I'd been using the CalDigit TS3 Plus Thunderbolt 3 dock for work since the Great Pandemic of 2020 started. It was provided by the company I work for. It's great for a variety of reasons—which will be brushed upon below—but I just want my own stuff, you know? It's important to me. So I did what any emotional tech-head would do, and I bought my own dock. And also—like any person who prefers variety over conformity—instead of purchasing the same model for myself, I got Anker's PowerExpand Elite. It's a 13-in-1 dock that's about 4in² smaller than Caldigit's, and it's by a trusted brand. But is this better than the 15-in-1 Caldigit TS3 Plus? Let's go over the pros and cons and find out.
If you're looking for a more technical review of each dock, please check this MacRumors review of the CalDigit or this 9to5 Toys review of the Anker. This is just my personal experience with both the Macbook Pro from 2017 and the MacBook Pro from 2020.
I'm mirroring the setups and just swapping out computers. For dual-monitor support, I had been given anAnker PowerExpand 7-in-2 USB-C adapter (HDMI) and the CalDigit (DigitalPort). I am still using the Anker adapter, since I already had my own.
The Caldigit TS3 Plus
The CalDigit TS3 Plus 15-in-1 Thunderbolt 3 dock is the epitome of class. Originally retailing for $349, this box is currently available on Amazon for only $209, this thing's pretty jam-packed with amazingness. It's been serving my company for two years, though my experience is only months-long. (I got mine when the pandemic forced a laptop and WFH environment on me.)
The Caldigit TS3 Plus can either be stood or laid on its side (it comes with optional little, rubber foot things). It's chock full of USB ports across the back. It has separate line-in and line-out jacks up front which might be welcome if I needed to use a 3.5mm microphone. There isn't really anything bad to say about this, just a bunch of nitpicks. Like, there's no MicroSD card slot. There are so many USB Type-A ports on this (five total), but all but one are in the back. Also, there's where they put the USB 3.2 Gen 2 ports. For high-speed transfers I'd have to do a reach around to connect my external SSD, and where I normally had the dock it was very difficult to do.
One benefit to this is that the rear side has an S/PDIF optical port, which I wish I could be super stoked about. But since I don't have high-end audio equipment, I can't. Still, if you're using this in your studio, you'd be enamored with this feature. Indeed, it's the only device currently on the market with an optical port.
- S/PDIF if you need it
- A lot of USB Type-A ports for all my legacy hardware, if I had any
- I can lay it on its side if I wanted to
- No HDMI support without an adapter
- Front ports only offer 5Gbps transfer, no fast charging
Anker PowerExpand Elite
Anker is known for their wide plethora (no, not just plethora but _wide_ plethora) of charging devices. They've carved out own niche in the tech world, of which I am definitely a part. I have a power bank, two car chargers, the USB-C adapter for my Macbook.... And now this. The Anker PowerExpand Elite 13-in-1 Thunderbolt 3 Dock is $299 but I was able to pick it up from Amazon for only $239 last week. It's a welcome addition to my desk. It's smaller than the TS3 Plus and more comfortable to hold when I'm transporting it, thanks to all of the rounded edges and while it delivers less power to my Macbook Pro, it's still enough to keep it charged and running for the entire workday.
This dock has everything I'd need. An HDMI port, support for USB-C video, high-speed USB-C right up front, and also a MicroSD card slot. As stated it doesn't deliver as much power to my MacBook Pro, but it provides enough and that's what's important Some things I wished this had but are impossible for such a small form-factor are another HDMI port and separate line-in/line-out ports. For the latter, this isn't even much of a concern since my audio input tends to come from a MXL 990 hooked up to a Focusrite box.
- 18W charging right at the front of the dock
- High-speed transfers from the front
- Micro SD support
- The inclusion of a power button seems unnecessary to me
- If I'm serious about audio, I'm out of luck as there's no S/PDIF port
- This gets hotter than the Caldigit dock
Head To Head
After plugging this in and setting it up, I found it comparable to the CalDigit device it's replacing, but here are a couple of important differences. a) My home setup uses HDMI, not DP; when the pandemic ends and I finally get to work in the office again, I'll be bringing the 4k monitor back to work. But I can then fit my old 1080p monitor here, which doesn't use DP. b) All the fast ports are right up front. c) There's also MicroSD, which comes in handy when I want to spin up new Raspberry Pi's or copy videos from my dash cam. The SD card reader in this isn't as fast as CalDigit's, but I appreciate not needing an adapter for my MicroSD cards.
One nice thing about this is that it's smaller and heavier, meaning it's more dense. If clumsy me accidentally bumps into the desk, or pulls to hard on something attached to the cord, it doesn't slide around the desk as much as the other. Both docks have a rubber bottom-side that keeps them in place, but I just noticed it harder to get the Anker to tip over. This would have been a big deal with the CalDigit as its high-speed 3.2 Gen 2 ports are in the back, but the Anker device puts them right up front so this thing has less reason to move from its little corner.
I find this personally embarrassing. I know the CalDigit TS3 Plus is a much better product. It wins in both features and price. It's been out for two years and still can't be beat.
But I happen to prefer the Anker dock. It's smaller, delivers more power to charge my iPhone up in the front, and also delivers more speed to my external hard drive up front. Sure, there's no optical I/O, but I'm not a pro studio. I'm not editing YouTube videos from 9-5 every day. This just fits my needs better.
Both of these docks are great. Whichever one you pick, you won't exactly be hurting for features. I think it comes down to the following criteria:
- Do you need S/PDIF IO?
- Do you plan on connecting a lot of old-school devices?
- Are you going to just plug in an external drive and leave it there, i.e. is your external drive not portable?
- Do you hate extraneous power buttons?
- Do you not need DigitalPort 1.2?
- Do you like spending more money for things?
- Do you want a MicroSD card slot?
- Your external SSD. Does it go everywhere with you, necessitating front-facing high-speed ports?
Do you have experience with thes products? What are your thoughts on either of these docks? Which one is your favorite? Look, the only reason this text is here is because I needed some space in between the table and the post's meta data. But write your comments in the Comments, whatever you think.