Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Review : Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock

I'm at Apple Harvest HQ enjoying the second day of my sabbatical in the glorious sunshine. I finished my last contract on Independence Day and I'm now taking a few months off to focus on all the things I want to do, rather than all the things I have previously had to do. One of which is to write, both on the Apple Harvest blog and my Process Management blog but also to get stuck into the two management books I started writing a while ago, but have never had the time and space to complete.

We've had a couple of significant deliveries here recently. Just this morning we took possession of the Mobee Magic Feet accessory charger, but more on that in the next post. The really exciting upgrade to HQ is that the 2011 MacBook Air is now attached to a Belkin Thunderbolt Express dock to max out its performance potential.

It seems that the Belkin Thunderbolt dock has been around forever without being available. It was first showcased back in September 2011, and has finally started shipping in the UK. During that time it has been through several design incarnations, several different technical specifications, and at one stage looked like it had been scrapped completely.

But the hub had finally arrived and it certainly looks the part now. It also ticks all the right boxes in terms of its technical performance - at least as far as this user is concerned. The hub provides USB 3.0 (x3), Firewire 800 (x1), Gigabyte Ethernet (x1) and pass through Thunderbolt (x1) ports, as well as audio in and out sockets. All this comes wrapped up in a little metal box which is about the size of 2 stacked DVD boxes. The hub comes with the necessary external 12W power supply - a brick about the same size as a normal laptop power adaptor.

All this comes at a price - I got mine for about £250 directly from Belkin UK and Apple on-line are selling for the same price - but it's a lot cheaper than shelling out £900 on an Apple Thunderbolt display, which still doesn't support USB 3.0 and is also considerably less portable! Caveat emptor - no Thunderbolt cable is included so be prepared to spend an additional £30-35 for that essential item.

The Thunderbolt Express hub is not an essential requirement at Apple Harvest HQ. However by connecting it with the MBA I effectively get two high performance work stations, with the new iMac in the office and the MBA/Thunderbolt hub combo in the living room. I've been able to resurrect my Moshi self powered hub (see 2011 - the Late Post) which uses a combination of  Firewire and USB to power a hub with 4 USB 2.0 and 2 Firewire ports without needing external power. I also get the 2 original MBA USB ports back and I no longer need a Thunderbolt or USB Ethernet connection.

Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock (bottom)

On the subject of internet connections, I'm getting a download speed of about 77Mbps with an upload speed of 11Mbps with my Virgin cable 120Mbps connection. This is a bit slower than the upstairs office speed but as I mentioned last time, the MBA connection is going through powerline network boxes. There is a slight hit on the USB 3.0 speed as the Belkin implementation of USB 3.0 puts a cap of 2.5Gbps against the (theoretical) 5.0Gbps standard. Nevertheless - it's still faster than USB 2.0 and one of the few ways to get USB 3.0 capability on a pre-2012 MBA.

The Belkin isn't the only Thunderbolt dock available - the Matrox DS1 is cheaper but offers less. The dock looks good, runs silently and doesn't generate much heat. For me the Belkin Thunderbolt Express hub was easily the most cost effective way to seriously hike up the performance of the MBA and will extend its workhorse life by several years. I'm hoping not to have to spend huge chunks of my life on the road in the future, but the hub is portable enough to be taken abroad for an extended stay if necessary.

If you're in a similar position and want to max out an MBA (or any other Thunderbolt compatible Mac for that matter) I'd seriously consider thinking about this as a viable option.


  1. Wow! I like it. It was first showcased back in September 2011, and has eventually begun boats in the UK. It have good specification.

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  2. Thanks Lucas - you can probably tell that I'm pleased with it!


  3. Would the USB3 on this work if plugged into a 2011 iMac running Snow Leopard ?

  4. Yes it should do - it has a Thunderbolt slot, but you won't get the full potential speeds because of the capping mentioned in the post. Even so, it should still be much faster than USB 2My MacBook Air is 2011 and this works fine (but I haven't done any speed tests yet)