 2), and two HDMI 2.0 ports. A short 5.3-inch Thunderbolt 3 cable connects the bus-powered TB3-MiniDock-HM to your laptop. Remember, bus-powered means you don’t need a charging brick, which saves space.
However, our test laptop started to report malfunctions unexpectedly, including visual errors on both monitors and the laptop's inability to read the USB drive or connect to a USB mouse-until we found a loose power cord. CalDigit diagnosed the problem as our laptop was unable to provide the necessary 15W power to the Mini Dock to make it work properly. (The Mini Dock does not include a charging port. We have seen other users complain about USB-A issues.) When we connected the charger of the laptop, the Mini Dock worked again, but then it could not recognize the external USB drive. Based on our testing of the USB-C power meter, it seems that there is not enough power to always pass through the USB-A port. We tested the docking station on a second laptop that supports Thunderbolt and got the same results.
In terms of performance, Thunderbolt 3 Mini Dock performed well, but there was a lot of dropped frames in our two 4K/60Hz test videos. Heat has never been a problem.
The big brother of OWC Thunderbolt Hub, OWC Thunderbolt Dock provides three Thunderbolt 3 ports, three USB-A 10Gbps ports, one USB-A 2.0 charging port, one SD (UHS-II) card slot, Gigabit for Thunderbolt devices Ethernet, and an audio jack.
Like its smaller siblings, this is a professional docking station designed for those who invest in Thunderbolt displays and other Thunderbolt devices. Except for the Thunderbolt interface, there is no external display connection. The Dock size is 7.8 inches. x 2.9 inches x 1.0 inches and 14.1 ounces. The included Thunderbolt 4 cable is approximately 2.5 feet long.
Like OWC Thunderbolt Hub, Dock supports direct connection to Thunderbolt displays and devices, including a pair of 4K/60 displays. (The dock supports DisplayPort 1.4.) However, if you connect another Thunderbolt dock to one of the Thunderbolt 3 outputs, only one 4K/60 display will be enabled. When connected directly, the Thunderbolt 4 drive writes data at 1,221 MB/s and reads at 2,292 MB/s. Connected to the Dock, its writing speed is 1027 MB/s, and its writing speed is 2210MB/s. The SD card placed in the Dock can read and write data at the same speed as the built-in SD card slot of the Microsoft Surface Book 4 laptop.
OWC said that the Dock can provide up to 90W of power to charge the host laptop. OWC does not define the charging capacity of the charging USB 2.0 Type A port, but we measured it to be about 7W, which is enough to charge OnePlus smartphones, but it cannot charge quickly. Under load, the Dock feels absolutely cool to the touch.
Both laptops have a USB-C port and both have a lightning bolt symbol. Which laptop provides Thunderbolt? The most important, although hard to say. Consulting manufacturing specifications is your safest choice.
If you are skeptical about whether the Thunderbolt docking station is right for you, it may be helpful to know the answers to the following questions.
How do I know if my laptop has Thunderbolt?
The short answer: please check the published specifications of the laptop. Thunderbolt ports may look the same as USB-C ports because they both use the same physical USB-C connection. In other words, all Thunderbolt ports are USB-C, but not all USB-C ports are equipped with Thunderbolt.
Thunderbolt ports should have a small lightning bolt icon to identify them. But some laptop manufacturers use a similar lightning bolt icon to indicate that the USB-C port can be used to charge the phone instead of Thunderbolt. Notebook computer manufacturers sometimes seem to not want to mess up the clean lines of their products by adding additional logos.
Even more confusing is that you may also see USB-C hubs sold in a Thunderbolt compatible way. It is true. You can plug the Thunderbolt docking station into a non-Thunderbolt universal USB-C port. But it will be limited by the available bandwidth provided by the port, so it is a bit deceptive in this regard.
A Thunderbolt 3 compatible docking station is not a real Thunderbolt docking station, but a USB-C hub. The hint here is 5Gbps throughput.
Most USB-C ports are built on the second-generation USB 3.1 data transmission standard, which transmits data at a speed of 10Gbps. Most Thunderbolt 3 ports (the most common standard) transfer data at speeds of up to 40Gbps. Thunderbolt 4 is slightly different, it supports theoretically up to 32Gbps data transfer, especially for external storage devices.
There are some rare exceptions: the new USB 3.2 Gen 2X2 specification can pair two 10Gbps channels together to create an aggregate 20Gbps hub. Although most laptops equipped with Thunderbolt 3 are designed with four PCIe channels with a total rate of 40Gbps, some laptops only have two PCIe channels with a total rate of 20Gbps. (For example, the Dell support page details its four-channel and two-channel laptops.) Essentially, a 20Gbps connection should be sufficient for a single 4K monitor running at 60Hz, with a little extra bandwidth for other connections between connections Data transmission peripherals.
What is the difference between Thunderbolt 3, Thunderbolt 4 and USB4?
The short answer: not so much. We think that the Thunderbolt 3 dock and the Thunderbolt 4 dock are functionally equivalent to most users. The longer answer we will describe below is that there are differences, and parsing the nuances can be confusing. Think of Thunderbolt 4 as a more restrictive version of Thunderbolt 3, with almost no problems that can be solved.
In essence, Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 allow a maximum bandwidth of up to 40Gbps, which is enough to accommodate two 4K/60 displays. The key is: Thunderbolt 3 only needs to support a 10Gbps connection, allowing a single external 4K display (16 Gbps PCIe connection, paired with USB3.2). However, most manufacturers go beyond this point, and unless otherwise stated, the docking station we recommend supports full specifications (and two 4K monitors). Thunderbolt 3 also supports slower (16Gbps) PCIe connections to connect to external storage. Unless you are editing a video or using an external GPU, this may not matter.
Thunderbolt 4 does not allow any leeway-you will get a mature 40Gbps connection (32 Gbps PCIe USB 3.2) without any problems. For external storage, Thunderbolt 4 supports 32 Gbps data transfer-again, this is really only important for video, external GPU connections, or possibly gaming. Thunderbolt 4 supports sleep wake-up from an external keyboard or mouse, which allows you to click on the external keyboard or swing the mouse to wake up your PC, which is very convenient. Thunderbolt 4 also allows longer cables and more Thunderbolt ports on laptops.
USB4 is essentially a subset of Thunderbolt 4, mainly designed as an I/O specification. According to Plugable, the designer of the Thunderbolt docking station, USB4 can only support one display, and the manufacturer can choose whether to support a 20Gbps connection or a 40Gbps connection. As a subset of Thunderbolt 4, USB4 devices can be plugged into Thunderbolt 4 ports well. But when plugged into the USB4 port, the Thunderbolt 4 device may not work as expected. Don't worry too much about this, because USB4 hubs are rarely seen. In contrast, most hubs and docking stations are sold as Thunderbolt 4, and most devices (such as external SSDs) are designed around USB4.
Please note that Thunderbolt 3 and 4 require at least 15W of power to power devices plugged into Thunderbolt ports, such as bus-powered hard drives. USB4 only needs half.
The device manufacturer Anker has a good summary of all the technical features related to Thunderbolt 3, Thunderbolt 4 and USB4, if you really want to understand the difference between them.
Thunderbolt docking station and I/O hub designer Anker provided a summary of the differences between Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4.
Almost every Thunderbolt device comes with its own cable. We recommend that you use Thunderbolt 3 cables with Thunderbolt 3 products, and Thunderbolt 4 cables with Thunderbolt 4 products.
Most Thunderbolt docking stations should include a Thunderbolt cable like this, which indicates that it is designated for Thunderbolt 3.
Ports, cables, peripherals: These are the three main considerations when purchasing a Thunderbolt docking station.
We are beginning to see the Thunderbolt dock market segmented into several different ways. First of all, we emphasized the budget and fully functional dock above. But you may also see something similar to an old USB hub: a device that inputs Thunderbolt and provides multiple USB-C (including Thunderbolt) ports. There are a few monitors with Thunderbolt inputs that can be plugged directly into these hubs. Do you have a cheap USB-C dongle? You can of course plug it into a Thunderbolt docking station and add more I/O functions.
Basically, please consider what you want to plug into the dock as a buying guide. We prefer devices with built-in ports (such as HDMI, USB-A, etc.) because the USB-C device ecosystem is still in its infancy. But ask yourself some questions. Do you want a basic Thunderbolt docking station that only needs a pair of HDMI ports to connect two displays? Is the SD card slot important? How many USB Type A peripherals do you plan to connect? Do you also want to use a Thunderbolt cable to charge your laptop?
Cables can also be an unexpectedly important consideration. Almost every docking station is equipped with a Thunderbolt cable. But consider the monitor you have (usually HDMI or DisplayPort) and consider whether the dock can accommodate them.
Active Thunderbolt docks, especially those that power laptops, can come with some fairly large power modules.
Check the power supply of the laptop. Is it plugged into your laptop via USB-C? If so, the Thunderbolt dock may power it. However, you need to understand how the docking station provides power. Check your laptop’s charger to see how much power it provides and how much power is needed to replace it. If your laptop or device is not getting enough power, you may see a pop-up warning.
The bus-powered base does not include an external charger in the package, which saves some cost, space and power issues. The docking station with power supply function will provide its own power source and charge your laptop and/or mobile phone through the laptop’s existing USB-C charger. (However, it may not provide the fast charging capabilities offered by advanced smartphones.) The more power your docking station has, the more capable it will be to charge your laptop and any bus-powered devices. This is a problem that most people will not think of, so if you plan to connect multiple bus-powered hard drives or SSDs, please buy a docking station with a high-power power supply. (On the other hand, USB keys require very little power. Don't worry about this.)
There is another consideration: the length of the Thunderbolt cable between the laptop and the dock itself. You may have noticed or heard of wear and tear on the USB-C port on your smartphone; loose or shaking connectors on the Thunderbolt dock can cause the display to flicker unexpectedly or lose connection. Consider how much tension is applied to the cable. The Thunderbolt docking station hanging from the Thunderbolt port puts pressure on the physical connector. You don't want that!
If you are a Mac user who stumbled across this article, welcome to use it. Note, however, that the early Apple MacBook Pro powered by Intel chips supports up to two 4K displays. The first MacBook Pro powered by the Apple M1 chip only supports a single 4K display. As a result, many Mac users have recently left negative reviews on the Thunderbolt dock on shopping sites. Buy a computer!
Our premise is that you purchase a Thunderbolt docking station because it has the unique ability to connect to two 4K monitors at 60Hz. A lower resolution should be easier to run successfully. Our first test was just to connect each docking station to a pair of 4K/60Hz monitors. Each monitor can accept DisplayPort and HDMI cables and ensure that there are no visual artifacts at 60Hz resolution.
Second, we check whether the available ports provide the bandwidth we expect, connect them to an external SSD and transfer a set of test files through the Thunderbolt cable and port. We also used AJA's system testing tools to carefully check our numbers and test whether the read and write speeds are consistent.
Finally, we used a USB power meter to spot check the available power of the hub and port, and simply connect them to bus-powered devices to see if they can provide enough power to allow them to operate. Here, we found that one of our test laptops did not provide enough battery power to power the bus-powered Thunderbolt docking station, so we used a second, different laptop as a backup.
This story was updated on November 4, 2021, providing new information and product recommendations.
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