Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Pro Dock
I review the Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Pro Dock, a device that promises to turn your laptop into the Ultimate Workstation.
To avoid a trip to Dongleville, I bought a Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Pro dock to complement my 2020 MacBook Pro. I work permanently from home, and I like to do so sat at a desk with a big monitor and lots of peripheral devices — hard drives, audio interfaces, wired keyboard etc. I found the promise of the dock's multiple ports, connecting via a single cable to be highly appealing. After a week with the dock, I can say it mostly lives up to the promise.
Right out of the wrapping, I was impressed by the design. The dock features a space grey, aluminium enclosure faced with an appealing glossy-black panel. The device is compact, measuring only 20 cm in width and about 8 cm in depth. I keep it under my display and hardly notice its presence. The front panel has a single power LED, but it's muted enough that after five minutes I forget it was there.
The sleekness of design, however, belies the enormity of the power brick, which is much larger and heavier than the dock itself. I put mine under my desk where I can't see it. The brick delivers 170 watts of power, and this is great for keeping peripherals charged while supply a healthy amount of stable current. The power supply remains cool to the touch — cooler in fact than the dock itself, which does get warm, but not hot.
I mention the power supply because its bulk means your unlikely to travel with this dock — it's very much built for desktop use.
Prices, ports and performance
The dock offers a lot of connectivity, for a reasonable price. You can find the dock for $299 US on Amazon — I paid $499 Aussie, buying mine directly from Apple Australia when I bought my Mac. $299, I think, is fairly typical for a docking station in this class — the OWC dock was about 40 AUD more. Yes, you can get USB-C docks a little cheaper. The Belkin Pro is noteworthy in that it doubles as both a Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C dock, which I explore further below.
On the front panel, the Dock offers a USB-A 3.1 and USB-C 3.1 super-speed port that also provides charging. As I understand it, USB-A 3.1 ports are a rarity on these types of products, so it's nice to have. As far as charging goes, I tested both ports with my iPhone, iPad and Sony Bluetooth headphones. All devices charged as expected, even without the MacBook connected to the dock.
Next, we have an SD card reader, which supports SD cards, SDHC (High-Capacity) cards and SDXC (Extended-Capacity). Speed-wise, the reader operates according to the Ultra-High-Speed II standard, allowing transfers up to a theoretical maximum of 312 MB/s. That's great for digital photography and videos, and for those of us who flash Linux to our Raspberry Pis. When inserted, the SD card does stick out about 5 mm — it's not a fancy spring-loaded mechanism that sits the card flush as I've seen in some PC laptops.
Finally, the front panel offers a 3.5 mm TRRS headset port. Even 2020 this port is still useful for connecting analogue audio devices such as wired headphones/headsets or even audio mixers. This audio connection interfaces via an internal USB Digital Analogue Converter (DAC) supporting up to 48kHz at 16bit resolution, as shown in my Mac's Audio/MIDI Setup screen below. My only gripe is that TOSLINK optical support would have been a useful addition for those of us with optical audio devices.
On the rear panel, we get DisplayPort 1.4 supporting up to an 8K display (7680×4320 @30Hz), when the dock operates at Thunderbolt 3 speeds. If connecting two monitors, you are limited to 4k, and must either daisy-chain them (some models allow this) or use the dock's second Thunderbolt port. Note that display performance and connectivity reduces at lower speeds, which I discuss below.
Moving on, we get 2 Thunderbolt 3 ports, one of which provides both data and up to 85 watts of power to your laptop, which is enough to charge my 13inch MacBook Pro. The second Thunderbolt port allows for additional devices, such as a second monitor, or high-speed storage devices.
We also get 4 USB 3.0 ports for all our legacy devices. I loaded mine with a 3 TB hard-drive, my XLR audio interface, and my wired Apple USB keyboard. All good…they just worked, and I still had one port free along with those in the front.
And last, but certainly, not least is a Gigabit Ethernet port. After years of suffering through wifi-dropouts in my house, going back to Ethernet has been a breath of fresh air. Now when I connect to my NAS located in a different room, I can transfer gigabytes in minutes, not hours. It's also much more stable for video conferencing, something we're all doing much more of these days.
Performance is excellent, and I've not thrown anything at the dock that remotely taxes it. Using Thunderbolt 3, the device's bandwidth tops out at a theoretical max of 40Gbps. When using USB devices, you're limited to USB 3.1 speeds of 10Gbps, even though the Dock internally uses a USB3.2 hub, as reported by my Mac's System Report. I suspect this limitation is due to the way Thunderbolt 3 implements USB-C support, topping out at 3.1 speeds.
Regardless, these numbers are merely academic, and my commentary is down to technical interest. I don't own any peripherals that support this kind of bandwidth. Suffice to say, it's damned fast and meets my need now, and likely well into the future.
The Belkin Pro dock also doubles as a USB-C device, making it compatible with iPad Pro (and iPad Air 4), and computers with USB-C but no Thunderbolt. I assume it will work with Thunderbolt 2 devices, but I don't have the appropriate adapter to test if this works with my old MacBook Air.
Note that when using the dock in USB-C mode, performance is reduced thanks to USB-C's theoretical maximum bandwidth of 10Gbps. That's enough, however, to drive a 5 or 4K display at 30Hz, which isn't too shabby.
Interestingly, I could connect the dock to a regular USB port on my old MacBook Air using as USB-A to USB-C adapter. While the DisplayPort didn't work, the USB hub, card reader and even the Ethernet port did. For those with older computers, you might still have a use for this dock, especially if you plan on upgrading in the future to a computer that has a USB-C or Thunderbolt connection.
Nitpicks and Gotchas
While I'm pleased with the device, I do have a couple of issues. The dock comes with a stingy 80 cm (2.6ft) Thunderbolt 3 cable, stretching that out to a metre or two would allow for more flexibility in positioning my devices on my desk.
I would have also liked to see an HDMI connector in there as you find in the OWC dock. DisplayPort is excellent (and my monitor supports it), but being able to connect to the more ubiquitous HDMI as a secondary monitor would have been nice. When I go to upgrade my monitor next year, I'll get one that supports either USB-C or TB3 directly, making this a moot complaint.
My final and most annoying nitpick is down to instability when attempting to hot-plug the dock into my Mac. Sometimes it works appropriately, but often DisplayPort works and USB doesn't, and once it even caused a Kernel panic and crashed my Mac. I don't know if this is an issue with the dock, macOS — or both. Based on reports I've read online, I don't think Thunderbolt with its direct PCIe pipe the CPU is quite as plug-n-play as we would like. So to avoid issues, I make sure I power down my Mac and restart it when the dock is connected. When I do this, the device operates in a very stable and performant manner.
Concluding thoughts and recommendations
I bought this dock to turn my MacBook Pro into a desktop replacement. I hoped to expand its futuristic I/O with an all-in-one hub allowing me to connect my display and my legacy devices with one cable. In this respect, it has exceeded my expectations and future-proofed my needs for years to come.
So, would I recommend it?
For desktop usage, absolutely. If you are using a MacBook (Pro or Air), or even an iPad (Pro or Air) and you prefer to work at a desk for the bulk of your day, this device makes that not only possible but pleasant. The single-cable connection is well worth the price paid to declutter your desk of the spaghetti-cable-setups we laptop users typically endure.
For travellers, this isn't the dock for you — the power supply is far too big and bulky to take this thing on the go. You're much better off with a hub-powered USB dock with the more commonly available HDMI.
So, there you have it, my review of the Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Pro Dock. If you liked this review, and want one for your setup, please use my Amazon Affiliate link, which gives me a small commission at no expense to you.