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Apple Makes Using Multiple Monitors Difficult

Introduction

This whole USB-C thing is really ticking me off…

I’m an SDLC (software development life cycle) professional. I work with a multiple monitor setup at work. Its often easier to display what I’m testing on one monitor and the tools that I need to record test results and such on another monitor. I also have a third monitor setup to run other office tools – like Outlook or our internal chat client, or other needed tools on so my testing and testing tool displays aren’t too cluttered with other, irrelevant windows.  This setup works very well, and it’s a lot easier to get used to than you might think.

Like other computing users with this type of setup, I have duplicated it at home.  On my Late 2013 15″ MacBook Pro, this was easy to do. I have a Thunderbolt Display and two other HDMI based monitors. The Henge Docks Horizontal Dock that I have, as a TB1 port, a miniDisplay Port and an HDMI port on it.

My desk is basically cable free, as all cabling for this setup goes right into the dock. If it didn’t have the dock, I could hook all of these monitors directly to the MBP as it has an HDMI port and two (2) Thunderbolt ports (that can also function as miniDisplay port, if needed).

On the latest versions of Apple’s MacBook Pro’s – from Mid 2016 forward (or those with USB-C ports, only) – its not this easy.  And to be clear, this is NOT a new issue.  This has been a customer facing issue for nearly four (4) years; or since Apple made the change to USB-C only-based ports on their MacBook Pros.

There are two issues here – one is clearly Apple’s. The other, is unfortunately, a third party issue.  Regardless of where the issue lies, the problem is still one that has confounded me for months – how the heck do you connect multiple displays to the USB-C only equipped MacBook Pro?

This may seem like a rhetorical question – Duh! Chris… just grab your favorite dongle and connect it to the notebook.

Yeah… this might work for a single monitor setup, or for those folks that don’t have a lot of drives, printers or other peripherals. However, individuals that have multi-monitor setups, often do NOT fall into this category.  They’ve often got external drives, printers, scanners, tablets and pointing devices, etc. as well as the extra displays.  The need for portability, however, especially if they present items to clients or make any kind of presentations, means that the begged question of, “if they need all that crap, why not just get a desktop,” is invalid… especially when the MacBook Pro can drive multiple displays at HD and better resolutions and has been able to do so for quite a number of years.

The point is, the portability is wanted and needed as is the computing power and ability to make use of external devices, displays and peripherals.

So let’s get down to brass tacks – the lack of ports.

On my Late 2013 MacBook Pro, I have

  • Two (2) Thunderbolt 2 Ports (that also support miniDisplay Port)
  • 1 HDMI Port
  • 2 USB-A Ports
  • 1 SD Card slot
  • 1 3.5mm Headphone Jack
  • 1 MagSafe Power Adapter port

If needed and with the right cables (I have an HDMI out to miniDisplay port in cable for one of my HDMI monitors), I can hook all three monitors directly to my MacBook Pro.

Currently, if you wish to do the same thing with the latest TouchBar enabled MacBook Pro’s, you either have to have a dongle or you have to have some kind of docking station.  To my knowledge, there aren’t any (certified) display cables that work with HDMI/ 4K displays  and Thunderbolt 3/ USB-C; and then who wants to have a whole bunch of cables hanging off of their laptop?

I’m going to explore a few different solutions.

I will be taking a look at the following docks (and I will be updating this post with links when the reviews have posted)

First and foremost, let me say this – there’s no perfect solution here.  I’ve been looking at USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 docks for more than a year, and nothing… NOTHING that is on the market provides enough connectivity for multiple monitors as well as additional needed peripherals.  Its disappointing; but it truly appears that if you have more than one monitor, you have to make hard and real decisions about either connecting your additional display(s) or connecting the external drives and peripherals you want or need. You really can’t do both.

But let’s not put the cart before the horse too much. let’s go through the process and talk about each dock…

OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock

Owc thunderbolt 3 dock

I’m not going to go into a lot of details here.  If you want those details about the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock, you’re going to have to read the full review.  However, I will reprint the conclusion, below:

I’ve used a number of different docks and docking stations over the years with the computers that I’ve owned. On the Windows side of the world, this has been easy. Docking solutions on that side of the fence are many and myriad. On the Mac side, however, not so much. Macs don’t have specialized dock connectors that allow dedicated and quick connection to a permanent dock. In most cases, you either have to attach every port to a single docking solution (the those provided by Henge Docks) or you sacrifice a single native port for a port replicator styled dock like the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock.

There’s not much difference between how the two solutions provide connectivity. One uses all the native ports, the other only uses one, connecting you to the dock via a cable. Thanks to TB3 technology, though you’re going to get some of the best performance you’ve ever experienced when working with your peripherals.

The OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock is $294.75 and available here.

Landing Zone Thunderbolt 3 Docking Station for 15” MacBook Pro with Touch Bar

LandingZone TB3 Dock

This particular dock has been on my desk for at least three (3) years; but to be honest, its got issues. Of all the docks that I’ve tried this one worked the best for me; but only because it has three HDMI ports and two mini DisplayPorts (though the HDMI/ mDP pairs on both the left and right sides have limitations. You can either use the HDMI port or the paired mini DisplayPort port.  You can’t use both at the same time.)

Thankfully, this one has a decent mix of ports; and the ability to connect at least three displays (one dedicated HDMI and one HDMI or mini DisplayPort on both the right and left corners) directly to the dock without using any Thunderbolt ports.  This one CLEARLY has the best video options, which was my biggest concern and need. However, the dock is cheaply made and very flimsy.

There’s a great deal of play and give in its construction. As a result, I have found that the Landing Zone often loses connection to the USB-C/ Thunderbolt 3 connections in the dock.  Squeezing the dock, insuring that the TB3 connections are in the ports in the MacBook Pro. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve also found that the unit has issues with its power supply powering the dock, its USB peripherals and my 15” MacBook Pro.

Unfortunately, with its build quality issues, despite it having all of the video connections I want and need, I really just CAN’T recommend it. The one that I have has never worked reliably and recently broke. This is the kind of device that should last the full life of your laptop; and likely beyond. Its unfortunate…

The LandingZone Thunderbolt 3 Docking Station is $299 and can be purchased here.

Henge Docks Stone Pro

Stone Pro Port Layout Square 2000x

This dock is similar to the OWC Dock in that it connects to the MacBook Pro via a single Thunderbolt 3 connection. Unfortunately, for me, this dock doesn’t have nearly enough dedicated video ports (it has one – a DisplayPort port). If you want to connect more than one monitor, you have to use one of the Thunderbolt 3 ports in the dock, or use one on the MacBook Pro directly.  Unfortunately, if you want more peripherals, you’re going to need to add either an additional USB hub or other port extender to this or similar docks.

It also only has one usable Thunderbolt port.  While the dock has two, one is meant to be the dock’s connection to your MacBook Pro (the one directly next to the DisplayPort port).  The port immediately to the right of the audio out port is a powered USB-C port and not a Thunderbolt 3 port.

This dock is very solid and VERY well built.  It provides a decent amount of connectivity; but not nearly as much as the LandingZone. This may or may not be a problem for you; but if you need to connect more than one monitor, this clearly isn’t going to give you enough options.

The Henge Docks Stone Pro is $239.99 and is available here.

Conclusion

The whole idea behind a docking station is to provide you with a way of quickly connecting and disconnecting all desktop style peripherals – monitors, mouse, keyboard, LAN, speakers, etc. without having to plug and chug each and every connection by itself.  The idea is to connect everything to the dock, and then plug the machine into the dock via a single connection.

Dell got this right with their Lattitude C, D, and E Docks. Lenovo go this right with their classic ThinkPad docks.  With the inclusion of Thunderbolt 3 into many Dell, Lenovo and Apple laptops, however, docks are really nothing more than a giant brick shaped dongle. The dedicated dock connector seems to be dead. While this is done by design to make all connections universal via USB-C, the dedicated dock connector left that one universal connector open. The dedicated connector also gave an easy way to insert and eject the PC into and from the dock.

The universal style docks like the OWC TB3 Dock and the Stone Pro also don’t offer enough video connections to allow for multiple monitor setups.  I guess my situation must truly be an edge case, as I don’t think I will ever find a dock that provides enough video connections with the needed build quality and reliability that you’d expect in a $300 docking station.

Unfortunately, the LandinZone clearly isn’t it.

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