Last year I earned the dubious distinction of having flown 100,000 miles, a schedule of working travel that’s familiar to many a photographer. Spending weeks at a time away from home as I do, I’m a big proponent of the idea of making a laptop computer your only computer, something I wrote about here in Digital Photo Pro.
Apple’s MacBook Pro has been my laptop of choice since the company first launched them, and I’ve owned every generation of them since. Every few model years, Apple makes a design change, adding the various connectivity options du jour. More often than not, Apple gains more attention for what they remove then they do for what they’ve added.
That’s certainly the case with the MacBook Pro, which ditched a number of connections in favor of the new USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 connection. Sharing the same physical plug, USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 are both transmitted on the same cable (as is power for the laptop), and the throughput on Thunderbolt 3 is so high that it’s been designed to connect computers to a variety of devices, either directly or via “dongles,” connectors that adapt USB-C to older standards like Ethernet, DVI, Thunderbolt 2/Thunderbolt, FireWire, and so on.
For the laptop user, that can mean an entire, cumbersome pile of cables and adapters just to connect to the various devices used in a creative workflow. When the MacBook Pro first shipped, I had to connect to four different dongles just to get working.
The MacBook Pro has only four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, which sounds like a lot, but seems tragically too few once you consider that one needs to be used for power, one for a monitor and a chain of hard drives, one for a USB 3.x adapter, one for Ethernet, and so on.
For the desktop-bound laptop user, the solution to all your Thunderbolt 3 woes is a Thunderbolt 3 dock. Thunderbolt 3 docks take a single Thunderbolt 3 cable and use it to power the laptop and also act as an adapter to a number of different connections.
Thunderbolt 3 is so powerful that a single cable can carry power, video, networking, and peripheral support. A Thunderbolt 3 dock eliminates the cable-and-adapter dilemma and acts as a single source for most connectivity needs. In practice, it’s like having the back of a desktop computer, sitting next to your laptop.
I’ve tried a number of these docks since the 2016 launch of the MacBook Pro and the best, by far is the OWC Thunderbolt 3/USB-C dock. The small, unobtrusive dock has 13 ports and massive functionality.
We Review The MacBook Pro
It can provide power to the laptop (which in turn can power devices via the other Thunderbolt 3 ports), allows for connection to up to two 4K displays (or one 5K display), can connect to (and power) six USB 3.1 Gen 1 devices. It also includes a FireWire 800 connector for legacy drives and camcorders, an Ethernet jack for communications and networking, and an SD card reader built-in. Audio users can connect headphones or microphones to the front jack, and a digital-audio connector on the back allows for pro audio mixing and recording.
There are very few drawbacks with the OWC Thunderbolt 3 hub. Because the hub is compact, there’s little room on the back for plugging-and-unplugging cables, and any time I need to change something (which is not very often) I usually accidentally unplug the main Thunderbolt 3 cable running to my Mac, at which point the display loses sync, and I usually have to restart to get the communicating again. Considering I only move cables around because I’m a professional reviewer, and I have a lot of configuration changes to do, this isn’t a big deal.
Unlike some of the other hubs I’ve tried, the OWC hub doesn’t have an issue with dongle-based connections to Thunderbolt 3 drives. With some hubs, plugging a Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter into the available USB-C ports on the dock simply doesn’t work. With the OWC dock, there’s no problem with this backwards compatibility.
At $300 this is a no-brainer for the photographer working on the road and then back in the office. It solves the “ugly wiring” issues of connecting things to the side of a laptop, and it reduces the hassle of getting ready for work.
For more information on the OWC Thunderbolt 3 dock, visit the OWC website.