Thunderbolt 3: The New Way to Dock

Thunderbolt 3: The New Way to Dock

The State of Thunderbolt 3: Part 2

Looking for “The State of Thunderbolt 3, Part 1?” Click here.

Recently, I was in my home office working on my computer. I have a 27-inch 4K monitor, USB Apple Keyboard, Wireless Mouse, speakers, Logitech webcam, laser printer, and an ethernet connection to my network. You should know, however, that my computer is a 2017 Macbook Pro laptop and the only thing connected to my laptop is a single Thunderbolt 3 cable. Join me in this three-part series, as I dive deep into the awesome journey Thunderbolt 3 has taken and where it’s going.

 

Peripheral Power, Equipment Efficiency

During the late 1990s to early 2000s, power users were just as demanding as they are today. Laptops  were becoming a normal, albeit expensive, business tool for top employees. When they weren’t traveling or working remotely, they were in the office with the rest of the team. They wanted the desktop convenience of a full-size monitor, keyboard/mouse, and ethernet, while still working off their laptop. For a while, your only option was to purchase a thick laptop with all the ports needed to make your workstation work. Manually plugging in 6-8 cables into your laptop was a normal part of your laptop-to-workstation routine.

How did we solve this inefficient cable fiasco? Engineers designed a clever apparatus, but to admire said apparatus we’ll need to do a quick engineering lesson on how computers work. Don’t leave! I promise a fun and easy lesson or your money back (whatever that means).

 

The Magic School Bus: Gets Programmed

Let’s jump into the Magic School Bus and take a trip to the inside of your computer. We know  computers are fast data-processors and number-crunchers, right? It takes several powerful components to make a computer…compute. To ensure these components work in-sync at lightning-fast speeds, engineers created the “motherboard.”

You’ve probably seen a motherboard if you have ever looked at the insides of a computer.  It is home to all of the critical components that make a computer work. Connecting all these components is a massive “highway system” with huge road lanes and complex traffic rules. Different data packets are instructed to take “special exits” on this highway. You know these exits as USB ports, VGA monitor port, audio/headphones port, ethernet ports, and so on. These exits vary in size but are all small compared to the highway they just left.

What does this all have to do with laptops, cable messes, or even Thunderbolt 3? Great question, and perfect timing as I was just about to bring it all together. A motherboard’s primary job is to unite powerful components so that together, they can process data and crunch numbers. Its second job is to simultaneously deliver the results to the right place, whether to other big components or via smaller exits. Up until now, any data that went out of a computer was through a cable attached to these highway exits. Engineers needed to find a way to take extend the highway outside of a laptop, and that’s why the docking station was born.

 

The Docking Station is born

These docking stations were large devices that replicated the same ports found on your laptop. You’d plug all your peripherals, like your monitor, ethernet, and USB devices, into the station as you would on your laptop ports. On the other side of the docking station was a large, wide, metal connector. Your compatible laptop had a similar port located at the bottom (near the battery). Connecting the two required you to carefully line up the laptop with the station, then press down on your laptop firmly until you heard a loud click. That clicking sound was a locking mechanism securing your laptop to the station. To remove your laptop, you’d press a release button that instantly reversed the process.

With these stations, users could “dock” their laptops into their office environment in less than 3 seconds. Instantly, your monitor would display your desktop and all of your devices came to life. It only took 2 seconds to undock your laptop and head to the next meeting.  This solution makes perfect sense. Basically, engineers built half of a motherboard with most common ports. Connecting your laptop and dock represent the merging of two “digital” highways.

I want to bring your attention to the docking station’s large connector. At the time, these big “things”  were the only way you could transport mass amounts of lightning-fast data out of the laptop. Clever programming and engineering allowed compatible laptops to detect when data should be routed to this new highway extension. Since every manufacturer designed and produced laptops using proprietary technologies and code, docking stations were limited to one brands’ specific laptop models.  Fast forward to today, and you can’t help but tear up when you consider the engineering masterpiece that Thunderbolt 3 is.

 

Next-Gen Thunderbolt 3 Docks

Thunderbolt 3 has a bandwidth capacity of up to 40Gb/s, bringing a massive highway system into a cable that is roughly 4mm in diameter. Coupled with wide protocol compatibility, this small Thunderbolt 3 cable can meet all the needs of the average computer user.

My laptop is with me 85% of the time. Whenever I get home, I grab my dock’s Thunderbolt 3 cable and connect it to my laptop. Almost instantly, all of my devices come to life and my laptop’s power status changes to “Charging/Powered.” That simple connection is proof that Thunderbolt 3 docks offer the most efficient laptop workflow today. My laptop is a 15” Macbook Pro (2017) with four Thunderbolt 3 ports. Plugged into my Elgato Thunderbolt 3 dock, I have:

  • 27-inch 4K monitor
  • USB Apple Keyboard
  • Wireless Mouse speakers
  • Logitech 4K webcam
  • Xerox laser and Dymo label printers
  • Ethernet cable

Proofreading this article before I publish it makes it sounds like I’m a Thunderbolt 3 salesman or stock holder. As a technology connoisseur (queue eye rolls here), my excitement is uncontrollable. In 5 years, I’m positive I will be talking about Thunderbolt 4 as if I made commission on every cable and dock sold. While we don’t know what boundaries engineers and programmers will break through next, I am honored to have witnessed the advancements they’ve made thus far. 15 years ago, an important salesman told me, “Give me 5 minutes while I plug everything into my laptop.” I’m heading home to do the same thing in 2 seconds.

Keep your eye out for the last installment of “The State of Thunderbolt 3,” Identity Crisis.