Best Thunderbolt docks for your laptop

With Thunderbolt ports becoming more common in laptops, a Thunderbolt dock can be an important accessory. Think of the Thunderbolt dock as a more powerful, high-speed alternative to a USB-C hub, adding I/O expansion to your laptop, in the form of extra ports for mice, keyboards, external drives, SD cards, and, most importantly, displays. It can even charge your laptop and other devices.

Indeed, one important way that a Thunderbolt dock differs from its USB-C cousin is bandwidth. While a USB-C hub can support a single 4K display, often at an eye-wearying 30Hz refresh rate. Thunderbolt hubs can support up to two 4K displays, and at a comfortable 60Hz. If your laptop includes a Thunderbolt port, chances are it supports the Thunderbolt 3 or Thunderbolt 4 standard, both of which provide 40Gbps. Intel launched the Thunderbolt 4 specification in July 2020 as part of its 11th-gen “Tiger Lake” Core laptops, and the specification has become popular on gaming laptops.

The bandwidth behind Thunderbolt 4 is enough to drive those displays and shuttle data back and forth between peripherals without causing your display to flicker or your video stream to stutter. Of course, you can expect Thunderbolt docks to also carry a price premium (typically $140 to $300, compared to a USB-C dock’s $20 to $70 range.)

If you want to learn more about the benefits of a Thunderbolt dock, what to look for when buying one, or how to know whether your laptop will support one, skip to our Thunderbolt buying guide below our recommendations.

We’ve updated our picks as of June 2021, adding a pair of OWC Thunderbolt docks to our tests.

The best budget Thunderbolt docks

No surprise—budget usually means basic. But that’s okay! You’ll still find a mix of common ports, and usually two monitor outputs—either HDMI or DisplayPort. Make sure you have the right video cable, or be prepared to buy one. 

Also, some budget Thunderbolt hubs are bus-powered, meaning that while they won’t require an external charger (which makes them more portable), they probably won’t be able to deliver enough power to charge a phone if your laptop is not plugged in. The price makes them worth a second look, though.

IOgear Thunderbolt 3 Travel Dock (GTD300)

IOgear Thunderbolt 3 Travel Dock (GTD300)

Although it’s listed as a travel dock, the IOgear GTD300 serves as a very good regular work companion. The Thunderbolt 3 dock is bus-powered, however, which means you’ll want your laptop to be plugged in for best results, though the hub itself doesn’t require its own charger.

IOgear’s plastic dock measures just 2.2 x 0.91 x 4.06 inches, and is among the smallest we’ve tested, so it neatly fits into a backpack for travel. On its underside, a green plastic shell conceals a nook to store the dock’s short, 5-inch cord when not in use. 

Ports are minimal: one HDMI 2.0 port, one DisplayPort 1.2 port, one 5Gbps USB-A port, and gigabit ethernet port. If you’re okay using the USB port for a mouse or keyboard, rather than for high-speed external storage, the GTD300 will suit you fine. (Of course, we’d have preferred a 10Gbps port, at least.)

Some of Amazon’s customer reviews are slightly confusing: In our experience the ethernet port worked as expected, as did the USB-A port. Perhaps because of the small form factor, the GTD300 gets noticeably hot, but not uncomfortably so in our opinion. 

Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Dock Core

Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Dock Core

Belkin’s Thunderbolt 3 Dock Core arrived in bare-bones packaging, and the product is equally unadorned: It’s a smartly designed “powered” Thunderbolt 3 travel dock.

At a nearly square 5.2 x 6.5 x 1.5 inches, the Thunderbolt Dock Core black doesn’t take up much room, and the included 8-inch Thunderbolt 3 cord provides ample length for flexibility. Ports are adequately spaced out around the flat, black plastic cube, with HDMI 2.0 and DisplayPort 1.4 ports providing a stable 4K/60Hz experience to both of my 4K displays. There’s gigabit ethernet and a 3.5mm audio jack, but good luck telling the USB 3.1 and USB 2.0 Type A ports apart—they’re not labeled.

There’s one catch: The additional USB-C port on the Dock is a vanilla USB-C port that needs to be connected to a 60W charger to power the dock—which isn’t supplied. That’s fine if your laptop charges with a USB-C charger; if it doesn’t, you’ll need to buy one. That means extra expense and something else to carry.

Save for the irritating lack of labels on the USB-A ports, the Dock Core worked as expected, with solid performance. The plastic shell never warmed to worrisome levels.

 

OWC Thunderbolt Hub (OWCTB4HUB5P)

owc thunderbolt hub

Other World Computing (OWC) specializes in Mac products, where Thunderbolt-powered displays are more common than the Windows world. This is important, since the relatively tiny OWCTB4HUB5P offers just a 10Gbps USB 3.2 Type A port, a Kensington lock, and three Thunderbolt 3 ports. 

Designing a Thunderbolt 4 dock with three Thunderbolt 3 ports makes sense if you’re directly connecting a Thunderbolt display (something that in 2021 we don’t advise doing) or a direct-attached Thunderbolt device. You can daisy-chain up to five devices. But if you were considering buying the OWC Hub to connect to another Thunderbolt dock—which would drastically expand your I/O options further—beware. While the OWC Hub can drive two 4K displays at 60Hz, interjecting another dock limits the output to just one, our testing and OWC support staff confirms. 

That’s unfortunate, because the tiny (4.7in x 2.9in. x .7in.) metallic hub fits neatly on your desk, though with a 110W power brick that dwarfs it. At 7.4 oz, it’s definitely portable. The Hub supplies 60W to the laptop, and 15W to downstream devices —even if the host PC is sleeping. I/O rates were consistent across all of the ports, even while other ports were active. OWC’s Thunderbolt Hub became fairly warm while using it, though not uncomfortably so. The Thunderbolt 4 cable length is enormous, at about 2.5 feet long.

This is a specialized Thunderbolt design that we’d recommend most pass over. But for those who have committed to a Thunderbolt future, the OWC Thunderbolt Hub makes more sense.

 

The best full-featured Thunderbolt docks 

Most of the “full-featured” Thunderbolt docks were originally designed for content creators, specifically the Mac market. In this class, powered docks are the norm, shipping with the sort of sizeable power bricks normally associated with gaming laptops. Unlike our budget options, these docks are truly desk-bound. 

#Thunderbolt #docks #laptop

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