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Friday
Nov152013

CalDigit Thunderbolt Station: The Closest Thing to a Real Dock for Your Mac

Coming from the corporate IT world, when I purchased my first MacBook Pro in 2006 I was disappointed by the lack of docking stations available for my shiny new Apple. I was accustomed to the Dell version that provided a complete desktop solution for my various Latitude models. When I got to my office in the morning I would just position my laptop on top of the dock, press down lightly until I heard the dock click and I knew the proprietary port on the bottom of the Latitude was connected correctly. The dock provided power, DVI, Ethernet, audio and multiple USB ports for my big monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers and external storage, all of which never left my desk. It even had a power button to turn on my laptop. I kept a similar setup at home. I got so spoiled by the "one-click" docking setup that when I was on the road I had to really concentrate on carrying everything I needed. Once I found myself 1500 miles away with no power supply. I just wasn't used to needing to carry one. Now that I'm a complete Mac convert (some say evangalist), a true docking solution is the only thing I miss from my PC days. My 2009 17" MBP bore a striking octopus resemblance when connected to everything on my office desktop. The only docking "solutions" available consisted of near-medevil looking devices with multiple probes for the various ports requiring precise alignment that was problematic at best. It was easier just plugging in everything manually.

When I ordered my new MacBook Pro I started investigating Thunderbolt solutions. Three docks looked viable, the $249 Matrox DS1, Belkin's $299 Thunderbolt Express and CalDigit's $200 Thunderbolt Station. I chose the CalDigit box for three reasons: 1.) Two Thunderbolt ports (the DS1 has only one and Belkin's unit doesn't have a separate video port which makes you use an adaptor with one of its two Thunderbolt ports if you want to hook up a monitor), 2.) Three USB 3 ports (the Matrox DS1 only has one) and 3.) price. I had to wait for a couple of weeks for the Thunderbolt Station. CalDigit didn't start shipping the new units until 11/7. So far, I've been very happy with my decision. Not only did I save a hundred bucks by not opting for my second choice (the Belkin), the Thunderbolt Station has a USB 3 port on the front making it a lot handier for temporary plug-ins like thumb drives and my USB Superdrive.

Now, "docking" my MBP means simply plugging in a single Thunderbolt cable and connecting the MagSafe power connector. Note to Apple: Please loosen your tight-assed grip on your proprietary power connection so third-party vendors can provide more flexible solutions to your users. Thank you.

The Thunderbolt Station setup consists of, well, nothing. It is truly plug-n-play when running Mavericks. Earlier OS X versions require downloading and installing a small driver from CalDigit's web site. I plugged my iPhone, two external (USB 3) hard drives, the Ethernet cable, an ASUS 24" 1080p LCD and a pair of external speakers into the Thunderbolt Station then connected my MacBook Pro to one of the Thunderbolt ports and booted up. Everything worked! The only adjustment needed was to turn off display mirroring. I guess OS X defaults to mirroring when a new display is detected.

The CalDigit unit performs as well as the setup is easy. A quick look at my System Information report showed my network connected at gigabit speed and both external hard drives operating on the new USB Superspeed bus at 5 Gb/sec. I used BlackMagic's disk speed test app to check both. They each performed identically to when they were plugged directly into the Mac and the Thunderbolt Station bus-powered my 2 TB "My Passport" (that's something the Belkin will not do). The gigabit Ethernet port performed perfectly and the 1080p HDMI video showed no sign of lag and color reproduction was as accurate as the Mac's own port. CalDigit says their device is capable of daisy-chaining two display port monitors at up to 2560 X 1600, but I don't have the hardware to confirm their claim. Wish I did.

Overall, I'm very pleased with the Thunderbolt Station. Its only minor flaw is the absence of a firewire port. My previous MBP relied heavily on its FW800 port for external storage and I still have a couple of those drives that I now plug in via USB. They work fine with the Thunderbolt Station, albeit at USB 2 speed. If you're in the market for a docking solution or just want to expand the ever-shrinking number of ports on your Mac laptop, CalDigit's Thunderbolt Station is something I highly recommend. Being the price leader just adds an exclamation point. 

 

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