Thunderbolt Docks in comparison: Elgato, Belkin, Matrox - which one should I use?

Elgato Thunderbolt 2 Dock

Since I've been working on the MacBook Pro retina, I've been toying with buying a Thunderbolt dock for a long time. These small boxes are extremely practical when you have to have various peripherals plugged into the MacBook, but also have to get going with the MacBook at short notice. Usually the big unplugging starts and you think twice about it. For this reason, I often fail to blog on the balcony because I'm just too lazy. :)

Elgato Thunderbolt 2 Dock

The Elgato Thunderbolt 2 Dock keeps your desk tidy (Photo: Elgato).

If you have a Thunderbolt hub - as the small docks are also called - on the MacBook, all of the peripherals such as printer, scanner, external hard drives, speakers, headphones and even network plugs and microphone are plugged into this device and you only have one cable for it Connect the MacBook power supply and a Thunderbolt cable for the hub to the MacBook. This makes things much clearer and tidier. And especially with the MacBook Air, you no longer have the feeling that the cables need more space than the computer itself.

Nice side effect: USB 3.0 for old Macs

There are still Macs that already have a Thunderbolt port, but no USB 3.0 port. For these owners, the purchase of a Thunderbolt dock is definitely worthwhile, because the Mac is "upgraded" to USB 3.0 and you can also plug in the fast and inexpensive USB 3 hard drives in the future. You will clearly notice the difference in speed and you have the other advantages that the TB hubs bring with them.

Belkin Thunderbolt Dock back

The back of the Belkin Thunderbolt Dock shows the many connection options (Photo: Belkin).

Which manufacturers and products are there anyway?

The range of Thunderbolt docks has grown significantly recently. Because the devices are slowly but surely becoming cheaper, there is also more demand for Thunderbolt devices and, of course, more providers. During my research, I found the following products and manufacturers that offer such docks:

You can already see that the selection has become quite large. In my opinion, the Matrox DS1 will no longer be available because it only supports Thunderbolt 1st generation. Akitio Thunder Dock does not run with Boot Camp. From CalDigit you can currently only order the old version with Thunderbolt in Germany. And OWC can only be ordered in a US shop with delivery to Germany. These points were all knockout criteria for me, so that's only for me Sonnet, Elgato and Belkin were shortlisted.

Common questions about Thunderbolt Docks

Belkin Thunderbolt Dock Everyday Use

Belkins Thunderbolt Dock in everyday use (Photo: Belkin).

I always read the same questions in various forums and comments in test reports. So that these are clarified right away, I have put together a short list (with the appropriate answers!):

  • Can I use a Thunderbolt 2 Dock on my Mac if it only supports Thunderbolt 1?
    Yes, you can, because Thunderbolt 2 is backwards compatible. So you can confidently use the new docks that support Thunderbolt 2. If you ever get a new Mac, you are definitely up to date.
  • Can you also plug the MagSafe connector into the Thunderbolt dock?
    No. The Thunderbolt port only supplies power, but cannot take it in to charge the MacBook. For this reason, you always have the charging cable on your MacBook. In order for the battery to last longer, however, you should only work with battery power every now and then.
  • Does the Thunderbolt hub charge the MacBook's battery when it's plugged in?
    No. As described above, the Thunderbolt port does not deliver any power to the computer. The charging
  • Can I still connect three monitors to my MacBook Pro Late 2013 despite the connection?
    Yes, that should work. The docks all have one HDMI and a Thunderbolt port that can be used for monitors. You can also use a free Thunderbolt port on the Mac for an external monitor. Make three together.
  • Can you use the docks with Boot Camp and Windows 8.1?
    I couldn't find information on this from all manufacturers. The Akitio Thunder Dock definitely has a "does not work" on the website. The green light is given at Elgato and Belkin. Both the manufacturer and Apple wrote that it works. However, under Windows you have to install the USB 3.0 and Ethernet drivers provided by the manufacturer.
  • Does the Apple Superdrive work on the USB interface?
    You know from the Superdrive that it is with USB hubs like to bitch and want to hang directly on the Mac. At the Elgato Thunderbolt hub you will find the notice that you can install the Elgato system extension must for the Superdrive from Apple to do its job at the dock.

Comparison between Sonnet, Elgato and Belkin

If you look at the docks of the above manufacturers in comparison, it is noticeable that the Sonnet Echo 15 Dock clearly stands out from the solutions of the other providers, because it not only has a Bluray player (read only!) But also a place for a storage medium built in for the TimeMachine backup. That sounds very practical, but it not only affects the price, which is almost twice as high as Elgato and Belkin, but also the size, because the dock is quite a block. And if you like it a bit more bulky and expensive, you can even buy the Sonnet Echo 15+ Pro - there is even a Bluray burner inside and you have an additional slot for a 2,5 inch SSD / HD.

Sonnet Echo 15 Dock

The Sonnet Echo 15 Thunderbolt Dock is equipped with proper interfaces, but is too expensive for my budget and has too many bells and whistles. I'm looking for something more elegant.

Since I don't watch Blurays on my Mac and I don't need another external TimeMachine hard drive, I was more likely to compare Elgato and Belkin. The Sonnet Dock was neglected in my decision, although it might be interesting for someone who is still looking for a Bluray player and a TimeMachine record.

Elgato and Belkin: What They Can or Can't Do ...

There isn't really much difference between the two Elgato and Belkin docks. Both support HDMI 1.4b and can work with 4K monitors (at 30 Hz). Both have NO FireWire800 port and NO eSATA ports, NO USB 2.0 ports and NO DVI output.

Otherwise, both Thunderbolt docks have the same features:

  • 2x Thunderbolt 2 ports
  • 3x USB 3.0 ports
  • 1x Gigabit Ethernet
  • 1x HDMI
  • 1x Audio-In
  • 1x Audio-Out
  • 1x Thunderbolt cable

Even the price is almost the same: The Elgato Dock costs with the current research approx. 230 EUR on Amazon and I baked the Belkin Dock costs around EUR 250. Attention: The Belkin article description from Amazon says it would have FW800. This is not correct and has also been confirmed as an error by customers.

Customer ratings, advantages and disadvantages

When two products are so close together, it is ultimately the details that determine the purchase decision. In tests of the USB 3.0 speed, for example, it was found that the Belkin Dock only manages 2,5 Gbit / s here, while the USB 3.0 is normally at 5,0 Gbit / s. This is clearly a point in favor of the Elgato Thunderbolt Dock.

Next, I read through the customer ratings. There were some Belkin users who couldn't get their external monitor to work. According to her, the source of the error was the dock, as the monitor - connected directly to the Mac - worked. The support staff couldn't seem to help either, so the dock was sent back.

The Elgato Dock had problems with the Ethernet connection. Here, some users had the problem that they had to unplug and plug in the network cable when the Mac was in sleep mode or without power. I'm assuming this is a firmware or router problem. Most customers are apparently happy with the device.

Elgato utility

Everything out with one click: The Elgato little helper.

Another nice detail is the Elgato utility that can be found in the menu bar. If you have to get going quickly with your MacBook, but still have three external hard drives on the dock, then you usually have to set them all up individually. That slows down unnecessarily - thought Elgato - and has set up an option in the menu bar with which you can eject all devices connected to the dock with one click. Small detail but very practical in everyday life!

My conclusion

Personally, I would use the Elgato Thunderbolt 3.0 Dock because of the speed on the USB 2. The nice side effect is that it is also a little cheaper and can even be delivered immediately at Amazon. If you are more of a Belkin fan, you shouldn't go wrong with the Belkin Dock. For this reason I am listing both here:

Elgato Thunderbolt 2 Dock - approx. 230 EUR
Slightly faster in USB transfer than the Belkin. Otherwise equipment as usual: 3x USB3, 2x Thunderbolt and other connections as mentioned above.
Belkin Thunderbolt 2 Express HD Dock - EUR 250
As mentioned, a slightly slower USB 3 speed, but otherwise also equipped with: 3x USB3, 2x Thunderbolt and other connections as mentioned above.

The Apple solution - expensive but stylish

For everyone who has been looking for a Thunderbolt Dock that also has a MagSafe connection, I would like to introduce the Apple Thunderbolt Dock with an integrated monitor. It is a bit more expensive than the rest at just under 900 EUR and you only get Thunderbolt 1 support, but there are extras the 27-inch monitor and a MagSafe port to which you can plug your MacBook Pro or MacBook Air. This is how it is charged - as desired - plugged into the dock:

Apple MC914ZM / B Thunderbolt Display 27 inches
In any case, Apple's Thunderbolt display is a very nice monitor. I just think it's a shame that it doesn't have a Thunderbolt 2nd generation and retina resolution yet. But I am sure that Apple will improve this soon!
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10 comments

  1. Tobias says:

    Hallo,

    very nice and informative article!

    But I need help right away. Since today I also have the Elgato 2er Dock and am now amazed that I can only manage a speed of 3.0MB / s when transferring to an external USB50 disk.
    If I connect the hard drive directly via a USB3.0 port, I get 160MB / s.

    Can you tell me what could be the reason?

    Thank you for the information
    gruß
    Tobias

    • sir appleot says:

      Hello, tobias! That's an enormous loss of speed. I once looked at Heise's tests. There, an SSD hard drive connected via USB 3 is also slower on the dock than directly on a Mac Mini. The transfer rates at the dock were around 80 to 140 MB / s lower. However, an SSD is simply much faster, so that the hard drive even on the dock has reached 350 MB / s for reading and 270 MB / s for writing. But the reduced speed with you is already extreme. Maybe there is new firmware, other devices on the dock, etc. that slow down the disk? Maybe test again what it could be. Unfortunately, I have no clue from now on. :( But keep your fingers crossed that you find something out! Best regards! Jens

      • Tobias says:

        The interesting thing is that when I run the "Blachmagic Speed ​​Test" on the disk, I get normal values ​​(greater than 120MB / s) for reading and writing (from my point of view).
        If I leave the constellation exactly as it is and copy a file, I end up with 50MB / s as described.

        Weird, weird

        • sir appleot says:

          Yes, "weird, weird" is kind of a good idea. But wouldn't it be an idea to address this behavior at Elgato Support? The answer to the question would surely be interesting! Anyway, I would be interested. :)

          • Tobias says:

            I've already opened a ticket with a description and screenshots at Elgato support.
            But since they are 8-10 hours behind us, I don't think anything will happen before Easter.

            But another question entirely:
            Do you also have such a constellation as I have described it? If so, corresponding screenshots would be interesting for me.

          • sir appleot says:

            Hello, tobias! Unfortunately, I don't have a Thunderbolt dock. I was thinking of buying one, but since I also need a large monitor for my MacBook, I tend to go for the LG monitor with Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 in 29 inches (Amazon) or 34 inches (Amazon). But I can tell you how the speed with USB 3.0 hard drives expresses itself.

          • Tobias says:

            I didn't need an answer from Elgato after all.
            The bottleneck in the whole story is the hard drive that is built into my MacBook Pro.
            Since this is not an SSD, it can only be transferred with a maximum of 50MB / s.

          • sir appleot says:

            Hello, tobias! I thought you took the measurements with an external hard drive that you plugged into the Thunderbolt Dock and the MacBook Pro. I guess I misunderstood something. But that also explains how the values ​​can deviate ... :) Happy Easter!

  2. roland noirjean says:

    Thank you for the great research, it helped me make the purchase decision.

    Where I'm not sure yet:
    An Eizo FlexScan 31 ″ monitor with dock OR the iMac 5K (but that's another topic).

    warmly
    Roland

    • sir appleot says:

      Hello Roland! Well, actually that's apples and pears. :) The Eizo Monitor EV3237-BK is obviously a very good device with 4K and 32 inches (only very good customer reviews!), which costs well over 1000 EUR and is ONLY a monitor. You would have to buy a dock and it only has 4K. With an iMac 5K you have "only" 27 inches, but a much higher resolution, an integrated Thunderbolt dock AND a Mac. I would definitely get the iMac because it means you have less cables and the like on your desk. And the crisp sharpness of the Retina display ... but please be sure to use the 5K model with 1TB Fusiondrive (!!!) and the 16 GB. I really wonder how Apple can seriously still offer models without an SSD Fusiondrive.

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