The Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Dock Pro (T3DP) and the Belkin Pro Thunderbolt 4 Dock (T4DP) represent the best of what Belkin has to offer for each generation of the Thunderbolt standard.
Having these two also begs a more universal question that applies to other brands: do I need a dock with Thunderbolt support and do I need the latest iteration of it? It’s fairly simple for me; I’m not a photographer or videographer, so it’s very unlikely that I need to shift copious gigabytes of data to and fro regularly. And in this day and age, no one stores large copies of movies when it’s all available on the cloud.
They weren’t kidding about the ‘Pro’ tag–these docks are pretty expensive, even after the T3DP has its price reduced. We’re looking at $599 for the T4DP and $449 for the T3DP; a pretty big outlay if you’re not a professional who needs these as a crucial part of your workflow. So is it worth paying the premium if you’re not a professional?
Tale of the tape
If you need a TL;DR of how to differentiate between the two, here’s a brief rundown. Both have 12 input/output points excluding the power supply, but the array of options is different. The T3DP offers one DisplayPort, one Gigabit Ethernet, four USB-A 3.0 ports at the rear, one USB-A 3.1 and one USB-C 3.1 at the front. There are two Thunderbolt 3 ports at the rear; one for the host device (laptop, etc) and one that you can use to hook up to a display or other peripherals.
Interestingly, the T4DR isn’t necessarily ‘better’ in every way. You get two USB-A 2.0 ports and two USB-A 3.1 ports at the back instead, which is less flexible than four USB-A 3.0 ports, but is perfect if you just need two high-speed ports; most of the time, the extra speed ports are ‘wasted’ on keyboards and mice anyway. There’s no DisplayPort here, but you get two HDMI 2.0 ports. This is also something to consider if you’ve already invested in cables. And for some, the layout might make or break the purchase decision too.
There’s one multipurpose T4DR port at the back and interestingly enough, the one in the front is intended for the host device. I preferred the rear placement as there’s less of a chance to trip the cable, but I guess this is purely preference. They also share the gigabit Ethernet port, SD card reader, and headphones jack.
Laptop users should ideally have one Thunderbolt port so you can use just one cable for convenience’s sake.
Thunderbolt 3 vs Thunderbolt 4
What usually throws people off is the utter sh*tshow that is USB/port standards, which we will not go into here. Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 both offer up to 40Gbps in transfer speeds on paper, but that’s an oversimplification. What’s more relevant for most of us, is that in terms of minimum speed, Thunderbolt 4 is assured of 32Gbps while Thunderbolt 3 only guarantees 16Gbps over PCI-Express, i.e. transferring data.
Other pain points can be as simple as this: it’s not a Thunderbolt 3 requirement to support wake-from-sleep with a keyboard or mouse. But it is for Thunderbolt 4, so with Thunderbolt 3 it can be a hit-or-miss affair. Thankfully, I didn’t encounter any issues here but do bear that in mind when it comes to Thunderbolt 3 in general. Thunderbolt 4 handles power better too, so it’s generally more flexible if you are building a workspace around your dock.
There are many other minor improvements, but on the top of that list is display support. Both docks support dual 4K displays, but the T4DP supports dual 4K displays at 60Hz, whereas the T3DP supports dual 4K displays at 30Hz. The T4DP also supports an 8K display. While I don’t see myself using an 8K display, the idea of dual 4K @ 60 fps is a little more appealing albeit completely unnecessary if you’re not a professional.
Aside from what we’ve already mentioned, one nifty feature is that the T4DP has an actual power switch, so you can conveniently turn it off when not in use. Alternatively, the dock goes into standby when you unplug your laptop, and turns back on when you reconnect, which is what I do most of the time.
One thing I can vouch for is how well they held up; I put them through long hours of use and abuse–my station is practically switched on 24/7 and never once have I encountered any worrying issues; cables are often the cause of any connection issues for me.
But it’s really hard to recommend someone to buy a T4DP when they aren’t doing media-related work. The main bugbear is perhaps the most pragmatic one of all: the price. At $599, it’s a hard ask if you don’t have a good reason to plonk down the money. The $449 T3DP (still not cheap) is more than a capable substitute despite its reduced feature set, and even then you need high-speed NVMe drives to justify the expense for speedy file transfers. Because on top of that, you would have spent (or will be spending) a fair bit on high-speed external storage–not all drives and enclosures are created equal. But I suppose it’s good to have the option.
Above all else, what I find most valuable is reliability and adherence to spec (i.e. Thunderbolt 3 means full Thunderbolt 3 and not a stripped-down version). It’s funny that buying something and trusting it to work according to spec shouldn’t be taken for granted, but it is what it is. And it’s all the more apparent when you’re shopping for accessories like these and having to comb through websites and forums digging for information. How much is your time worth?