OWC Thunderbolt 3 dock

From the inception of USB-C, and Power Delivery I was jumping up and down with excitement about the concept of a one-cable dock? For the last few months I’ve been using OWC’s Thunderbolt 3 Dock with my late-2016 1060 Razer Blade. How has the docking dream panned out? Read on!

First and foremost, let’s point out some niggling issues with my setup, versus the idealised single-cable dream: the Razer Blade requires a 165w power supply, and can’t charge over USB-C. This means I always need *two* cables plugged in to my laptop.

Second, the USB-C port on the Blade is in a ridiculously absurd position (it should be where the kensington lock slot is, in my humble opinion) making it ever so slightly awkward to mouse around when my laptop takes up centre stage on my work desk.

Third, the Razer Blade doesn’t easily support multiple displays over USB Type-C.

These issues aside, things have actually been going swimmingly. The Thunderbolt 3 Dock has been my desktop pride-and-joy now for months, giving me a rock-solid gigabit Ethernet connection, a convenient SD card slot, connection to two displays (more about how later) and ample USB ports for peripherals (my mouse stays permanently connected to it) and debug/development tools. It also does a great job at charging my phone.

The single Thunderbolt 3-compatible cable is just long enough to for me to position the dock underneath my right monitor and my laptop in a location that’s comfortable for typing on the built-in keyboard (arguably I should sit the laptop on a stand and use an external keyboard, but I *like* this keyboard). While it comes out of my laptop in an awkward location, this rarely presents itself as a problem in contrast to all the other stuff cluttering my desk.

All in all, it’s been a quick and convenient way to get two displays, a mouse, and Ethernet connected to my laptop every morning. But quite a few of its features remain unused, let’s look into what they are, why I don’t use them, and why you might;

OWC: Thunderbolt 3 Dock: Features

Optical Audio

First and foremost is the “TOS-Link” or optical audio connector. I actually lament that I don’t use this connection, but sadly I don’t have any audio devices that accept an optical input, and even if I did they wouldn’t see much use on my desk at work. If this Dock were at home, I’d be keen to use this connection for a 2.1 audio setup- mostly for watching YouTube videos, listening to music or couch co-op gaming since I use headphones the rest of the time.

Firewire 800

Make no mistake, this port is aimed squarely at Apple users who are finding their upgrade paths increasingly bereft of the ports they need for their audio interfaces. This presence of this port may well be an absolutely killer feature for some, and is key to differentiating OWC’s Thunderbolt 3 Dock from the crowd. This dock is aimed squarely at Mac users doing low to mid-range A/V production, who want to continue to do so on a laptop but are finding Apple’s offerings difficult to contend with.

While Firewire 800 has been absolutely eclipsed by USB 3.0 and is considered dead, there’s still hardware out there that uses it. The old adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” would seem appropriate here. If you can continue using a good Firewire 800 audio interface, vs rolling the dice on a new USB 3.0 one, then why not?

I don’t use this port because I no longer have any Firewire 800 devices to use with it.

Analog Audio

There’s a perfectly great analog audio port on the front of OWC’s Dock, but I don’t really use it? Why? Well the one in my laptop is just that tiny bit closer, and doesn’t leave my headphone cable running across my mousing area. This port is- no doubt- a bet against 3.5mm jacks in future revisions of Apple’s laptops, and will no doubt be useful to some. While you could use it to plug in some PC speaker, because it’s facing out of the front of the dock- and there’s no counterpart on the rear- it’s not really well suited for this.

With the OWC Dock connected to my laptop- running Windows 10- I can hit the audio icon in my system tray and switch audio out between either of my connected monitors (neither of which have any output devices connected to them, mind) or the dock’s built-in audio. This could be useful for connecting a display with built-in speakers and switching between headphones/speakers on the fly without having to unplug anything.

Mini DisplayPort

*GASP* I don’t actually use this port! “But, but, how are you driving two monitors from your dock?” I hear you ask, with more than a hint of confusion and wonder in your voice. “Why, USB-C.” I respond. And that’s a nice segue into;

OCW: Thunderbolt 3 Dock: Connecting Multiple Monitors

So we’ve already established that there’s a single Mini DisplayPort on this dock. I could actually use this port, and I did previously use this port, but I switched over to using the pass-through USB Type-C port that’s also in the back. Why? Easy; power! USB Type-C provides the DisplayPort and accompanying power to my active MST Hub, versus my original setup which took up a USB 3.0 port in addition to the Mini DisplayPort. Untidy!

It turns out DisplayPort has this thing called “Multi-stream Transport” which permits it to divide its rather generous bandwidth limit across multiple, lower resolution, displays rather than driving a single 4k or 5k display. Read my article on Multi-stream Transport for more details, but in brief I now use a StarTech USB Type-C to Dual DisplayPort “MST Hub” to connect two displays, via full-sized DisplayPort cables, to the dock and, in turn, to my laptop. Not only does this let me split the one connector between two 2560×1440 Dell Displays, but it also allows me to have more than one monitor connected to my Razer laptop- something that isn’t supported without MST since the Blade only has *one* single DisplayPort connection routed to its USB Type-C port.

And this is now the setup that I’ve been using since I got my hands on the Thunderbolt 3 Dock from OWC. It works beautifully, letting me connect two 27″ displays, and a whole heck of a lot of useful desktop real-estate to my laptop with a single, solitary cable.

Mini DisplayPort

Actually! To be fair, I did use this port. My “>original StarTech MST hub review involved their mini DisplayPort to dual DisplayPort MST adaptor, which uses- as you might have guessed- the mini DisplayPort alongside an additional USB port for power. I switched to the USB C alternative both to free up that USB port- as mentioned above- and also because I wanted to test it connected directly to my Razer Blade as a minimal dual display solution.

SD Card Reader

It’s a slot, into which you put SD cards. It’s worked relatively reliably for me, and I’ve used it to write many, many different Raspberry Pi operating systems.

Compatibility

For love nor money I could not get a Dell XPS 13 9365 2-in-1 to charge from this dock. Nor an XPS 13 9370. With fully updated Thunderbolt 3 firmware, software and BIOS the best the XPS 13 9364 could do was pop up a message stating the power supply is not sufficient:

Everything else worked fine- but power delivery, nada!

Overall

This Dock is the nucleus of my desktop workstation- connecting two monitors, a keyboard, a mouse, USB headphones and the aforementioned SD card reader to my laptop with a single cable. I have unplugged an re-plugged this dock every single work day for many, many months now and it’s been pretty reliable. There have been a few cases where it’s had a hiccup, which I believe has been a software issue, and hasn’t worked properly (USB devices refusing to function) until I unplug it, wait for a while, and re-plug.

Overall it’s been dependable, and has survived all those re-connections, plug the sleep/wake cycles of my laptop. Suffice to say, I’m pretty much sold on the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 concept. This dock has been so reliable and useful that it’s basically merged into my workflow and hasn’t got the review attention it truly deserved. That’s why I feel I should come up with an award on the spot for it. I hereby proclaim that the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock wins my “worked so well I forgot to review it” award. Congratulations!