Two docking station products set to ship in September of this year promise to bring USB 3.0, and much more, to the Mac.
By taking advantage of the Thunderbolt port on recent Macs, Belkin and Matrox will soon offer docks that allow most owners of Thunderbolt-equipped laptops and desktops to take full advantage of speedy USB 3.0 peripherals for the first time.
While USB 3.0 devices are backwards compatible with the USB 2.0 ports found on all Macs, those devices can operate only at slower USB 2.0 speed--480 megabits per second instead of 5 gigabits per second for USB 3.0. Presently, only owners of 17-inch MacBook Pros with ExpressCard slots or Mac Pro models with PCIe expansion slots have access to third party add-on cards that let Macs take full advantage of the types of USB 3.0 storage devices that are popular in the Windows world.
Of the two docking products announced this week, the $400 Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock offers the largest number of connections. It includes three USB 3.0 ports, one FireWire 800 port, a gigabit ethernet port, an eSATA connection, and a Mini DisplayPort connection. The Belkin dock also has headphone and microphone inputs as well as a second Thunderbolt port for daisy chaining additional Thunderbolt devices. A Mini DisplayPort to DVI adapter will also be included in the box.
For $150 less, the $249 Matrox DS1 offers a gigabit ethernet port, one USB 3.0 port, two USB 2.0 ports, headphone and microphone ports, and a DVI connector. The Matrox dock takes up less desktop real estate than the Belkin product, but doesn't include any FireWire 800 ports--which MacBook Air users might find handy--or a second Thunderbolt port for connecting other Thunderbolt devices.
Apple's $999 Thunderbolt Display ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) already offers several of these connections, including FireWire 800, USB 2.0, gigabit ethernet, and a second Thunderbolt port for daisy chaining--but not USB 3.0. But for those interested in USB 3.0--and don't need a 27-inch glossy display--these docks will make a lot more sense.
Both companies say their products will work with Thunderbolt-equipped PCs--which have yet to appear on the market--as well.
James Galbraith is Macworld's lab director and PCWorld's senior lab manager.