So far Thunderbolt accessory offerings have been fairly limited and conventional. There are several external storage solutions with Thunderbolt support but the only advantage they provide over USB 3.0 or eSATA solutions is higher bandwidth. What's more, to achieve such bandwidth you either need a multi-bay enclosure with several hard drives in RAID mode or an SSD based setup. Apple's Thunderbolt Display (ATD) is certainly one of the more unique Thunderbolt peripherals as it functions as a dock as well, but at $999 it's quite expensive unless you're already looking for a gorgeous 27" 2560x1440 display. There has not been a simple dock-like product with the most frequently used ports--basically like the ATD but without the display. We have some good news in this regard because Belkin and Matrox have both announced Thunderbolt docks. Without further delay, let's take a look at the specifications, shall we?

Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock

Belkin actually already announced the Thunderbolt Express Dock at CES 2012 but it won't be shipping until September. However, Belkin has now revised the specifications to include a couple of very welcome interfaces: USB 3.0 and eSATA. The original Thunderbolt Express Dock was set to feature three USB 2.0 ports and no eSATA at all, but apparently Belkin has changed their mind and added these two interfaces. Below is a full list of specifications:

Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock Specifications
Ports 2x Thunderbolt (daisy-chaining supported)
3x USB 3.0
1x FireWire 800
1x eSATA
1x Gigabit Ethernet
3.5mm audio in and out
Price $399
Availability September 2012

Despite the upgrades, Belkin is still aiming for a September launch. The specifications are not the only thing that changed because the dock was originally set to retail for $299, but Belkin has now upped the price to $399. Belkin has also announced their own Thunderbolt cable. Belkin's cable measures in at one meter, which is exactly half the length of Apple's Thunderbolt cable. The cable will be available in July with a suggested retail price of $45.

Matrox DS-1 Docking Station


Belkin won't be alone in the Thunderbolt dock market as Matrox has announced their own Thunderbolt dock as well:

Matrox DS-1 Docking Station Specifications
Ports 1x Thunderbolt (daisy-chaining not supported)
1x USB 3.0
2x USB 2.0
1x Gigabit Ethernet
1x DVI (output)
3.5mm audio in and out<
Price $249
Availability September 2012

Matrox's dock does not feature as many interfaces as Belkin's does, but it's priced more reasonably at $249. The biggest losses are daisy-chaining support, eSATA, and FireWire 800 but you gain DVI in exchange. There is only a single USB 3.0 port as well while the remaining two are USB 2.0. You could always use a USB 3.0 hub with the device to add more USB 3.0 ports, but the maximum bandwidth would not change.

Our Thoughts

While it's always positive to see more Thunderbolt devices, especially innovative ones, the pricing is still steep. Unless you are a MacBook Air owner, the only thing you will gain from these docks is USB 3.0 support (depending on your laptop). The Belkin dock also adds eSATA but given the speed of USB 3.0, there is less and less use for eSATA nowadays. For the record, you can get a laptop with USB 3.0 for around $400 (e.g. ASUS X54C-NS92), so at least personally I find paying $249/$399 for USB 3.0 connectivity to be a heist.

MacBook Air users may be able to justify spending $249/$399 on a Thunderbolt dock because their connectivity is limited to two USB 2.0 ports and Thunderbolt, and a dock would add ports such as FireWire 800 and Gigabit Ethernet. However, it's good to keep in mind that Ivy Bridge and UM77 chipset will bring native USB 3.0 support to MacBook Air as well, hence it may be more affordable to sell your current MacBook Air and buy a new one than to keep the old one and buy a Thunderbolt dock.

There's another potential use case, particularly once we start seeing more laptops with Thunderbolt ports. Something like the Matrox DS-1 can basically function as a single-cable dock for your laptop. Instead of connecting an external display, audio, Ethernet, mouse, and keyboard you would just plug in the Thunderbolt cable (and presumably AC power). You're basically paying for convenience at that point, but that can be a draw for a certain class of user.

There is hope that we will see more price competition now that PCs are getting Thunderbolt as well. That would be extremely welcome because at current prices, most Thunderbolt accessories are out of reach for average consumers.

Sources: Belkin, Matrox

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  • JMS3072 - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    Unfortunately, I emailed Matrox, and the DVI port on their dock is only single-link. Quite sad, really.
  • jontech - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    We will see these down to sub 200 levels soon, which is worth it
  • zanon - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    It's irritating, but I can remember all the way back to when CD-burners first started appearing and were $1000+. I guess this tends to go with the territory sometimes. As you say, with TB support finally spreading to more systems and Intel getting it's gen2 shrink ramped up (which will presumably begin to drop prices and increase availability), we'll hopefully start to see more competition and dropping prices towards the end of this year and into 2013.

    I think the real killer app for TB remains external PCIe combined with ultrabooks, but it looks like that'll be a longer wait. That's the only one that really sticks out as truly justifying a significant price premium. Really good hubs, storage arrays etc would all be nice to have, but they aren't impressive enough to justify massive margins IMO.
  • Impulses - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    I agree, TB has a lot of potential as a docking solution, but it may be years until it's fully realized... Most input and even audio duties can be handled by a simple USB dock (USB audio DACs are very common these days), and most people don't really use or need GigE at home... So basically Thunderbolt just saves them from plugging in one display connector, and they still have to plug in power + TB (vs power + USB + display).
  • Impulses - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    The killer usage case that would push TB over the top and even justify a price premium would be external GPUs but it looks like that won't be common until the next TB rev and optical cables...
  • Conficio - Wednesday, June 6, 2012 - link

    The killer app for TB is a connector that is as easy as the Apple power connector or a design that allows real docking, like the docking stations for Thinkpads, A cable is so much fumbling around. It should be integrated into a stand where the laptop can rest (either upright or in a usable position).
  • Reflex - Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - link

    Granted the link in TB is only about the same as PCIe 2.5x or so, but why not include a MXM slot for external LCD's and gaming? Wouldn't it be nice to buy a ultra portable and when you dock you can play games on a large LCD?

    Just a thought. Dell docks for the old Latitude circa 2001 had three PCI slots in them, we used them often for having monitors attatched to our work station while taking the laptop on the go...
  • Relaxe - Wednesday, June 6, 2012 - link

    I agree
    This external GPU enclosure is what we need.

    I need a powerfull GPU for work, and the mobility of a laptop,. This leave me about no practical choices. I need the flexibility of connecting an external dock.

    However, MXM? Let's aim for PCIEx4­. I do not know many MXM card vendor... And dealing with laptop GPU drivers is an unwelcomed pain.
  • Reflex - Thursday, June 7, 2012 - link

    Because MXM permits a small dock that has less cooling. You are not going to get any great perf out of any card due to TB's bandwidth limitations, might as well go with something small given the inherent limitations.

    PCIEx4 does not give you any benefit when TB itself can only transfer at about PCIEx2.5 or so.
  • dagamer34 - Sunday, June 24, 2012 - link

    I'm sure even your average MXM GPU will be leaps and bounds better than the Intel HD 4000 in the MacBook Air today.

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