Absurd 18-Port Dock Shows the Insane Power of Thunderbolt

Just don’t look at the price tag

Key Takeaways

  • CalDigit’s new TS4 Thunderbolt packs 18 ports into a single box.
  • It’s a significant upgrade in terms of speed and power. 
  • Thunderbolt is so capable it’s hard to imagine maxing it out.
An overhead view of a CalDigit TS4 connected to a computer with two monitors.

CalDigit

Thunderbolt might look just like another USB-C port on the side of your Mac or PC, but one look at CalDigit's new TS4 Thunderbolt dock shows just how insanely powerful it is. 

Thunderbolt is fast. Really fast. And more than that, it offers a really fat pipe so that you can pump all kinds of data streams through it, simultaneously, with no slowdowns. You can, for instance, hook up a monitor or two, some SSD drives, plus audio gear, an ethernet connection, and more, and they all just work via a single port on the side of your laptop. And it can power all that gear, too. 

"I also use a Thunderbolt dock to keep my setup organized," sales professional and Thunderbolt dock user Shawn Gonzales told Lifewire via email. "Before, my desk looked like it was drowning under a sea of cables. Now, everything is neatly arranged since the dock gives me a centralized location to plug in my cables and keep them out of the way."

TS3+ vs TS4

CalDigit’s new 18-port TS4 dock is the successor to its excellent TS3+. It offers a few more ports, more power, more speed, and removes one connector. But most of all, it shows why Thunderbolt is so amazing and why, even at $360, it’s a good deal. 

Two images comparing the TS3+ to the TS4

CalDigit

Above, we see pictures of the previous TS3+ and the new TS4, which allows us to compare ports and layout. On the front panel, we see an extra USB-C port (for a total of two), plus a micro SD card slot to join the existing SD clot. The headphone jack remains, but the microphone moves around the back panel (where it joins a new, secondary headphone jack).

Around the back is where most of the action is happening. We still have four USB-A ports, but now they’re all speedy USB 3.2Gen2 ports, double the speed of the old ones. There’s still only one USB-C port, but an extra Thunderbolt port brings the total to three. One of those is for connecting to (and powering up to 98 Watts) the host computer, but the others can be used for whatever you like. Including adding more Thunderbolt docks. 

The Ethernet port is now 2.5 Gigabit, instead of plain Gigabit, the DisplayPort is now 1.4 vs. 1.2. Finally, we get to the only omission: the digital optical port. These are most often used for media connections. If you use it, it’s great to have, but it’s a weird port to have on a general-purpose dock. And now it’s gone. 

“They removed optical out,” musician and TB3+ owner DJBuddha said in a Macrumors forum posting. “I don’t think many people use it. I’ve used it and found it was slightly distorted when routing it back to my Apollo [audio interface].”

The TS4 Thunderbolt Dock with a laptop computer sitting above it.

CalDigit

Thunderbolt

I own and use the CalDigit TS3+, and it's just excellent. Unlike almost any other kind of hub, Thunderbolt hubs are rock-solid reliable. My TS3+ connects to a Mac and is then to a 4K monitor, Ethernet, a USB audio interface, several other USB devices, and even a 7-port USB 3 hub. It manages all of this without ever glitching out, disconnecting, or otherwise misbehaving. It's as if it is a part of the computer it's connected to. 

This combination of power and utility makes it extremely easy and practical to use a laptop as a desktop computer. The M1 MacBooks Air and Pro are both highly reliable when used in "clamshell" mode, connected to an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse with the lid closed. Intel MacBooks often failed to wake or had trouble setting the correct screen resolution, etc. The M1 MacBooks are just as reliable as the desktop Mac mini in this regard, in my experience. 

If you own one of the M1 Pro MacBooks Pro, then you can use it as a laptop, but when you connect it to a Thunderbolt dock and close its lid, you have an instant desktop machine that's as powerful as any actual desktop computer, and more capable than most. 

And that's why these Thunderbolt docks are a bargain, whether it's CalDigit's kitchen-sink version or one with fewer ports. We're used to paying a few tens of dollars for a USB hub on Amazon, but the devices, unreliable and flaky as they are, are not even in the same class.

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