The best Thunderbolt 3 docks for your Mac in 2020

If you need to add more ports to your MacBook Pro or iMac, one of the best ways to do that is to get a Thunderbolt 3 docking station. Here is Apple Insider’s guide to choosing the best docking station. Thunderbolt 3 home for your Mac.

Docking stations have been a concept in computing for a considerable period of time, with many options available for connecting a laptop to a variety of peripherals or other systems. The advent of Thunderbolt 3, a high-speed 40 Gbps connection and power supply through a single small cable, has led to an explosion of user-friendly plug-and-play docking stations that consumers can easily install and use. with relative ease.

Its inclusions across the entire Mac range make Thunderbolt 3 docks usable in many cases, but its main audience is arguably buyers of the MacBook Pro range, in order to broaden the selection of ports available from the two or four Thunderbolt ports. 3 standard.

While there are a considerable number of docking stations on the market, there is almost certainly one that will work for you, despite the bewildering array of choices. This guide aims to demystify the device and help you narrow the selection down to one or a few that will work best for the job.

What is a Thunderbolt 3 docking station for?

Simply put, a Thunderbolt 3 docking station plugs into a Thunderbolt 3 port and provides a host of other connections in return. Think of it as a USB hub, but instead of just providing more of the same port, the dock typically includes a selection of commonly used connections, as well as more Thunderbolt 3 ports.

This selection typically includes USB Type-A, USB-C, Thunderbolt 3, video outputs such as DisplayPort or HDMI, Gigabit Ethernet, and memory card slots. Some models also offer legacy connections, including eSATA, VGA, and sometimes FireWire, which may be of limited use to most users, but might be essential for people with older hardware that just doesn’t support them. new variants.

Docking stations also provide the ability to power peripherals, or sometimes the MacBook host itself. Depending on the docking station and MacBook model, a docking station can provide enough power to charge the MacBook battery, without having to use one of the main Thunderbolt 3 ports with a separate charger.

By doing this via a docking station, the port that would have been used for power is instead freed up for use both for power and for data transfer, allowing it to be fully usable.

Why do I need it?

The easiest answer is to have more connection options. The maximum of four Thunderbolt 3 ports on a MacBook Pro is relatively limited, even if you factor in the Thunderbolt 3 serial connection, so having more ports that only use one on the host device is an interesting proposition.

The ability to take advantage of the power supply to pass power to the host device without sacrificing a port’s data connection is also very useful, especially on the 13-inch MacBook Pro with only two Thunderbolt 3 ports. that power is also supplied to peripherals, this means that the connected peripherals will not drain the host MacBook’s battery at all.

Docking stations typically have external power sources, which activate the power supply functionality.

Docking stations typically have external power sources, which activate the power supply functionality.

For those who have owned a MacBook Pro for a while, a docking station offers a way out of the dongle lifestyle. Instead of relying on multiple adapters to connect your devices to a MacBook through the few Thunderbolt 3 ports, you instead have one unit that you connect everything through.

There is also something to be said for using it as a central anchor point for a home setup. If the display, network, external drives, speakers and peripherals are all connected to the docking station, the user can simply connect them all at the same time to the MacBook Pro using a single Thunderbolt 3 cable.

This quick connection also comes with a quick disconnect routine, as users can simply unplug the docking station and take their MacBook Pro with them, while leaving a fully usable desktop setup at home or in the office. y and waiting for their return.

What should I look for?

The first consideration is which ports are needed. Much of this will be determined by the user’s current hardware needs, although they will also need to take into account any future items they might need ports for. It’s usually better to go on top with ports than to stick with what you need.

If you all have Thunderbolt 3 adapters, you can also connect them to the Thunderbolt 3 ports on a docking station, if it has any. This could further open up the choice of docking stations, to include feature-free docking stations which are all managed by your adapter.

On a related note, don’t forget to consider the data needs of the devices that you connect to the docking station. Thunderbolt 3 offers 40 Gbps of bandwidth, which is a fair amount to use, but while that’s more than enough for a Gigabit Ethernet connection, screen, and a handful of slower connections, it can still be exceeded in some cases. situations.

An example of the variety of ports you can find on a Thunderbolt 3 docking station

An example of the variety of ports you can find on a Thunderbolt 3 docking station

Although you can connect an external Thunderbolt storage array to a docking station, it is rare that the docking station is directly connected to the host if every byte of bandwidth is required. This is unlikely, but possible in some industries, such as video editing involving multiple clients and high resolution, bit rate files.

Not all docking stations that connect to a Thunderbolt 3 port are the same, as some work with the USB-C standard instead. While it is possible to connect a Thunderbolt 3 docking station to a computer’s USB-C port, or a USB-C docking station to a Thunderbolt 3 port, the maximum possible bandwidth will be 10 Gbps / s instead of 40 Gbit / s, as well as the potential limitations of power delivery.

Speaking of power supply, it’s worth investing in a docking station that offers enough power to power your MacBook for use and charging. This is because you need a docking station with a power supply of at least 30 W to fully power a MacBook Air, a 60 W version for a 13 inch MacBook Pro, 87 W for the 15 inch MacBook Pro and 96 W for the 16-inch MacBook Pro.

Typically, docking stations include some form of network connectivity, typically in the form of Gigabit Ethernet. It would be a step up from Wi-Fi for those who have a physical network to connect to, but it’s not essential unless you have high bandwidth requirements.

Suggested docks

The following list was produced on July 29, 2020 and includes the currently available docks on the market.

Appleiphonestop recommendation

Appleiphonestop strongly suggests the CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 3 Plus (TS3 Plus) as a great example of a docking station that should work for most people. While Appleiphonestop first reviewed it in early 2018, the dock is still actively used by a writer after all this time.

CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 3 Plus

CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 3 Plus

On the front is an SD card slot, audio input and output, a USB 3.1 Type-C gen 1 port and a USB 3.0 type-A port. On the back are two more USB-A ports, one USB 3.1 Type-C Gen 1, one upstream Thunderbolt 3 with support for 87W power, one downstream Thunderbolt 3 port, Gigabit Ethernet, a DisplayPort 1.2 digital optical output and a link power supply.

Its delivered power can charge the vast majority of MacBook models, its ports cover the majority of typical use cases, and everything is packaged in a relatively small case. It’s very hard not to recommend the CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 3 Plus to anyone looking for a docking station.

Alternatives

Since the whole point of a Thunderbolt 3 docking station is being able to connect more items to your Mac or MacBook, an option that isn’t a docking station would be external enclosures, especially those for eGPU.

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box 650

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box 650

Functionally, they work the same as a docking station, in that they connect through Thunderbolt 3, can potentially provide power, and perform a function. In the case of eGPU boxes, they contain an external graphics card to increase the video processing capabilities of the Mac, as the name suggests.

While this is widely useful for people who need to add an additional GPU to their Mac setup, it is an alternative to a docking station in several ways. For starters, the enclosures do not need to be equipped with an eGPU, as they offer a PCIe expansion slot. This means that it is possible to use another expansion card compatible with the Mac.

Many eGPUs also include some form of additional ports, such as network or a few USB 3.0 Type-A connections. In rare cases, it is possible to add a hard drive to an eGPU enclosure, turning it into an external storage device.

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