A Thunderbolt dock has become an important accessory, offering essential I/O access for multiple devices such as keyboards, legacy mice, external drives, and more.Whether you’re working at the office or from home, a Thunderbolt dock plays a vital role in creating a productive workspace.
As laptops become slimmer and more cost-effective, manufacturers are eliminating multiple ports in favor of a single do-it-all Thunderbolt port. While this shift may seem like an added expense for users, it also allows them to choose a Thunderbolt dock that perfectly suits their needs, offering precisely the required ports.
The main reason to invest in a Thunderbolt dock lies in its incredible bandwidth capabilities. Unlike a basic USB-C port that offers 10Gbps, Thunderbolt provides a whopping 40Gbps.
You can identify Thunderbolt capability through a small lightning bolt symbol on your laptop, cable, and dock. With this high bandwidth, you can effortlessly connect two 4K displays at a smooth 60Hz refresh rate, along with all the necessary peripherals such as printers, mice, keyboards, and storage devices. Additionally, top-quality Thunderbolt docks can even charge your smartphone.
In this article, we’ll cover the very best Thunderbolt docks, including budget-friendly options. We’ll explain the differences in the FAQ section after our recommendations, clarifying the terminology and helping you make the right purchase while saving some money.
Best Thunderbolt docks
1. Best overall Thunderbolt dock: Plugable TBT3-UDZ Thunderbolt 3 Docking Station
The TBT3-UDZ from Plugable stands out as one of the best Thunderbolt 3 docks, boatload of ports. It is, however, more expensive.
On the front, the TBT3-UDZ features a 10Gbps USB-C port, a 10Gbps USB-A (USB 3.1) port, microSD and SD card slots, and a headphone jack.
The rear of the dock offers five USB-A (USB 3.0) ports, gigabit ethernet, and a pair of DisplayPort 1.4 ports alongside HDMI 2.0 ports, all based on Intel’s Titan Ridge chipset.
The dock connects to your laptop using a 29-inch 40Gbps Thunderbolt 3 cable capable of delivering 96W of power. This powered dock comes with a robust 170W charger.
- Tons of ports
- Space-saving vertical stand
- Bulky (4.1 lb)
2. Best overall Thunderbolt dock runner-up: Plugable TBT3-UDC3 Thunderbolt Dock
Plugable’s TBT3-UDC3 is a more compact and affordable version of the TBT3-UDZ, designed with a focused approach to I/O flexibility.
It features one 10Gbps USB-A port on the back and two USB-A 5Gbps ports on the front for a mouse and keyboard.
Alongside it, you’ll find two 10Gbps USB-C ports for further expansion, as well as a gigabit ethernet port.
Plugable includes one HDMI 2.0 port and a DisplayPort 1.4 port for display connections, and even provides an HDMI-to-DisplayPort dongle in the package in case you own two HDMI displays.
- A less expensive version of the Plugable TBT3-UDZ
- Supplies 96W of power
- There are just two display ports, but an adapter dongle is included.
3. Best budget Thunderbolt dock: IOGear Quantum Dual Mode Thunderbolt 3 Dock Pro (GTD737)
IOgear’s GTD737 is another excellent dock, with one minor drawback being its use of two DisplayPort 1.2 ports as the sole dedicated display outputs on the rear.
Nonetheless, the dock offers great value with a 10Gbps USB-A port on the front for 7.5W smartphone charging on affordable price.
On the rear, it provides two 5Gbps USB-A ports for legacy mice and keyboards, as well as two 10Gbps USB-C ports for further expansion.
Additionally, there’s a gigabit ethernet port and a headphone jack. The 2.3-foot Thunderbolt 3 cable supplies 60W to your laptop through the included 135W power brick.
- Great mix of features
- Budget price
- 60W of passthrough charging power
- Two DisplayPort ports limit display I/O options
- Might be difficult to find in stores
4. Best Thunderbolt dock for business: HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G4 (4J0A2AA)
Despite its small size, the Thunderbolt 4 dock (4J0A2AA) has a sturdy build and offers multiple ports on all sides.
It includes a 10Gbps USB-C port on the front with 15W charging capability, two 5Gbps USB-A ports on the sides, and two more on the back, all supporting 7.5W charging.
The back of the dock houses two DisplayPort 1.4 ports, an HDMI 2.0 port, gigabit ethernet, and a USB-C 3.2 Gen 1 port designed for video. This dock can handle two 4K/60 external displays, but if your laptop supports Display Stream Compression (DSC) and has DisplayPort 1.4, it can drive three 4K/60 displays.
Supplying up to 100W to the host laptop through the Thunderbolt cable, the 4J0A2AA boasts one of the highest power delivery capacities seen in docking stations, and it performs excellently without any thermal issues.
- Ports aplenty, plus charging
- Solid performance
- No thermal concerns
5. Best budget Thunderbolt dock runner-up: Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Dock Core
Belkin’s Thunderbolt 3 Dock Core is a well-designed and affordable “powered” Thunderbolt 3 travel dock.
Its compact size, measuring approximately 5.2 x 6.5 x 1.5 inches, makes it highly portable, and the 8-inch Thunderbolt 3 cord provided with the dock offers sufficient flexibility.
The ports are thoughtfully spaced around the black plastic cube, featuring HDMI 2.0 and DisplayPort 1.4 ports that deliver stable 4K/60Hz output to two 4K displays.
The dock also includes gigabit ethernet and a 3.5mm audio jack. However, distinguishing between the USB 3.1 and USB 2.0 Type A ports might be a bit challenging as they lack proper labeling.
- HDMI 2.0 + DisplayPort 1.4 port covers two displays
- Unlabeled USB-A ports look identical
6. Best Thunderbolt 4 dock, runner-up: OWC Thunderbolt Go Dock
OWC’s Thunderbolt Go Dock has a unique advantage: the power brick is integrated, comparable to a desktop PC, reducing space in your bag.
However, it is still relatively large for a travel dock. The dock performs well, but there were initial glitchiness with the ethernet that have reportedly been resolved.
The price may be a bit high, but it might decrease over time. Additionally, a display dongle (sold separately) might be necessary for connecting a second display.
- Power brick is hidden within, removing clutter
- 90W to charge your laptop
- Supplies a terrific 9.5W for smartphone charging
- HDMI 2.1 support
- Ethernet is glitchy, and requires a driver
- Limited built-in display options
7. Best Thunderbolt 4 dock: Kensington SD5780T Thunderbolt 4 Docking Station
Kensington’s SD5780T is currently our top choice for the best premium Thunderbolt 4 docking station, despite its higher price tag.
It improves upon its predecessor, the SD5700T, with the addition of a dedicated HDMI 2.1 port and enhanced laptop charging power.
While the dock performed well, the external power output was slightly lower than expected in some cases, although it sufficiently charges smartphones and performs where it matters most.
- Solid performance
- Quite a good range of ports, including Thunderbolt 4 downstream
- 96W (rated) of downstream laptop power
- Less power than expected is delivered by rear USB-A ports.
- There is only one display port, therefore using two displays will require a dongle.
- Most expensive docks
8. Best Thunderbolt dock for HDMI displays: Anker Apex 12-in-1 Thunderbolt 4 Dock
This docking station features one 40Gbps upstream TB4 port (connected to the computer with the provided Thunderbolt 4 cable) and one 40Gbps downstream TB4 port for other devices, such as fast SSD storage drives. The laptop can receive power from the upstream Thunderbolt port up to 90W, and the downstream port can charge additional devices at 15W.
Although a Thunderbolt-connected display was not available during testing, the Apex Thunderbolt 4 Dock includes a USB-C to HDMI adapter, enabling users to connect a display out of the box and attach a USB-C hub to connect another one.
Actually, this Thunderbolt 4 docking station challenges our top-ranked Thunderbolt docks in terms of usability. Consider it if the price is reasonable.
- Two HDMI ports
- An extra 40Gbps downstream Thunderbolt 4 port
- Power button
9. Best Thunderbolt 4 hub: Plugable 5-in-1 Thunderbolt Hub (USB4-HUB3A)
The emphasis on Thunderbolt-connected displays in the Mac world is more pronounced compared to the Windows world, making this product, the Apex Thunderbolt 4 Dock, a niche option for most users.
However, its compact size, measuring 4.75 x 2.88 x 0.5 inches, makes it quite portable, although the associated power brick is unfortunately larger.
The dock can supply 60W to the host PC and 15W to smartphones via Thunderbolt/USB-C connections.
- Incredibly compact
- USB-C to HDMI adapter included
- 15W/60W of charging power to phones/PCs
- Limited ports
- Best for Thunderbolt-attached displays
10. Best USB4 docking station: Anker 568 USB-C Docking Station
Anker’s 568 USB-C Dock is a USB4 docking station with excellent features. It comes with two HDMI ports, eliminating the need for adapters when connecting displays (provided you have HDMI displays).
The dock supports two Thunderbolt 4 ports, two USB-A ports (10Gbps, 4.5W power), another two USB-A ports (480Mbps, 4.5W power), and a USB-C port (10Gbps, 20W power) in addition to gigabit ethernet, a UHS-II SD card reader, and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
Powered by a 120W power supply, this docking station provides solid performance and can be a great alternative to top-ranked Thunderbolt docks if the price is suitable.
Although we occasionally detected a little bit of instability, the Anker 568 generally offered a reliable connection to two 4K displays and other peripherals.
- Eighteen-month warranty
- Two ports for fast-charging smartphones
- Solid value
- Instability on a second display or connected devices on occasion
11. Best for Apple Mac users: CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 4 (TS4)
The CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 4 (TS4) is a feature-rich docking station designed to meet the needs of Apple Mac users seeking to expand their connectivity options and enhance productivity.
With its sleek design and a wide range of ports, the TS4 promises to be a valuable addition to any Mac setup. Let’s dive into the pros and cons of this docking station:
- A whopping 18 ports
- Thunderbolt 4
- 98W power delivery to your Mac
- 230W power supply
- 2.5 gigabit ethernet
- Only two downstream TB4 ports
12. Most flexible Thunderbolt dock for I/O: CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 3 Plus (CalDigit TS3 Plus)
CalDigit’s Thunderbolt Station 3 Plus is a highly popular Thunderbolt 3 dock, and for good reason.
Its vertical orientation saves space, and it offers 87W charging along with a plethora of ports, including a S/PDIF optical connection and an external Thunderbolt jack for daisy-chaining devices.
Port selection includes two Thunderbolt 3 ports (one for the laptop and one for external connections), along with a single DisplayPort 1.2 port, which is ideal for a single 4K display but may be limited for two displays.
The TS3 Plus also features a full-sized SD card reader (SD 4.0 UHS-II), gigabit ethernet, two 3.5mm audio jacks (one in, one out), five USB Type-A ports (all 5Gbps USB 3.1 Gen 1), and two USB-C ports (one 5Gbps port and one 10Gbps port).
- Ports, ports, ports
- Vertical orientation, no stand necessary
- Only a single DisplayPort port
Considerations when Buying a Thunderbolt Dock
Buying a Thunderbolt dock involves considering three major aspects:
The Thunderbolt dock market is diversifying into budget and full-featured docks, as well as devices that function similarly to traditional USB hubs, taking Thunderbolt in and offering multiple USB-C (including Thunderbolt) ports out.
Some displays with Thunderbolt inputs can be directly plugged into these hubs, and users can even connect existing cheap USB-C dongles to Thunderbolt docks to expand I/O functionality.
When choosing a Thunderbolt dock, it’s essential to assess your specific needs for connectivity.
Devices with built-in ports (e.g., HDMI, USB-A) are preferable due to the relatively nascent state of the USB-C device ecosystem.
Ask yourself what features you require:
- Do you need a basic dock with two HDMI ports for dual displays?
- Is an SD card slot essential?
- How many USB Type-A peripherals do you plan to connect?
- Would you like the Thunderbolt cable to charge your laptop as well?
Cables are also a significant consideration.
Most docks come with a Thunderbolt cable, but it’s crucial to ensure it can accommodate your displays (typically HDMI or DisplayPort).
Check your laptop’s power supply to determine if it connects via USB-C. If so, a Thunderbolt dock should likely power it, but you should understand how the dock supplies power.
Compare your laptop’s charger’s power output to what the dock requires for adequate replacement. If devices aren’t receiving sufficient power, warning messages may appear.
A “bus-powered” dock won’t include an external charger in the package, saving costs, space, and power concerns. On the other hand, a dock with “power delivery” will provide its own power and charge your laptop and/or phone through your laptop’s USB-C charger.
Note that it might not offer quick-charging capabilities similar to premium smartphones. The dock’s power supply is critical for charging your laptop and any bus-powered devices, so opt for a dock with substantial power if connecting multiple bus-powered hard drives or SSDs (USB keys require negligible power, so there’s no need to worry about those).
Finally, the length of the Thunderbolt cable between the laptop and the dock is worth considering.
A loose or wobbly connector on a Thunderbolt dock can cause monitors to flicker or lose connection unexpectedly. Avoid putting too much tension on the cable. For instance, a dangling Thunderbolt dock can stress the physical connector, so it’s essential to find a stable setup.
For Mac users, it’s worth noting that early Apple MacBook Pros powered by Intel supported up to two 4K displays, while the first MacBook Pros powered by the Apple M1 chip only support a single 4K display. Some Mac users have left negative reviews on Thunderbolt docks due to this limitation, so it’s essential to consider compatibility and buy accordingly.
How do I know if my laptop has Thunderbolt?
To determine if your laptop has Thunderbolt support, refer to the laptop’s published specifications.
Keep in mind that Thunderbolt ports may appear identical to USB-C ports since they use the same physical USB-C connection.
However, not all USB-C ports are equipped with Thunderbolt equipped. Thunderbolt ports typically have a small lightning-bolt icon to identify them, but some laptop makers use a similar icon for USB-C ports used only for phone charging, causing confusion.
Some laptops may not display the Thunderbolt icon to maintain a clean design. Additionally, USB-C hubs may be labeled as “Thunderbolt compatible,” but their performance will be limited to the available bandwidth of the non-Thunderbolt port.
You can connect a Thunderbolt dock to a non-Thunderbolt, generic USB-C port. It is rather misleading in that aspect because it will be limited by the bandwidth that the port offers.
two computers, both having lightning-bolt emblems and USB-C ports. Which laptops are Thunderbolt-equipped? Though it can be challenging to determine, the top one. Consulting the manufacturer’s specifications is your best bet.
How fast is Thunderbolt?
Thunderbolt offers impressive data transfer speeds. Most USB-C ports use the second-generation USB 3.1 data-transfer standard, providing data transfer rates of 10Gbps.
In contrast, Thunderbolt 3 and 4 ports, which are the most common standards, offer data transfer rates of up to 40Gbps.
Thunderbolt 4 supports a theoretical maximum of 32Gbps for external storage devices, though the difference between Thunderbolt 3 and 4 is often negligible for most users.
Some exceptions include laptops with two PCIe lanes instead of four, resulting in 20Gbps of bandwidth.
In real-world scenarios, Intel’s 10th-gen and 11th-gen Core chips typically provide 32Gbps of data transfer, while 12th-gen and 13th-gen Core chips offer consistent 40Gbps Thunderbolt 4 speeds.
Can I use a USB-C dongle with Thunderbolt?
While a USB-C dongle cannot replace a Thunderbolt dock due to the circuitry within the dock, you can connect the dongle to an available USB-C port on the Thunderbolt dock to expand the number of ports.
This solution adds more clutter to your desk but can be a cost-effective way to extend the capabilities of a budget dock.
The decision to use a USB-C dongle with a Thunderbolt dock ultimately depends on your specific needs and preferences.
What cable should I use with a Thunderbolt dock?
Each Thunderbolt dock typically comes with its own cable. It is recommended to use Thunderbolt 3 cables with Thunderbolt 3 products and Thunderbolt 4 cables with Thunderbolt 4 products to ensure optimal performance and compatibility.
What’s the difference between Thunderbolt 3, Thunderbolt 4, and USB4?
The difference between Thunderbolt 3, Thunderbolt 4, and USB4 lies in their specifications and capabilities, with some similarities and distinctions worth noting. Thunderbolt 3 docks and Thunderbolt 4 docks are functionally equivalent for most users, but there are nuances to consider.
Both Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 allow a maximum bandwidth of 40Gbps, supporting two 4K/60 displays. However, Thunderbolt 3 is only required to offer a 10Gbps connection, sufficient for a single external 4K display (using a 16Gbps PCIe connection paired with USB 3.2). Nonetheless, most manufacturers exceed this requirement, most suggested docks support the full requirements with two 4K displays.
Thunderbolt 3 also supports a slower 16Gbps PCIe connection for external storage. Additionally, Thunderbolt 3 is the specification that has been observed to connect to external GPUs.
In contrast, Thunderbolt 4 provides a consistent and non-negotiable 40Gbps connection (32Gbps PCIe + USB 3.2), ensuring higher data transfer rates. For external storage, Thunderbolt 4 supports 32Gbps of data transfer, making it particularly relevant for video, external GPU connections, or gaming. Thunderbolt 4 also enables “wake on sleep” functionality, allowing the use of an external keyboard or mouse to wake up the PC. Moreover, Thunderbolt 4 permits longer cables and more Thunderbolt ports on laptops.
USB4 is essentially a subset of Thunderbolt 4 and primarily serves as an I/O specification. It is more commonly found on AMD laptops, while Thunderbolt is prevalent on Intel laptops. USB4 can support either a 20Gbps or 40Gbps connection, depending on the manufacturer’s choice. A USB4 device will work seamlessly when connected to a Thunderbolt 4 port. However, a Thunderbolt 4 device may not function as expected when plugged into a specific USB4 port. Nonetheless, most hubs and docks are marketed as Thunderbolt 4, while devices like external SSDs are designed around USB4.
Looking ahead, USB4 Version 2 is an upcoming standard that will boost USB4 to 80Gbps, currently the only announced 80Gbps standard. Anticipated to debut in early 2023, USB4 Version 2 will offer even higher data transfer speeds.
It’s worth noting that both Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 require a minimum of 15W to power devices plugged into the Thunderbolt port, such as bus-powered hard drives, while USB4 only requires half that amount.
For further technical details about Thunderbolt 3, Thunderbolt 4, and USB4, device maker Anker provides a comprehensive summary for those interested in delving deeper into the specifications and distinctions.
Anker, a manufacturer of Thunderbolt dock and I/O hub, presented this comparison of Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 differences.
Are there any other technologies to consider?
Some USB-C docking stations are adopting the HBR3 (High Bit Rate 3) with DSC (Display Stream Compression) technology. HBR3 with DSC is an industry-standard, manufacturer-agnostic version of DisplayLink, offering a dual 4K/60 display experience over the USB-C port.
However, support for this technology has been inconsistent in certain hardware, with better performance seen in Intel’s 12th-gen and 13th-gen Core laptops and above.
What differentiates a DisplayLink USB-C docking station from a Thunderbolt dock?
A DisplayLink USB-C docking station represents a new category of docking station, often marketed simply as a USB-C docking station, despite prominently featuring the DisplayLink logo on the box.
The main differentiation is the usage of DisplayLink technology, which is currently owned by Synaptics and uses software data compression to simulate Thunderbolt between your PC and the dock.
This emulation allows for the connection of a pair of 4K displays at 60Hz, along with additional peripherals, all transmitted through the narrower and slower USB-C bus. To enable this functionality, users are required to install a software driver.
The advantage of using a DisplayLink USB-C docking station is two-fold. First, it provides a means to achieve a Thunderbolt-like docking experience on older laptops, essentially offering enhanced connectivity and display capabilities beyond what the laptop’s native USB-C ports could provide.
Additionally, even for users who own laptops with Thunderbolt ports, opting for a DisplayLink USB-C dock can often be a more cost-effective solution compared to purchasing a full-fledged Thunderbolt dock. This cost-saving option is especially viable for users who do not require intensive tasks like PC gaming and are primarily interested in expanding their display and peripheral connectivity.