CalDigit TS4 review: the king of Thunderbolt docks
Once the domain of IT services and business purchase orders, laptop docking stations have become an indispensable tool in the home office. With interfaces like USB-C, a capable docking station can turn your humble ultralight laptop into a full-fledged desktop system complete with an external display and plenty of peripherals. And it only takes one cable to go from handheld to desktop shredder.
CalDigit’s latest docking station, the $359.95 Thunderbolt 4-powered TS4, provides almost all the ports you could want, plus it can keep your laptop charged while you’re using it. The TS4 is the best-equipped docking station you can buy today – it has the most ports, the widest compatibility and one of the smallest footprints on your desk. It’s almost perfect, provided you can stomach its exorbitant price.
First, an introduction to laptop docking stations. Years ago, docking stations were limited to business laptops, which relied on proprietary interfaces to connect workers’ drone laptops to an external display, mouse and keyboard while seated. at their office. That’s how the name “dock” was born – you literally docked the base of your laptop into a clumsy contraption, and the connection was made via pins at the bottom of the computer. Some devices, like the Microsoft Surface devices, simplified this to a single proprietary port that connected the computer to a variety of other peripherals.
Then USB-C changed everything. Now that virtually every laptop has a small port that can handle data, power, and video through a single connection, all you have to do is plug a docking station into the side of your computer and you are ready for the races. You don’t need a proprietary docking station from Lenovo or HP or whoever makes your computer – USB-C works with any computer with a USB-C port.
Once Apple released the 2016 MacBook Pro, which eliminated all ports except USB-C, the market for simple USB-C docking stations exploded. These devices usually hang off the side of a computer and provide a few USB-A ports, an HDMI video output, and maybe an SD card reader or an Ethernet jack. They’re ideal for travel – since your new computer doesn’t come with the ports you’ve been used to for years, this little adapter provides almost everything you need in a small dongle.
But while USB-C docking stations are useful for travel, they’re less than ideal for more permanent desktop setups. They have a low port count, limited bandwidth, and often connect with short cables, creating a messy desk when everything is plugged in.
Thunderbolt docking stations solve all of these problems. They have many more ports (the TS4 has a total of 18), four times the bandwidth for high resolution/high frequency display 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 docking station or a few feet away. A good Thunderbolt docking station is perfect with an external monitor and an ergonomic chair when it comes to upgrading the home office.
Thunderbolt docks have two main drawbacks. The first, obvious, is cost. While basic portable USB-C docking stations can be found for as little as $50, you’ll spend at least $200, and often much more, on a Thunderbolt docking station. The other is power. They require large power supplies to be able to charge your computer and run any peripherals you might plug into the docking station. The TS4 comes with a massive brick of a 230W power supply that you have to find room for and makes it about as portable as a chonky gaming laptop.
Now that you know the difference between different laptop docking stations, know this: the TS4 is the best performing docking station on the market today. Across its 18 ports are three Thunderbolt 4 ports, three 10Gbps USB-C ports, five 10Gbps USB-A ports, DisplayPort 1.4, 2.5Gbps Ethernet, full-size card slots, and UHS microSD. -II, 3.5mm audio input, 3.5mm audio output and 3.5mm combo audio input and output on the front. It can deliver up to 98W to a laptop through the Thunderbolt 4 host port, while a 20W USB-C port on the front charges another device. Other Thunderbolt ports can charge devices at up to 15W, while other USB-C ports and USB-A ports output 7.5W each. A neat trick allows the TS4 to charge devices through most of its ports even when your laptop isn’t plugged into it, 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 USB-C plus laptops or tablets. basics, like 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 will be limited by the number of displays and the amount of bandwidth available to the peripherals.
The only thing missing here is a dedicated HDMI port. You’ll need to use a USB-C to HDMI cable plugged into one of the Thunderbolt ports if your display doesn’t have DisplayPort. The TS4 can support up to two 6K 60Hz displays or one 1440p 240Hz display, depending on the laptop you plug it into.
All of that capability is packed into a box that’s five and a half inches tall, four and a half inches deep, and less than two inches wide. It’s small enough to sit vertically or horizontally on my desk or fit into a stand under the desk 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 hooked up every peripheral I could think of. Here’s everything I plugged in at once:
- 1 Gbit/s Ethernet line
- A 5120 x 1440 120Hz display
- A USB-A keyboard
- External speakers
- A USB-C SSD
- A Thunderbolt 3 SSD
- An external camera via an Elgato CamLink 4K
- A USB-A microphone
- A UHS-II SD card
With all of these devices connected, I was able to access the full bandwidth of my FiOS 1 Gbps 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 display at macOS-supported 120Hz through the DisplayPort connection and quickly charge my MacBook battery at the same rate as the MagSafe charger that came with the computer.
The only slower device than when connected directly to my Mac was the Thunderbolt 3 SSD, which lost about 20% of its write speed and 30% of its read speed through the docking station. I also had some issues with the Thunderbolt drive not mounting after waking the Mac from sleep, but that may be due to the macOS beta I used during my test period.
I also had to turn off auto power saving mode in the Mac’s network preferences for the Ethernet adapter so that the Mac recognizes the Ethernet connection.
Getting the CamLink 4K to work with the TS4 was a bit more difficult. Initially, the video feed from my external camera would freeze after a few seconds, no matter what video capture or call app I was using. To solve this problem, I had to plug the CamLink 4K into 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 , which maintains a constant transmission rate. Once this was changed, the CamLink 4K worked reliably through the TS4 docking station.
When it’s time to remove my laptop from my desk, I simply unplug a cable and go. And when I get back to my desk, it’s just a cable to reconnect all my external devices and charge my laptop. If I want to go from my Mac to my gaming laptop, it’s just one cable to move all peripherals at once. It’s really hard to overstate the convenience factor here.
The TS4, like the TS3 Plus before it, is also more reliable than other Thunderbolt docks I’ve used. With the exception of my finicky Thunderbolt SSD and the Ethernet connection and CamLink setup steps, everything worked as I expected every time I plugged my laptop into the dock.
The TS4 is undeniably expensive, and if you have an older dock like the TS3 Plus, it’s probably not worth the cost of the upgrade. But if you’re looking for the ultimate desktop setup for working from home or just want the best Thunderbolt docking station you can get, the TS4 is the answer.
Photograph by Dan Seifert/The Verge