CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 3 Plus (TS3 Plus) full review

The CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 3 Plus (TS3 Plus) is a long name for a small box, but it’s a tethered dock that boasts a lot of ports and connections.

It features two superior 40Gbps Thunderbolt 3 ports, two USB-C ports (one at 5Gbps and the other Gen2 port at 10Gbps), five old-style USB-A (3.1) ports, a DisplayPort 1.2, an SD Card Reader, Digital Optical Audio (S/PDIF), Analog Audio In (Stereo) and Analog Audio Out (Stereo), plus a Gigabit Ethernet port.

This is the most ports we’ve seen on a comparable USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 dock. What no HDMI? See later for CalDigit’s reasoning for DisplayPort over HDMI.

It can charge at up to 87W so is perfect for Apple’s 15in MacBook Pro, and ranks as our #1 best docking station for the MacBook Pro - creating an easy dock that you can connect your laptop to and from in seconds, and have a fully functioning desktop-like setup ready for action as soon as you arrive back at base. Indeed, why not buy two? One for home and one for the office.

(Caldigit recently updated the dock's firmware to take it from 85W to 87W, as well as improve support for USB-C monitors.)

CalDigit TS3 Plus ports

CalDigit TS3 Plus price

The Thunderbolt Station 3 Plus dock costs £264.99 in the UK and $309.99 in the US, direct from Caldigit, and is also available from Amazon UK (£255 at the time of writing) and Amazon.com. To run dual displays you will need to add a further adapter, and CalDigit sells a DisplayPort 1.2 to HDMI 2.0 adapter for £24.99 or $19.99. A USB-C to HDMI or DisplayPort adapter is usually under £20/$20.

Apple has now started selling the TS3 even cheaper at just £229.95 or $249.95 in the US or $399.99 in Australia

MacBook Pro owners will be pleased that the TS3 Plus is available in either Silver or Space Gray.

The TS3 is one of our best accessories for the MacBook Pro, and is just as useful for the MacBook Air (2018 and later).

What’s the difference between USB-C and Thunderbolt 3?

A quick note on Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C. Because they look the same, it’s easy to forget that there is a difference. The two are interchangeable but Thunderbolt 3 has 40Gbps bandwidth and USB-C has 10Gbps. This becomes important when you want to connect a dual display to your MacBook Pro.

A Thunderbolt 3 laptop (like most recent MacBooks) can use a USB-C dock, but will lose its bandwidth advantage. But a USB-C laptop (like the older 12in MacBook) won't work with a Thunderbolt 3 dock, like this one.

There are, however, newer docks on the market that work with both T3 at full 40Gbps speed and USB-C at 5Gbps. These include one, the USB-C Pro Dock, from the maker of the TS3 Plus.

Connecting dual displays to a MacBook

Thunderbolt 3 docks and USB-C docks are both capable of running two monitors through a dock. USB-C docks can display at a maximum resolution of 4K (30Hz). With 40Gbps bandwidth, Thunderbolt 3 docks are capable of dual 4K (60Hz) displays, which is better for gaming and using Apple’s Pro apps.

The TS3 Plus, for example, does require an adapter to connect a second monitor because it only has one video port (DisplayPort) built-in.

To connect the second monitor, you need to connect a USB-C Video Adapter to the spare Thunderbolt 3 port on the TS3 Plus.

Apple throws in a further complication, which is not the fault of dock manufacturers. Slower USB-C docks on Mac are capable of creating only dual “Mirrored” displays rather than the more useful “Extended” displays where two monitors combine to create a much larger screen.

This is because the macOS doesn’t feature MST (Multi Stream Transport), which means dual extended displays are not possible via USB-C on Mac, only Windows.

However, Thunderbolt 3 docks can work with dual extended displays because they are using the newer, faster technology.

We did get two (extended) displays to run off the USB-C Stone dock (by Henge Docks), but it required a second adapter plugged into the laptop. The CalDigit TS3 Plus required adapters to the dock (for HDMI) but needed just the single Thunderbolt 3 connection to the laptop. But you must use the Thunderbolt 3 cable, not a USB-C one even though they look identical.

Here is a video about connecting two monitors to the TS3 Plus. 

 CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 3 Plus

Why no HDMI on the TS3 Plus? CalDigit uses DisplayPort (DP) over HDMI because DP is native to the Thunderbolt design. Thunderbolt technology is based on PCIe and DisplayPort technology. Therefore, it is easier to implement DP on a Thunderbolt device.

Also, DisplayPort is more versatile than HDMI, because - with use of an adapter - you can convert to any monitor you want such as HDMI, DVI or VGA. Modern mid- to high-end monitors now include both HDMI and DisplayPort connectivity. For monitors with only HDMI, you need to add a “DisplayPort to HDMI” adapter. For more details, see our feature on the difference between DisplayPort and HDMI.

The TS3 Plus features an all-aluminium body that’s better for heat dissipation.

CalDigit also sells a non-Thunderbolt USB-C Dock, which can charge at 60W (compared to the TS3 Plus at 87W) so is less suitable for the 15in MacBook Pro or other higher-power USB-C laptops, but fine for the 12in MacBook.

Also, see above, the TS3 Plus can connect dual 4K 60Hz monitors (Mirrored or Extended), while the USB-C Dock can connect dual 4K 30Hz monitors (Mirrored only) when using just the one-cable connection to the laptop.

Pro audio ports

The TS3 Plus also beats most other docking stations with its audio features. It has separate Audio In and Out ports on its front, and also a professional-level Digital Optical Audio (S/PDIF) port at the back.

Verdict

It’s small but packed with ports, and being a Thunderbolt 3 device this dock is more powerful and capable than a simpler USB-C dock. You can connect two displays to a MacBook Pro in Extended mode with just one cable going into the laptop, which can also be charged at 87W.

If you’re looking for a more-than-able multi-port dock for your MacBook, the CalDigit TS3 Plus looks hard to beat.

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