CalDigit Thunderbolt Station review

CalDigit's Thunderbolt Station is one of a new class of peripherals designed for Thunderbolt-equipped Macs. It uses the prodigious bandwidth of the Thunderbolt connection on new Macs to connect a variety of peripherals over USB, Thunderbolt, Ethernet and more. Does it work well, and is it worth the money? Let's have a look!

The Retina MacBook Pro and MacBook Air are great machines, but one area Apple skimped on - because of size constraints - is the number of available ports. Compared to an iMac or Mac mini, or even the venerable non-Retina MacBook Pro, newer laptops come up short - no Ethernet port, for example. Fewer USB 3.0 ports. And so on. Fortunately, if you need port expansion, there's an answer: CalDigit's Thunderbolt Station. It's a $199 peripheral that increases the expandability of your Mac dramatically.

The Thunderbolt Station comes in a powdered aluminum finish, to match the exterior of your Mac. While no one would mistake it for an Apple design (if, for no other reason, the prominent CalDigit logo on its top), its color is close enough to the MacBook's case and the beveled rear corners echo the beveled corners of the MacBook too.

On the Thunderbolt Station's front are a 3.5 mm headphone jack and a 3.5 mm microphone jack, along side a single USB 3 port. There's also a blue LED which illuminates when the unit is plugged in (it requires an external power supply, included).

On the back are two more USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports (one to daisy chain to other peripherals like a monitor, RAID system, etc.; the other to connect to your Mac), an HDMI port, and a Gigabit Ethernet port.

Using the Thunderbolt Station is dead easy - just connect it to your Mac using a Thunderbolt cable (which you'll either need to supply on your own or order as part of a specially priced bundle on CalDigit's web site). Then attach the peripherals you plan to use with it. No drivers are necessary. If you connect it to an Ethernet network, you'll need to add the new network interface in OS X's Network system preference before it'll work.

This keeps all the other ports on your Mac free, which is great if you have a lot of stuff you need to use. But what's potentially more important is that the Thunderbolt Station gathers up a lot of cable clutter that would otherwise burst from both sides of your laptop. A single Thunderbolt cable connects the Thunderbolt Station to the Mac, so you can leave your peripherals connected to the Thunderbolt Station, then pick up your laptop and go without leaving a mess of electronic spaghetti behind.

In my testing, devices worked without incident connected to the Thunderbolt Station and my early 2013-era Retina MacBook Pro. USB 3.0 performance was comparable to a direct connection to the Mac; Gigabit Ethernet ran as fast as it does through a Thunderbolt adapter connected directly to the laptop, and my DVI display worked just fine using a Thunderbolt adapter as well. In short, using CalDigit's Thunderbolt Station was entirely transparent, which, quite frankly, is the way I like it.

The Thunderbolt Station measures just short of seven inches wide, standing about an inch high and 3 inches deep. It weighs just short of a pound. That's heftier than I'd really want for something to throw in my laptop bag and bring with me, but I don't see that as a big problem: it's designed to work as a desk peripheral rather than a mobile device. The Thunderbolt Station is very unobtrusive on a desk, thanks to four rubberized feet that keep it securely in place even when you're plugging and unplugging devices.

I've made a lot of the Thunderbolt Station's suitability for use with a Mac laptop, but the fact is it'll work with any Thunderbolt (or Thunderbolt 2) equipped Mac. But I suspect the device's best use case is with laptops, where space and expansion are typically at a premium.

I'm familiar with two other Thunderbolt expansion devices - Belkin's $299 Thunderbolt Express Dock and Matrox's $249 DS1. Belkin's device includes FireWire 800, but lacks HDMI (all the ports are rear facing, however, which is an aesthetic I prefer to the forward-mounted headphone, mic and USB port on the CalDigit). Matrox's, which costs $50 more, incorporates HDMI (a DVI version is also available), but sports two slower USB 2.0 ports with only one USB 3.0 port available.

From my perspective, the CalDigit Thunderbolt Station is a better value than either Belkin's or Matrox's, though the absence of FireWire 800 means yet another Thunderbolt dongle to hang off your daisy chain, if you're still using a FW800 hard drive or RAID, as I do.

The good

  • Plenty of expansion to connect all your devices
  • Gathers (most) cables together and behind to reduce desktop clutter
  • Design mimics Apple's own design language

The bad

  • Front-facing ports get in the way
  • No FireWire 800 port for connecting legacy storage devices

Bottom line

The front facing ports can be a bit awkward, and I wish there was FireWire 800, but those are minor quibbles. CalDigit's Thunderbolt Station is priced below the competition with better features, and is a great value that keeps desk clutter to a minimum.

  • $199 - Buy now
  • Looks like a solid device except for the port location. Great review! Sent from the iMore App
  • Hm, this would be great to have when I swap out my Thunderbolt Display against a glare-free pro-level monitor. After trying to live with the glare for 6 months, I am finally ready to give up on it. If Apple would at least have a newer TB-Display with USB 3 and the level of glare reduced to the level of the newer iMacs, I would likely get one of those for the aesthetics, but it will be an Eizo or Quato now. The Caldigit device seems like a nice solution for my rMBP then.
  • I wish the unit worked for me. I tried two and neither worked with my Mini or MacBook Pro, which work with other thunderbolt peripherals fine. Was able to boot and connect via USB 3 with one unit, but neither could hot swap USB device of any kind. Tech Support gave up, so I returned both.
  • Love mine.. have had it since release. Picked up one for my mom and her new MBA for Christmas. I like the 1 port in front for USB.. Don't really use Audio ports.. my speakers, headphones, etc are all USB or bluetooth anyway.. so makes no never mind for me. Great review, certainly the better TB dock out there, especially for the price. Good to see prices, albeit slowly, coming down. To Froggy, did you get your TB cable from Apple directly or from CalDigit? I got one off ebay and had nothing but trouble.. wasn't until I got an official cable that things worked. In my case, buyer beware when it comes to killer pricing on TB cables.. there is probably a reason it's half off! lol I guess some people get there hands on bad/defective batches and sell them on eBay for 'great' deals.. as I found out. :/ Not a lick of trouble since I got one off the self at BBY.. just extra $40 lighter after a bad $ebay purchase. :(
  • I had two cables. One directly from Apple and the other from CalDigit. Neither one worked.
  • "The front facing ports can be a bit awkward, and I wish there was FireWire 800, but those are minor quibbles." I guess it's a "minor quibble" if you don't depend on FW. I need FW very much so not having it is a dealbreaker, not a "quibble". I want one of these docks but they all seem to have some flaw. The CalDigit lacks a FW port, and the Matrox is a total joke; it doesn't even have a second TB port to daisy-chain more TB devices or (probably more critically) use as a Mini DisplayPort for a monitor, in addition to lacking FW. The Belkin is seeming like the best option, as it basically replicates the same ports on an Apple TB Display but with the USB ports upgraded to 3.0 instead of the 2.0 on the display. The Sonnet Echo 15 is pretty intriguing as well.
  • Do you think that it will run 2 monitors - 1 via HDMI and the other via DVI to Mini Display Port?
  • I checked the FAQ on their website. You cannot run two external monitors from this dock unless one of your monitors is a thunderbolt monitor. That is, if you connect a hdmi monitor to the dock you cannot connect a mini display port cable or adapter to the 2nd thunderbolt port on the dock. And that is what I wanted to do.
    I was ready to buy too, but that was the only reason I wanted this so no sale