Despite all the promises of mobility and wireless connections for networks and devices, I think I have more cables now than ever before.
That's partly due to having to charge batteries in said mobile devices. The other reason for the cable-o-rama is device makers in their quest to make their gear smaller, lighter and thinner move the bulky bits outside enclosures.
Instead of having an SD reader for the memory card in your camera built into your laptop, you have to buy one as a separate accessory. It connects with a cable and takes up a USB slot of course.
Speaking of which, you can never have enough USB slots in 2017, and the Thunderbolt 3 Dock OWC sent has five of them. They are USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports which means they'll provide up to 5 gigabit per second theoretical transfer speeds, but not the 10Gbps that Gen 2 equivalents can muster.
The leftmost USB ports can supply 1.5 Amps of power for quick charging of Apple iPads for instance.
That's only the start though: as the name implies, the OWC Dock has Thunderbolt 3 ports, two of them. The idea is that you hook up your computer with one, and then you add up to five other Thunderbolt devices daisy-chained to the other port.
Thunderbolt 3 is the fast lane of wired connections, and are very flexible: they can provide up to 40Gbps data transfer speeds, and also be used for connecting monitors that follow the DisplayPort 1.2 standard. One 5K screen with a 60Hz refresh rate is supported by the Thunderbolt 3 ports on the OWC Dock. And, they use the new USB-C connectors, but more on this below.
But wait, there's more: there's a little Mini DisplayPort 1.2 connector, for a 4K screen at 60Hz. That's not all, the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock can connect FireWire 800 devices (you remember those right?), speakers and headphones through a 3.5mm jack, and a Sony/Philips Digital Interface output for audio which is a rare find these days.
There's also a Gigabit Ethernet interface, "to access a wired network". It works as bridge to your LAN. Nothing happens until you connect a laptop or desktop to one of the USB-C/Thunderbolt ports with the right cable; simply hooking up the Dock with an Ethernet lead does nothing which was a bit confusing at first.
Bar the older Firewire stuff, no device drivers are needed to use the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock: it's plug in and play.
Nothing I could muster up was able to make the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock choke, even with as many devices plugged in as I could find. External USB and Thunderbolt 2 drives ran fine and performed fast with a 4K monitor, and a MacBook Pro plugged in at the same time.
I had hoped to test two laptops with Thunderbolt 3 ports, to see how fast they could transfer data with one another across the OWC Dock. That plan was stymied however as the devices couldn't talk to each other. Am waiting to see if there's a way to achieve this, or if this is how the Dock is intended to work, but it would be handy to have that feature for large file transfers between computers.
As mentioned above, the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock will charge iPads via the two leftmost ports, but only on those. The other USB ports will charge smartphones and other devices, and the USB-C connectors can provide a juice top-up for laptops too, up to 60 Watt.
All that charging capacity means lots of power is needed. While the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock is quite compact and nicely designed with an aluminium enclosure, it needs a largish 20 Volt, 135 Watt external power supply brick made by Chicony.
Marred by USB mess
The review was made "interesting" by some oblique issues mostly to do with USB specifications being needlessly different and complex.
USB stands for Universal Serial Bus, which implies that it should work without too many hassles and mysterious issues, but we're definitely not there yet.
Take USB-C connectors for instance they're great: small, and can be used any which way up unlike the older, bigger plugs. You might think that a USB-C cable provides access to all the great features above, like fast data transfers, DisplayPort screen support and Thunderbolt 3, but... they don't.
For instance, I expected the USB-C cable bundled with Apple MacBook Pros to show off the capabilities of the new technology in the laptops, but it'll only do USB 3.1 high power charging, no Thunderbolt 3 support, and data transfers go at USB 2 speeds, a leisurely 480Mbps max.
Seriously, do we really need a "universal" connector standard that differs for capabilities and speeds and worse, you can't actually tell what they are from the cable?
If you want to avoid buying a dud cable and know what you're getting, I recommend Googler Benson Leung's site: http://bensonapproved.com/ Annoyed by the lack of clarity around USB, Benson did the hard yards and tested cables to figure out which ones work as advertised.
Luckily, OWC supplies a fully-featured USB-C cable but it's only 50 centimetres long. You'll need to budget for some cables to take full advantage of the amazing ports on your new laptops, and the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock. Don't forget to read Benson's reviews in detail to make sure you get the right ones though.
Despite the USB headaches, I'm going to give the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock a cautious tick of approval. It's pricey at US$300, which translates to around NZ$410 plus the usual outrageous freight charges if bought overseas, but it if you're short on ports and don't want to faff around with dongles, there's nothing quite like it out there for pros with lots of devices to hook up.