I’m still fairly and squarely blaming Gaz from the MyMac.com podcast for this purchase. I had looked at various models of Thunderbolt dock in the last year or so and none quite made me pull the trigger. I didn’t know of the OWC Thunderbolt 2 dock until Gaz mentioned it on the podcast. Well, the price and feature mix was almost perfect for me, so I pulled the trigger.

UPDATE: See the audio section for an important discovery.

Purchasing

As always with OWC, the purchasing experience was great. There’s excellent information on the product page and the ordering process – even this advanced order – was simplicity itself. It’s what I’ve come to expect from OWC. They even prompted me to (optionally) order a Thunderbolt cable, choosing from different lengths, and made it clear this was extra.

I was notified the order had been packed and was immediately able to follow the shipping updates until it arrived on my doorstep. Oh, and it shipped pretty much when they said it would.

In the box

The product was well packed without excessive packaging (hands up who’s ever received something like an SD card in a box big enough for a hard drive). The actual product box is a secure design. No tape was required yet there was zero danger of it coming open by itself.

Inside was the expected hardware – the dock, power supply and cable*, Thunderbolt cable, and the inevitable manual. You might think a manual is overkill for a dock but it contains succinct and genuinely useful information. In addition to the expected pictures of the product with descriptions of the different bits, there is a Notes section with seven important statements about the capabilities of the dock, such as what happens when you connect two screens, how Thunderbolt chaining works and differences between the USB ports. This is great attention to detail and very useful in understanding the product. The manual is not only useful but beautifully produced.

The cable that goes from the power supply brick to wall socket which was in my box was not the correct type for New Zealand. However, it is of the standard “jug cord” type so it was not difficult to root around in my cable box and find a suitable replacement. I was also able to find a longish cable, too, which is useful because the cable from brick to dock is not very long. I didn’t check but I doubt it would allow the brick to be on the floor and the dock to be on my desk – certainly not well forward on the desk where I have it.

Build quality & design

The dock was a little larger than I imagined (although dimensions are right there on the product page so no fault to OWC). The top and bottom are a gloss black plastic which came with sticky plastic covers. After removing the top one I rubbed the unit across my (soft) shirt to dislodge some dust and then noticed apparent fine scratches (perhaps not permanent) across much of that surface. There are also scuff marks on the aluminium sides which do appear to be removable but that is a little difficult on the finely textured surface.

I noticed the cut-outs for the ports on the back showed signs of roughly cut aluminium but this is only really apparent when looking down over the back of the device. Given the ports face the back of the device in use this is of little consequence, but this is clearly not engineered to the level Apple would. Perhaps that is what allowed the price to be where it is. I’m not really complaining – just observing.

Every plug I inserted into the device made a solid connection. All ten of them! Spacing between the rear, vertical USB 3 ports is perhaps a little close but by eyeballing the ports as I plugged the cables in, it wasn’t a huge problem.

There are two indicator lights on the bottom of the unit. The blue power light appears somewhat like the old indicator lights on the OS X dock. Clearly there but understated. The green data light is barely visible. I haven’t noticed whether the data light flashes on or off at all. I may have to wait until I am next up in the middle of the night in a darkened room (I do 24×7 on call every so often for my job) to see more of that.

Sitting on my desk now, tucked under a wooden plinth that raises my MacBook Pro, it is quite pleasing to look at.

Function

As promised, everything just worked out of the box, save for finding the power cable as mentioned above, but there was one surprise.

Display

My LG monitor was previously hogging the Thunderbolt port on my MacBook Pro via an HDMI adapter. The dock is now performing the adapter role and I can discern no difference. Plus, I can now plug my one Thunderbolt hard drive into the dock and run that at the same time.

Network

Ethernet – just works. I checked the Network settings panel and there it was, top of the list, connected just fine.

USB

I had previously had two USB 2 docks hanging off my two USB 2 ports on the MacBook Pro. One dock with 5 hard drives hanging off it and the other with another hard drive (yeah, my next purchase from OWC may involve mass storage!) and my drive dock plus any incidental devices like iPhone, iPad or memory stick.

I now have one of my hard drives connected directly to the dock because it is in fact USB 3 capable. Yay! My largest hard drive is now fassssst! Another port has the USB 2 dock full of hard drives connected (less the USB 3 one) and another still has the spare USB 2 dock. And with that I still have two more USB 3 ports available. These are special in that they are “high powered” – great for charging – and also on the end of the dock rather than the back, meaning they are easy to get to for those on demand tasks. They will even charge devices when the computer is off.

Audio

UPDATE: Since writing the review I have done some actual recording and was a little surprised to find the audio input on the dock is mono only – a reduction in capability from the MacBook Pro’s internal port.

As a podcaster I have long had two audio cables hanging out the side of my MacBook Pro. One audio in from a small mixer and one audio out to either speakers (in general use) or headphones (when recording). The dock replicates these ports, which will be great if I upgrade to a newer Mac that loses the audio in port. The ports work fine, but this is where things operate a little differently and gave me cause for alarm at first.

When connecting directly to the MacBook Pro, speakers or headphones will automatically work, cutting out the Mac’s internal speakers. It’s a pretty simple concept that works on many electronic devices and it’s what I’m used to. With the dock, things are different – I’ve never owned a digital audio interface, but I do now!

With my speakers plugged into the dock, I was getting no sound from them. When I first powered up the Mac the sound was coming out of my (HDMI-connected) monitor. Something I don’t do because the monitor speakers are, well, rubbish. I realised now it wasn’t just a case of plugging or unplugging cables, I had to consider which sound device I wanted to route audio through.

There is a new input and output device in the list called “USB audio CODEC”. With that selected as both input and output device, the sound comes out of my speakers (connected to the dock) and my microphone can be heard as an input (when appropriately routed to the speakers, headphones or recording software). But when I first turned on my microphone to test it I got a hell of a surprise!

First let me explain that I discovered I can plug my headphones directly into the Mac now (alleviating the need to fish around at the back of the dock) and then select “Headphones” as output from the Sound settings pane. Not quite as quick as hot-plugging the two cables but effective, and it means while the Mac is on the desk I can leave both plugged in whereas previously I always had a cable lying on the desk.

I used an app called LineIn to simply route the microphone (i.e. the USB codec) to the headphones and recoiled in surprise at the cacophony that ensued! I hadn’t bothered bringing the microphone in front of me. When testing audio routing I usually just rub the microphone with a finger to create noise. I could hear the noise VERY loudly and that over an equally loud HUMMMMMMMMMMM. Oh, dear! Was this a dud for audio? Err, no. More a case of me being an idiot.

One of my hard drives has a habit of emitting a resonant hum that can be heard – quietly – from a room or two away. That hard drive is sitting on a shelf directly under where the microphone was on part of the structure of the same desk. I.e. there is zero isolation of the hard drive vibration from the microphone. When moved forward to my recording position and placed on my high-tech vibration damping system (a thrice-folded cotton tea towel) the hum was far less audible. But the inputs were still very, very loud.

Checking out the input section of the Sounds setting pane, I noticed the input volume for the USB codec was set quite low. The slider has a marked scale with 5 tick marks representing, I guess, zero to 100 with marks every 25. It was down around the 25 mark and still very loud. Previously I had the Mac’s line in port set around 50.

Once I turned that down further the noise began subsiding and, along with the isolation from the hum, the signal was a lot cleaner, but still, with the input down around 12 it was a little too loud still. (I always listen to my headphones at 50% volume when recording, so that is not a variable.) Then I thought to take a look at my mixer. There’s a microphone gain and a master gain dial on there and both were set a bit above zero. I dialled back the master to zero and the microphone a couple of tick marks to the negative side and now the signal is reasonable and crystal clear.

And that’s a key point I learned from troubleshooting this particular issue. The audio that is coming through microphone–mixer–dock–Mac is very clear. In short, I think the dock’s audio processing is far superior to the Mac’s. So, to quote the Eddie the shipboard computer from the starship Heart of Gold:

We have normality. I repeat, we have normality. Anything you still can’t cope with is therefore your own problem.

The untried

There’s a single Firewire 800 port on there which I have nothing to plug into, plus I have yet to plug anything into the powered USB 3 ports. I do have a USB 3 2.5″ bare drive adapter which will prove very useful now for the one such drive I have floating around. I rarely need to charge any of my iOS devices at my desk but I will give the iPad a try because every time I’ve plugged it in in the past to transfer some data or do a backup I have been annoyed at the “It’s not really charging, dude” message.

Other bits and pieces

The only missing port that I wish the dock had is an eSata port. I have a fairly old 2.5″/3.5″ bare drive dock that is USB 2 and eSata. One of the competitor dock products has an eSata port but does not have the same number and variety of other ports. I’ll probably just upgrade my drive dock to one that supports USB 3. A basic USB 3 hub may be in order some time in the future as well.

The device does run quite warm so I’m glad I have it with a good 100mm of space above. I’m hopeful the insulating properties of the 15mm particle board of the plinth stop that heat getting to my Mac. I have been concerned about its ventilation lately anyway, so may have to re-arrange things a bit. The size of the dock (especially with 10 cables poking out the back) does somewhat limit my options on my small desk but I don’t think it will be a problem.

Conclusion

In the day I’ve had it running I’ve not had the slightest regret in purchasing the device and I am quite enjoying the burst of speed I get when copying to the USB 3 drive and the now-returned to service Thunderbolt drive. The USB audio codec will take a bit of getting used to but I think between the clarity and the plug arrangement between speakers and headphones I am definitely better off now on the audio front.

At the promotional price of USD$249 I found the OWC Thunderbolt 2 dock a compelling purchase in comparison to its competitors but your specific requirements for different types of ports may drive you in other directions.


Banner image © A Jenks.

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