Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock. Photo: AFP
Computing peripheral and accessory companies, including Belkin, are finally launching docking stations for the technology that could play a key role in bringing desktop features to mobile devices.
After a two-year wait, the Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock has finally gone on sale: priced at $299, the dock connects to a computer via a Thunderbolt port and adds an Ethernet jack, three USB 3.0 ports, a FireWire 800 port, audio-in and audio-out jacks, and a Thunderbolt port to a notebook or desktop PC. Belkin announced that it was developing the dock in 2011 but the company has taken its time in actually bringing the device to market.
Most consumers have probably never heard of a Thunderbolt port or even know what it is for. Although standard on Apple computers since 2011, it has so far failed to catch on with other PC makers even though it is a single point of connection for the addition of any other type of port, peripheral or accessory. The technology could play a key role in the future of consumer electronics, especially as more and more people move away from desktops and towards lightweight, mobile devices such as tablets and ultrabooks.
In attempts to save weight, designers and manufacturers have to make decisions as to which ports and connectors to keep and which ones to lose on notebook and ultrabook devices. Things such as PC cards and external display ports are slowly vanishing from many notebook ranges and with them the possibility of being able to expand a device's use -- say via a docking station, or being able to plug in sufficient peripherals so that a lightweight portable device can also serve as a desktop replacement when needed.
The Thunderbolt port means that an owner can add any other type of port or connector they may need, whenever they need it, simply by plugging a Thunderbolt Dock into the Thunderbolt Port -- be it a PC slot, extra USB ports or even professional graphics cards.
As well as Belkin, Matrox, CalDigit and Sonnet have all launched Apple-compatible Thunderbolt docks this year and there are several Thunderbolt Dock projects on Kickstarter that appear to be gaining interest. However, despite PC sales being at their lowest point for nearly a decade, the Thunderbolt port appears to be little more than a curiosity away from the Apple iMac and MacBook Pro lines. However, if sales continue to fall, PC makers could finally embrace the technology as a way of offering consumers more even when removing functions from a device.