Thunderbolt docks have always been something that I've wanted, but haven't absolutely needed. The $300-$500 price range of these little all-in-one boxes didn't spark urgency in my search for the perfect dock either. Given a little time for the excitement (and price) of Thunderbolt-related technology to die down a bit, however, the prospect began to grow more interesting. An improvement on their previous dock, CalDigit's $200 TS2 seemed to be the perfect connection dreambox at the right price. So how did reality fare against expectations?
A quick note before we begin for those interested in saving time: I'm trying something new... If you want all the most important information, feel free to scroll through the images and just read the captions. Everything you really need to know can be found there, and the rest is simply more detailed for those interested in more specifics. Please comment with your opinions on this format below if you don't mind! Thanks!
The first thing I noticed about the TS2 was that it was much smaller than I had anticipated. I thought the small, all-metal box would be the size of a rather large desktop drive -- something akin to a slightly more slender version of Western Digital's "Duo" drives is what I had in mind. However, to my pleasant surprise, the TS2 is about the size of a thick, but small, bible (enough with the smartphone size references, right?).
CalDigit boasts that this dock can be horizontally or vertically situated for a smaller footprint, unlike its sleek but less practical rivals like the $300 Belkin Thunderbolt Dock HD, which features almost the exact same functionality for a 50% increase in price over the TS2. Even so, the TS2 isn't something I have to stand up vertically for it to make sense on my desk. In fact, it's so small that it almost bothers me to have it directly on my desk at all...I just want to stack it on top of something to get the most out of every square inch.
Thankfully, as with all of the Thunderbolt docks worth mentioning, each of the three USB ports on the TS2 are USB 3.0. It's nice that CalDigit didn't bother giving us a headache while saving itself just a few bucks for a couple USB 2.0 ports. The front, always-on USB port allows charging of your device even while it's unplugged from the computer. While it bugged me at first that all of the ports weren't this way, I was later thankful when I realized my external DVD writer (plugged into a rear port) would have always been running and humming if this were not the case.
Finally, separate 1/8" headphone output and 1/8" input jacks conveniently face the front as well so Dani Diamond won't have a problem should he want to switch to headphones some day to avoid bugging his neighbors with that abnoxious music. And of course, a small blue light (sorry, not pictured while "on") turns on when the device has power and is connected to the computer.
Rear ports are plentiful: Two Thunderbolt 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports (for a total of three including the front port), a gigabit ethernet LAN connection, the welcome addition of a 4K-capable HDMI-out port, and a nice surprise of two ultra-fast, 6G eSATA ports. The Thunderbolt 2.0 ports, along with the triple USB 3.0 inputs, were expected. However, the addition of an HDMI-out for you 4k HDMI monitor lovers is nice. I will add that while eSATA isn't the most popular, it is just about the most direct connection you can make to an external hard drive. So, those without Thunderbolt capability will still be able to get just about every last ounce of speed out of their drives. And finally, a gigabity ethernet connection might seem odd to some, but with fewer computers (i.e. Apple laptops) including them for space-saving reasons, it's never a bad thing to have the most reliable connection possible for streaming, downloading, or uploading content. Those of us with Crashplan running 24/7 will surely be grateful.
The all-aluminum heat sink design keeps the unit cool to the touch even without an internal fan. The TS2 could definitely be pushed harder, but it likely will stay just as cool. The color itself is unassuming enough, though the marketing language that calls the "titanium" color similar or inspired by the design of the Mac Pro doesn't quite make sense -- it's not really similar. Still, the finish and feel is nice enough to make it somewhat unclear as to why this point was even discussed.
A final pro on one small factor leads me to the only con, though this may be a bit picky... I have a personal pet peeve with quite an assortment of Thunderbolt accessories (hard drives, adapters, etc.) that place the Thunderbolt connection upside-down. CalDigit, thankfully, found some magical way to place them right-side up. This way, when you plug in your cable, the top side (with the Thunderbolt logo) is facing up, as one would expect. Unfortunately, something still has to be upside-down: the rear USB 3.0 ports. I'm sure manufacturers are limited by the orientations of the components that are made available for these devices, but must every device feature at least one upside-down connection? This doesn't matter at all in practice, however, because the rear ports specifically will likely be plugged in once and left alone.
For $200, the reality is that the CalDigit TS2 is probably the best Thunderbolt dock for the money -- it's why I bought one. A two-year warranty sweetens the pot considering the competition offers only one, but you still need a Thunderbolt cable (which CalDigit will include for an additional $35, which is a bit steep, but average).