Last week's release of the Matrox DS1 Thunderbolt Dock heralded the arrival of alternative docking solutions to Apple's Thunderbolt Display for Mac systems. Though useful for adding new and expanded capabilities to iMac and Mac Mini systems, the primary benefit of these solutions is that it lets laptop users convert their systems to desktop workstations.
Apple laptops support a "clamshell" mode of operation, where if you attach an external keyboard and monitor, then you can close the lid and tuck the unit away to a convenient location and still operate the computer. Unfortunately this usually requires you to at least connect a USB cable along with a monitor to your system, not to mention any audio cables, printers, external hard drives, and other peripherals you might use in your desktop environment, which is obviously inconvenient to deal with every time you move.
The solution to this, of course, is to use a docking station for the laptop. There have been several options for Apple laptops, including the Henge Dock and Just Dock It systems, which use a form-fitting cradle that holds the laptop. Since the debut of Thunderbolt in Mac systems, though, a new approach uses this port to connect an all-in-one I/O hub to the system. Though you lose the cradle aspect, using the Thunderbolt connection lets you add new capabilities to your system.
So far the only such Thunderbolt-based docking solution has been Apple's own Thunderbolt Display, but at $999, this rather expensive option requires that you purchase a 27-inch monitor, which may be fine for those who need one, but not so much for those who already have their own display.
Both Belkin and Matrox have recently advertised upcoming Thunderbolt docks that fill this gap in the market, and last week Matrox announced the availability of its $249 DS1 docking solution. The DS1 is a small 1-pound device around 8 inches long by 3.5 inches wide, and it offers two USB 2.0 connections, a single USB 3.0 port, audio input and output, and an Ethernet port. It comes in either an HDMI or DVI version for attachment to those respective monitor types.
USB and peripheral connectivity
Among the main components of any docking solution are its data connectivity options; the one that many desktop environments will use is USB, for anything from keyboards and mice to printers and hard drives. The DS1 offers both USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports, but it may come up a bit short for some people's uses; it has only two USB 2.0 ports and one USB 3.0 port, which should be enough for a printer, a keyboard, and a single hard drive, but that's it unless you wish to use additional USB docks to extend the number of ports. Sure, you still have the built-in ports on your Mac to attach more devices, but that somewhat defeats the purpose of using a dock.
Additionally, though the DS1 does contain USB 2.0 ports, they are simply a subset of connections on the device's USB 3.0 controller. This makes one wonder: given that USB 3.0 offers 10 times the speed of USB 2.0 and is backward compatible with it, why not use USB 3.0 for all the ports?
To take a look at the real-world difference in performance with this new port, I attached a Western Digital Black 500GB conventional hard drive in a Dunex USB 3.0 enclosure to the DS1 to see what the throughput would be when copying an 8GB movie file from my Mac's SSD to the drive.
When connected to the DS1's USB 2.0 port, the transfer rates peaked at 83.4MB/sec with a sustained average of 42MB/sec. However, when connected to the USB 3.0 port, the transfer rates increased substantially to a peak of 118.5MB/sec with a sustained transfer of 100MB/sec on average. Granted, the speeds here are limited by the drive being used and with an SSD the transfers ought to be much faster, but the USB 3.0 port does open up the bottleneck quite substantially even on older drive technology.
As a side observation, the USB controller on the DS1 oddly appears as a "Built-In" USB controller in Apple's System Profiler; however, this could just be how Apple's drivers describe the device.
The audio controller on the DS1 shows up in the system profiler as a Burr-Brown controller from Texas Instruments, and appears in the Sound system preferences as a device called "USB audio CODEC." This controller supports a sampling rate of between 8,000-48,000Hz with 16-bit integer sampling sizes for both input and output. The input supports a single channel (no stereo microphone support) and the output is a dual-channel connection. There is no support for optical connections through the DS1.
As with the Ethernet and USB 2.0 connections, the audio connector is a USB device that is attached to the DS1's USB 3.0 bus.
The quality of the sound output is for most purposes indistinguishable from Apple's built-in audio controller. Granted, audiophiles may appreciate the higher sampling rates supported by Apple's controller, but for connection to most stereo systems and desktop speakers, the DS1 should suffice. There is no crackling, hiss, or other persistent noise from the device; however, upon disconnecting from the Mac there is a slightly audible pop that comes from the speakers as the controller is disabled.
The Ethernet port
Both the USB and Audio connections in the DS1 are automatically configured for use, but if you plan on using the Ethernet port, you might have to set it up on your Mac. Upon connecting the DS1, no Ethernet port showed up in the Network system preferences, so I had to click the plus button to add a new port, select "Thunderbolt Ethernet Slot 2" from the interface list and give it a custom name (for me, it was removing the "2" in its name), and click the Create button. From there the port was available for configuring and offered full gigabit connectivity.
The need to configure the port is mainly because of Apple's use of network locations, which are separate configurations for the built-in networking ports that are on your system. By default the system will only include the built-in ports in its configuration, so you will have to either modify the current location or create a new one to include the added Ethernet port. Once configured, however, the port will be plug-and-play every time you connect the DS1.
Video output options
The DS1 comes in either an HDMI or DVI model. When you connect the device to your system, the screen will briefly turn blue as the video drivers reset and include the new video device. The video adapter supports up to 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution for HDMI, and up to 1,920x1,200 for DVI.
It is worth noting that even though the Thunderbolt port's expansion of the system's PCI Express bus offers the possibility of adding an external graphics processor, thereby expanding the system's processing capabilities, the DS1 does not offer this function; its video output is simply relayed from the system's built-in GPU as with any other adapter.
There a few other things to note about the DS1. The first is the onboard indicator light that shows you the connection status to your computer. If there is a problem or the device is not connected, then it will be red, but when everything is OK, then the light will be green. An amber light indicates that the device is connecting.
Though the DS1 does not get hot, it does get warm to the touch, so even though it is unlikely to overheat, as a precaution you might want to avoid burying it under or between items and instead keep it more exposed on a shelf or desk. The unit is rated to run in room temperatures of between 50-95 degrees Fahrenheit, and measuring with a Raytek MT6 infra-red temperature gun shows that the unit gets to a comfortable 86.5 to 89.5 degrees F in a room at 72.5 degrees.
The DS1 does require a power outlet and the use of an external power supply, but being a docking solution means that it was not intended as a portable option to run on your computer's bus power. While it would have been nice for the DS1 to also serve as a power supply for the computer, Apple's MagSafe technology is a patented design that cannot be made by third-party manufacturers, so you will still have to either keep a spare power supply at the desk with the DS1 or bring one with you.
Another thing to keep in mind is even though the DS1 is a Thunderbolt device, as with other Thunderbolt devices it does not come with a Thunderbolt cable. To maintain its high bandwidth, Thunderbolt cables include active electronics, making them quite expensive, usually around $50 each.
Benefits and drawbacks
The DS1 does offer some enticing features, and at $249 it is likely a feasible solution for many who want a dock option and have not yet invested in other docking setups for their Macs. The USB 3.0 connectivity is a definite benefit that will help many users tap into some of the high-speed storage options available, but the DS1 does have some inherent drawbacks that should be considered.
The first is if you use storage devices with it, you cannot quickly disconnect it and be on your way; instead you must first be sure to unmount your storage devices. While this is nothing new for Mac users, having such devices attached individually by USB or FireWire has served as a means of reminding you to first check the mount status. With the DS1's single Thunderbolt connection, though, it may be easier to overlook this and yank it out while drives are still mounted.
Another issue, and this may be more a matter of opinion, is the location of some of the ports on the device. While most ports are on the back, Matrox placed its USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt ports on the front. While Matrox claims this is convenient for quickly attaching USB peripherals and the Thunderbolt cable, for those who have devices attached permanently to these ports (which likely includes the Thunderbolt cable left dangling at your desk), you may end up with cables sticking out from both sides of the device, which results in a slightly cluttered setup. It might have been better to have put at least the Thunderbolt connector on the back.
These issues are relatively trivial, but a more substantial one is that for some people the DS1 may come up short on some port offerings. For one it would have been nice to have at least one more USB 3.0 port available on the rear of the device for permanently attached high-speed storage, but in addition the DS1 also lacks FireWire support. Matrox claims that it found in its research that relatively few people use FireWire devices; however, for those who do, this might be a deal breaker.
Another port-related shortcoming of the DS1 is that it only includes one Thunderbolt connection and therefore does not offer Thunderbolt pass-through for additional devices. This may be a drawback for some setups in which people have multiple Thunderbolt devices, but Matrox has a couple of good points regarding its reason for leaving this out. Matrox argues that most home and work environments will likely not need more than what the DS1 offers, and in these cases, other Thunderbolt devices will likely offer their own pass-through support so the DS1 can still be used concurrently with these as the last device on the Thunderbolt daisy chain. Furthermore, for optimal performance some specialized and high-throughput Thunderbolt devices are recommended to be put first in line before others like the DS1.
Even so, the lack of additional Thunderbolt ports means that you will be stuck with the built-in port offerings and video adapter in the DS1. Therefore, if you purchase the DVI version, you will not have an option to add HDMI or attach it to VGA displays. You also will not be able to add one of Apple's FireWire Thunderbolt adapters or other similar options to expand the use of the DS1 in your Thunderbolt docking setup.
Even though the DS1 has some drawbacks, in most cases these will not matter and its offerings will likely more than make up for them. Not only does the DS1 offer a very convenient way to attach numerous desktop peripherals to your Mac, but it also brings USB 3.0 to many Mac systems that did not ship with it.
The DS1 would ultimately be a quiet and relatively minimal addition to your desktop, and at $249 should not be a big investment to bring ample connectivity as a docking solution for your Mac.