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22nd of July 2018

Gadgets



Guidemaster: Picking the right Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C dock for your desk

EnlargeValentina Palladino

The introduction of USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 ports and the transition away from legacy ports hasn't been smooth. PC and smartphone OEMs began using USB-C ports a few years ago because they allowed companies to make thinner devices with faster ports. Gargantuan in comparison, USB-A ports we all know and love from thumbdrives take up a lot of space on devices, they don't handle data transfer as efficiently as new ports, and they're limited when it comes to multiple connections and charging.

USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 are the way of the future, but most of our accessories are stuck in the past. PC and smartphone OEMs lead the way by adopting USB-C as standard, but that often leaves users to search for an adapter or dongle to connect all of the peripherals they already have. On top of that, many new peripherals are still using the old connections.

Rising to the occasion are USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 docks—boxy devices punctured by USB-As, HDMIs, DisplayPorts, and SD card readers—and other ports. A dock or hub connects to all your peripherals so you can then connect it to your PC through just one USB-C port. But not all docks are created equal. After reviewing a wide array of what's available today, we've found there are a few key features users should look for to determine which option is best for you to bridge the gap between your PC and everything you want to use with it.

Note: Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

USB-C 3.1 or Thunderbolt 3?

Instead of delving into the full history of USB connectors, let's focus on the two most current types, which often get confused for one another.

USB-C 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3 ports look nearly identical, as they're both oval-like holes in the sides of your smartphones, laptops, and other electronics. In fact, "USB-C" is just the name for that oval-shaped port, so it isn't enough to know that you have two USB-C ports on your laptop—to get the most out of them, you'll need to know the standards that each follows.

The USB-C 3.1 standard now has two generations, Gen 1 and Gen 2, which differ in their transfer speeds. Gen 1 supports transfer speeds up to 5Gbps while Gen 2 support speeds up to 10Gbps. Additionally, USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 offers 20 volts (or 100 watts) of power delivery, allowing it to charge devices as well as connect to accessories like external drives.

Thunderbolt 3 ports provide more versatility than USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 ports do. In comparison, Thunderbolt 3 ports can transfer data much faster than USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 ports, supporting transfer speeds up to 40Gbps. They also support 100 watts of power delivery as well as two 4K 60Hz displays, four lanes of PCI Express Gen 3, eight lanes of DisplayPort 1.2, and daisy-chaining for up to six devices.

Daisy-chaining lets you connect more than one peripheral using a single Thunderbolt 3 port, so you can do more even when you have a limited number of ports at your disposal. Thunderbolt 3 is also bi-directional, letting you transmit and receive data at the same time.

Whether those features are all relevant to you or not, the heart of the matter is the Thunderbolt 3. It lets you do more (and more quickly) than USB-C 3.1 Gen 2. But since their ports look the same, it's hard to know just by looking which you have. Thunderbolt 3 ports typically have a small lightning bolt next to them, unless you have a device like a MacBook Pro that follows Apple's stringent design rules (no lightning bolts mark any of that machine's four Thunderbolt 3 ports).

Apple's premium laptop is an anomaly with its numerous Thunderbolt 3 ports—most ultrabooks have only two or three at most. Similar Windows machines like the Dell XPS 13 or the HP Spectre 13 have a mixture of Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C 3.1 ports, and some also include a few ports with older standards like USB-A (the larger, rectangle-shaped port we're all familiar with from years past).

The more Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C 3.1 ports you have, the more flexibility you'll have in terms of data transfer, peripheral connectivity, and charging. They're also good for future-proofing, since USB-C is the new standard and likely will be for the foreseeable future. However, the world hasn't quite caught up to the evolving USB standards, resulting in scant Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C 3.1 ports on most ultrabooks.

That also means that there are still more USB-A accessories that can't be used without a USB-C adapter, like mice and keyboards—as well as accessories for HDMI, DisplayPort, and other ports. Over the past few years, you might have heard people scowl, "We're living the dongle life," and that's true. Without the specific adapter you need to connect your old accessories to your new port, your old peripherals are unusable with your new computer.

How we tested

This is where docks come in. Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 docks connect to just one of your USB-C ports to add access to a slew of other ports—more USB-C and USB-A ports, HDMI, DisplayPort, Ethernet, and audio jacks, and more.

You might consider investing in one if you currently have limited USB-C ports on your PC, and you might do the same if you often connect to numerous drives, peripherals, and other accessories. Instead of a cable mess snaking out from your PC as you use up all your built-in ports to connect to what you need, a dock or hub makes it easy to connect to just one port and glean access to everything you use regularly.

While the number of available Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C docks is still limited, more continue to pop up as laptops and other electronics embrace USB-C ports as the new standard. We called in many of the Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C hubs currently available and ran tests to evaluate the abilities of each. In addition to test results, we took design, port selection, and price into consideration when choosing our favorite docks and hubs. Here's a rundown of the benchmark tests we ran:

Read/write speeds

We connected each dock to two laptops—a 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro and a Dell XPS 13 2-in-1—and ran Xbench (macOS) and CrystalDiskMark (Windows) to measure the speeds of disk storage tasks with a 500GB Samsung T5 external drive connected via one of each dock's Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C ports. We ran each test three times and averaged the sequential and random scores.

Real world transfer speeds

We ran two different file-transfer tests—one with a large, 5GB file and another with a folder containing 5,000 small files—from both the MacBook Pro and the XPS 13 2-in-1 to the Samsung T5 SSD. We used each dock as a bridge between the machines and the external drive.

On the MacBook Pro, we used the iostat command to record MB/s speeds at one-second intervals for the entire transfer. After the files were successfully transferred, we averaged all the individual MB/s scores to glean an average transfer speed. We repeated this test three times for both the 5GB file and the folder of 5,000 files, and we averaged the three scores to obtain a final MB/s average score.

On the XPS 13 2-in-1, we used the Robocopy command to measure the average MB/s speed for each file transfer. We repeated this test three times for both the 5GB file and the folder of 5,000 files and averaged the three scores to obtain a final MB/s average score.

Laptop-charging times

We timed how long it took for the MacBook Pro and the XPS 13 2-in-1 to charge through the power delivery of each charging-capable dock from 50 percent to 100 percent. We ran this test three times on both laptops with each dock and averaged the scores.

Smartphone charging times

We timed how long it took for an iPhone 6S+ to charge through each dock that has an USB-A port with charging capabilities. We ran this test three times with each compatible dock and averaged the scores.

Thunderbolt 3 docks Best overall—CalDigit TS3 Plus Thunderbolt 3 Docking Station CalDigit's TS3 Plus docking station. Valentina Palladino The front edge has an SD card slot, individual audio in and out ports, one USB-C port, and one USB-A port. Valentina Palladino It can be positioned horizontally or vertically on your desk or work area/ Valentina Palladino The back side has the rest of the ports, which includes a DisplayPort, four more USB-A ports, and two Thunderbolt 3 ports. Valentina Palladino Specs at a glance: CalDigit TS3 Plus Thunderbolt 3 Station Price $299 Ports 2 x Thunderbolt 3 1 x USB-C 3.1 Gen 1 1 x USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 5 x USB-A 3.1 1 x DisplayPort 1.2 1 x SD card reader 1 x digital optical audio (S/PDIF) 1 x Gigabit ethernet 1 x analog audio in 1 x analog audio out Power delivery 85W Display options two displays (up to 4K @ 60Hz) or one display (up to 5K @ 60Hz) Dimensions 5.15 x 1.57 x 3.87 inches Compatibility macOS 10.12 and up, Windows 8/10

CalDigit's unassuming, industrial-looking TS3 Plus Thunderbolt 3 docking station provides the best combination of performance, port selection, and design versatility out of all the Thunderbolt 3 docks we tested. It not only has the smallest footprint of them all—it also has the most ports.

Most users will have no trouble connecting mice, keyboards, and other legacy peripherals using its five USB-A 3.1 ports, and its four USB-C ports offer an array of connectivity options. Two of them are Thunderbolt 3 ports (one of which is the PC connector port), while the other two are USB-C 3.1 Gen 1 and USB-C 3.1 Gen 2, giving you various transfer speed options to choose from.

CalDigit TS3 Plus Thunderbolt 3 Docking Station Price: $299.99 at Amazon Ars Technica may earn a commission on this sale. Buy

As evidenced in our benchmark charts, CalDigit's TS3 Plus didn't always produce the fastest transfer speeds or read/write speeds, but it was consistently one of the top performers. The differences in results among our top three choices were usually minimal, as all of them produced read/write speeds close to the default read/write speeds produced when the Samsung T5 SSD was connected directly to the MacBook Pro or XPS 13 2-in-1 via a Thunderbolt 3 port.

The TS3 Plus charged the MacBook Pro and the XPS 13 fairly quickly—the MacBook Pro went from 50 percent to 100 percent charged in just over one hour. The device took the longest amount of time to charge the iPhone 6S Plus through one of its charging-capable USB-A ports. But even then it took just two minutes longer than Plugable's Thunderbolt 3 dock and 13 minutes longer than Cable Matters' device. Also, all of the TS3 Plus' USB-A ports support 7.5W charging, allowing you to power up more than one accessory at a time. Most other docks we tested had just one charging-capable USB-A port.

Using this hub's DisplayPort and Thunderbolt 3 port, users can connect up to two 4K 60Hz displays or one 5K 60Hz display. You will need an adapter to achieve the highest-possible refresh rate and screen fidelity as you connect more than one display at a time. But the option is there for you.

The TS3 Plus' design set it apart from the competition. The relatively small, silver metal box measures 5.15 x 1.57 x 3.87 inches and spreads its ports out thoughtfully across the two longest sides. The back contains the PC connector Thunderbolt 3 port plus an additional Thunderbolt 3 port, four USB-A 3.1 ports, one USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 port, one DisplayPort, one Gigabit Ethernet port, one S/PDIF digital optical audio port, and the DC power port. The front houses an SD card slot, analog audio in and audio out ports, one USB-C 3.1 Gen 1 port, and one USB-A 3.1 port.

I especially appreciated the variety of front-facing ports because they make connecting temporary peripherals and accessories easier. Depending on your setup, access to the back of the dock might be blocked or covered by a web of cables—finding a port like a headphone jack among a sea of other connectors on the back of a dock would be quite frustrating in that situation.

A light gray, rubber-like pad covers the bottom side of the TS3 Plus, allowing you to position the dock horizontally or vertically without scuffing up your desk. Most other docks take up a lot of space as they lay horizontally on your desk, so the added flexibility of the TS3 Plus' design is a convenient perk. The dock is made better by CalDigit's Docking Station Utility program (available as a free download from its support website) because it lets you disconnect individual accessories connected to the dock. You can clearly and safely choose to disconnect your eGPU and external drive without disconnecting any other accessories like displays and mice, for example, or choose the option to disconnect all devices at once.

CalDigit's TS3 Plus is the dock I'd want on my desk going forward, not only because of its design, but also because of its performance and well-rounded port selection. It may be slightly more expensive than our other top picks, but its perks justify the $299 price tag.

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