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Belkin's Thunderbolt dock delivers plug-and-play flexibility

It's dock o'clock, thank goodness, as Belkin's long incubation period of the Thunderbolt Express Dock closed out last month. The US$299 expansion peripheral is now shipping to customers; is it worth your attention? We've had a week to put it through its paces.

The most direct product comparison for the Express Dock is Matrox's $249 DS1, which we reviewed a few weeks ago. Like the Matrox unit, the Belkin dock requires but does not include a Thunderbolt cable -- so you should mentally add at least $30 to the price of each unit if you don't already have one. (Kanex sells Thunderbolt cables in lengths ranging from three meters down to one-half meter.)

Design

The Express Dock's industrial design went through several iterations after its original "stapler-style" preview first appeared in January of 2012. Since then the unit has gained a passthrough Thunderbolt port, lost its HDMI port, and seen an eSATA port added, then dropped, from the configuration. The unit comes with an external power brick that uses a standard three-prong plug, rather than an outlet-hogging adapter.

With the Express Dock you get all the ports you need, and more. Dual Thunderbolt ports (one in, one out) line up with three super-speed USB 3 ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port, analog audio in and out, and a Firewire 800 port. Compared to the Matrox DS1, Belkin has delivered quite a bit more flexibility and speed, particularly for Firewire users; being able to chain several FW800 drives off the dock means one less adapter to manage, and one less Thunderbolt port on the computer tied up.

I'd tag maxing out the USB 3 ports versus the Matrox unit "nice but not a blockbuster," as there's always the option of attaching a USB 3 hub to the DS1's single superspeed port if you need that expandability; I would expect that users with a lot of USB 3 devices have probably already invested in a hub to cover that need.

The passthrough Thunderbolt port, on the other hand, is a big deal, and good on Belkin for sticking with this design choice through the process. Yes, you're most likely going to terminate the chain with a Mini DisplayPort adapter or connecting to a Thunderbolt monitor; still, if you have other Thunderbolt devices that can sit mid-chain (like LaCie's eSATA hub) you are going to get more mileage out of Belkin's dock than you will from the DS1.

The final shipping instance of the Express Dock is low and lean, with a convenient cable passthrough that lets you run your Thunderbolt cable through the front of the device to the ports in the back. This may reduce wire clutter compared to the DS1, where the only TB connection is in the front.

The rounded, unobtrusive case design on the Express Dock would be at home on most desks. It's noticeably lower-profile than the Matrox, and quite a bit less boxy and industrial-looking. I do miss Matrox's front-facing USB port a bit, as it's convenient for plugging in flash drives and other quick-use devices.

Performance

The best thing that can be said about a Thunderbolt dock is that you don't really have to think about it once you plug it in; that's certainly true of the Express Dock. It's completely plug-and-play, with no device issues that I could see. File transfer performance on Firewire, USB 3 and Thunderbolt was pretty much indistinguishable from directly-connected devices; I tested with a Buffalo TB/USB3 drive, an Elgato SSD and a LaCie Firewire 800 drive and didn't see any substantive differences between docked and directly-connected performance. Macworld's lab testing showed similar performance parity on file transfers.

Display performance was also remarkably unremarkable, with the dock immediately syncing up to my external display via my mDP to DVI adapter. Although the Matrox DS1 dock has shown some rare loss-of-sync issues where external displays needed to be reset or reconnected to show up, I haven't seen that at all in a week of testing the "pure Thunderbolt" path on the Belkin.

The Ethernet port on the dock requires no additional software or driver install to be recognized; it just shows up, as you'd expect. Since it's recognized as a new network adapter, if you want your Mac to use it as the primary connection rather than WiFi or USB Ethernet you should make sure to move it to the top of the network connection priority list. The dock does require OS X 10.8.3, so if you don't get every port behaving properly at first you might check your system version.

Wrap-up

Thunderbolt docks may not be the sexiest peripheral sector, but Belkin's done a solid job delivering the Express Dock to the market with enough standout features to make it worth a look. With Firewire, plenty of USB 3 ports and the flexibility of passthrough Thunderbolt, it's packing plenty of value to cover that $50 premium versus the competition.

Pros

  • Plug and play performance
  • Thunderbolt passthrough port for flexibility
  • Firewire 800, 3x USB 3

Cons

  • Not inexpensive
  • No front-facing convenience USB port

Who is it for?

  • Thunderbolt Mac owners starved for expansion ports, especially those with investments in Firewire or USB 3 devices.

Here's a quick promo video from the Belkin team:

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