When I bought a MacBook Pro in 2016, I also bought a CalDigit USB-C Dock, one of the first docks available. It may be time for an upgrade. Here's why.

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In all the years I’ve owned Apple laptops, I’ve been tempted by docking units for them.

Especially in earlier models, where a PowerBook or MacBook Pro could have half a dozen ports and connectors, the appeal of a dock was the ability to plug in just one thing when you got to your desk. Instead of plugging in a monitor, keyboard, mouse, Ethernet cable, printer, and all the rest one after the other, you could slide the laptop into a sled where those connections were already made.

Apple addressed this once with the PowerBook Duo line of subcompact laptops, which could connect to a Duo Dock that had all the connections. Third party companies also engineered docks for more recent Apple laptops that lined up all the ports.

And yet, I was never swayed enough to buy one, because after all, it wasn’t that much of an effort for me to plug in a few cables whenever I set up in my home office.

The MacBook Pro introduced in 2016 changed all that. Largely that was an external choice: it includes only four USB-C ports for the 15-inch model, and two USB-C ports on the 13-inch model. The MacBook just before it includes just a single port, and the current MacBook Air includes two.

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These ports are versatile, however, able to route data from multiple sources and also carry power. To switch to the MacBook Pro, I could either buy a host of dongles and adapters, or switch to a dock that connected what I needed.

I bought my 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar in 2016, and also bought a CalDigit USB-C Dock, one of the first docks available. I’ve used it since then, but it may be time for me to upgrade, for a few reasons. Recently I’ve been testing the new OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock, and it’s opened my eyes to some of the limitations I’ve been living with for the last two years.

Now, before I get too far, let me point out that I’m not comparing features between the two docks to pit them against one another, since the CalDigit model is older and the company has since released other products that are more akin to the OWC model in terms of features. Rather, I’m sharing my experience to give you an idea of the OWC dock’s abilities and how I approach what I think is a pretty average setup. I hope that will help you decide if a dock is good for you, and which features to look for.

More ports

I know, “more” isn’t always better — except when it is. The CalDigit dock provides three USB 3.1 Type-A ports (the wide rectangular plug common to most USB devices) for connecting devices, one of which can be used for high-speed charging of a phone or tablet, plus one USB 3.1 Type-C (more commonly referred to as just USB-C) that can also charge devices. It includes one HDMI port, one DisplayPort 1.2a plug for connecting a monitor, 1 gigabit Ethernet networking port, one microphone input and one audio output.

What’s missing on this list is an SD card reader (as a photographer, I use that a lot) and Thunderbolt 3 speeds. Thunderbolt 3 uses the USB-C form factor, and can carry data at up to 40 gigabits-per-second (Gbs); the older CalDigit dock tops out at 5 Gbs over the USB and USB-C ports.

I missed the SD card slot every time I imported photos, relying on a separate USB-C card reader. The Thunderbolt, however, didn’t impact me because I don’t yet regularly use true Thunderbolt 3-speed peripherals.

The OWC dock, by contrast, includes five USB 3.1 Type-A ports, one USB 3.1 Gen 2 port (which uses the USB-C form factor with speeds up to 10 Gbs), plus two Thunderbolt 3 ports. It also has Gigabit Ethernet, one Mini DisplayPort, optical audio out, a single analog in/out port, an SD Card slot, and a microSD Card slot.

Power

The CalDigit trips me up in one area: It sometimes doesn’t provide enough power to connect my devices and also charge the MacBook Pro.

Part of that is due to the overall power load I’ve given it. I connected an external hard drive with its own power source (so in theory it doesn’t draw power from the dock), plus a USB-powered external drive that I use as a Time Machine disk. Also hanging off the back is a USB scanner, which is usually powered off, and an Ethernet cable. For a monitor, I have an Apple LCD Display, which connects via Mini DisplayPort.

If I’m not doing anything particularly demanding, that’s a fine setup. But when I run Photoshop or applications that hit the MacBook Pro’s graphics processor, the power consumption goes into overdrive and the dock can’t keep up. It delivers 60 W of power, which is fine in most situations, but my machine frequently wants more.

So, I’d be connected to the dock, but then also have to plug in the power brick that came with the computer. One upside is that power can be connected to any of the MacBook Pro’s USB-C ports, which is still one of my favorite features.

It’s a workable situation, but annoying. The OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock delivers up to 85 W of power, giving me enough overhead that I haven’t needed to plug in the dedicated power adapter.

Displays and pricing

The last point to note isn’t something that affects me currently, but one appeal of today’s docks is the ability to drive multiple external displays. I’ve long used a monitor attached to my laptop to give me two screens. Both docks mentioned here will drive two displays in addition to the MacBook Pro. The OWC dock supports two displays at 4K resolution or one 5K display; the CalDigit can do two 4K displays, but only in mirrored mode; the CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 3 Plus matches the OWC’s display abilities.

The OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock is not inexpensive at $299, though a version with 12 ports instead of 14 can be had for $249. CalDigit’s Thunderbolt Station 3 Plus costs $309.

Jeff Carlson writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at st.news/practicalmac.