Thunderbolt Docks Strike At CES

OWC’s Thunderbolt offers insane connectivity

Key Takeaways

  • A Thunderbolt Dock is essential if you use a laptop with any desktop accessories.
  • Compared to USB docks, all Thunderbolt docks are expensive. 
  • OWC’s new Thunderbolt Dock offers three (3!) pass-through Thunderbolt ports.
OWC Thunderbolt Doc

Imagine that you wanted to buy a USB hub, but there were only a few available. That’s the state of the Thunderbolt dock market. Or it was, until CES 2021 shook out a bunch of new gear from OWC and Anker.

Anker’s new PowerExpand 5-in-1 Thunderbolt 4 Mini Dock is a relatively low-cost take on its existing 7-in-1 Thunderbolt 3 dock, but OWC’s new Thunderbolt Dock brings something new—three pass-through Thunderbolt ports for further expansion.

"It's disappointing to see that the prices aren’t yet falling. Then again, if that price is the cost of reliability, then I’ll take it."

Why Thunderbolt?

A Thunderbolt dock is essential if you have a MacBook, or a Thunderbolt-equipped Windows laptop. Not only are Thunderbolt docks more reliable than USB (thanks to strict certification from Intel), but the Thunderbolt connection has such high bandwidth that you can load up a dock with peripherals, including 4K displays, and connect it to your computer with a single cable.

You can also daisy-chain Thunderbolt devices, which can make it easy to attach several peripherals—ending in a display if you like—without any kind of a dock.

Intel’s new Thunderbolt 4 update is pretty much Thunderbolt 3 with USB 4 support, and a few other tweaks. In practice, they’re interchangeable for most uses.

The Docks

Anker’s PowerExpand 5-in-1 Thunderbolt 4 Mini Dock looks fine. You can connect a pair of 4K monitors, or a single 8K display. If you opt for the latter, though, it can only run at 30Hz, not 60Hz, which is a fairly significant limitation. Still, it’ll be $200 when it goes on sale in February, which isn’t bad, as Thunderbolt docks go. 

OWC Thunderbolt Dock

Way more interesting is OWC’s Thunderbolt Dock, available for pre-order at the seemingly-standard Thunderbolt price of $249. It has 11 ports in total, including Ethernet, SD card slot, headphones, and a bunch of USB-A ports (three 10Gb/sec USB 3.1 ports, and one old-fashioned USB 2.0 port).

But the best part is that it has three Thunderbolt ports around the back, in addition to the front-facing port that you connect to your computer. These can hook up to any other Thunderbolt devices, including displays and other docks. And each of these Thunderbolt ports can be the beginning of a daisy chain.

After USB, which gets glitchy and unreliable if you try this kind of nonsense, Thunderbolt is a relief. I still think that $250 is a crazy price for a dock, but on the other hand, once you’ve forced yourself to pay it, then the devices are rock solid and reliable.

I use a CalDigit TS3+, which is great, and offers a few ports not available on this OWC, like DisplayPort. But the OWC beats the CalDigit by having better USB ports. The TS3+ has only one 10Gbps USB-C port (the rest are all 5Gbps), whereas the OWC has three, plus you can always plug a USB-C peripheral into a Thunderbolt hole.

It’s good to see more Thunderbolt docks. If you use a laptop with an external monitor and any other desktop peripherals, then they’re easily the best way to reliably connect everything, and the docks even charge the computer while you do it. But it's disappointing to see that the prices aren’t yet falling. Then again, if that price is the cost of reliability, then I’ll take it.

Want more? See all our coverage of CES 2021 right here.

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