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Matrox DS1 is a practical, powerful Thunderbolt dock

During my perambulations on the Macworld/iWorld show floor in February, I chatted face-to-face with a Belkin representative who bravely asserted that the company's $299.99 Thunderbolt Express Dock would be shipping "this month." This would be the same Express Dock that was originally seen in an Intel booth in September of 2011, announced in January of 2012, "upgraded" with an eSATA port in June 2012, and opened for pre-orders with a "shipping next week!" alert (minus its eSATA port) in mid-February 2013.

If you've got a calendar nearby, you may have noticed that it's March now -- and the Belkin dock product page still sports a "sign up to be notified when the Express Dock is shipping." So it goes.

Meanwhile, the graphics-centric peripheral vendor Matrox has quietly been shipping its Thunderbolt dock block, the DS1, in two flavors (for HDMI or DVI video-out) since the end of 2012. With a sticker price of $249, $50 lower than the vapory Belkin dock -- and with some key feature differences -- it's a worthwhile port expander that you can order today and use with your Thunderbolt-equipped Mac.

Design

Matrox's expansion kit is a bit boxier and taller than the Belkin design, but keeps the brushed metal look that helps it seem at home alongside a MacBook Air or a Cinema Display. The unit has a sturdy feel, and I wouldn't be concerned about perching a monitor on top of it (a flatscreen monitor, to be sure -- no CRTs, please). The single Thunderbolt port is easily accessible on the front of the device, next to the sole USB 3.0 SuperSpeed port.

Matrox DS1 is a practical, powerful Thunderbolt dock

On the back of the unit, the DS1 is all business. Both models connect to power on the right side, with gigabit Ethernet, two USB 2.0 ports and convenient audio in & out 1/8" plugs lined up as well. The only difference between the two DS1 models is on the left side of the back panel: you'll get an HDMI port on the HDMI model, and a single-link DVI-D port on the DVI model.

The DS1, like most Thunderbolt peripherals, does not ship with a Thunderbolt cable; it works well with Apple's 1.5' (0.5m) $29 jumper.

Functionality

The DS1 is a fine example of true "plug and play" hardware; no drivers, no configuration and no hassles. My DVI Cinema Display connected cleanly and immediately, with the Mac laptop recognizing its native resolution as though it was connected directly.

The front-facing USB 3 port is fully capable of supporting and powering fast USB 3 peripherals, although it's easy to forget that you've got an external drive plugged in when you pull the Thunderbolt cable out of your laptop to hit the road. The Ethernet port shows up just as expected in the Network preference pane, and both audio ports work great with headsets that normally would use a Plantronics USB to audio adapter. The back USB 2 ports also serve their intended function with a minimum of fuss. Build quality was excellent on my review unit, with no rattles or sharp edges.

Comparing the Matrox to the Belkin unit, the biggest difference is in the number and variety of ports. Belkin's dock is intended to ship with SuperSpeed 3.0 on all three of its USB ports, compared to the Matrox's lineup of one 3.0 and two older 2.0 ports. The Belkin dock adds a single Firewire 800 port to its bag of tricks as well.

Most importantly, Belkin has chosen to make its dock a dual-port Thunderbolt device, allowing passthrough to additional peripherals; Matrox's dock must be the final Thunderbolt device in the chain. This is not as big a disadvantage as it appears, however; the Belkin dock has no video-out option to compare with the Matrox DVI or HDMI port, so a pass-thru is a must for anyone wanting to connect a monitor on the same Thunderbolt chain. On the Matrox side, it's assumed that you'll connect your display to the DS1, which would normally be the terminal Thunderbolt or DisplayPort device anyway.

Conclusion

If you're already stocking up on USB 3 devices or still have a stock of Firewire drives hanging around, then perhaps the Belkin dock's additional flexibility will merit the higher cost for you. If not, the Matrox DS1 has a solid port lineup and a trouble-free connection story to tell.

Pros

  • True plug-and-play
  • Offers most used port lineup
  • Includes video out DVI or HDMI
  • Single front-facing USB 3 port for high-speed peripherals
  • Slightly more affordable

Cons

  • No Firewire port
  • No Thunderbolt pass-through
  • Slower USB 2 ports for remaining connections
  • Front-facing Thunderbolt port may cause cable clutter

Who is it for

Anyone who has been frustrated by cable clutter with Thunderbolt adapters, or who wants the simplicity of plugging in a single connection when docking a MacBook Air or Pro for use at a workstation.

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