RedShark News

08 Feb

RedShark Review: Matrox DS1 Thunderbolt Docking Station Featured

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Matrox DS1 Matrox DS1 Matrox/RedShark

Thunderbolt is one of the most powerful technologies to arrive in the last few years. Matrox tames that massive raw data throughput with a multi-faceted docking station to simplify the lives of MacBook owners

People often think that because I like technology I must also like setting things up. I don't know why they think that, and the exact opposite is actually the case. I find messing around with drivers about as much fun as a root canal filling.

While I'm at it, the other thing that really winds me up is the impossibility of getting a tidy desk, when there are so many cables strewn around doing their job nicely but inevitably looking horrible while they're doing it.

To make matters worse, my Macbook Air, which in all other respects is lovely, only has two USB ports, so I'm obliged to plug all my peripherals (if you can call a mouse and a keyboard "peripherals" - they're actually pretty important!) into a small, ugly, and frequently temperamental USB hub, that is so lightweight that it is usually suspended in mid-air by virtue of the inflexible cables plugged into it.

Perhaps the best, but most underused feature of my Macbook is that it has Thunderbolt, and ever since the concept of Thunderbolt docking stations was mooted, I've been waiting to get my hands on one. Now that I have, I can't say that I'm disappointed, because this tough little box has instantly solved all the above problems.

What Thunderbolt is

A lot of people perhaps think that Thunderbolt is just another data connection on a computer that's a bit faster than the other ones. In a way, it is, but it's much more than that. It really is extremely fast. It's 10 Gigabits per second, in both directions. But it's not just about speed. It is designed to let external devices talk to the very heart of the host computer, almost as if they were plugged into an internal expansion slot.

Which means that, essentially, laptops can become specialist workstations, although, of course, what you can actually achieve with them does depend on their specification and configuration.

Daisy-chain

You can daisy-chain several devices together on a Thunderbolt connection, and that's a good job, because as it becomes more widely adopted, there will a lot of them, including storage.

Matrox DS1 HDMI Back View Labeled Connections Black

The Matrox DS 1  Docking Station is designed to go on the end of a Thunderbolt chain. You could, for example, insert your Thunderbolt storage drives between the computer and the DS1, and then plug the rest into the DS1's variety of ports, which are:

  • Thunderbolt cable from your Mac or external Thunderbolt storage
  • HDMI or DVI cable, depending on which version of DS1 you have
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • Keyboard and mouse (or any other USB 2.0 peripheral)
  • Speakers and Microphone (or combined headset)
  • USB 3.0 or 2.0 for flash drive, hard drive or any USB device

The DS1 is a multi-format hub, with one simple purpose: to bring all the processing power and I/O from your computer to the external world, via a single Thunderbolt cable.

I have to say that this is quite simply the easiest high tech device I have ever set up. In fact, I didn't set it up. I plugged it in - all the above devices and cables - and it just worked. No drivers or setup routines were necessary. It didn't even seem to matter what order I plugged things in.

 

Matrox DS1 HDMI Front View Labeled Connections Black

 

There are only two things I had to adjust. My Macbook thought my external monitor was to the left of the laptop and not to the right - it has no way to know where my monitor was physically on my desk. Time to fix? Ten seconds, in the Mac settings panel. And then, I had to turn down the contrast on my external screen. It was set to maximum because that's what was needed with the output from the Macbook. But that took about ten seconds as well, and the picture is now fantastic. Total adjustment time: 20 seconds.

No more clutter

And the result? No desk clutter, and the knowledge that when I unplug the MacBook, I now only have two cables to consider: Power and Thunderbolt. When I come back to my desk, I just plug those two back in, and everything works again.

The DS1's Thunderbolt connection is on the front of the unit, and you may wonder why. The answer is simple: It's because it is designed to sit unobtrusively at the back of your desk. If you're always taking your MacBook with you, you would actually want the connection to be on the front, so that you can get at it.

I was going to say that being able to plug an HD monitor into the DS1 is the biggest advantage, but it's more than that. It's the fact that all of your devices go into a single box, the DS1, and that they don't need any configuration at all, that makes this a must-have device.

Thoroughly recommended.

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  • Such a shame that there is only one Thunderbolt port. Not a lot of use to me as it means I can't use an external monitor and this box. Why do they do it? Every t'bolt device should have pass through.

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  • Not sure what you mean, Simon. I did the review using an HDMI external monitor fed from the DS1. If you want to use a Thunderbolt monitor, it will have a pass-through so you can put the DS1 on the end of the chain. My impression of the DS1 is that it's not intended to be a one-to-many thunderbolt breakout hub, but a way of bringing all the I/O from a potentially tiny laptop to a more convenient desktop box, with only one Thunderbolt cable.

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  • It does seem strange that they'd add only a single Thunderbolt port, forcing the device to sit and the end of the chain. Given it's purpose, it'd make more sense for this device to be at the head of the daisy chain, where, as you said, it would have the single port you'd plug your thunderbolt into. IMO...

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  • David, if you get a chance, take a look at the Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock that they announced not too long ago. It might have some more functional use in comparison. Ports include: 1x Gigabit Ethernet, 2 x Thunderbolt, 1 x Firewire 800, 3 x USB 3.0 ports, Headphone, Mic In

    You lose the HDMI port, but if being a hub and/or daisy chaining thunderbolt is more of a concern, that might do more of the trick.

    http://www.belkin.com/us/thunderbolt

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  • While I can understand why, from an ease-of-design standpoint, they made this an end-chain device, it still presents you with a dilemma. You can now never use another other end chain device, such as Matrox's own MXO2/T, without giving up your dock connections. That said, I like the DX1, but I'll probably wait for the DX2. ;)

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  • Thunderbolt is looking to be a really good connection format, but right now, even devices like this are still-born.
    Where are the PCI and Expresscard adaptors that get Thunderbolt on to the PC/Windows platform?
    The potential for end user benefits from the same gains - less cable clutter and faster data through-put - are massive, and would be welcomed by Edius, Premiere, Avid and Vegas users everywhere.

    Being able to hook up a BMD Cine Cam to my Lenovo laptop via Thunderbolt would be fantastic.

    One lol-worthy side note,.. Loving all that adverts stating 10gig connection speed from external drive enclosures, that are fitted with Sata 3.0 drives that max out at 6gig.... Truth in advertising?

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  • This will do well because of the number of Macs out there with Thunderbolt ports and little else. Yes, it will be frustrating for PC owners that don't have access to this fast connection. Don't forget that you probably need a 10Gbit/s connection to carry a 6Gbit/s protocol like SATA 3.0. You're right: it probably won't speed it up, but at least it won't slow it down!

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  • There are several Windows laptops that now have Thunderbolt connections. In fact Lenovo has one. As per Intel, Thunderbolt cant' be added via a PCIe or Expresscard because the controller must sit on the motherboard with direct access. I'd add this may be one of the biggest challenges in making a new MacPro because, to date, all Thunderbolt computers have the GPU sitting on the motherboard.

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  • The question becomes, Tried buying an Expresscard adapter?
    I'd be first in line to grab one, but just like SDI Expresscards, they seem to be vapour-ware when you go looking through the catalogs of any of the Melbourne based Pc or Video equipment retailers.
    (the Lenovo with Thunderbolt came out just after I bought the one I'm using now.)

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David Shapton

David is the Editor In Chief of RedShark Publications. He's been a professional columnist and author since 1998, when he started writing for the European Music Technology magazine Sound on Sound. In his day job, David has worked with professional digital audio and video for the last 25 years.

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