Review: Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Express Dock HD solid choice, but little sets it apart from a...

Posted:
in General Discussion edited August 2017
Belkin has refreshed its line of Thunderbolt docks for the MacBook Pro's Thunderbolt 3, but besides full charging power for the 15-inch MacBook Pro, the new version doesn't do enough to distinguish it from competitors.




For the Thunderbolt 3 refresh, Belkin continues to use the same form-factor as it has for its Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 offerings in previous years. But, the power supply is much larger than the Thunderbolt 2 version, massive like all of the other docks we've looked at -- and it gets hot!

Belkin provides three USB 3.0 type A ports with 1.5A of charging each, one combination audio in and out port, a dedicated audio out port, and a Gigabit Ethernet port -- and that's it.

Unlike competitors, there's no USB-C besides the two Thunderbolt 3 ports, no eSATA, no FireWire 800, or anything else to make it stand out and grab attention. In an increasingly crowded Thunderbolt dock market, which will only get more populous when Intel loosens up the licensing for the technology in 2018, this might be a problem.




As with all of the Thunderbolt 3 docks we've tried, the Belkin unit has dual-4K support, with the DisplayPort and the Thunderbolt 3 pass-through port utilized for displays.

The best part about the dock is that it provides full charging power to a 15-inch MacBook Pro at 85W. Not all of them do, and the inclusion is a nice bonus assuming you need it. There's no need for it if you're using the 13-inch MacBook Pro, or a 15-inch MacBook Pro in clamshell mode.

As a bonus, the Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Express Dock HD has a usable cable -- a full meter. The Thunderbolt 3 docks are the first ones since Thunderbolt launched to just about universally include a cable but there's a big difference between a useful length, and a useless one. For the first time, the included cable is usable, and doesn't demand an additional purchase for a functional length.

Plugging it in

The dock needs no drivers, and works perfectly from a basic functionality standpoint both in macOS and in a Bootcamp installation of Windows 10. Mass storage devices, input devices, and output devices all work perfectly, just like they were natively plugged into the host computer.

We had no issues with basic connectivity at all with peripherals like printers and scanners. Ethernet was solid, and we had no drop-outs on input peripherals. Audio through the headphone jacks was crisp and clear.




Initially, we had extremely slow file transfers through the dock. Where all the other docks were handily moving data at near USB 3 saturation speeds out of the box, we were getting around 100MB/sec from the Belkin dock in macOS Sierra 10.12.4 and 10.12.5 -- but 400MB/sec and faster in all of the High Sierra developer betas.

Then, macOS 10.12.6 shipped, and right after installation the connection speed issue was rectified in Sierra. Presumably, the moral of the story here is to keep your software up to date.

4K and 5K

Shooting for the top, we found that even with a hard drive, a keyboard, a mouse, and an Ethernet cable actively feeding data to the MacBook Pro connected to the LG Ultrafine 5K display, we didn't have any problems at all with refresh or connectivity issues. That is, until we connected more peripherals to the monitor itself.

After we hooked up a keyboard to the LG Ultrafine 5K, we'd start getting very brief pauses in the monitor refresh. We knew what to look for this time as we had seen it before, so we spotted them instantly.

As with the CalDigit TS3 Lite docking station when we first spotted the issue, disconnecting every device from the dock didn't fix the problem, but unplugging the input devices from the monitor cleared it up immediately.

To test dual 4K support, we used an Acer CB281HK and an Acer B286HK 4K display, both capable of 4K resolution at 60HZ through DisplayPort. We connected one natively to the DisplayPort connector on the dock, and one with a $30 Plugable USB-C to DisplayPort cable to our 2016 15-inch MacBook Pro.

Both displays fired right up, running at 4K resolution at a 60Hz refresh rate. Reproducing the previous test with the LG 5K display, we found no pauses or drop-outs at all with the dual 4K setup even when torturing a USB 3.0 SSD and Gigabit Ethernet connection connected to the dock.

Thunderbolt 2

We plugged in Apple's Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3 adapter into the device, and tried to use it with a 2015 15-inch Thunderbolt 2-equipped Retina MacBook Pro. While the DisplayPort on the dock didn't display 4K, it did work fine at 1440P.

All the other ports worked fine, and as they did with the Thunderbolt 3 2016 MacBook Pro.

Also, the down-stream Thunderbolt 3 port didn't work -- until we plugged a second Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter into it. Then, it daisy-chained drives and everything else we tried downstream with no issues.

Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Express Dock HD-- or a different choice

There are definitely more Thunderbolt 3 options than there were ever Thunderbolt 1 or 2 docks. Belkin is late to the Thunderbolt 3 party, but brings a solid offering to make up for it.

No question, the Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Express Dock HD is as promised. It gives users back so-called "legacy" ports, and brings something that most don't -- full charging power to the 15-inch Thunderbolt 3 MacBook Pro.

For 15-inch MacBook Pro owners that need the full charging power, the Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Express Dock HD is a good, albeit functionally beige, choice from a vendor with a well-established Mac history. For that use case, AppleInsider gives the dock a 4 out of 5.

Score: 4 out of 5

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But, if you have a 13-inch 2016 MacBook Pro or newer, or plan on using your 15-inch MacBook Pro in clamshell mode with an external display, there is literally no reason to buy the Belkin dock versus a competitor's beyond brand loyalty, or the included slightly longer Thunderbolt 3 cable.

For the smaller MacBook Pro, or clamshell-mode aficionados, the the Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Express Dock HD rates a 2.5 out of 5. Still good, but there are better options for your money.

Score: 2.5 out of 5

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If you're in that boat, for the same money or less get the OWC Thunderbolt 3 dock in the same form factor but with the added bonus of FireWire 800 for $299, or the CalDigit TS3 with eSATA also for $299.

The Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Express Dock HD retails for $349, and is available from Amazon, at Apple's online store and some retail stores, and from Belkin directly.

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 8
    It is not only MacBook Pro users who would benefit from docks like this. What about users of the latest iMac?
    With all the ports on the back a dock like this is a godsend for connecting up all those TB and USB peripherals.
    In the past week, I have had at least the following connected to my 2015 MBP

    4 bay Drobo (USB-3)
    XQD Card reader (USB-3)
    SD - direct
    LAcie 2TB Drive (TB)
    several USB Flash drives.

    This sort of device makes an iMac so much more usable. Granted that it does not need the charging capability.

    It would be nice if for future reviews of this sort of kit that the usefulness (or lack thereof) of it on iMac's is also considered and not just MBP's.
    I'm more likely to buy an iMac before the end of the year than the new iPhone. I suspect I might not be alone there.
  • Reply 2 of 8
    appexappex Posts: 687member
    Bring eSATA ports.
  • Reply 3 of 8
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 4,425administrator
    appex said:
    Bring eSATA ports.
    As I've said at least twice to you, the only TB3 dock that's shipped or announced with eSATA is the CalDigit TS3 (not the lite)

  • Reply 4 of 8
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 4,425administrator

    It is not only MacBook Pro users who would benefit from docks like this. What about users of the latest iMac?
    With all the ports on the back a dock like this is a godsend for connecting up all those TB and USB peripherals.
    In the past week, I have had at least the following connected to my 2015 MBP

    4 bay Drobo (USB-3)
    XQD Card reader (USB-3)
    SD - direct
    LAcie 2TB Drive (TB)
    several USB Flash drives.

    This sort of device makes an iMac so much more usable. Granted that it does not need the charging capability.

    It would be nice if for future reviews of this sort of kit that the usefulness (or lack thereof) of it on iMac's is also considered and not just MBP's.
    I'm more likely to buy an iMac before the end of the year than the new iPhone. I suspect I might not be alone there.
    I think you've got the information you need. While not specifically called out by name, the last few paragraphs addresses who this dock is for, and who its less suited to. Really, the only specific group who needs this particular dock, rather than a cheaper one or one with a different port set, is the 15-inch MacBook Pro user. 

    For the iMac Crowd, the $199 CalDigit TS3 Lite is the least expensive choice for TB3 docks right now, barring the need for FireWire 800.

    But, to be honest, probably the best thing a iMac user short on ports can get is a straight USB-C to USB-A hub or even an older USB 3.0 type A hub for $30ish dollars. I really like the Amazon Basics seven-port powered one with AC adapter.

    I've got my Thunderbolt 3 dock behind my monitor stack and use it mainly for single-cable to a pair of 4K displays, ethernet, and power, so the ports aren't the easiest thing to get to. I use one of these to extend the USB 3.0 type A port to the front of my desk. It periodically peeks out in some of my review photos.



  • Reply 5 of 8
    MacProMacPro Posts: 18,165member
    Every time I read about such products it annoys me that Apple didn't leave some high speed bus level access for future I/O protocols on the late 2013 Mac Pro.  I get the no slots in the design but it could have been a small door to a connector socket.  It's all well and good building in obsolescence in the consumer market but when you pay anywhere between 6 to 12 thousand dollars for a Mac finding its entire I/O set obsolete within three years is a wee bit frustrating.
  • Reply 6 of 8
    Well, at least the Belkin is available, as opposed to, say, the OWC device that has been "coming soon" for a year or so.
  • Reply 7 of 8
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 4,425administrator
    BittySon said:
    Well, at least the Belkin is available, as opposed to, say, the OWC device that has been "coming soon" for a year or so.
    The Caldigit TS3 lite and TS are both available as well.
  • Reply 8 of 8
    StrangeDaysStrangeDays Posts: 7,298member
    MacPro said:
    Every time I read about such products it annoys me that Apple didn't leave some high speed bus level access for future I/O protocols on the late 2013 Mac Pro.  I get the no slots in the design but it could have been a small door to a connector socket.  It's all well and good building in obsolescence in the consumer market but when you pay anywhere between 6 to 12 thousand dollars for a Mac finding its entire I/O set obsolete within three years is a wee bit frustrating.
    It’s not building in obsolescence. I/O protocols and technology advance in the industry. Apple can’t build you a future proof port because these internal ports require a controller. There’s no way to include a controller on an older computer for a protocol that hasn’t been developed yet. That leaves slots, but as we know the MP was slot-less. 
    edited August 2017
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