Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock review - Thunderbolt dock

More than two years after Thunderbolt launched, and almost as long since this product was first vaunted, the Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock has finally gone into production.

It’s a very neat and versatile docking solution, a potential dream come true for Mac users. Worth the wait? Let’s see.

Apple pushed Intel to develop a new high-speed desktop bus that could unite a variety of 21st-century computer connections. The result was Light Peak, a high-speed optical link later downgraded to a more conventional copper-wire system and rebranded as Thunderbolt, after fears that consumers wouldn’t want to pay the higher price of optical technology.

That’s almost ironic, given just how expensive Thunderbolt cables and all Thunderbolt products in general have proven to be. Yet the Belkin dock manages to bring together ethernet, FireWire, USB 3.0 and audio in/out, all in a stylish desktop hub, for a not outrageous £249. 

That’s a little more than the only other Thunderbolt dock available, the £200 Matrox DS1, but a different selection of ports may make the Belkin the better choice for many potential users.

Design and build

The Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock is outwardly a superior product when set against the Matrox DS1, with more elegant contours and better fit and finish in its construction quality. 

It’s been through a few design changes since prototypes were first shown at trade shows, but the final Express Dock now features all its ports and connectors along the back, with a natty cut-out on the rounded front where you could feed a Thunderbolt cable. 

This aperture leads to an underside tunnel to the rear, with the Thunderbolt cable held in place by flexible rubber retaining strips.

Crucially, the Belkin features two Thunderbolt ports on its back row, allowing it to sit within a data chain rather be relegated to the end of the line. 

There are no additional video-out ports like DVI, DisplayPort or HDMI – instead if you need to connect a display you just feed the second Thunderbolt output to any of the above ports on your monitor, adding a passive adaptor if necessary.

From left to right, there’s one gigabit ethernet port, one FireWire 800, two Thunderbolt ports, 3.5mm headphone jack, 3.5mm mic or audio line input, three USB 3.0 ports, and a connector for the external 12V/6A power supply.

Do note that the audio I/O credentials are not particularly exciting, limited to 16-bit/48kHz digital audio. Sound quality through the headphone jack was adequate but not audiophile grade.

Powering the Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock is a large laptop-style mains adaptor, good for 72W of power. That ought to be enough to power the hungry Thunderbolt electronics and provide bus power to USB, FireWire and Thunderbolt too, although we weren’t able to confirm how much power is actually released to connected peripherals.

The Belkin dock is relatively light at 430g in its solid-feeling aluminium extrusion. But if you do intend to travel much, don’t forget the chunky power supply, which weighs another 573g.

For most users, though, the whole point of a dock unit like this is to leave it in place on the desk, ready to interface with all your static home or office comms and peripherals.

While we were testing, we had ethernet plumbed in, our USB keyboard, a 23-inch DVI monitor (via a DVI-to-Mini DisplayPort adaptor), and sundry USB 3.0 devices pluggin in and out. To then get our MacBook fully wired to all the above just required inserting one Thunderbolt cable to the notebook each morning – a real boon in saving time and reducing cable fiddling. It makes for a neater desk too.

But rather than use the unit facing forwards with Thunderbolt cable cut-out at the front, we found it more practical to have the rear end facing us on the desk, making it easy to plug and play any connection with ease.

Unlike the Matrox, we experienced no kernel panics or random disconnects of USB devices; the latter would often happen with the earlier device when waking the MacBook from sleep. 

We did notice a shortfall in USB 3.0 performance, although it’s not entirely clear if that was an issue with the Belkin dock. The fastest USB 3.0 device we’ve tried is the Axtremex Micro SSD, capable of 430 MB/s read speed in OS X. Connected through the Belkin dock, its performance dropped to 195 MB/s. 

The Mac was indicating that UASP mode was still engaged, but it could yet be an issue with USB-attached-SCSI protocol not working through Thunderbolt’s PCI-E-based pipeline.  

The other possibility is that Belkin’s USB 3.0 chipset is simply below the required spec for best performance, although we were unable to check inside the dock as its construction does not favour easy disassembly.

OUR VERDICT

The Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock was worth the wait. It’s not the cheapest of the two available solutions now on the market today, but it is the more versatile with its Thunderbolt pass-through function. When a dock like this ‘just works’ as intended, it’s a joy to use and greatly simplifies the use of a Thunderbolt-equipped notebook on the desktop.

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