I’ve been using docks for laptops—and desktops—for ages and am very familiar with the OWC brand. When I first started using Thunderbolt, I needed to expand my connections and I used their original Thunderbolt dock.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the chance to run with their latest Thunderbolt 3 offering, the appropriately named OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock. If you’re curious about why you might want a dock, take a look at this.
For my assessment, I connected the Thunderbolt 3 Dock to a laptop with Thunderbolt 3 ports and also a workstation with Thunderbolt 3 ports. I connected high-speed devices like SSD arrays, ethernet, USB sticks and monitors. I also made use of the slots.
When I evaluate a dock, I consider several things: Does it have all the connections I need? Do those connections work the way I expect them to? And lastly, what about the overall design of the dock? Is it easy to set up and use? Will it affect my workspace?
The Thunderbolt 3 Dock has more connection options than most docks. The front of the unit has both an SD card slot and a microSD card slot. They support SD 4.0 and are controlled by the same chip, so you can only use one at a time.
Beyond the card slots, there are a total of 12 ports on the dock. For USB there are 5 USB A connectors, 1 USB C connector, 1 headphone/mic jack, S/PDIF out jack, 2 Thunderbolt 3 connections, 1 ethernet and 1 display port.
All the USB A connectors are USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports. This means that they max out at a theoretical 5Gbit/s. Two of the five ports—conveniently, one on the front—also support USB BC 1.2.
BC 1.2 isn’t about the speed but the power. Sometimes referred to as high-speed charging, BC 1.2 allows more current (1.5A vs 900mA) to be supplied at that port. The ports are easily identified by the “High-Powered Port” label.
Getting back to the front of the Thunderbolt 3 Dock, beside the slots is a hybrid audio jack (headphone or mic) and one of the aforementioned USB 3.1 Gen 1 High Power ports. (Thank you, USB Implementers Forum, for making USB port naming so easy to understand.) Lastly, there’s a USB C connector that uses USB 3.1 Gen 2. This ups the speed, giving you about 8 Gbit/s for that connection.
Moving around to the back of the dock, there’s a digital audio output in the form of an S/PDIF optical connection. For network connectivity, there’s a gigabit ethernet connection.
For display hookup, there’s a mini DisplayPort connector that supports the DisplayPort 1.2 standard. It also supports dual-mode or DP++. In dual-mode, you can use passive adaptors to connect to displays that require DVI or HDMI.
As far as monitor support, the Thunderbolt 3 Dock will drive up to two 4K displays (up to 60 Hz). Or a single 5K display also at 60 Hz.
Of course, this is a Thunderbolt dock, so I should address that. There are two Thunderbolt 3 ports. One is labeled for connection to your computer and the other is the secondary port for continuing the daisy-chain to other Thunderbolt 3 devices.
So why is one connector labeled differently? The OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock has a hefty power supply that can deliver 85 watts of power. In order to utilize that power, you need to make sure that your laptop is connected to that specifically labeled Thunderbolt connector. If you aren’t worried about that functionality, you can use either connector.
How It Delivers
All those ports look impressive at first glance, but how does the dock function as a whole? I connected both Mac and Windows machines to make sure all the ports worked. Depending on your computer, you may need to install a driver.
Although that seems like a no brainer, in the past I’ve run into problems with displays and power. (Sometimes the power problems are with the laptop and not with the dock.)
Then I started evaluating performance. Primarily, I concentrated on speed. I connected a Thunderbolt 3 SSD array that performed as if directly connected. Displays connected were able to use the maximum resolution and refresh.
There are a few things to be aware of as you start using all of those ports. The four USB A connections on the back act like a hub, sharing throughput, so as you add devices the bandwidth is shared. The front USB A connector shares its bandwidth with the card readers and audio port. However, the front USB C port doesn’t.
If you like a clean design to your electronics, the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock doesn’t disappoint. I think it fits well on the desktop. There’s no fan, so noise isn’t an issue.
The use of front and back connectors keeps the look clean and makes for easy connection of cables, as opposed to fighting for space to get that last cable inserted. The dock has some mass to it, so it shouldn’t go sliding around when you insert SD or microSD cards.
One thing I look for in devices is how well connectors are installed and how they meet tolerances with mating connections. I like to be able to make mini DisplayPort connections (or Thunderbolt 2 connections) without having to look at what I’m doing. These days, that’s generally difficult to do. The unit I tested had all the connections properly centered in the chassis, making it easy.
There’s one interesting piece of software that OWC offers to make dock use even easier for people on the go—the Dock Ejector. With a dock like this, you could have multiple media devices mounted and easily overlook one. This small app enables you to quickly eject all dock-connected media before you disconnect your computer from the dock.
There are a lot of docks out there, and each has positive and negative features. For me, the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock certainly has the ports, the performance and the design to increase the connections for my laptop and desktop.
The bright spots for me are the appropriate connections on the front, enough power delivery, the display connection options and the quality build. The quick eject software is a nice touch too. You can learn more about the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock here.