Through out my career as a photographer, I have used hundreds of different products that deem to enhance my daily workflow. And there are only a few that I would say that they really do the job well. When photography turned from film to digital, my reliance on computers and related electronic products and accessories had never been heavier. Photographers’ lifestyle has also changed dramatically too. These days, we don’t just sit in our studios or offices, we shoot at different locations, often completing a shoot-to-print turnaround abroad and on top of the post production we also have to keep our ‘audience’ interested by updating Tweeter, Facebook and blogs, just to name a few. Therefore, most of us carry a laptop, a tablet and a smartphone just to help us getting through our busy days. On top of all the devices above, we also carry a lot of external storage hard drives. Because we usually have at least one immediate backup of whatever we shoot so there’s a second copy straight away just in case the laptop breaks down, theft or accidental damage resulting in unretrievable data lost. Then we have an photo library containing our unfinished jobs so when we are waiting at the airport or siting around at a local cafe, we can continue to work. Indeed, we just don’t stop.
As a wedding journalist (how I usually call myself) and a street photographer, I have to be very ‘mobile’. I often carry my Incase laptop backpack and my Macbook Pro, together with two external hard drives (as described above) and a charger, of course my camera. But this review isn’t about anything that I would use at location or during traveling. It’s about something very special that puts a big smile whenever I am back to my studio. A big thank to Elgato, who kindly sent me their latest Thunderbolt dock for review.
Well, first, Elgato isn’t the first who brings us this type of ‘super’ dock. There are other manufacturers who already launched Thunderbolt docks in 2013. Though Elgato may not be the first but after using one, I must say that their dock is definitely one of the most polished (and elegant) in its class and truly justifies every penny (cent if you are in the US).
Right, for those who wonder what on earth are these Thunderbolt dock or so called ‘super’ dock? Some of my friends even said that they were just a bunch of severely overpriced USB hubs. First, I must admit that these docks are indeed expensive but their prices have come down significantly since the beginning and now I would call it ‘acceptable’ if still a little costly to buy. Second, it is a hub, sort of and I will explain later. So far so ‘bad’? No, not at all. Just read on and you will see that Elgato’s latest offering is by far one of the best piece of kit I’ve used in years.
Already lots to connect to my laptop while I am traveling, it’s worst when I get back to my studio. As I only use a Macbook Pro as my main computer, my limited connectivity means that I am always crippled when I try to do ‘more’. But lucky that I am also a Firewire user, a similar connection to Thunderbolt which also allows me to daisy chain multiple hard drives and raid them if necessary. It’s data transfer rate that is more consistent and faster than USB 2. As I am always working from an external photo library that stores files to external drives, I would prefer Firewire than USB. But while I use Firewire for my ‘heavier’ work, I still use my USB ports for my iPad, iPhone and other hard drives for archives. My late 2011 17 inch Macbook Pro was the last in the series to have USB 2 and all 2012 Macbook Pros feature USB 3 connections. Not that I am too bothered but it would be nice to have a faster transfer rate to my archive drives. For the past three years, I haven’t utilized my Thunderbolt port, probably because of the lack of options for me, and I only got my first Thunderbolt drive earlier this year just because I’ve run out of storage space and needed a new hard drive so I gave it a try.
Now, my latest gadget from Elgato. Having seen Belkin’s Thunderbolt dock, I am under the impression that these super docks will have similar physical appearance. But Elgato surprises me with its product, and in a very nice way. The dock is smaller than other competition and the built quality is definitely a ‘good-match’ to all my Apple products with its aluminium casing and feels very sturdy.
Apart from the gorgeous look, it actually does what it says on the tin, which to my advantage, three USB 3 ports! So all of the sudden, my original five ports on my Macbook Pro (Firewire 800, Thunderbolt and 3 x USB 2) has been boosted to desktop-like eight ports (Firewire 800, Thunderbolt, 3 x USB 2 and 3 x USB 3!). That’s pretty handy since USB upgrade isn’t an option on any portable Macs so for many who use pre-2012 Macbook/Macbook Pros, there was no option but to stick with USB 2 connections. Now, I have not one but three fully functioning USB 3 ports! Better still, they are all powered which means that I can use to any of these ports to connect and power portable USB 3 drives and they even charge my iPhone and iPad! Though I haven’t had a chance to test the Belkin’s version but from what I gathered, there’re some power issues with their USB ports. But so far, Elgato scores big in terms of compatibility, at least for me!
So now I have the dock connected to my Macbook Pro, all of the sudden I have lost all my cable clutter that I often find irritating. Trust me if you are a portable computer user, having lots of leads just horrible when it comes to connecting or disconnecting them. The mess also reduces your desk working space because you can’t put anything near the cables! Not it’s neat and tidy with only one Thunderbolt connected to my computer. The rest are spare if I decided to use it for the occasional connections when required.
I haven’t and don’t usually do transfer speed test like many others because:
- It doesn’t matter too much for me as a photographer, I don’t need the out right speed as required by videographers or any other visual artists.
- I only use traditional spindle hard drives and its speed is pretty limited unless you start to RAID them in multiple so the effect with Thunderbolt can be limited. But I do have a mix for USB 2 and USB 3 drives so I did some normal file transfers just to see if I am benefitting any increase in speed, visually rather than scientifically.
I am happy to say that the USB 3 drives do seem a little snappier and quicker to read and write. So it’s perfect for archiving indeed. I still wouldn’t use it for any type of photographic work and I will continue to use my Firewire and Thunderbolt drives for that. And this brings me to Elgato’s only downside. The lack of Firewire port. Belkin’s dock has a one so the solution is much better for me when I will not even need to use my Firewire port on my computer, even less clutter! It’s not a deal breaker but it would be nice to have one so I can daisy chain more drives to the dock rather than to my computer.
Finally, Elgato finishes its product with some very neat touch too. You can download and install an app to your Mac to ‘disconnect’ all your drives and devices with one click! That’s cool and VERY convenient. Before I used the dock, I often find myself having to switch the computer off and let either all the external drives disconnect automatically or physically unmounting them individually if I need to move the laptop quickly. So this is a very neat and simply solution indeed. Moreover, Elgato also provides you a Thunderbolt cable where no body else does. So you are all set when you receive your dock. Perfect! Last but not least, I’ve seen the power ‘brick’ from Belkin and it makes Elgato’s power adaptor seems pea-sized. I wish Elgato continues its effort to make seamless, simple and elegant solutions to computer users. There are many great companies who make great products and only a handful that I actually find them useful so it’s great to see that this dock fits the bill. I just want to see if it’s reliable for my daily abuse and will update this review in a few months time if you are still following this! Oh by the way, the dock does provide you with an additional mic, headphone, a standard HDMI and Gigabit Ethernet ports (so it’s a lot more than just an overpriced USB hub!). I haven’t put these to test because I don’t use them, as yet, but judging from how the USB and Thunderbolt ports work, I can confidently say that you shouldn’t have a problem using them at all.
Special thanks to Tin Drum PR.
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