Plug, Play and Go, No Intrigue Required
The new Apple computers are remarkable machines, powerful and capable in every way – except one, most notably: The exclusive use of the USB-C port makes the use of peripherals awkward and inconvenient. One can surmise that a lack of real estate and cost were factors in the decision to opt for a single type interface. And maybe it makes some sense with regard to the thin, super compact portable models. The lack, however, of a range of useful ports in the desktop, however, is truly confounding.
For media professionals and those of us who wrangle large camera files, the lack of system ports is more than an inconvenience. If you’re a shooter, editor, or DIT, with more than five minutes in this business, chances are you have a shelf or two of still useful Firewire and USB drives, a drawer of cables and card readers somewhere, and a vintage monitor lying about. Most likely you need to manage this mayhem and continue using and accessing your legacy stuff.
For shooters who’ve amassed a large trove of storage drives of every type, the OWC Thunderbolt 3 dock is a godsend. Indeed, for media pros operating Macintosh computers these days, some kind of external dock is a virtual imperative.
OWC’s Thunderbolt 3 expansion dock features an impressive 13 ports, a panoply of interfaces and connectors that includes dual Thunderbolt 3, five USB 3.1 Gen 1, Firewire 800, direct network Ethernet, discreet Dolby and DTS optical audio, and a high-speed SD card reader. After including the SD card slot in 2009 computers, Apple has annoyingly removed the reader in its latest machines. The Thunderbolt 3 dock, among its many other key features, effectively restores this convenience.
OWC docks, including the Thunderbolt 3, incorporate a DisplayPort protocol called DP++ that has been integrated in Apple computers since 2009. Incorporating native HDMI, VGA, and DVI signals, DP++ allows the use of simple low-cost passive adapters through the USB-C (Thunderbolt 3) port. Many (cheaper) ‘dumb’ docks on the market require the purchase of pricier HDMI and VGA active-type adapters that are inherently less reliable due to the lack of proper power management and communication with the host computer.
Fundamentally, providing sufficient power to multiple peripheral devices requires proper communication. All USB devices need power, of course, but the host computer may or may not be able to supply the necessary power directly, for example when operating in low power mode. Thus some form of communication among the various devices and the computer is imperative. This is precisely the role of Apple’s power distribution system known as PD. PD alerts the system to what devices are present on the bus, along with their respective power requirements.
In early 2015, Macs fitted with USB Type C ports offered the first effective power delivery system for peripherals. Before this time, the USB credo was – here’s the power take what you want. Today unmanaged ‘dumb’ hubs still pose a reliability challenge. Many times a device connected via such a hub will fail to mount, or we have to unplug and plug in the device several times for it to be recognized. This is not a solution!
How many times has your computer not recognized a device or devices on the USB bus? When plugging in a device that is not properly powered, it may well lead to reliability and performance issues mid-task. One serious problem that continues to plague users is the inability or unwillingness of online retailers to police standards for peripherals, which means in the end, in the USB world, anything goes. This is not a pleasant state of affairs!
A power management system communicating with the bus is thus imperative for reliable operation of peripherals. Your system needs to know what’s on the bus, what peripherals are present, and the power draw they require. Simply attaching a Type C connector to a dumb hub is not a solution. It’s a crapshoot, which may work in one circumstance but not others, especially when employing multiple devices.
Unintelligent devices take what they can without any standard or ability to transmit its power needs. With 15W of available power, the Thunderbolt 3 dock provides plenty of juice for multiple hard drives, SSDs, 4K displays, and media readers, all operating at once and communicating properly with the host computer across the bus. Besides the lack of DP++ and viable power management, most dumb hubs also offer fewer ports and types of ports, and while OWC’s Thunderbolt 3 dock is more expensive at $299, the unit provides power back to the computer, thus serving as a supplemental charging and power adapter. This feature is especially valuable given the latest Mac laptops also use the USB-C port for power. Suffice it to say, it is a challenge for designers like OWC to enable multiple bi-directional USB-C (Thunderbolt 3) devices while still powering the laptop. Up to six devices may be daisy chained via Thunderbolt 3 – the same as Thunderbolt 2.
For shooters and data wranglers, the more compact USB-C travel dock is a welcome addition to our itinerant kits. We can mount a USB HDD or SSD while outputting via HDMI to a display or projector. At $49, the bus-powered dock is a good value, given its more limited array of ports and connectors that nevertheless includes the SD card reader.
Finally, it’s worth noting the build quality of the Thunderbolt 3 and travel dock is excellent. Most professionals can appreciate this, when our livelihoods are on the line.
With efficient power management and implementation of DP++, the Thunderbolt 3 dock is blessedly straightforward to operate. Plug in whatever peripheral you fancy and the dock simply works. No intrigue required.