Hands-on review: OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock, 13 ports, endless possibilities
The OWC Thunderbolt 3 dock provides 13 different ports and expansion options for a Thunderbolt 3-equipped computer, such as Apple’s latest model MacBook Pro – all from a single connecting cable.
Creative studios, R&D facilities and designers (both industrial and graphic) are likely to have projects and past work archived on all manner of storage devices. Equally, new work and incoming submissions might be supplied on a variety of media.
With some previously popular fast-transfer ports now largly deprecated by manufacturers today (e.g. Firewire: Apple, we’re looking at you), this can potentially leave swathes of a company’s or individual’s backups stranded and inaccessible. How can you revisit work you did five years ago, if said work is on a hard drive that you now can’t connect to your new computer?
There’s also the thorny issue of computer manufacturers dropping almost all ‘legacy’ ports from its professional machines entirely (*cough* Apple *cough*) in favour of a single USB-C or Thunderbolt connection. While the new computer itself might be a sleek object of industrial design beauty, it’s austere minimalism on the ports and expansion front can leave the new owner somewhat high and dry when it comes to all the other accessory and storage paraphenalia they’ve accumulated over the course of their professional and creative life. No computer is an island.
The third-party solution is to find a way to bring together your past data life and your new digital love. You could buy a motley collection of adapter cables and faff about plugging in and unplugging as necessary every time, having to remember which cable is for which accessory and hopefully not leaving the one cable you really need at home or in another office. A much neater solution is an all-in-one dock, such as OWC’s Thunderbolt 3 Dock, on test here.
Building on its Thunderbolt 2 predecessor (and its USB-C Dock relative), OWC has equipped this dock with Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.1, FireWire 800 (the only dock available that offers this), Ethernet, mini DisplayPort, SD card reader, combo mic and headphone port and S/PDIF digital audio in/out. That should take care of pretty much any eventuality in terms of data management and file transfer, short of support for ancient Jazz, Zip or SCSI drives (seriously, hardly anyone uses these any more). On the nominal ‘front’ of the dock is one USB port, the SD card slot and the headphone jack. Everything else is round the back.
Connected to a laptop, this dock will also deliver charging power to the computer, as well as charging any connected devices such as phones or tablets. With one Thunderbolt 3 Dock, it is possible to drive a 5K display or two 4K displays, attach another screen to the mini DisplayPort, connect and charge up to six USB devices, read and write to FireWire 800 hard drives, play audio, connect to a wired network and read information from SD cards (e.g. photos from digital cameras).
Thunderbolt 3’s bandwidth of up to 40Gb/s is twice as fast as Thunderbolt 2 (itself no slouch), can support dual 4K output and powers 100-watt charging. Everything is conducted down a single wire attached to the computer.
Of particular benefit to laptop users is that, as with any dock solution, you can set up your optimum desktop working environment, with everything connected just as you need it. Then, when the time comes to go mobile, you only have to unplug your laptop – everything else can stay in place, awaiting your return. You might only be going into a different room, but the convenience of a dock is hard to beat.
We set this dock up on a variety of new Mac models, connecting a variety of peripheral devices. All worked as well and as consistently as we expected, just as if all the ports were physically built into the computers themselves (just like it was in the old days). You have to enable high-power USB support via a software update to make the Thunderbolt 3 compatible with the Apple SuperDrive CD/DVD player/writer and also the Apple USB keyboard, as well as enabling high-speed charging for iPad and iPhone. This update is easy and free from OWC and you’ll most likely want to do it for the extra high-power functionality.
The Thunderbolt 3 Dock is available in two finishes: either silver (to match the new MacBook Pro) or space grey (to really match the new MacBook Pro). A 0.5m Thunderbolt 3 cable is also supplied, which is a nice touch. Thunderbolt cables are definitely not cheap, which is why a lot of companies don’t ship products with one in the box, instead expecting the new user either to have one already or to go out and buy one. As a guide, Apple’s 0.5m Thunderbolt cable is around the £30 mark. Getting such a cable for free in the Thunderbolt 3 Dock box is a welcome bonus.
While this dock was originally released for Mac computers, the latest version is now also compatible with Windows PCs. OWC also backs its products with a two-year limited warranty. Note that this dock is only compatible with computers equipped with Thunderbolt 3 – it is not backwards compatible with Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2 ports (the connector itself is different for a start, being USB-C). If you have a Thunderbolt 2 computer, OWC has a dock for that. For Apple Macs, late 2016 models and on will have the Thunderbolt 3 connection.
The Thunderbolt 3 Dock might seem expensive at first glance, but it’s a more than fair price given the freedom of connectivity it provides. It is also reassuringly solidly built, instilling confidence in its durability, and the comprehensive in/out port array currently has no equal on the market. If the ultimate in flexibility is what you need, coupled with a streamlined efficiency in your digital data workflow, OWC’s Thunderbolt 3 Dock is likely to be at the top of a very short shopping list.