Saturday, September 23, 2023

CalDigit TS4 review: King of the Thunderbolt docks

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Shreya Christina
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Once the domain of IT departments and corporate purchase orders, laptop docks have become an indispensable tool for the home office. Thanks to interfaces like USB-C, a capable dock can turn your humble ultra-light laptop into a full-fledged desktop system, complete with an external display and a host of peripherals. And it only takes one cable to switch from portable laptop mode to desktop shredder.

CalDigit’s latest dock, the $379.99 Thunderbolt 4-powered TS4, offers almost every port you could wish for, plus it can keep your laptop charged while you’re using it. The TS4 is the best equipped dock you can buy right now – it has the most ports, the widest compatibility and one of the smallest footprints on your desk. It’s nearly perfect, provided you can bear the sky-high price.

First, an introduction to laptop docks. Years ago, docks were limited to business laptops, which relied on proprietary interfaces to connect employee drone laptops to an external display, mouse, and keyboard when they were at their desks. That’s how the name “dock” came about: you literally docked the bottom of your laptop in a clunky device and the connection is made via pins on the bottom of the computer. Some devices, such as Microsoft Surface devices, streamlined this into a single proprietary port that connected the computer to a variety of other peripherals.

Then USB-C turned everything upside down. Now that virtually all laptops have a small port that can handle data, power and video over a single connection, all you need to do is plug a dock into the side of your computer and you’re on your way to the races. You don’t need your own dock from Lenovo or HP or whoever made your computer – USB-C works with any computer with a USB-C port.

When Apple released the 2016 MacBook Pro, which eliminated all ports except for USB-C, the market for simple USB-C docks exploded. These devices generally hang on the side of a computer and offer a number of USB-A ports, an HDMI video output and perhaps an SD card reader or Ethernet connection. They’re ideal for travel – since your new computer didn’t come with the ports you’ve been used to for years, this tiny adapter packs almost everything you need into a tiny dongle.

But while USB-C docks are useful for travel, they’re less than ideal for more permanent desk setups. They have a small number of ports, limited bandwidth and often connect with short cables, making for a cluttered desk when everything is plugged in.

The TS4 uses a large external power brick to power a laptop and many accessories.

Thunderbolt docks address all of these issues. They have many more ports (the TS4 has 18 in total), four times the bandwidth for high resolution/high display refresh connections and fast external drives, and are meant to stay in one place. They come with cables long enough to reach your laptop, whether it’s right next to the dock or a few feet away. A good Thunderbolt dock comes with an external monitor and an ergonomic chair when it comes to home office upgrades.

There are two major drawbacks to Thunderbolt docks. The first, obvious, is cost. While basic, portable USB-C docks can be found for as little as $50, you’ll spend at least $200, and often more, on a Thunderbolt dock. The other is power. They need large power supplies to charge your computer and use all the peripherals you can plug into the dock. The TS4 comes with a massive 230W power supply that you’ll have to find room for, making it about as portable as a beefy gaming laptop.

The TS4 can be used both vertically and horizontally.

Most of the ports on the TS4 are on the back, with everything you need to connect an entire desktop of accessories.

Now that you know the difference between different laptop docks, know this: the TS4 is the most capable dock on the market right now. Across the 18 ports are three Thunderbolt 4 ports, three 10Gb/s USB-C ports, five 10Gb/s USB-A ports, DisplayPort 1.4, 2.5Gbps Ethernet, full-size and microSD UHS-II card slots , 3.5mm audio in , 3.5mm audio out and a 3.5mm combo audio in and out on the front. It can send up to 98W to a laptop through the host Thunderbolt 4 port, while a 20W USB-C port on the front charges another device. The other Thunderbolt ports can charge devices up to 15W, while the other USB-C ports and the USB-A ports output 7.5W each. With a nifty trick, the TS4 can charge devices through most ports, even when your laptop isn’t plugged in, allowing it to double as a charging station.

The TS4 is compatible with Thunderbolt 4, Thunderbolt 3, and USB 4 computers, and unlike many other Thunderbolt docks (and its predecessor, CalDigit’s TS3 Plus), it’s also compatible with more standard USB-C laptops or tablets. , such as Chromebooks or iPads. But if you want to get the most out of it, you’ll want to use it with a Thunderbolt laptop — those non-Thunderbolt USB-C devices are limited with the number of screens and bandwidth available to peripherals.

The only thing missing here is a dedicated HDMI port. You must use a USB-C to HDMI cable connected to one of the Thunderbolt ports if your display does not have a DisplayPort. The TS4 supports up to two 6K 60Hz displays or a 1440p 240Hz display, depending on the laptop you connect it to.

All those capabilities are packed into a five-and-a-half-inch high, four-and-a-half-inch deep, and less than two-inch wide box. It’s small enough to sit vertically or horizontally on my desk or integrate into an under desk mount if you want to hide it completely.

To test the TS4, I hooked it up to a 14-inch MacBook Pro with the M1 Pro processor and plugged in all the peripherals I could think of. Here’s everything I hooked up at once:

  • 1 Gbps Ethernet line
  • A 5120 x 1440 120Hz display
  • A USB-A keyboard
  • External speakers
  • A Thunderbolt 3 SSD
  • An external camera via an Elgato CamLink 4K
  • A USB-A microphone
  • A UHS-II SD card

With all those devices plugged in, I had access to the full bandwidth of my 1Gbps FiOS internet, the full read and write speed of the USB-C SSD, and the full read and write speed of the SD card. I was able to run my 49-inch screen at the full 120Hz that macOS supports over the DisplayPort connection and quickly charge my MacBook’s battery at the same speed as the MagSafe charger that comes with the computer .

Even with all the devices I have to use plugged in, there were still a handful of available ports on the TS4.

The only device that was slower than when plugged directly into my Mac was the Thunderbolt 3 SSD, which lost about 20 percent of its write speed and 30 percent of its read speed through the dock. I also had some issues with the Thunderbolt drive not mounting after waking the Mac, but that could be due to the beta version of macOS I used during my testing period.

I had to too turn off automatic power saving mode in the Mac’s network preferences for the Ethernet adapter to let the Mac recognize the Ethernet connection.

Getting the CamLink 4K to work with the TS4 was a bit more of a challenge. Initially the video feed from my remote camera just froze after a few seconds no matter which video recording or calling app I was using. To solve this problem, I had to connect the CamLink 4K to a Windows computer and use Elgato’s 4K Capture Utility, which is not available for Mac, and change the USB transfer mode from Automatic to Isochronous, maintaining a constant transmission rate. Once that changed, the CamLink 4K worked reliably over the TS4 dock.

When it’s time to get my laptop off my desk, I just unplug one cable and get to work. And when I’m back at my desk, it’s just one cable to reconnect all my external devices and charge my laptop. If I want to switch from my Mac to my gaming laptop, it’s just one cable to move all peripherals at once. It’s really hard to overestimate the convenience factor here.

The TS4 is compact enough to fit on almost any desk or even be hidden.

The TS4, like the TS3 Plus before it, is also more reliable than other Thunderbolt docks I’ve used. With the exception of my temperamental Thunderbolt SSD and the configuration steps for the Ethernet connection and CamLink, everything just worked as I expected every time I docked my laptop.

The TS4 is undeniably expensive, and if you have an older dock like the TS3 Plus, it probably isn’t worth the upgrade. But if you’re looking for the ultimate work-from-home desk setup or just want the best Thunderbolt dock you can get, the TS4 is the way to go.

Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge

Update, 10:00 AM ET, August 12, 2022: The price of the TS4 has increased from $359.99 to $379.99. This article has been updated to reflect that change.


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