Review: Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Express Dock & Macbook Pro

After acquiring a 2016 MacBook Pro 13″, I ran into the dilemma everyone has been facing: how do you handle so many dongles to connect existing peripherals to this new generation of laptops with only USB-C & Thunderbolt 3 connections? My solution for home office use was to purchase the .

The coolest thing about a proper Thunderbolt 3 dock? A single cable to my 2016 Macbook Pro 13″ for power AND data, with maximum transfer rates I won’t likely hit anytime soon even if I purchased a 5K Monitor!

At $349.95, the Belkin dock is expensive, however I chose it because:

  • The only Thunderbolt 3 dock available as of this writing (July 22, 2017). In fact, I walked into an Apple Store and bought it there. The OWC Thunderbolt 3 dock is supposedly starting to ship pre-orders, but who knows when I would receive mine if I ordered it today. The other one that caught my eye, the Henge Dock Tethered, doesn’t even have a date yet for its Thunderbolt 3 version.
  • The front and rear 3.5mm audio jacks, which is the only Thunderbolt 3 dock advertised anywhere to have two of these in this configuration. I still like using wired headphones at home.
  • I had no need for a SD slot or Firewire 2 or S/PDIF connections. I could have used the extra two USB-A connections, but it wasn’t critical as I have a USB hub in my monitor.
  • I liked the looks of the Belkin dock.

A few tidbits on this dock…

Audio

A major attractor to me was the 3.5mm audio out jack on the rear of the unit and a 3.5mm input/output headphone jack on the front of the unit. This allows me to connect my existing speakers to the rear jack and plug in my headphones to the front jack. Couldn’t find any other Thunderbolt 3 dock that supports this, as they all had a single 3.5mm jack on either the front or rear, or separate 3.5mm jacks for input/output.

After connecting the dock to my Macbook Pro and rebooting, I had to go into the MacOS Sound preferences and select USB audio CODEC on the Output tab. The music I was playing instantly switched over to the speakers connected via the dock.

Connect headphones to the front 3.5mm jack and music instantly switches over. Likewise, disconnecting the headphones from the front jack switches back the music to the speakers automatically.

Pleasant surprise: the hardware audio control keys (change tracks, raise/lower volume, mute) all still work on both rear and front 3.5mm jacks! I was worried as connecting speakers to my monitor’s 3.5mm audio jack disables these buttons.

Networking

Gigabit ethernet seems to work well via the dock, no issues. I did notice I had to reboot my MacBook after connecting the dock for the first time before it recognized the Ethernet interface. Presumably some sort of driver install thing? Subsequent disconnection/reconnection made the Ethernet interface appear instantly.

Also, in the Network preferences, MacOS automatically assigned the Thunderbolt Ethernet interface to the #1 priority on the list, over Wi-Fi, as one would hope.

Nothing else noteworthy here.

USB-A Ports

There are two rear and one front USB-A ports on this dock. They seem to work as advertised, no issues here. This dock also works fine if you plug in a USB-A hub into one of these ports. I connected my monitor’s USB hub to the dock and everything plugged into the monitor (webcam, hard drive, lighting cable) all worked well from what I could tell. I ended up using one of the USB-A ports on the rear for the monitor hub and the other rear USB-A port for my webcam to ensure it wasn’t bandwidth starved.

USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 Ports

There are two rear USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 combo ports on this dock. Since I don’t have an USB-C cables with the exception of the one that connects the MacBook to the dock, I couldn’t test the other remaining port here. Not expecting any major difference though.

That said, I am disappointed not a single dock on the market has more than two USB-C ports. I would gladly trade the front USB-A port on this Belkin dock for a front USB-C port since that is the wave of the future and that seems like the port that would see the most cable / flash drive changes (and thus, the endless battle of which side of a USB-A connector is correct). USB-C would solve this problem and help nudge folks to transition frequently plugged in devices to USB-C. Seems like Belkin was aiming for helping short term existing cables / flash drives vs. making this dock last long term.

DisplayPort

Connecting my monitor to this full size DisplayPort port  caused no issues, assuming you have the appropriate cable. In my case, my cable is a Mini DisplayPort to full size DisplayPort and the monitor supports either connection. Thus, I plugged the Mini DisplayPort end into the monitor and the full size DisplayPort end into the dock. Worked flawlessly.

Support for 4K/5K Monitors

Supposedly this dock supports a single 5K monitor (such as the or two 4K monitors (one via DisplayPort, one via USB-C/Thunderbolt 3). I did not get a chance to test this, as I do not own a 4K or 5K monitor.

That said, my monitor works flawlessly with this dock and I have future proofed my home office setup, at least until 8K monitors and Thunderbolt 4 shows up.

Power Brick

This thing is massive and gets warm. I have it hidden away, but still sad it has to be this big. It can also apparently power a full 15″ MacBook Pro over USB-3/Thunderbolt, although mine is only a 13″.

Also, the actual dock gets warm to the touch.

Conclusion

The does the job for me, abet at a steep price. Belkin has the advantage of first to market and so far this is as rock solid as a solution as you would hope for. Plus that single cable!

 

Two weeks with the Apple Watch

Two weeks ago, I purchased my Apple Watch. I chose the Sport model in Space Gray, 42mm. Why the Apple Watch vs. a regular watch vs. wearing no watch? What are my opinions of the Apple Watch? Would I recommend it?

My past experiences with watches

I have worn watches off/on over the years, although I have not worn one since I bought my first iPhone, the iPhone 3G, in 2008. Generally I have had these problems with traditional watches:

  • It’s awesome not having to change the battery for long periods of time, until you realize the battery has died at the most inopportune time. I never have a battery on hand either, which meant finding a store locally that had one or waiting for Amazon to ship one to me. Additionally, some watches are quite difficult to open without the proper tools.
  • I loathe having to update the watch when changing time zones, for DST, etc. In fact, I have a growing dislike for any device (alarm clock, stove, microwave, etc) that requires manual time updates.
  • Outside of telling time, it is not that useful to me. I would frequently forget to put it on. And in 2008, I just stopped putting it on.

The Apple Watch is really different

Others have complained about a watch that requires a daily charge, but this doesn’t bother me on bit. No more worrying about the watch dying when I needed it most (when I’m awake), assuming it had more than enough power to get through the day and that I plugged it in every night. Plus never worrying about having to change the battery.

I like the looks of the Apple Watch and it seems it would fit for every occasion, from exercising to formal events. It tells time accurately and stays up-to-date no matter what time zone I’m in. I can add complications for different bits of info I’m interested in.

The intriguing possibility of not having to pull out the iPhone, iPad, or MacBook for certain bits of information such as the time and notifications really caught my eye. Similar to the classic saying of using a scalpel vs. a blunt instrument, little efficiencies add up over time.

How has the past two weeks been?

The remarkable part of the past few weeks is how effortlessly the Apple Watch has been integrated into my life. It truly does seem to make certain tasks a bit more efficient and it has already changed several behaviors of mine.

Fitness

I have been very bad about exercising the past few years, as life working for a startup has occupied a lot of my time and energy. But the gentle taps of the Watch informing me about my activity progress and the subtle indicator of my current activity goals for the day is addicting and has gotten me moving far more than I used to.

Tracking my fitness activity on the Apple Watch
Tracking my fitness activity on the Apple Watch

Now every morning I take a 15 minute walk outside before work that equals ~ 1 mile, something I never used to do. I find myself trying to stretch out my activity a bit longer to meet some milestone, such as 100 calories burned or 20 vs. 15 minutes exercising. I often go for walks every day after work as well, sometimes 3-4 miles, a lot more frequently than I used to. Not to mention that I use a standing desk at my work, which helps the stats as well.

I’m consistently above my goals most days, which likely means I should increase those goals soon. I’m contemplating how I can add a morning run to my routine and competing in more 5K’s. Additionally, I would like to get some strength training too.

Daily Calendar

As a Product Manager, my work life is ruled for better or worse by my calendar. So being able to view my next event at a flick of a wrist has been very handy. During work hours, I switch my watch face to a more text-based version that not just shows the next meeting on my calendar, but what room that meeting is in. This has become very handy at the end of a meeting, where I can quickly check where I am supposed to be off to next without making a scene.

With the modular watch face, I can easily glance at what's next on my day.
With the modular watch face, I can easily glance at what’s next on my day.

But on weekends and evenings my schedule isn’t quite as busy. As a result, I will often switch to a watch face that is much more minimal and traditional, with fewer complications turned on. For example, I typically remove the calendar complication and use the utility watch face. This intentional simplification and slightly fuzzier sense of time aids me a little bit with trying to relax and unwind.

Showing my version of the Apple Watch's utility face, which I use on weekends and evenings.
Showing my version of the Apple Watch’s utility face, which I use on weekends and evenings.

Smart(er) with notifications

Everyone reviewing the Apple Watch is right: notifications on your wrist are very handy, but be smart about which notifications you allow. Receiving notification taps too often becomes annoying and not a great use of your time. So immediately I began turning off notifications for various apps.

I’m not quite in a happy place with this yet, but I’m getting close. With these tweaked notifications, I seem more aware of when I feel a notification on my wrist. I can also sense the different tap/vibration styles a bit better as there are fewer of them. And it looks/feels more natural for me to check the time in social settings when I’m sneaking a look at a notification.

Saving time by more efficiently checking notifications (combined with fewer of them) is a nice win.

Apps

So far third-party apps haven’t been that exciting for me, with a few exceptions. I do use:

  • Dark Sky for weather notifications. This is probably my favorite Watch app so far. Every morning at 7am I am notified about the day’s conditions and I receive any alerts if precipitation is about to start/end.
  • 1Password is invaluable already, as I can put various codes (such as my garage door code) in an easy to find place.
  • MLB At-Bat for its glances. I can easily check the score of the Red Sox game.
  • I use Siri a lot for recording reminders that come to mind, which are added automatically by OmniFocus into its Inbox. Lots of quick reminders being created now that I would otherwise forget.
  • I put all of my 2FA codes on the Watch as well.
  • It was pretty neat to receive eBay notifications from their app when an item I was auctioning received a bid.

I’m really curious about what watchOS 2.0’s native app capabilities do to help increase my use of 3rd-party apps here.

First test of Photos app and iCloud Photo Library

A few days ago I decided to try out the OS X 10.10.3 public beta and the new beta of the Photos app. I have been very excited about the promises Apple has made about the Photos app and how they aim to make managing my photo library easy and seamless.

After sufficiently backing up our old iPhoto Libraries and paying the small monthly fee for 200GB of iCloud Storage, I launched Photos for the first time and had it run through its import of my iPhoto library and sync it to iCloud.

The sync took about 36 hours for ~100GB of photos, which didn’t seem too bad all things considered. I then replicated the same for my wife’s ~60GB photo library on her account, paying for another 200GB of iCloud Storage. For $3.99 apiece per month, it seems like cheap insurance for our priceless photos, although it’s too bad my wife and I can’t share the storage. Plus we were both running up against our free 5GB limits already thanks to iOS backups.

Once both syncs were done, I enabled use of iCloud Photo Library on all of our iOS devices and chose to store the optimized versions of photos, downloading on demand the full resolution copy. On our home Mac, we have the full libraries downloaded so that they always contain a master copy of the photos. This Mac of course is backed up by Time Machine and Backblaze. Technically now we have copies of photos in four locations now, two of them off-site. That seems like solid redundancy.

So far…so good! The photos really seem to sync effortlessly without worrying about it. Edits to photos also sync and are completely reversable. I also like the new Photos app a lot, scrolling is so fast and a million times better than iPhoto.

Today we had our first test of iCloud Photo Library after a minor fender bender in a parking lot (don’t worry, no one was hurt and very little damage to the cars). I took photos of both car’s and their damage. When I arrived home, I opened up the Macbook, launched the new Photos app, and the photos I took were already there thanks to iCloud Photo Library.

30 seconds later and I had them exported and attached in an email to my insurance company for our insurance claim.

Finally. Effortless photo management. Even for a beta, Apple seems to be off to a good start. If this is a sign of Apple renewing their commitment to software quality after some recent concerns, I’m excited for the future.

Thank You Steve

When I think of Steve Jobs, I don’t think about how great of a salesman he was, the market cap of Apple, or the fact that he resurrected a company left for dead in the biggest turnaround in corporate history. Although he certainly did pretty well doing the above.

I think of his endless drive to make computers devices that people want to use and have fun using. To make it so my grandmother will not be intimidated by a computer. So someone can have their entire music library available with one touch of a finger on a click wheel. Seeing a 2-year-old figure out an iPad and begin learning because of how intuitive it is.

There is the attention to detail that is unrivaled in the industry. When you pick up an iPhone, you are just in awe. Same thing with a MacBook Pro. Same thing with an iPad.

It was always weird to me that most people called computers running Windows “personal computers.” The only true personal computers were products who’s idea was directly influenced by Steve Jobs. My iPhone is just as much of a personal computer as my MacBook Pro. No one else has had the vision to make devices that work so well at what they do for the vast majority of people who need such a device. There is a reason why so many people have personal connection with an Apple device.

The world lost someone special today. His vision will go on.

Godspeed Mr. Jobs.

New AT&T data plans

Last week there was certainly lots of talk about AT&T’s new data plans across the Internet. The reaction seemed to fall into two camps from what I could see: 1) heavy data users that absolutely hated the plans or 2) people who would save money and appreciated the plans. After doing some comparisons, I think I fall under #2. Here is my thought process behind it.

A quick look at my data usage shows that my wife and I could easily live with the 200MB data plan. Below is my data usage:

The next is my wife’s data usage:

The closest I ever got to the max that a 200MB plan would allow is 170MB. Closest my wife got was 143MB in one month and usually averages below 100MB.

We now have three options here:

  1. My wife and I could both drop down to the 200MB plan. Our phone bill drops about $30, which results in a $360 savings over the course of a year.
  2. My wife drops down to the 200MB plan, I use the new 2GB plan with the tethering option selected (for work and traveling reasons, it would be very nice to have). Her drop to the 200MB plan saves $15 a month, plus my drop to the 2GB plan saves $5 a month for a total of $20 savings. Then with tethering for me costing $20, we break about even with what we pay now.
  3. Keep our current “unlimited” data plans.

I am leaning towards option #2 here. I am not losing anything, since I never went near the “unlimited” data plan’s max of 5GB a month. I am gaining tethering and end up paying about the same monthly bill.

The future of computing: iPad review

I am writing this review tonight on my brand new 32GB iPad while watching the Red Sox and Yankees opening night game on TV. For the rest of the week I am going to try using the iPad as my home computing device. How much can I do of my normal home computer routine without pulling out my MacBook?

I suspect much of it. The iPad is that good.

Browsing through my Google Reader feeds is effortless on this device and quick. Reading and responding to email is quick and easy. Browsing and using the various web sites I often go to is like literally touching the internet with my fingertips. Watching a video, whether it is on Youtube or streaming Netflix is amazing with this screen. I can get the latest best selling book or a classic public domain book. The text rendering is great and I haven’t experienced any eye fatigue.

All of this without an overheating and clunky laptop on my lap. I instead just have an insanely thin and solid device to work with. A touchscreen that is a joy to use. Absolutely beautiful applications. This is what a computer should be: easy, fast, and enjoyable. Years of supporting people who don’t get all of the arcane computer concepts shows me this is a device for them as well as us geeks.

I can honestly say that I can see this device replacing a laptop for many people. Right now I am wondering if my next computer purchase should be a desktop. It is that good. There are times when a laptop is still called for. I know I wouldn’t want to type a book on this. I know I can’t do my job on this device. I know that it has limited multitasking. I sure wouldn’t want to rip a DVD if that were even possible.

Man it is fun to use though. When I am home, I just want a fun and efficient computer to use. This does that perfectly. The future of computing is now.

Why I pre-ordered the iPad

Friday morning (after a slight hitch with a gift card) I ordered a 32GB iPad (Wi-Fi only). I am sure some of you are wondering why I threw down $599 on a tablet device that maybe 30 journalists have touched for 15 minutes apiece. Here are my reasons.

As far as cost goes, it actually costs me out of pocket not that much. I had a gift card from my employer that covered the vast majority of the purchase. How I had the will power to not spend it to now? Even that amazes me.

The light went off in my head after the iPad was announced on exactly the type of scenario where I would use the iPad heavily. Every day when I come home from work, I usually sit down on the couch and catch up on any RSS feed reading I hadn’t done during the day, catching up on Twitter, Facebook, etc.

Right now I either use my iPhone or I grab my laptop. With an iPhone, it is much more suited for quick tasks not for a hour of reading and surfing the Internet. The laptop however is overkill for this task: short battery life, very little need for a keyboard in most cases, hard for me to be comfortable using it. I also typically only do one or two tasks at a time during this time period anyways, barely multitasking.

I held a book roughly the dimensions of an iPad to see how it may be for these types of situations. Was I comfortable? Could I easily do the touch motions that I can do on an iPhone? It truly seemed perfect.

Speaking of books, another reason for this is I really want to do heavy reading again. One of my big skills is how fast I can read, I have been known to finish 400-500 page books easily in one day. Buying books results in lots of clutter in our small place. I also will be doing some traveling for work reasons this year, so I want a device I can easily carry with some books for these trips. Consolidating these books onto one small device sounds perfect to me. I could also see an argument for not bringing my laptop along on some trips. Depends on where I am going, but it is certainly a possibility.

Finally, obviously I have 100% confidence in the UI. Apple almost never messes up the UI, especially lately. Their development tools do a great job at getting 3rd-party developers to follow along with their UI design. I am exited to see what applications are created for the iPad. I can’t wait for example to see what someone pulls off with a genealogy application. That could be stellar for research purposes.

I am really looking forward to April 3rd. Hopefully it goes as I think it will!

A computer for most of us

I am really excited about the Apple iPad that was announced a few days ago. It seems like it would solve a lot of computing issues not just for me, but most every day people who aren’t computer experts. This appears to be the first computer that I would feel absolutely comfortable with my grandmother to use, yet powerful enough for me to use it often.

In the morning before I go to work or in the evening when I am relaxing, there is very few times where I do a lot of typing. During these times, my predominate use of my Macbook is for browsing the web, reading Google Reader, checking Facebook & Twitter, and checking my e-mail. Most of my e-mail replies are a couple sentences long at most.

Some times I do this on my iPhone, which works well at these tasks. For me, the iPhone is great for a quick run through of that list above, but not good if I spend more than 10-15 minutes doing this. The iPhone’s battery drains fast, the screen is too small to do a ton of reading, there is a loss of flexibility many of the dedicated apps for these purposes not having all the functionality I may need.

When I do it on my Macbook, I gain the most functionality, but I lose the simplicity and efficiency of the iPhone approach. I get a bigger screen, the ability to type incredibly fast with keyboard shortcuts, better battery life, the ability to run many applications at the same time. There is a price for this though. I easily get distracted with many applications running at the same time. The applications can be incredibly complex, buggy, and unwieldy at times, some with code bases that date back 20 years or more. I would argue that laptops themselves are bulky (even the traditionally very thin Apple laptops) and can have heat issues that can make using one uncomfortable.

How do I see the iPad solving these issues? By taking the best of both approaches.

The iPad gets the bigger screen but still extremely portable, as thin as many books or a new notepad. I can just hold it with my hands, not resting it on my lap. I gain the huge speed and simplicity benefits of an iPhone like touchscreen interface, yet with the bigger screen the applications can be more complex if needed like their laptop cousins. There isn’t the heat issues, the battery is far better than any laptop (10 hours),  a faster processor than phones that doesn’t have to worry about handling the complex desktop Operating Systems like laptops. There is even accessories so I can do camera imports and manage them on the device.

For those morning and evening browsing sessions that I do nearly every day, the iPad would be perfectly suited for them. Of course there will be tasks that my laptop with a full desktop OS would be better suited for. As beautiful as the new iWork apps are for the iPad, I wouldn’t want to work on a complex spreadsheet on it from scratch. I wouldn’t write this long blog post on an iPad (unless I used the keyboard accessory…hmm). Managing my music and video collections will still need that computer, as they would have a tough time fitting on even a 64GB iPad. Plus I don’t even know if an iPad can sync its library with an iPhone yet.

That is not even getting into the added benefits the iPad gives to common people, like:

  • Security: there hasn’t been one virus or high-profile security breach for iPhones (excluding jailbroken ones). This is despite the iPhone being an obvious target for hackers given its dominance.
  • App Store: one stop shop to finding applications, applications get updates easily, and reviews to know the apps are good or not.
  • No multitasking: What? A feature? For those who get easily confused about multiple apps running, sucking CPU and battery life, this is a feature. It took months for one family member of mine to realize that they should quit applications instead of just closing their windows and leaving them running. My grandparents have a hard time keeping track of one application, never mind 5. Keep it simple. In the end, I bet limited multitasking will be introduced, but not until Apple gets it right.
  • Flexibility: Apps make this device work far longer than any computer would normally last. Those special digital photo frames you can buy? Get an iPad, dock, and it doubles as one when you aren’t using it. Plus higher quality display and more storage.

I predict that the iPad will become the computer of the future for the common people, while being a valuable companion for geeks who really do not need to use a full desktop computer every time they need their Internet fix. I know I will be in line for one, my mother is also wanting one too.