As “really good Mac accessory ideas” go, Thunderbolt docks are high on the list. It’s hard to overstate the sheer convenience of connecting a bunch of peripherals to a central hub, then running one Thunderbolt cable from the hub to your Mac — a huge time-saver if you’re frequently bringing any Thunderbolt-equipped MacBook in and out of an office full of hardware.
Earlier this year, Elgato’s original Thunderbolt Dock brought that convenience to Macs with first-generation Thunderbolt Ports. For the same $230 price, the just-released Thunderbolt 2 Dock ramps up the speed using twin Thunderbolt 2 connectors, and also boosts the performance of integrated USB 3.0, HDMI video, and analog audio-out ports. The under-the-hood changes make it a solid pick regardless of whether you have a newer Mac with Thunderbolt 2, and even if you’re using an older Mac with Thunderbolt.
Just like the first Thunderbolt Dock, the Thunderbolt 2 Dock has a silver aluminum frame with a black plastic core, drawing most of its power from an included wall power adapter, and connecting to your Mac with a bundled 1.6-foot Thunderbolt cable. The two models look highly similar to one another, but the newer version’s front and rear ports are in trivially different orders. Elgato includes three USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, a 3.5mm microphone input port, a USB-to-analog 3.5mm audio out port, a 10/100/1000 Ethernet port and an HDMI port. Apart from the tweaked arrangement of the ports, which continue to let you connect up to eight accessories to your Mac at the same time, the connectors look the same as before, hiding their new functionality inside.
This time out, the Dock’s USB 3.0 ports include standalone 1.5-Amp power output with USB Battery Charging 1.2/UASP standard compliance, enabling them to recharge iPads and iPhones at higher speeds even when a Mac isn’t connected. Similarly, Elgato uses the Thunderbolt connection to share digital USB audio output from your Mac, providing a powered amplifier for the 3.5mm stereo audio port; the mic input next to it is monaural. Another major change is the HDMI port, which now supports the HDMI 1.4b standard and 4096×2160 resolution output, if you’re planning to connect your Mac to a 4K monitor. Not surprisingly, your Mac will still need enough video card horsepower to drive all those pixels.
Elgato has also upgraded the Thunderbolt ports on the Thunderbolt 2 Dock. The Thunderbolt 2 ports both promise up to 20Gb/second, bi-directional input and output, though you’ll notably need one of the ports to connect to your Mac, leaving the other one for a hard drive, monitor, or other Thunderbolt/Thunderbolt 2 peripheral. Practically, the speeds that you get between the Mac and the Thunderbolt 2 Dock will depend on how many devices are competing for bandwidth with the single outbound connection, and you may or may not achieve full Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2 speeds. Elgato’s own Thunderbolt Drive+ ran at full 373MB/second read speeds when connected to the Dock or a Mac, but write speeds fell for reasons unknown from 328MB/sec to 287MB/sec.
Some of this might be software-dependent. Elgato offers a free Thunderbolt Dock Utility to enable simultaneous all-device ejection from your Mac, full-speed USB 3.0 support, and proper iPad charging on the Mac. It’s currently at version 1.1, and we didn’t notice any speed differences between versions 1.0 and 1.1 when using the Utility with the Thunderbolt 2 Dock. We’ll see whether a future version boosts the throughput speeds.
Conceptually, the Thunderbolt 2 Dock overlaps a lot with Belkin’s Thunderbolt 2 Express Dock HD, which offers similar ports, features, and speeds for a higher $300 price. Belkin’s bundled Thunderbolt cable is a little longer, and it has two audio outputs — one for speakers, one for headphones — rather than an output and a mic, but the USB, 4K HDMI, and audio port enhancements in Elgato’s version make it at least equally strong as a rival, at a $70 lower price. If you want to enjoy the convenience of a single-cable connection between multiple peripherals and your Mac, the Thunderbolt 2 Dock is very easy to recommend.