I think the first Apple Macintosh computer I ever used for audio was a Power PC 9600 and it was the ultimate digital media machine of its day (1997). Then along came the Apple G3 (the first Mac I ever owned) with its lighting fast 300MHz processor and its 32MB of RAM. We were really flying back then but hold on, where do I plug in my serial printer, my dial-up modem and my ADB (Apple Desktop Bus) mouse and keyboard? The G3 was the first Mac to ship with a new format called the Universal Serial Bus or as we all know it, USB.
Ever since the introduction of the G3 Apple have made a habit of dropping tried and tested connectivity that we have all come to rely on at the drop of a hat. Forcing us to buy new external goodies like printers, hard drives and audio interfaces.
The latest round of Mac Books Pros in late 2016 brought us yet another connection format, Thunderbolt 3, not at this stage to be confused with USB-C (we can deal with that in another article). So how are we going to hook up our Thunderbolt monitors, drives and audio interfaces to this new format? The folks at OWC might just have the answer in the form of the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock.
13 Ports In A Single Unit
The OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock is a small (23cm x 9cm x 2.5cm) unit with a beautiful yet simple design with an Apple-like silver aluminium outer edge (where the ports are) and a silky smooth gloss black top and bottom. Ideally, this unit sits alongside your new Mac Book Pro (or other Thunderbolt 3 equipped computer) and allows you to hook up all your legacy devices. I use the term legacy very loosely. This thing has all the latest connectivity that we have come to depend upon. There are 13 ports on this baby including 5 USB 3.1 (A Style) ports, an SD card slot, a stereo headphone minijack, optical SPDIF, Firewire 800 port, Gigabit ethernet port, 2 Thunderbolt 3 ports, a mini display port and it's own 20V DC input for the supplied PSU so even us cable monkeys and gadget fiends should be kept happy.
But What If You Don't Have a Thunderbolt 3 Device?
OK confession time, I do not own a device with a Thunderbolt 3 port. At the moment my 2012 MacBook Pro Retina is still rocking the audio world when I need it to so no need for me to upgrade to the new Thunderbolt 3 equipped model. So for testing the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock I am using an Apple approved Thunderbolt 3 to 2 converter. The converter is plugged into one of the Thunderbolt 3 ports on the Dock then a normal Thunderbolt cable links this to my MacBook Pro. However, if you do own a Thunderbolt 3 equipped machine no need to rush out and buy extra cables as the Thunderbolt 3 Dock ships with a 50cm Thunderbolt 3 cable which is a very nice touch indeed and something more manufacturers could learn from.
One of my favourite sayings is "Go hard or go home." No point in faffing around let's get stuck in. I hooked the Thunderbolt 3 Dock (TB3D) to my Mac then plugged a network cable into the TB3D which was already connected to my network switch. As expected no problems there. the 2012 MacBook Pro does not have a network port so I have been using a converter for years. Thunderbolt 3 is fast with a data transfer rate of 40Gb per second so to try to stress things a little more I put an SD card in the slot, played a 4K video file from the card at the same time as streaming an HD video file from my network and there was still no major stressing or juddering in the video. Next, I hooked up my Slate Raven MTI-2 to the TB3D via a mini display port to HDMI lead. This is not officially "supported" by Slate and I didn't try any of the Raven touch screen features but ran the video out just using the Raven as a nice bit 27" 1080p display and pleasingly all still looked great.
It was at this point I had a minor revelation. My MacBook Pro only has Thunderbolt 1 onboard rated at 10Gb per second. So all that video is not even stressing or causing "issues" with a Thunderbolt 1 connection. But this is Pro Tools Expert we are not so worried about video it's audio we care about, and lots of it.
The next test involved hooking one of the USB 3 ports on the TB3D to a new Antelope Audio Zen Studio + (review to follow) which is still only using Thunderbolt 1 bandwidth and also connecting the Firewire 800 port to a 500GB Lacie Rugged drive. I ran a 96 track 48KHz session from the drive out to the Zen Studio + and recorded from 32 of the Zen Studio + inputs and viewed this on the Raven with no problems at all. I then even tried downloading a session from my DropBox to see if stressing the network would slow things down and again, not a hiccup.
I should not have been shocked at any of these results. 10Gb per second is a lot of data. Even at 192KHz, I am quite sure I would not be stressing the thruput of all the devices and connections in question. So when does one need, or take advantage of the amazing speed of a Thunderbolt 3 connection I hear you ask? Well, it's back to our old friend video for that one. The TB3D will support one 5K display (I didn't even realise there was such a thing) or two 4K displays and I quote from the OWC website:
Because Thunderbolt 3 delivers phenomenal bandwidth, up to 40Gb/s, Thunderbolt 3 Dock can be the foundation of your perfect custom display setup. Providing the ability to drive the latest generation 5K displays, two ultra HD 4K displays, or a combination of 4K, HD and other displays with the mini DisplayPort port and additional Thunderbolt 3 port.
Companies like Apple do a great job of keeping the market moving by embracing new technologies and letting older ones go. However, sometimes we as users and consumers are not so quick to follow suite so devices like the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock come along to save the day and be the bridge between the new world and the just a little bit older world. It has to be said that we don't all need the ultimate transfer speed of Thunderbolt 3 and as I discovered, Thunderbolt 1 is still damn quick for us audio folk. OWC also produce a Thunderbolt 2 Dock that might be more fitting for the times we live in right now and buying one of these will not require the £49 TB3 to TB2 converter cable (not included) but personally I like to be as future proofed as possible and to buy into an older format feels a bit closed minded. Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C as a connection format is here to stay and finally, it looks to me like we might have one connector to rule them all.