Skip to content

The Best Thunderbolt Docks in 2023: Boost Your Laptop‘s Connectivity

Thunderbolt has revolutionized laptop connectivity, allowing users to add a wide variety of high-speed ports with just a single cable. By combining data, video, and power delivery into one convenient connection, Thunderbolt docks can greatly expand the capabilities of modern laptops, especially those with limited built-in ports.

While Thunderbolt docks can get quite pricey, the good news is there are plenty of excellent options that won‘t break the bank. In this guide, I‘ll help you choose the best Thunderbolt dock for your needs and budget. I‘ll focus primarily on the top budget-friendly docks in the $150-$250 price range, but also mention some higher-end picks for those willing to spend more.

Whether you‘re a MacBook or Windows user, whether you need a permanent desktop docking setup or something portable for travel, there‘s a good Thunderbolt dock to meet your needs. Let‘s dive in and find the right one for you.

Thunderbolt 3 vs Thunderbolt 4 vs USB4

First, some background on Thunderbolt technology. Thunderbolt 3 launched in 2015 and offers data speeds up to 40Gbps, double that of Thunderbolt 2. It can also provide up to 100W power delivery to charge laptops and 15W to bus-power accessories. TB3 supports dual 4K displays or one 5K display.

In 2020, Thunderbolt 4 arrived, doubling the minimum video requirements to support either dual 4K displays or one 8K display. TB4 certification also mandates at least one Thunderbolt 4 port, Intel VT-d DMA protection for security, and wake from sleep with a Thunderbolt dock connected. However, the underlying speed remains 40Gbps.

USB4 is a related standard that is backward compatible with Thunderbolt 3 and eventually Thunderbolt 4 as well. USB4 also runs at 40Gbps and can fallback to 20Gbps speeds for older USB devices. The latest USB4 Version 2.0 spec even supports 80Gbps speeds.

While Thunderbolt 4 and USB4 offer some advantages over Thunderbolt 3, all three standards are cross-compatible. So if you have a Thunderbolt 3 laptop, you can still use a Thunderbolt 4 dock, you just won‘t get the benefits of the newer protocol.

For help understanding all the USB and Thunderbolt terminology, I recommend this detailed explainer by Stephen Foskett and the chart below from Intel:

Intel Thunderbolt 3 vs 4 comparison chart

What to Look for in a Thunderbolt Dock

With the background out of the way, here are the key features and specifications to consider when choosing a Thunderbolt dock:

Port selection: The best docks have a variety of useful ports to handle all your devices and accessories. Look for a good mix of the following:

  • Additional Thunderbolt ports for daisychaining
  • USB-A for older devices and USB drives
  • USB-C for newer devices
  • DisplayPort or HDMI for video output
  • Gigabit Ethernet for wired networking
  • SD card reader for photo/video imports
  • 3.5mm audio jack for headphones and speakers

Many Thunderbolt docks omit an HDMI port, assuming you‘ll use a USB-C to HDMI adapter if needed. DisplayPort is more common. An SD card reader is a nice bonus, but not always present on cheaper bus-powered/travel docks.

Power delivery: Thunderbolt docks with power delivery (PD) can keep your laptop charged via the same cable used for data and video. At minimum, look for 60W PD, which is enough for 13" thin-and-light laptops. For larger 15-16" laptops, you‘ll want 85-100W.

Some smaller bus-powered docks designed for travel may omit PD entirely or only offer 15W, which is enough to slowly charge a phone but not a laptop. Keep in mind the dock will need its own external power supply to provide higher PD wattages.

Display support: All Thunderbolt 3 and 4 docks can drive dual 4K displays at 60Hz. Many can also handle a single 5K or even 8K display. For dual displays, you‘ll typically connect one via a DisplayPort or HDMI port on the dock and the other via a USB-C port (either on the dock or by daisychaining the displays). Some docks have two DP or HDMI ports for dual displays.

Keep in mind MacBooks natively support higher resolutions and refresh rates than many PC laptops. And Intel-based MacBooks generally have better display compatibility than M1/M2 models. See the MacBook display limitations here.

Build quality and design: Thunderbolt docks can vary quite a bit in size and construction. For a permanent desk setup, look for a larger dock made of aluminum or other metal for durability and heat dissipation. Make sure it has rubber feet to prevent sliding around.

For travel, you may want a smaller plastic dock that is bus-powered (no external power supply needed). Some of these are barely larger than a portable SSD. Others have a flat, rectangular shape that sits underneath your laptop to save desk space.

Certified vs non-certified: Many docks are certified for Thunderbolt or USB4 compatibility. However, some cheaper docks may lack certification. While they will usually still work, you may give up some functionality and reliability. For the best experience, I recommend choosing certified docks sold by reputable brands.

Best Budget Thunderbolt Docks

With the above criteria in mind, here are my top picks for the best budget-friendly Thunderbolt docks:

1. CalDigit Element Hub – Best Overall Pick

The CalDigit Element Hub hits the sweet spot of price, performance, and connectivity. This Thunderbolt 4 dock provides a great selection of ports in a compact 5" wide aluminum enclosure for an MSRP of $249 (often on sale for less).

You get four Thunderbolt 4 ports (one host, three for devices), four 10Gbps USB-A ports, Gigabit Ethernet, and a headphone jack. 60W PD handles charging for most 13-14" thin-and-light laptops. It can drive dual 4K displays at 60Hz or one 8K display at 30Hz.

In terms of port selection, the Element Hub covers all the essentials and then some. The three downstream TB4 ports provide a ton of flexibility for daisychaining high-speed storage, displays, and other accessories. 40Gbps is plenty of bandwidth for most users‘ needs.

Unless you‘re running an intensive workflow with multiple high-res displays and TB SSDs, in which case you may want a full-size dock with 85-100W PD, the Element Hub is arguably the best overall package for the money. It provides reliable, full-featured connectivity from a trusted brand at a reasonable price point.

2. Anker PowerExpand 5-in-1 – Best for Travel

Need something even more portable? The Anker PowerExpand 5-in-1 packs a similar feature set to the Element Hub into an even tinier package. Measuring under 5"x3" and weighing 0.5 lbs, it is an ideal travel companion.

For around $150, the PowerExpand provides two TB4 ports, a 10Gbps USB-C port, 10Gbps USB-A, and a headphone jack. One TB4 port supports 85W PD passthrough while the other two provide 15W for accessories. It handles dual 4K 60Hz displays as well.

I like that Anker includes a USB-C and TB cable in the box, so you‘re ready to go out of the gate. The low-profile aluminum body is sturdy and stylish. And 85W charging keeps most laptops topped off.

While it lacks Ethernet and multiple USB-A ports, the PowerExpand doesn‘t feel too limited for such a portable dock. If you‘re a mobile worker bouncing between the office, home, and travel, it strikes a great blend of capability and packability.

3. Cable Matters Thunderbolt 4 and USB4 Dock – Best for 16" Laptops

For those with larger 15-16" laptops that require 90-100W PD to charge at full speed, the Cable Matters Thunderbolt 4 Dock is a great value. At a typical price of $250-300, it is one of the most affordable full-size Thunderbolt docks to include 98W charging and 16" MacBook Pro certification.

Compared to budget bus-powered docks, you get a wider selection of ports: three TB4 (one host, two device), four 10Gbps USB-A, one USB-C, Gigabit Ethernet, an SD card reader, and a headphone jack. It can drive dual 4K 60Hz displays or one 8K 30Hz, fed by DisplayPort 1.4 and HDMI 2.0 ports.

This is one of the only TB4 docks I‘ve seen with an integrated SD reader at this price, a welcome addition for photo and video workflows. The aluminum body has a vertical orientation to save desk space. Rear ports are helpfully labeled on the front for easy identification.

With a trifecta of high 98W PD, useful port selection including the SD slot, and wide compatibility with laptops from Apple, Dell, Lenovo and others, the Cable Matters dock is an excellent affordable option for high-end laptops. Just make sure you have an open wall outlet nearby for the required power brick.

Other Budget Thunderbolt Dock Options

A few other solid choices also worth considering:

  • Plugable TBT3-UDZ – Offers 96W PD, 2.5Gb Ethernet, and five USB 3.0 ports for under $250. Recommended by Wirecutter.
  • OWC Thunderbolt Hub – 4-port TB hub for daisychaining multiple high-speed devices. Unique travel stand design.
  • Belkin Pro Thunderbolt 4 Dock – Popular option with 90W PD, SD reader, and 2.5Gb Ethernet. Often goes on sale under $300.

Choosing the Right Thunderbolt Dock for Your Needs

With seemingly endless Thunderbolt docks on the market, how do you choose? First, determine your must-have features and ports. Do you need maximum charging speed for a large laptop? Is an SD reader essential or can you live without it? How many displays are you connecting? Do you need Ethernet?

Once you‘ve narrowed that down, set a budget and look for options that check all your boxes in that price range. In general, expect to pay a minimum of $200-250 for a full-featured Thunderbolt dock with 85W+ PD and a variety of ports. 60W travel docks can be found for $150-200.

You can sometimes save money by choosing a previous-gen Thunderbolt 3 dock instead of a newer TB4 model, if you don‘t need the latest features. And watch for sales around the holidays and back-to-school season, as many brands will discount their docks.

Mac users in particular should verify a given dock is compatible with their model laptop, as Apple tends to be pickier about certification. Many docks are marketed as ideal for MacBooks.

And don‘t forget about the Thunderbolt accessories you plan to connect. A dock is only as good as the devices you pair it with. Some top Thunderbolt-based upgrades to consider:

  • External SSDs (Samsung X5, SanDisk Extreme Pro)
  • RAID storage arrays (OWC ThunderBay, G-Technology G-RAID)
  • Dual 4K DisplayPort or HDMI monitors
  • 10Gb Ethernet adapters (Sonnet Solo, QNAP QNA)
  • eGPUs for external graphics (Razer Core, Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Box)

Final Thoughts

Whether you have a new MacBook Pro with only Thunderbolt/USB4 ports or a PC ultraportable lacking in I/O, a Thunderbolt dock is the ultimate way to expand your connectivity at home or on the go. With a single cable, you can add a variety of useful ports and transform your laptop into a full desktop setup.

And the great news is, you don‘t have to spend a fortune to get a capable Thunderbolt dock. My overall pick for the best budget dock is the CalDigit Element Hub, a compact TB4 dock offering an ideal blend of performance, ports, and price. The Anker PowerExpand 5-in-1 is a top choice for travel. And for larger 15-16" laptops needing more power, the Cable Matters TB4 dock with 98W PD is hard to beat for the money.

But everyone‘s needs and budget are different. Use the criteria laid out in this guide to determine which features matter most to you and shop around. With so many great affordable options on the market, you‘re sure to find a Thunderbolt dock that provides the perfect combo of connectivity, portability, and value.