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.

OWC Thunderbolt 3 dock

Spare me the chaos. The OWC Thunderbolt 3 dock offers users a wide array of connectors and ports via a single cable, saving time and hassle when offloading camera cards and performing other media management chores.
Barry Braverman

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.

The expansive dock provides up to 15W through your computer’s USB-C (Thunderbolt 3) port – more than enough to power multiple USB, Firewire, Thunderbolt devices. Thirteen ports in all are provided including optical audio, Ethernet, and an advanced mini display port, with effective power management and communication to the host computer. The Thunderbolt 3 and bus-powered travel dock are truly plug, play and go.

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.

A hodgepodge of USB devices

While Intel rigorously controls and certifies the Thunderbolt standard, USB is a virtual free for all without enforced standards. The licensing fees imposed by Intel and others contributes substantially to OWC docks’ higher cost; the benefit to users being these docks that are going to work and work well with wide range of USB devices.

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!

Plugging multiple USB devices into any system is always a crapshoot, if no power management system is in place. This is especially true when attaching a hub or dock. Manufacturers may claim bus power to a peripheral device but can’t guarantee it without a proper power delivery management system in place.

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.

Apple computers have supported an advanced display port protocol known as DP++ since 2009. DP++ natively integrates HDMI, VGA, and DVI signals, eliminating the need for pricey active adapters, which may or may not work. With the Thunderbolt 3 dock, low-cost passive adapters ($10-$15) may be used here, saving considerable money in the long run.

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.

In its Infinite Loop wisdom, Apple has eliminated all but the USB-C port on its latest-generation computers. While USB-C is versatile, the lack of port options makes an expansion dock imperative for professionals who must manage a range of storage drives and displays. OWC’s USB-C Travel Dock (b) offers reduced functionality compared to the full-size dock albeit with greater portability and economy. Both the Thunderbolt 3 and travel docks include the capability to power the computer back via the USB-C port.

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.