It’s baaaaaaaack, he said with an obnoxious musical twang. Belkin’s follow-up album to the original, weirdly expensive/oddly compelling Thunderbolt Express Dock is here. While it’s still expensive and odd, it’s still stupidly handy to have on your desk. Here’s why.
What Is It?
A less massive version of Belkin’s last Thunderbolt Express Dock that connects stuff to your Mac and your Mac to stuff.
From left to right, it’s packing a Gigabit ethernet port, audio out, two USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ports and an HDMI out.
Compare that to the original Thunderbolt Dock and you find yourself losing a Firewire 800 port as well as separated mic and headphone jacks. The only other difference is that the dock no longer has a small section cut out of the bottom for you to run cables from the back to the front. We’ll get to why that’s awesome in a sec.
The Thunderbolt 2 Express Dock will run you $349.95: the same price as the last one. If you’re pinching your pennies, however, Belkin will still let you buy the original Thunderbolt Express Dock for $299.95.
This thing is really freaking handy. Odds are — unless you have a high-end MacBook Pro — you probably only have one Thunderbolt port on your Mac and more than a few adapters to use at once on it. If you want to connect to Ethernet, HDMI and/or Thunderbolt displays or storage, for example, you’re going to find yourself coming up short. That’s where this thing comes in handy. That was exactly what I wrote about the original Thunderbolt Dock, and it still holds true: it’s stupidly handy. What’s even better is that there’s just so much to like on the new Thunderbolt 2 dock.
First of all: Thunderbolt 2. Get the hell out of here, Thunderbolt 1 with your pathetic 10Gbps bi-directional transfer speed. We’ve got 20Gbps of speed now. Swoon.
You now also get an HDMI out on the display, meaning you don’t have to futz around with stupid Thunderbolt-to-HDMI converters any more.
The footprint is smaller than the last model, but the only port to be sacrificed in the weight-shedding is the Firewire 800 port. I’d hazard a guess that not a lot of folk actually need a Firewire 800 port anymore, so it’s a decent loss to gain ratio. Belkin has also made the gadget smaller by removing a small gully positioned in the bottom underside of the dock. That little gulch was meant for you to run a cable from the back of the device where all the ports are to the front, where you sit.
Normally that would be annoying because you have to run ugly cables over it, but Belkin has used it’s collective noodle and put a USB 3.0 port and a headphone jack around the front so you don’t have to fumble with your inputs anymore. Mercy.
On that note, those two front-facing ports make the Thunderbolt 2 Dock a helpful device for iMac users as well as MacBook users.
The iMac has to be one of the most annoying devices ever to plug something into, simply because you have to turn your entire all-in-one around to find a USB port, for example. The Thunderbolt 2 dock puts a USB 3.0 port and a combined headphone/mic out on the front of the device so you don’t have to muck about around the back anymore to plug a simple USB or pair of headphones in. Neat!
Belkin has also addressed a pretty obnoxious point that we took issue to with the last Thunderbolt Dock by adding in a shiny, one metre-long Thunderbolt cable. The original Thunderbolt Dock left you to buy your own, tacking at least $50 onto the already high price. Getting one in the box is a massive plus.
The Thunderbolt Dock also packs in a little LED light on the front of the dock that glows green when it gets power. It’s reminiscent of your MagSafe charger indicator, so it’s going to keep die-hard Mac design fans happy. It’s handy because the only way you realised you’d lost power last time was when storage, headphones, network and life in general stopped working to the tune of an uncomfortable-sounding static noise coming from your AC adapter.
That’s the thing about the new Thunderbolt 2 Dock. It’s the little things that we disliked about the first one that are so much better now. Having used this thing every day since I reviewed it last year, I can assure you that the little niggles you hate really start to get to you the 400th time you have to pick your dock up to figure out where the goddamn plug is.
What’s Not So Good?
The only problem with using the dock full time is when it comes to your audio. Mac OS X Yosemite doesn’t recognise when you unplug an audio output device from the Thunderbolt Dock and immediately switch back to its internal speakers. Instead, you have to go into Sound pane in your System Preferences and reset it manually. Same goes for when you plug those headphones back in: you have to reset your Mac to pump sound back through the Thunderbolt Dock. It takes eight seconds, and even less if you’re a master of Spotlight search, but it’s an annoying thing to have to do more than once a day.
The footprint of the new Thunderbolt dock is much smaller, but it’s kind of hard to understand why this thing is the shape it is. I mean, I totally understand why it is the shape it is (because ports need space), but you have to wonder why Belkin didn’t make it a more complimentary shape for the things it’s sitting next to.
Think of it this way: the primary target of this device is MacBook users who are port-poor and need something to expand into. Why can’t the thing come in the same form factor as a MacBook? The same goes for using it with your iMac: why on earth can’t it just sit snugly on the base of the all-in-one? It’s about three centimetres too long for that, and it’s a real shame.
It’s still really expensive, too. $349.95 is more than a third of the price of your shiny new MacBook Air, for example. That’s quite a hit on the credit card, to be honest.
Honestly, I’m nitpicking at this point, but it’s something that design nuts can obsess over when they unbox it, because let’s face it, a die-hard Mac lover would buy this thing in an instant.
Should You Buy It?
That depends. Did you buy the first one? Because if you did, there’s no way in hell you should buy this thing. Sure, it’s more convenient for plugging new stuff in on your desk, but that’s not worth you chucking out a perfectly good Thunderbolt Dock and spending $350 on a new one. No way. No how.
If you’re just getting into the MacBook or iMac game and need some sweet expansion ports for your Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 devices, this is almost definitely the way to go.
I say “almost definitely” because if you look around, you can certainly find something cheaper, but you’ll struggle to find something as stylish.