Review: CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 3 Lite

In recent years we’ve seen a move away from laptops offering  every possible port. Most brands now prefer to keep things minimal for their slim and light offerings. Apple has been leading the way here, with the MacBook offering just a single USB-C port. While this may improve the design, it removes a lot of flexibility for connecting accessories.

The most common solution to this is the small ‘dongle’, but these can be fiddly and aren’t great for a desktop setup. A better solution is the desktop dock that allows you to connect multiple devices over a single cable and can offer a semi-permanent setup for use with your laptop.

I reviewed CalDigit’s USB-C Dock (read) back in January and found it provided a great solution to this problem. But what if you crave the fastest possible connections – you have the latest and greatest Thunderbolt 3 Laptop and want to get the most from your port? CalDigit has a new solution, their Thunderbolt Station 3 Lite (TS3 Lite). The Thunderbolt 3 ports look identical to a USB-C port, but can boost the speed up to a whopping 40Gbps, four times the speed of USB C.

The TS3 Lite brings the faster speeds at a small additional cost, retailing at £199/$199. Read on to find out what this gets you and why you might not want to upgrade.

What’s in the Box?

The CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 3 comes in a glossy white and blue packaging and won’t look out-of-place in an Apple Store. The packaging is very similar to the USB-C dock, with everything being safely secured and protected.

When you open up the box you’ll find a first layer of the accessories, remove these and there’s a handy Quick Start Guide printed onto the inside of the box – a great way to get your attention.

Inside the box you’ll find the main TS3 Lite Dock, a large power supply, and the all important Thunderbolt 3 cable.

The TS3 Lite Dock is a different design to other CalDigit products – it’s still made from quality extruded aluminium, but there’s a plastic front and back panel that contain the ports. This may be slightly less durable than the all-aluminium construction of the USB-C Dock or TS2 Dock. The angular design certainly looks modern and the finish is nice and premium.

On the front of the dock there are two ports for easy access – a USB 3.1 port and a USB C port. Apart from that there’s a small blue power LED that lights up when it’s powered on and connected to a Thunderbolt 3 port.

The back of the device is where the majority of the ports live. Here you have a Gigabit Ethernet port, USB 3.1, Microphone & Headphone ports, two Thunderbolt 3 ports, a DisplayPort and the power connector.

The layout of the ports is good, with adequate spacing between them. One point to note is that although there are two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the back, one is going to be used to connect to your computer leaving only one for any peripherals. You can still daisy-chain further Thunderbolt devices if they also have two ports.

To get going all you need to do is connect the power and connect to one of the Thunderbolt ports using the included cable. Unfortunately, the Thunderbolt 3 Lite won’t charge your laptop over this cable. It does supply a bit of juice, about 15 W, to help to keep your laptop going but you’ll need to charge through a different port.

If you want to charge your tablet or phone, the TS3 Lite does a sterling job by supplying power over the USB ports even when a computer isn’t connected.

The DisplayPort supports monitors 4K running at 60Hz. But the DisplayPort isn’t the only way to connect a monitor, you can also use the Thunderbolt 3 port to connect a compatible display running at up to 5K@60Hz.

CalDigit also has an OS X utility that can disconnect all TS3 Lite devices from your Mac with a couple of clicks. I found this really handy when I had to quickly move locations, it ensures your drives are unmounted correctly to prevent data corruption.

Overall, the CalDigit TS3 Lite worked flawlessly. I didn’t encounter any problems connecting to a Macbook Pro with Thunderbolt 3. It also worked with an older Macbook Pro with Thunderbolt 2, I had to use an Apple Thunderbolt converter but this didn’t cause any problems.

I did try connecting the CalDigit TS3 Lite to a USB C laptop but it wouldn’t work. The cables fit, but the TS3 Lite wouldn’t power up. One potential downside is the lack of an SD card slot – there seems ample room on the front of the dock and this is something a lot of new MacBook Pro users miss.

Summary

The CalDigit Thunderbolt 3 Lite dock provides a great one-cable solution for modern Thunderbolt laptops. The main downsides are the lack an SD card reader and it won’t charge your laptop. If these don’t matter to you the dock supports 5K video, audio, networking and USB through a single cable.

If you don’t need the 40 Gbps speed or 5K video of Thunderbolt 3 you may be better looking at CalDigit’s USB-C Dock that charges through the same cable and is also compatible with any Thunderbolt 3 port.

If you really need Thunderbolt 3 and don’t want a separate charging cable then CalDigit should have you covered later in the year with their Thunderbolt Station 3 (non-Lite).

If you think you’ll use the extra bandwidth of Thunderbolt and don’t mind about the charging, then the Thunderbolt Station 3 Lite is a great solution. I’d even recommend it to those with a Thunderbolt 2 laptop – you can just use Apple’s 2-way converter and future-proof your setup.

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