StarTech Thunderbolt Laptop Docking Station full review

You wait years after the launch of Thunderbolt for a dock to appear, then four all turn up at once. Perhaps not quite once, as there was a clear gap between the first from Matrox and second from Belkin. But the CalDigit and StarTech models both arrived around the same time this year.

That’s not all they have in common, as we discovered while testing this StarTech Thunderbolt Laptop Docking Station. A cursory look through the specifications shows more than just some similar features – namely two USB 3.0 ports behind (and one up front), HDMI and ethernet. As well as two front-facing audio jacks, for a mic and headphones.

In fact, it’s an identical port roster as the CalDigit Thunderbolt Station, with connectors lining up in exactly the same positions. The StarTech Thunderbolt Laptop Docking Station is to all intents and most purposes the CalDigit Thunderbolt Station. Or vice versa. The key difference is the casework into which they’re packed.

The CalDigit is based around an all-metal folded aluminium case in natural silver colour, while this StarTech counterpart has an aluminium central band with polished black plastic top and bottom. The StarTech’s style is clearly mimicking an iPhone 4 with its silver metal band and black glass front-and-back cheeks.

Included with the StarTech dock is a stand kit that optionally allows you to mount the unit vertically, plus you also get a 1m Thunderbolt cable included in the packing box.

We found the same idiosyncrasies for both units too. Currently, our MacBook Pro (Mid-2012) model would crash when connected to various high-resolution screens attached to the dock by HDMI. We didn’t experience this a few weeks ago, and wonder if the last 10.9.2 update for OS X Mavericks may have affected operation.

We asked StarTech which version of HDMI was used, and were told HDMI 1.4. But the company’s website only specifies the HDMI port for use with up to 1920 x 1080-pixel displays, which would suggest an old HDMI 1.2 spec from 2005.

But wired to a newer MacBook Pro (15-inch, Retina, Late 2013) with Intel Iris Pro graphics, the combination worked fine, allowing 3840 x 2160/30p output from the dock’s HDMI port to a Dell 4K monitor.

So the key point here is that there is an additional video output available through HDMI, besides the second Thunderbolt port serving as Mini DisplayPort, which can potentially let you connect higher-resolution displays such as the increasingly popular types with 2560 x 1440-pixel resolution. But operation may be flakey on greater-than-HD-resolution screens.

USB 3.0 was not working at its best either. We plugged an Axtremex Micro SSD into a MacBook Pro, a portable flash drive with mSATA SSD inside that uses UASP to allow decent USB 3.0 transfer performance.

Connected directly, it would allow speeds up to around 430 MB/s; but using the USB 3.0 ports on the StarTech dock – as we saw with the CalDigit – throttled this back to around 300 MB/s.

We had no trouble powering up a G-Technology G-DRIVE mini portable drive, even with its 7200 rpm disk inside. These same USB 3.0 ports could just about charge an iPhone, but there’s not enough power to charge an iPad.

Unlike the CalDigit version, the headphone and mic jacks on the front are recessed behind the thick metal band, which might hinder the use of some headphones with larger plugs.

The audio sub-system of the dock is limited 16-bit/48 kHz, and there is no built-in digital output. Sound quality through the headphone output is adequate; not high-grade but at least it doesn’t suffer the whistles and squeaks we heard from the CalDigit version, whose audio artefacts could even be heard as high-frequency tones emanating through the case itself.

It’s a shame the designer of this dock didn’t take the opportunity to include a headphone output that’s a improvement over that already in a MacBook, rather than a step backward in quality.

In use, the StarTech did get rather warm, but never troubling so.

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