Docking stations are not so unusual in the Windows world, where business types can slot their laptop into a port replicator on the desk to quickly wire themselves into the corporate network. Many business laptops come bristling with bizarre-looking multipin docks on their underside to couple with just such docks.
Apple has been there before with its earliest PowerBook notebooks; but now that the latest Unibody series of MacBook Pros sees all ports and connectors ranged along one side, it’s a tempting proposition to create a slot-in docking solution. One that allows an easy mating of all those ports in one snap-on dock. And that’s exactly what Techne Industries has done with its Byte-dock.
The Byte-dock looks like a neat answer to a common situation: at home and on the road, use the laptop as intended, with its own screen, trackpad and keyboard. Come to the work space, and plug in a few cables to hook up to a larger monitor, the wired network and assorted desktop peripherals. The author does it everyday with a pre-Unibody model.
The difference with most such laptop-meets-monitor setups is the way this dock grips the notebook fully closed. It’s easier to drop in a closed laptop, but you do lose out on the extra screen real estate offered by still using the laptop screen.
There’s also the question of cooling. It’s quite viable to run a MacBook Pro in closed clamshell mode in OS X Lion, although you do lose a little convection cooling through the keyboard. In our tests, the MacBook Pro would still run fine with the cooling fan venting through the narrow gap along the length of the screen hinge.
With the Byte-dock, you get a near-exact replication of all that’s already available on the MacBook Pro. No more, and actually a few features less. And that is a little disappointing.
Version are available for the 13in, 15in and 17in Unibody versions of the Apple MacBook Pro. You slide the notebook down into the top – quite gently though, as there six different plugs to mate with those in the computer body. The upright walls of the Byte-dock help guide the upright frame, while rubber bumps inside support it securely.
Our MacBook didn’t slide in so slickly – we had to wriggle it a little to get it to mate in place every time, and we’re inclined to believe there will be some wear on the laptop’s port edges after daily use.
Various dock ports are placed on both ends of the Byte-dock; most on one end. You could place the dock on the desk so that the most populated end with more ‘fixed’ interfaces remains at the back: ethernet, Mini Display Port/Thunderbolt, FireWire 800 and one USB 2.0.
That leaves the MacBook Pro’s second USB 2.0 and headphone jack on the front, for easier desktop access of these commonly accessed items.
Because the MBP has a single combo headset/mic jack, this is replicated up front. The Byte-dock has a spare, blanked-off cutout for a mic jack here too. Sadly missing from the Byte-dock though is the Toslink optical digital output that Apple provides through the centre of the audio jack.
A bigger ommision is anything to mate with the MacBook’s power port, the Apple MagSafe connector. This innovative solution to charging laptops is a magnetic attachment that easily pulls off if you trip over the wire, to thereby save countless expensive accidents.
Instead, the Byte-dock has a cut-out in the block where MagSafe sits, to hook up to your regular Apple power adaptor cable. So you must manually wire that up each time you dock your Mac.
Another cut-out in the Byte-dock chassis allows it to be used with an SD card inserted on the MacBook Pro.
Design and expansion
Styling is a matter of taste, but we found the Byte-dock a rather clunky looking block. Apple’s creations are about a whole lot more than award-winning hardware design, yet those classy looks do count for many people.
Anyone that admires the MacBook’s clean lines could be less likely to appreciate the way the union of notebook and dock becomes an angular upright edifice.
Constructed from injection-molded ABS plastic, the Byte-dock is not the most polished of designs. We’d be more inclined to hide the whole MacBook-plus-Byte-dock ensemble out of sight behind our monitor, rather than show off the tower of power front and centre.
But if we focus again on functionality, perhaps the real lost opportunity is in providing some expansion for the MacBook Pro’s limited portage. First stop would be to expand Apple’s pitifully low USB 2.0 port count, turning two into a handy four or five.
That would require some external power for USB bus power, and since the MagSafe adaptor is out of bounds, a second supply would be needed to power the dock. But if it saves on having to accomodate a powered USB hub next to the dock, it would still make for a cleaner desktop.
A much more exciting possibility would be to exploit the incredible potential of the Thunderbolt port. More high-speed interfaces could be added, to really make the Byte-dock a useful notebook hub.
Another FireWire port (400 and 800) or two, and a clutch of USB ports would be invaluable – including some of the increasingly popular USB 3.0 type.
We appreciate that this extra sophistication may not come cheap. But nor is the Byte-dock in its current limited configuration, at £150 inclusive of delivery. You also get a £15 Mini DisplayPort to HDMI cable, 1.8m in length.
But for that price, we’d be happier to see more attractive lines and some useful expansion over the existing line-up.