back to article Review: Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock

If the word from the Apple WWDC is to be believed, we’re just months away from hooking up all our peripherals using Thunderbolt 2 cables. Funny that, as I thought this was supposed to happen when the original Thunderbolt ports appeared on Macs back in 2011. Even though this Apple-Intel interface love-in can be found on PCs too …

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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    You won't find this sort of stuff on PCs much, they are the "lowest common denominator" of hardware. USB3 it is with it's CPU sapping lack of DMA, which is about as good as the non-DMA IDE of old. I remember my PC booting in half the time once I added a UDMA drive.

    1. CADmonkey

      *sigh*

      esata is such a struggle...

      1. King1Con
        Thumb Down

        Re: *sigh*

        eSATA is not always reliable. eSATA chipsets are occasionally not well debugged, because they are targeted at low-cost market.

        Crashes are not uncommon with eSATA, if you are expecting your system to remain up for months. Some people have no problems, at all. It is about firmware - SATA and eSATA solutions often do not have the same rigor of firmware debugging that comes with SAS or other more expensive interfaces.

        For example, firmware from SATA drives often do not guarantee that data has been written to storage when the firmware returns back that it has written to storage (marketing for speed purposes.) This means, someone may be using eSATA with off-the-shelf drives thinking they are getting secure RAID storage - and they are not... but they only realize it when there is a failure.

        Of course, usb 3.0 or firewire cases with off-the-shelf SATA drives can offer the same issues. If you care about your data, you have to care about your firmware, or get a higher end solution (bundled firewire drive or bundled thunderbolt drive where you are paying the manufacturer to think about the firmware.)

        1. JEDIDIAH
          Devil

          Re: *sigh*

          > Crashes are not uncommon with eSATA,

          That's funny. I run a RAID array off of eSATA. Never had a hiccup with it.

          Sounds like a sour little fanboy.

        2. Lusty Silver badge

          Re: *sigh*

          "For example, firmware from SATA drives often do not guarantee that data has been written to storage when the firmware returns back that it has written to storage"

          You mean like on the HP Enterprise 15k SAS drives recently where a writemany operation didn't survive a power cut and cause huge consistency issues for people with high end SAN systems? Oh, sorry you said it was only on SATA, silly me.

      2. larokus
        Thumb Up

        Re: *sigh*

        absolutely.. I have been running esata externals for years, on SATA1 1.5 Gbps links and always see data transfer rates averaging 70MB/s with fairly crappy drives. No way on earth could I justify this upgrade at this cost.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      You right, because pc's tend to come with Ethernet, USB, Video, eSATA and all the other ports as standard, so no need for £280+ accessories.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        FAIL

        ?

        Firstly converting a drive to eSATA isn't hard see below for an example:

        http://www.amazon.co.uk/IT-735-Enclosure-External-Tool-free-Assembling/dp/B000V8KQE6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1371219669&sr=8-1&keywords=external+drive+enclosure

        Secondly Here is a card which will give your PC eSATA support:

        http://www.amazon.co.uk/Startech-com-Express-eSATA-Controller-Card/dp/B0018RSD4O/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1371219713&sr=8-4&keywords=esata+pci+card

        Hrmm ~£30 on a PC is the same as the £280 you would have to spend on the new Mac Pro

        1. JEDIDIAH
          Linux

          Re: ?

          I just worked with a laptop yesterday that had an eSATA port. I was kind of surprised as it was a pretty slim laptop. If it wasn't in the MBA category it was pretty close.

      2. Lusty Silver badge

        "so no need for £280+ accessories."

        You're looking at this backwards. Many of us consider it worth £280 to not have these ports on the laptop. If you ever have to shlep accross London with a laptop bag for a few months you'll start to understand. And by coincidence, if you ever have to shlep accross London with a laptop bag for a few months, £280 will probably seem like less money to you.

        1. simon gardener

          really?

          Many of us would prefer to have the functionality we need and 280 + a fortune on cables in our pockets

          Not quite sure how inconvenienced you've been by a laptop thats a few mm thicker and a few hundred milligrams lighter, but if you then have to carry a breakout box with you then the weight/size argument hold no water at all. Of course your solution could be to have two of these @ £280 so you can have the functionality at home and work. If thats the case I would hazzard a guess that you are earning a lot more than the average person or that your company buys your IT for you and its not coming out of your own pocket.

          The idea of thunderbolt is lovely but its failure so far is reflected in how few thunderbolt devices are out there and are getting bought by the average user.

          Firewire was great and we paid more for our firewire drives because it was faster - but then we could get the cables for just a few quid.

          Thunderbolt is sadly pricing itself out of the market.

          Shame.

          1. Lusty Silver badge

            Re: really?

            Yes, my company buys my IT for me. If you work at a company that doesn't buy your work tools for you then get a different job.

            Generally I don't need all of my storage and connectivity when out and about, I just need the current days data and sufficient connectivity to get on a network. These days almost everyone has wifi (I've been to one company who didn't in the last 2 years, and I've been to a lot of companies!). We're not talking a few hundred milligrams, we're talking many grams for the laptop itself along with the fact that a decent high end box without all these ports allows me to leave the power brick at home as well. When you have a 2 hour commute on trains with standing room only a laptop bag gets heavier by the second so every gram counts - I stopped taking a paper pad for this very reason and always borrow clients pens.

            Regarding how few devices there are, I would disagree. The devices available show exactly what it was aimed at - getting stuff on the PCI bus in as short a route as possible. This lets external drives have considerably lower latency for instance, and allows various peripherals significantly higher bandwidth.

            Just because in your world these things don't make sense, it doesn't necessarily follow that other people can't make use of them or see value in them. There's a whole world out there and everyone uses tech differently, and everyone has a budget set by their own value system. Lawyers for instance charge £300 per hour. You think a lawyer gives a toss about £280 for a dock? If it save them one hour a year then it's paid for itself, and plugging stuff in takes a lot of time when you factor in doing it twice a day.

            1. Anonymous Custard Silver badge

              Re: really?

              @ Lusty - When you have a 2 hour commute on trains with standing room only a laptop bag gets heavier by the second so every gram counts - I stopped taking a paper pad for this very reason and always borrow clients pens.

              You do know that you are allowed to put it down? If it's tucked nicely between your feet when standing, wiht your hand on the shoulder-strap then it's secure and safe enough even on a crowded train. And I'm sure the floor won't object to taking the strain for a bit.

              Then you may even be able to put a pen in your pocket too without your trousers falling down...

        2. JEDIDIAH
          Devil

          Stupid is as stupid does.

          > Many of us consider it worth £280 to not have these ports on the laptop.

          Considering how little space they take up, this is a bit retarded really.

          "Look at me! I am TRENDY! I am follwing the hip new crowd of Lemmings..."

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        seriously?

        there is a reason that the retina mbp and the mb air do not have all those ports:

        ethernet is simply too large for the side of the machines - now with 1.3gb ac wifi its rarely needed

        eSATA is not used by enough people

        USB does come standard on the apple computers in fact usb 3.0 is standard

        video (not sure what interface you mean) the rmbp has a hdmi which is nice, but the thunderbolt is good enough - majority of people only need to use external monitors at home or work in which case they can leave the adapter on the end of the monitor cord - if you need to give presentations on the go then you will have to take an adapter

        i would not want a vga or dvi on the side of my macbook because it is too large and if the air had a hdmi then i would need a hdmi to dvi-d converter anyway for those places that don't have a hdmi connector on the projector ...

        im not trying to be an apple fanboy, my argument above accounts for the lack of those io ports on other ultraslim notebooks/netbooks

    3. JEDIDIAH
      Linux

      Blithering Fanboy nonsense

      > You won't find this sort of stuff on PCs much

      My wife uses a USB docking station for her work laptop and has never felt deprived over it.

      Thunderbolt is just for suckers that like to brag how they needlessly pay more for everything as if they really have the money to waste like that.

  2. Chaswobler

    I have the 27 inch display, the 15 inch Macbook pro retina and a fully loaded Promise array.

    I do a lot of dev work, running a number of Linux and Windows VM's, as well as editing fairly large collections in Lightroom. This setup just flies, never feeling slow. A large part I am certain is down to the Thunderbolt. I could not go back, as every other workstation I use just seems to grind.

    I am a lucky man.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Apple are upping the standard. Retina screens - well surprise, surprise the others follow. Thunderbolt is of course far superior but USB 3 is cheaper - USB 3 / eSATA is sufficient for many devices (single hard drives etc.) but for more multiple drives, arrays etc. it is poor in comparison. Of course on a Mac you get both.

      1. larokus
        Stop

        woah woah wah

        My 2009 gateway laptop is 16:10 1200p basically 'retina' far before the macbook pro was. Do some fact checking. 'retina' is marketing speak not breakthrough technology.

        1. Probe
          FAIL

          Re: woah woah wah

          My March 2009 Macbook Pro is 16:10 1200p, so "way before" is at best gross exaggeration.

        2. Lusty Silver badge

          Re: woah woah wah

          Does your 2009 laptop have an 8" screen? If not then 1200 isn't really a retina display and isn't that high a resolution. The 15" MacBook is 2880x1800 and at a time when most PC laptop makers were sending out "HD" resolutions it was a very welcome change and a kick up the arse to PC makers.

  3. Frankee Llonnygog

    It will be a shame if Thunderbolt doesn't take off

    It's the potential bridge between tablet and desktop worlds

  4. BornToWin

    Thunderbolt be a solution...

    ...for a problem that doesn't exist.

    1. Samsara

      Re: Thunderbolt be a solution...

      If you do Audio & Video for a living, I can tell you that thunderbolt is great ! No big shakes for joe average user though..

      1. P. Lee Silver badge

        Re: Thunderbolt be a solution...

        It wasn't really intended to be used to attach a single external disk, like USB; it is a cable to allow you to use an Apple screen as a docking station. Plugging in one or two 2.5" 5400RPM disks isn't really what a 10G link is for - use the USB3 on the MBA for that.

        True, Apple should not have removed the 1G ethernet but mostly Wireless N is fine and ac is arriving. That just leaves multiple screens. My main issue is that I'd have liked to be able to plug multiple dp screens into an MBA. Its a major flaw as far as I'm concerned. Multiple 27" screens don't always fit on the desk and Apple's 27" screens are a little pricey- its a deal breaker as far as I'm concerned.

    2. Daniel B.
      Happy

      Not quite.

      I used to think that when they launched it. But now that I need to expand my storage options, even USB3 is starting to look reeeal slow.

      Also, TBolt gives me the option of adding up more Ethernet ports, so I can get extra interfaces on my MBP. So maybe I'll end up buying stuff like this dock, or maybe just the big JBOD array and laying ZFS on top of that.

    3. Tech1UAE
      WTF?

      Re: Thunderbolt be a solution...

      > A problem that doesn't exist?!?

      Clearly you've never upgraded a Mac or PC from a stock HD to an SSD. Throughput is what it is ALL about.

      1. JEDIDIAH
        Linux

        Re: Thunderbolt be a solution...

        >> A problem that doesn't exist?!?

        >

        > Clearly you've never upgraded a Mac or PC from a stock HD to an SSD. Throughput is what it is ALL about.

        In both cases, your bottleneck is the storage device. The kind of cable you choose to use really doesn't alter that.

        1. Lusty Silver badge

          Re: Thunderbolt be a solution...

          "In both cases, your bottleneck is the storage device. The kind of cable you choose to use really doesn't alter that."

          Incorrect. An array of 6Gbps SSD drives connected to a USB 3 bus will be severely bottlenecked by the USB 3 bus. Even spinning disk can easily saturate a USB 3 bus if you configure it correctly and happen to be doing a sequential write operation. Using a Violin array I have saturated MPIO over 4 8Gbps FC cards so I can assure you that storage is not always the bottleneck!

          1. JEDIDIAH
            Mushroom

            Re: Thunderbolt be a solution...

            > Incorrect. An array of 6Gbps SSD drives connected to a USB 3 bus will be severely bottlenecked by the USB 3 bus.

            That was not the example.

            You moved the goalposts. You also did so with a setup that pretty much NO ONE here is likely to see any time soon regardless of whether or not they get to buy it with someone else's money.

            1. Lusty Silver badge

              Re: Thunderbolt be a solution...

              I think quite a few home users have multiple SSD drives these days so I don't think it was a bad example. The Violin stuff may not be common but is also a good example of a bus not keeping up with the storage.

  5. dogwaterdave
    Happy

    also supports HDMI!

    you can also hook up HDMI devices (HDTV) with a mini-display port to HDMI adapter

    connected to one of the Thunderbolt ports!

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/Design/graphics/icons/comment/happy_32.png

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I have a mac mini and a macbook... I'd like to stop having two computers and replace the mini with a dock like this, BUT... it seems way too expensive - it costs almost as much as the mini is worth for just a port expander with no cpu, ram or hdd

    it's hard to justify

  7. William Donelson
    FAIL

    Rolls Royce, at a price

    Extraordinarily expensive, and much of that for features you may never use. Worst of all, as noted, are the punitive prices of the cables - ugh!

  8. David Halko
    Thumb Up

    Thunderbolt: External PCIe awesome, Cables Expensive

    The external PCIe ports that Thunderbolt offers is really awesome.

    http://netmgt.blogspot.com/search/label/Thunderbolt

    Thunderbolt is kind of like the eSATA solution for hard drives, but is far more flexible (i.e. extending the systems PCI bus, not just extending a low-end SATA storage bus) - and people pay $$$ for it.

    Technology like I/O expansion cages was previously only available on higher-end systems, mid-range servers, and mainframes. Now, external bus cages can be attached (i.e. ExpressCard), left behind on a desktop as if the person has a desktop unit, but just pop out the Thunderbolt cable on the laptop when ready to go home. Great for audio, video, performance studios, traveling performance studios, etc. This is really pretty interesting technology!

    Thunderbolt is pretty clearly not aimed at least-common-denominator computing - external I/O card cages, heavy MIDI cabling, large numbers of monitors, etc. with the ability to have a portable form-factor are not the norm.

    Cables are expensive though, that is a bummer... but bidding on eBay starts at $0.99 for budget minded! :-)

  9. zahadum

    No e-SATA = FAIL

    seriously - ridiculous.

    Esata & Hdmi were part of the original spec by both major oems.

    And now each of them has ditched at least of of these two two vital ports.

    Product /mis/ management on the first order.

  10. Alan Thompson
    FAIL

    No Dedicated DisplayPort or extra Thunderbolt Port = FAIL

    The biggest issue I have with the Belkin Express Dock is that it does NOT replace a Thunderbolt Monitor. If you want to use 2x non-Apple DisplayPort monitors with your Macbook, you need at least 2 Thunderbolt/DisplayPort outputs. Standard DisplayPort monitors are not designed to daisy-chain. No matter how many Thunderbolt device peripherals you daisy-chain, you can only connect a single standard DisplayPort monitor to the end of the chain - via the unused Thunderbolt Port. For the Express Dock to truly replace the Apple Thunderbolt monitor, it would need at least one dedicated DisplayPort in addition to the 2 Thunderbolt in/out ports. Or it could have 3 Thunderbolt in/out ports and function as an additional daisy-chained device.

  11. sleepy

    More options

    Alternatives not mentioned that I can see are the very small Ethernet, FireWire 800, VGA and DVI adapters for thunderbolt that I keep in my bag. They don't require a thunderbolt cable. And Seagate have the Goflex adapter system for drives which includes thunderbolt options. I think the Belkin dock is even more of a niche product than it appears from this review.

  12. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

    "Even though this Apple-Intel interface love-in can be found on PCs too, albeit a rare sight, the range of peripherals supporting Thunderbolt is shockingly low for this two-year-old high-speed interface, which is capable of 10Gbps transfer rates, a figure that's set to double later this year."

    Not surprising. While USB has standards for hard disks, cameras, etc. etc. to follow, thunderbolt really is just a video link (which, per reviews I've seen, doesn't even support the full HDMI bandwidth of current HDMI versions) and pci express... it is really rather a mess. For instance, for an external thunderbolt hard drive, the drive must have a thunderbolt bridge (which last I heard cost close to $30) *and* PCI Express SATA controller in it. And, since this is not like USB where there's just a USB hard disk protocol, it also relies on either having your OS have the proper driver for whatever PCI Express devices end up hanging off your thunderbolt cables, or having to install drivers for every device you install. USB? Couple dollar USB to SATA bridge chip, and no drivers needed (for any modern OS.)

    "You're looking at this backwards. Many of us consider it worth £280 to not have these ports on the laptop. "

    Yup they're called Apple fanbois. Everyone else realizes a computer missing ports costs *less*. I had a netbook with almost no ports on it. £280 extra? The whole unit cost under $400 (i..e under £280.) Oh and it still had a few USB ports and ethernet. There's no reasonable reason to not have those.

  13. Mark 65 Silver badge

    £249 and no cable?

    That's a "get f*cked" right there.

  14. Anonymous Custard Silver badge

    2nd mortgage time?

    Even though this Apple-Intel interface love-in can be found on PCs too, albeit a rare sight, the range of peripherals supporting Thunderbolt is shockingly low for this two-year-old high-speed interface,

    That's 'cos most of us would still be saving up enough money to buy the required cables...

  15. Jean-Paul

    I quite like it...

    I look at it like this....I like docking stations for my laptop, they cost money too. As such just having to plugin one cable and having everything else connected is pretty good and much more desirable than all individual connections to a laptop...

    Sure a lot of money, but so are decent docking stations...

  16. Chris Parsons
    Headmaster

    Play NICELY

    Do we have to ape every moronic expression that comes from across the Atlantic?

    You need an adverb here, not an adjective. It's not big and it's not clever...

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