Fstoppers Reviews the CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 3

Fstoppers Reviews the CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 3

For all the stranded Mac users out there who’ve bought into the future that’s not quite here yet, there has been no shortage of products hitting the shelves to take you right back to the port-filled glory you once lived with. With all those ports taken from you, there is now an extra box on your desk just so you can reconnect the devices you use on a daily basis. USB-C and USB 3.1 promise so much in terms of potential that just isn’t realized yet. In the interim, connectors, hubs, and dongles are filling the void. At the high end, one such device is the CalDigit Thunderbolt 3 Docking Station.

The usefulness of a dock like this will heavily depend on the system you’re using and the number of devices you hope to connect to it. So, let’s take this from the perspective of what is possible after connecting the device. You can then decide how useful it would be for you. Of course, as it’s a Thunderbolt dock, you’ll need a Thunderbolt 3 Port to take advantage of it. So, keep that in mind. Since the integration of Intel’s Thunderbolt technology with the USB-C standard as a mainstream solution, these have become more and more common.

Once plugged in, the device will take care of setting itself up on Windows, but Mac users will need to download the CalDigit Docking Station Utility from CalDigit’s site. Once this is done, you will have access to all of its ports like they were part of your computer. Let’s take a look at what you get.

The Ports

Three USB Type-A

These are the standard USB ports we’re all used to (all three are USB 3.1 Gen 1). All of your existing devices will operate normally, and as each port supports USB charging, all your devices will charge over each port. For charging through these ports, the computer itself needs to be on and connected, but the dock will provide power even when a computer is not connected through the front USB port.

Individual ports run at full USB 3.0 speed with transfers from the CalDigit TUFF and Samsung T1 not differing at all compared to when they are connected directly to the computer. However, simultaneous transfers show that these are sharing that speed. Transferring from a memory card and a hard drive at the same time slow both down to about one third of their top speeds.

Gigabit Ethernet

Another great addition is the Ethernet port. Although Wi-Fi has become extremely common, even in private homes there may be rooms where your signal isn’t great and a wired connection can still be extremely useful. Being full gigabit speed means it's also useful for connecting to your NAS for file storage or connecting your pro-level body for tethering.

Display Port

This is another great addition for photographers and video editors. This port supports up to 5k monitors and will allow you to expand your laptop’s screen area and quality simply by connecting it back to the dock. By attaching a monitor to the Thunderbolt port as well, you gain access to dual 4K output (if your machine can handle it).

Two Thunderbolt-Enabled USB Type-C

Of course, one of these is taken up by connecting your machine to the dock, but you can use the other to daisy-chain devices thanks to the Thunderbolt support. Both support the full 40 GbB/s throughput of the USB 3.1 Gen 2 / Thunderbolt 3. The port also opens you up to a number of dongles that allow other devices to be connected, such as monitors or additional hubs.

One thing that I was unable to get hold of during my testing was an external graphics card. This is one thing that could make full use of the USB 3.1 / Thunderbolt technology at this stage. Being able to plug in a super-fast graphics card for use with Premiere or other graphics-intensive software would be quite useful if it is supported by your system.

Two eSata Ports

This was the strange one for me. eSata has been all but usurped by USB for some time now. Although some may have a couple of eSata drives hanging around, and certain industries may still use them, a single port or a dongle would have sufficed. This could make way for an additional USB Type-A port or even a card reader.

Audio Jacks

You also get microphone and headphone jacks which may or may not be useful to you. Perhaps for content producers who use a microphone and headphones simultaneously or those with a bulkier headphone jack that doesn’t fit when their ever-thinner laptop is sitting on a desk.

What’s Missing

I feel like a dock like this that is aimed at media professionals would at least have card readers built in. SD and CF cards are so common, and forcing us to connect yet another device to read these seems like a simple oversight.

Design

The Dock

The dock itself is designed to fit in with the other devices in CalDigit’s lineup. It can be used either vertically or horizontally (using the rubber strips so it stays put on your desk). The ports are all of high quality, and I didn’t feel any play in them as I plugged and unplugged devices. Overall, it's a well-constructed device.

Giant Power Brick

At first, I thought this might make a great portable charger that would expand the ports available on my machine. However, the size of the power brick required to drive all of the ports on the dock makes it a challenge for me. You can see below the size of my Dell power brick in comparison, and seeing as not using the dock gives me back access to my USB Type-C port anyway, a simple hub is a better solution for me. I only use my laptop when I’m on the go. Once I’m home, I have my desktop machine that takes its place. If you’re in this situation, the dock may not be the most useful for you, either.

What I Liked

  • Charging supported up to 85W (charges many non-Apple laptops as well)
  • Lots of ports
  • All ports are top of class

What Could Be Improved

  • No need for two eSata ports
  • Built-in memory card reader
  • Smaller power solution to make it more portable

In Conclusion

For Windows users who don’t connect a lot of peripherals, this may be more of a novelty than anything else. While many newer Ultrabooks are cutting out a lot of ports, most laptops still have a good number built in. Check your laptop for ports and decide how many devices you need simultaneously connected before investing in this as a solution. Even if you plan to use it mainly for charging, you’ll need to check that 85W is enough to charge your machine.

For those using the new MacBook Pro with its collection of USB-C ports, this may be a handy device for getting all of your connectivity back while we wait for the port to become ubiquitously supported. It will charge all of the current MacBook and MacBook Pro models and supports Apple’s Rapid Charging technology for iOS devices if the utility is installed from CalDigit.

You can get your CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 3 here for $299.99.

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