Where are my thunderbolt devices?

Very few PC users will have these yet, but every Mac made in the last couple of years sports a tiny new port with a lightening bolt on it – the thunderbolt port. Like firewire back in the day, thunderbolt seems to have almost glacial adoption in the industry despite promising amazing things that USB just can’t compete with. As with firewire, thunderbolt devices are out there, just ridiculously expensive.

I remember back in 2000 when I bought a shiny new PowerMac G4, it sported two firewire ports. At the time, there were very few, if any, firewire devices out there apart from the horribly expensive high end video gear. That port, I believe, sat unused for two years before I bought an external CD burner. Fast forward a few more years and I had five or more external drives and devices daisy chained at any one time … and loving it!

I loved firewire. I loved it for everything USB was not: it was full-duplex, you could daisy-chain devices, and devices could talk to one another rather than have to go through the computer and back out again. Despite FW400’s spec of 400Mbps compared to USB2’s 480Mbps, it was not comparing apples to apples. Firewire often ended up being faster due to it’s architecture, because of it’s full-duplex-ness and it’s ability to communicate with other firewire devices on it’s chain, the real speed would far exceed the dumb USB devices that had to wait for the host machine to tell it what to do. It’s the equivalent of taking the express train instead of the milk run.

The port war continued, with Firewire 800 coming out (which I still use). There has been terrible adoption on the windows PC side, missing out on Firewire’s architecture benefits in favour of on-paper speed and now the release of USB3 (promising 5Gbps speeds) clearly burying firewire for good.

When I got my current machine, a MacbookPro 17”, It was the first (I believe) to sport Firewire’s successor – the thunderbolt port. I was excited. It promised 10Gbps (twice that of USB3) and all the benefits of firewire in terms of being able to daisy-chain it. The best part is that it relies on existing standards. The thunderbolt port (and controller) is really a PCIe expansion coupled with a digital display port along with power in one tiny connector.

This is a great boon to owners of laptops and all-in-one computers that lack PCIe or ExpressCard slots. One could daisy-chain up to six devices off one port: say, four hard drives with a couple of external monitors at the end (thunderbolt port is identical to, and backwards compatible for the mini display port DVI interface, so long as it is at the end of the chain).

This also means that you can plug in six devices using one port from your laptop. Like many laptop users, I’m already finding that I have too many cables snaking all over the place. It’s annoying to have the clutter, the tangle, and having to disconnect every single one when taking my laptop out with me.

What I need is not a new invention. I need a docking station for my laptop. A break-out box that has one thunderbolt cable on one end, and the myriad of ports and connections I require on the other. These type of devices have been around since the early nineties. Thunderbolt, being an extension of PCIe, seems ideally suited for this application as Apple and Intel no doubt intended.

I search brought me two results of up-and-coming devices that looks to suit my needs: The Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock, and the Sonnet Echo 13 thunderbolt dock.

I was elated, gleefully writing both in on my prospective shopping list and pouring over specifications. Which I will briefly list here.

The Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock looks promising. It has a nice little aluminum enclosure and sports a nice variety of ports including: Ethernet, FW800, 2x Thunderbold ports, Audio I/O, and 3x USB3. Pretty cool! I could plug everything that lives on my desk into that with room for later expansion.

The Sonnet Echo 15 Thunderbolt Dock, yet to be released, promises even better. It’s a larger squarish enclosure sporting an internal HDD and optical drive bay (useful for new models that lack an optical drive, or those like me who are planning on swapping our optical drives out for SSDs). Even better is a greater variety of ports: 2x eSATA, FW800, Ethernet, 4x USB3, 2x Audio I/O.

Pretty killer right? Both look awesome, the Echo looking a bit better for its few extra ports and internal drive bays.

Unfortunately, like the firewire devices of old, it has one early-adopter failing: price. The Belkin is $300 and the Sonnet $500. Ouch. For what it actually is, this seems to me way overpriced. In addition, reviews have stated the Belkin’s USB ports to be horribly underpowered – not even enough to rapid-charge smartphones and power external hard drives which, invariably, is what these ports would be used for!

The Sonnet at least can deliver 5W of power (a whole amp) for it’s USB ports, making it a better buy. The $500 I mentioned also includes a DVD burner and 2TB hard drive. If it were $300 I think I would snap it up.

Sure, one could argue that current demand isn’t that great for thunderbolt devices, which are ridiculously expensive across the board. My argument is that no one will adopt the clearly superior thunderbolt interface if the devices are priced out of their market. I mean, I could just buy a USB3 docking station for less money despite it’s innate inferiority.

It’s falling victim to the same pitfalls as firewire. Clearly better, but priced out of the range of the common man.

Industry – I challenge you. Build me a thunderbolt dock. Make it have the following: Gigabit Ethernet, 4x USB3, FW800, 2x thunderbolt ports, and Audio I/O (combo analog and optical) and make this for $120. You have the ability to do this, and it would sell. If you don’t, might as well kiss thunderbolt goodbye as people settle for crappy USB (again).

Oh and Belkin – you could have just supplied a more robust power supply so people can at least have powered USB ports. That’s just weak.

Comments are closed.