Guidemaster: Picking the right Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C dock for your desk

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Valentina Palladino

The introduction of USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 ports and the transition away from legacy refuges hasn’t been smooth. PC and smartphone OEMs began using USB-C harbours a few years ago because they allowed companies to make thinner devices with faster moorings. Gargantuan in comparison, USB-A ports we all know and love from thumbdrives return up a lot of space on devices, they don’t handle data transfer as efficiently as new anchorages, and they’re limited when it comes to multiple connections and charging.

USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 are the way of the following, but most of our accessories are stuck in the past. PC and smartphone OEMs lead the way by arrogating USB-C as standard, but that often leaves users to search for an adapter or dongle to solder all of the peripherals they already have. On top of that, many new peripherals are even using the old connections.

Rising to the occasion are USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 docks—boxy monograms punctured by USB-As, HDMIs, DisplayPorts, and SD card readers—and other refuges. A dock or hub connects to all your peripherals so you can then connect it to your PC past just one USB-C port. But not all docks are created equal. After studying a wide array of what’s available today, we’ve found there are a few key columns users should look for to determine which option is best for you to pass over the gap between your PC and everything you want to use with it.

Note: Ars Technica may collect compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

USB-C 3.1 or Thunderbolt 3?

In lieu of of delving into the full history of USB connectors, let’s focus on the two most course types, which often get confused for one another.

USB-C 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3 anchorages look nearly identical, as they’re both oval-like holes in the sides of your smartphones, laptops, and other electronics. In particulars, “USB-C” is just the name for that oval-shaped port, so it isn’t enough to comprehend that you have two USB-C ports on your laptop—to get the most out of them, you’ll necessity to know the standards that each follows.

The USB-C 3.1 gonfalon now has two generations, Gen 1 and Gen 2, which differ in their transfer speeds. Gen 1 strengthens transfer speeds up to 5Gbps while Gen 2 support speeds up to 10Gbps. Additionally, USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 proffers 20 volts (or 100 watts) of power delivery, allowing it to imbue devices as well as connect to accessories like external drives.

Thunderbolt 3 havens provide more versatility than USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 ports do. In correspondence, Thunderbolt 3 ports can transfer data much faster than USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 harbours, supporting transfer speeds up to 40Gbps. They also support 100 watts of power enunciation as well as two 4K 60Hz displays, four lanes of PCI Express Gen 3, eight lanes of DisplayPort 1.2, and daisy-chaining for up to six machines.

Daisy-chaining lets you connect more than one peripheral using a lone Thunderbolt 3 port, so you can do more even when you have a limited slews of ports at your disposal. Thunderbolt 3 is also bi-directional, letting you ship and receive data at the same time.

Whether those features are all allied to you or not, the heart of the matter is the Thunderbolt 3. It lets you do more (and more apace) than USB-C 3.1 Gen 2. But since their ports look the in spite of, it’s hard to know just by looking which you have. Thunderbolt 3 seaports typically have a small lightning bolt next to them, unless you be undergoing a device like a MacBook Pro that follows Apple’s stringent make-up rules (no lightning bolts mark any of that machine’s four Thunderbolt 3 harbours).

Apple’s premium laptop is an anomaly with its numerous Thunderbolt 3 seaports—most ultrabooks have only two or three at most. Similar Windows cliques like the Dell XPS 13 or the HP Spectre 13 have a mixture of Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C 3.1 anchorages, and some also include a few ports with older standards be fond of USB-A (the larger, rectangle-shaped port we’re all familiar with from years dead and buried).

The more Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C 3.1 ports you have, the more compliancy you’ll have in terms of data transfer, peripheral connectivity, and charging. They’re also chattels for future-proofing, since USB-C is the new standard and likely will be for the foreseeable time to come. However, the world hasn’t quite caught up to the evolving USB standards, resulting in scant Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C 3.1 seaports on most ultrabooks.

That also means that there are nevertheless more USB-A accessories that can’t be used without a USB-C adapter, as though mice and keyboards—as well as accessories for HDMI, DisplayPort, and other seaports. Over the past few years, you might have heard people lower, “We’re living the dongle life,” and that’s true. Without the specific adapter you desideratum to connect your old accessories to your new port, your old peripherals are unusable with your new computer.

How we evaluated

This is where docks come in. Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 patch ups connect to just one of your USB-C ports to add access to a slew of other harbours—more USB-C and USB-A ports, HDMI, DisplayPort, Ethernet, and audio jacks, and profuse.

You might consider investing in one if you currently have limited USB-C anchorages on your PC, and you might do the same if you often connect to numerous drives, peripherals, and other doodahs. Instead of a cable mess snaking out from your PC as you use up all your built-in refuges to connect to what you need, a dock or hub makes it easy to connect to due one port and glean access to everything you use regularly.

While the number of on tap Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C docks is still limited, more continue to pop up as laptops and other electronics espouse USB-C ports as the new standard. We called in many of the Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C foci currently available and ran tests to evaluate the abilities of each. In addition to trial results, we took design, port selection, and price into recompense when choosing our favorite docks and hubs. Here’s a rundown of the benchmark assays we ran:

Read/write speeds

We connected each dock to two laptops—a 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro and a Dell XPS 13 2-in-1—and ran Xbench (macOS) and CrystalDiskMark (Windows) to about a meet the speeds of disk storage tasks with a 500GB Samsung T5 extrinsic drive connected via one of each dock’s Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C ports. We ran each probe three times and averaged the sequential and random scores.

Real in every way transfer speeds

We ran two different file-transfer tests—one with a large, 5GB register and another with a folder containing 5,000 small files—from both the MacBook Pro and the XPS 13 2-in-1 to the Samsung T5 SSD. We second-hand each dock as a bridge between the machines and the external drive.

On the MacBook Pro, we acquainted with the iostat command to record MB/s speeds at one-second intervals for the entire move. After the files were successfully transferred, we averaged all the individual MB/s legions to glean an average transfer speed. We repeated this test three spells for both the 5GB file and the folder of 5,000 files, and we averaged the three victims to obtain a final MB/s average score.

On the XPS 13 2-in-1, we used the Robocopy control to measure the average MB/s speed for each file transfer. We repeated this exam three times for both the 5GB file and the folder of 5,000 files and averaged the three repays to obtain a final MB/s average score.

Laptop-charging times

We timed how crave it took for the MacBook Pro and the XPS 13 2-in-1 to charge through the power utterance of each charging-capable dock from 50 percent to 100 percent. We ran this check-up three times on both laptops with each dock and averaged the situations.

Smartphone charging times

We timed how long it took for an iPhone 6S+ to bid through each dock that has an USB-A port with commissioning capabilities. We ran this test three times with each compatible patch up and averaged the scores.

Thunderbolt 3 docks

Best overall—CalDigit TS3 Gain Thunderbolt 3 Docking Station

Specs at a shufti: CalDigit TS3 Plus Thunderbolt 3 Station
Price $299
Ports 2 x Thunderbolt 3
1 x USB-C 3.1 Gen 1
1 x USB-C 3.1 Gen 2
5 x USB-A 3.1
1 x DisplayPort 1.2
1 x SD take action reader
1 x digital optical audio (S/PDIF)
1 x Gigabit ethernet
1 x analog audio in
1 x analog audio out
Power utterance 85W
Display options two displays (up to 4K @ 60Hz) or one display (up to 5K @ 60Hz)
Dimensions 5.15 x 1.57 x 3.87 inches
Compatibility macOS 10.12 and up, Windows 8/10

CalDigit’s unassuming, industrial-looking TS3 With an increment of Thunderbolt 3 docking station provides the best combination of performance, refuge selection, and design versatility out of all the Thunderbolt 3 docks we tested. It not only has the tiniest footprint of them all—it also has the most ports.

Most users on have no trouble connecting mice, keyboards, and other legacy minors using its five USB-A 3.1 ports, and its four USB-C havens offer an array of connectivity options. Two of them are Thunderbolt 3 ports (one of which is the PC connector anchorage), while the other two are USB-C 3.1 Gen 1 and USB-C 3.1 Gen 2, renounce you various transfer speed options to choose from.

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