Which Thunderbolt 3 dock is best?
Thunderbolt 3 is an exciting technology that streamlines connectivity by delivering impressive bandwidth and charging capabilities over a single cable. It uses the USB-C physical connector, and a wide selection of docking stations support it. In some cases, the docks are backward-compatible with 5-gigabit or 10-gigabit USB connections, but they’re generally engineered to take advantage of the high-speed standard.
The Cable Matters Hybrid 107044 is the best Thunderbolt 3 docking station for most people because it has plenty of ports and is one of the most reliable models.
What to know before you buy a Thunderbolt 3 dock
If your laptop offers Thunderbolt 3
If you’ve recently bought a midrange or high-end laptop, you’re probably in the clear. One of the popular Intel Evo certification requirements for ultraportables is that the laptop must support the Thunderbolt 4 bus. If your laptop has a USB-C port, check if it uses Thunderbolt 3 or 4 or if it’s limited to slower USB 3.1 speeds.
How much charging power do you need
The majority of laptops require 100 watts of Power Delivery or less, with many able to charge at full speed with only around 60-80 watts. Although they’re somewhat rare, a select few laptops demand over 100 watts. Nonetheless, high-powered business laptops sometimes require as much as 130 watts to charge at full speed. If you get a docking station that can’t quite put out enough power for your laptop, you’ll have slower charging speeds or even a discharging battery when your laptop has a high workload.
What to look for in a quality Thunderbolt 3 dock
USB expansion ports
All docking stations have USB ports. It’s up to you to get one that has the number you need. They usually have a Thunderbolt 3 or 4 data pass through in addition to two to six USB-A ports.
Generally speaking, docking stations plug into the wall via a wall wart with a DC barrel plug. You’ll sometimes need to supply your own power via an external charging brick. If that describes your situation, look for a USB-IF certified USB-C charger.
External monitor support
Support for additional monitors usually comes in a DisplayPort or HDMI connectors on full-size docking stations. Note that some laptops don’t have the processing power to drive more than one external display. In contrast, others (in particular, M1 MacBooks) are limited to a single secondary monitor due to technical reasons. In those cases, consider a docking station or USB-C hub with a DisplayLink chipset inside. This novel chipset takes the load off the graphics processor and allows for multiple monitors with greater compatibility.
How much you can expect to spend on a Thunderbolt 3 dock
You can spend as little as $40 on a capable USB-C hub, but docking stations that take full advantage of the Thunderbolt protocol will run you $150-$350.
Thunderbolt 3 dock FAQ
Do Thunderbolt 3 docks work with standard USB-C?
A. In some cases, they are backward-compatible. However, this varies from dock to dock and results in significantly lower bandwidth and reduced features. If your laptop only supports USB 3.1 over the Type-C port, but you want to future-proof your setup, make certain that the Thunderbolt dock you choose will work with standard USB 3.1 bandwidth.
What is USB-C Power Delivery?
A. The Power Delivery protocol supplements the USB-C standard that allows for high-wattage charging and data transfer over a single port. Thunderbolt 3 maxes out at 100 watts. Thunderbolt 4 theoretically maxes out at 240 watts, although there aren’t any chargers or laptops that approach that power.
What’s the best Thunderbolt 3 dock to buy?
Top Thunderbolt 3 dock
What you need to know: It sports a wide variety of ports and works with the biggest range of laptops in real-world tests.
What you’ll love: Its long list of expansion ports includes pairs of HDMI and DisplayPort connections that allow for dual 4K displays. It delivers up to 96 watts using the Power Delivery protocol, enough for most modern laptops. Most importantly, it’s particularly reliable and supports most notebook PCs.
What you should consider: It can’t charge the most power-hungry laptops at full speed and only supports a single external monitor on the newest M1 MacBooks.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Top Thunderbolt 3 dock for the money
What you need to know: This is an especially full-featured docking station with interesting inclusions such as an SSD enclosure.
What you’ll love: It has the USB ports, SD card readers and Ethernet jack you’d expect from a competent Thunderbolt docking station, but it doesn’t stop there. You can outfit it with an M.2 solid-state drive for high-speed storage above and beyond what an SD card offers. There’s even a special graphics controller chip inside that offloads the graphics workload to the CPU and enables up to four external displays. The DisplayLink graphics controller even makes this feature work on computers like M1 MacBooks, which don’t normally support more than one external monitor.
What you should consider: You’ll need a 100-watt USB-C charger to make it work, and it doesn’t include one.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Worth checking out
What you need to know: Consider this high-powered Dell docking station if your laptop requires more than 100 watts to charge at full speed.
What you’ll love: While it’s for Dell’s most power-hungry laptops, it works with most models that require up to 130 watts of Power Delivery. It has a pair of DisplayPort outputs and Thunderbolt 3 and 10-gigabit USB-C data passthrough. It even has both a combination headset jack and a separate audio line out, which are managed by an internal audio processor that helps to get the job done without the interference and CPU hogging that sometimes comes with integrated laptop audio.
What you should consider: It costs quite a bit, especially in light of its relatively low port selection.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
Chris Thomas writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.
Copyright 2022 BestReviews, a Nexstar company. All rights reserved.