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 Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Express Dock.

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 LG Ultrafine 5K monitor 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 Dell UltraSharp U2715H 27-Inch Screen LED-Lit Monitor 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 Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Express Dock 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!