MacBook Pro classic tangled up in plugs? Thunderbolt 2 Dock to the rescue

While new MacBook Pro buyers are bemoaning the lack of ports, classic owners still have to manage all those cables somehow. This article shows one nicely engineered solution.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Five connections down to two

From five connections down to two.


My wife has the ability to imbue the word "honey" with many meanings. This particular tone indicated that she was frustrated with something, and it was time for me to put on my official Husband Problem-Solving Hat. It's like a Sorting Hat, but with wires, not magic.

She, her desk, and my former MacBook Pro were not getting along.

Last spring, my wife adopted my 2015 MacBook Pro as a replacement for her desktop computer. I traded my cherished MacBook Pro for her trusty Mac mini, which I immediately put to use on a another project.

My plan was to order the new hotness notebook as soon as Apple announced it. Apple finally did, and I'm waiting for one of the new Touch Bar MBPs to arrive.

She got a much faster Mac out of the deal, but she also got hit with some unexpected inconvenience.

When at her desk, she has been using most of the MacBook Pro's available ports. She had one of the two Thunderbolt ports dedicated to a hardwired Ethernet connection. She had the HDMI port going through a DVI adaptor to a Monoprice 27-inch monitor.

She had one of the two USB ports connected to a bulk document scanner, and the other USB port connected to a USB hub (which contained her unified wireless keyboard and mouse dongle and a whole bunch of other things because she likes to use a lot of gear at her desk).

That array of port usage was no big thing when she had a dedicated computer at her desk. But once she started to use the MacBook Pro, it no longer just sat on her desk. It became her constant companion, her little silver buddy.


Urban Armor's rugged case.

Out and about, it was fine. She uses the Urban Armor Gear ICE Mil-spec protected case on it. Urban Armor sent me one of their cases last year. As soon as she adopted my MacBook Pro, she snagged the case. She said she was "over the moon" about it because it's cool looking, rugged, and you can see the Apple logo through its smoke grey cover. It's kept the laptop safe during her travels.

The problem was occurring when my wife got back to her desk. Settling into work at her desk was no longer a matter of turning on her monitor and going to work. She had to set up the MacBook Pro, find all the loose cables, connect the MagSafe 2 adapter, the Thunderbolt-based Ethernet adapter, the monitor, and all the USB devices.

Every time she had to leave her desk, she had to go through the reverse process, removing the MagSafe plug, the Thunderbolt Ethernet adapter, the monitor, and all the USB devices. Cables would sometimes fall off the edge of the desk and get lost on the floor, or attacked by the puppy.

It doesn't seem like a big deal, but it added friction to her workday. The result was that she would sometimes work at her desk without the peripherals that help her do her job most efficiently. Sometimes if everything was finally hooked up right, she'd find herself avoiding bringing her Mac with her. She was doing without her laptop when she went out, missing opportunities to get work done away from the home office, because it was just too much of a pain.

Yes, this is a First World problem. But she's a busy person with modern stresses and demands on her time. Every added set of steps adds to her long list of to do items. Sitting down at her desk required finding five wires and making five connections. Getting up from her desk, and taking her computer, required removing five connections.

Yes, she was psyched to have a newer, faster, more useful machine she could take with her everywhere. But trying to make it also work as her main desktop computer wound up adding ten additional steps to every desk session. So her happiness about the benefits started to diminish rapidly.

This is where "Honnnneeey...!" came into the picture. "Can you please fix it?"


OWC's Thunderbolt 2 Dock

As it turns out, I already had what I thought might be a solution. The nice folks at Other World Computing had sent me an OWC Thunderbolt 2 Dock, which I had originally intended to use in one of my studio projects.

With the studio project went on hold because both software products I was testing and planned on relying upon failed, my look at the Thunderbolt 2 Dock went on hold as well. Both software companies assure me they're preparing upgrades that fix their deal-killing problems. In the meantime, the Thunderbolt 2 Dock sat woefully in its box in my review cabinet, awaiting adoption by a loving desk and a kindly computer.

When my wife called a "Fix it!" - her most urgent and plaintive version of the honey-do, I immediately remembered the Thunderbolt dock. I pulled it out of the cabinet, headed over to her desk, and handed it to my wife.


The dock has ports on the back and the side.

I did a search online, and discovered that no software or drivers are needed for the dock. You plug it in. You plug your stuff into it. She looked at it warily for a minute, shrugged, then started to plug in her ports and set up her desktop.

There were two issues. First, to connect to her computer, she still needs to connect two cables: Thunderbolt and power. Even so, that got her down to four connections per connect/disconnect cycle from ten. Still a win.

The second issue was more difficult to solve. The monitor (which has a DVI connection) didn't work properly in the dock's HDMI port. With the DVI-to-HDMI adapter she was using, it flashed and flickered. At first, we thought our slick plan would be foiled right there. This monitor was one I had tried on my four-monitor iMac project and given up on. It worked well as a main monitor, but it was a very inexpensive 27-inch monitor. It was fussy. It was also fussy on the Thunderbolt dock.

As it turns out, we were able to fix the problem. I first tried a pile of HDMI to DVI adapters and they all failed pretty much the same way. I then dug out my one spare Thunderbolt to DVI adapter, and that worked. Perfectly.

I honestly can't be completely sure whether the problem with the monitor resided in the monitor itself, in the adapter, or in the HDMI connection through the dock. But I can tell you that using the Thunderbolt adapter works reliably, AND I've had problems with this monitor before. So I'd be willing to bet that the problem resides in the monitor.


A network switch, USB hub, and the new Thunderbolt 2 Dock. The side ports (not shown) are being used first, leaving room for lots of expansion.

What does my wife think about the Thunderbolt 2 Dock as a solution? "It's fantastic. I don't have to rummage around my desk for wires all the time. It just works."

At $249, the Thunderbolt 2 Dock isn't cheap. But what price do you put on moving honey-do to honey-done, not to mention an increase in productivity, as well as improved utilization of an expensive piece of computing equipment? If this is something you need, you'll know if the expense is worth it.

Now, what about the new Touch Bar, USB-C, Thunderbolt 3-only MacBook Pro? Stay tuned. When mine arrives, I'll look at how to hook that little beast into the studio with its own special dock.

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