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Matrox DS1 Thunderbolt docking bar review

HardwareReviews
7/10
by Riyad Emeran, 18 Jan 2013Reviews
Matrox DS1 Thunderbolt docking bar review

Every now and then a product comes along that’s so brilliant in its simplicity and usability that you wonder how you managed without it – the Matrox DS1 is very nearly such a product. That Matrox has come so close to creating something truly great is somehow more frustrating than if it had failed completely, but there are probably many out there who will still be extremely happy with the DS1 and what it offers.

The Matrox DS1 is, essentially, a docking solution for Apple laptops. Leveraging the huge amount of bandwidth available through Thunderbolt, the DS1 offers a complete connectivity solution by connecting a single cable to your MacBook Pro or Air. In principle it’s a great idea, and that’s why I chased Matrox mercilessly for a review sample.

The DS1 even looks the part – finished in brushed aluminium, and sporting a smooth, rounded fascia, Matrox’s new baby will match your MacBook and your Apple Cinema Display, assuming you’ve stumped up the cash for the latter. The DS1 ships with a power supply in the box, but you will have to buy a Thunderbolt cable yourself to hook it up to your MacBook.

To fully understand why I was so excited by the DS1, let me paint you a picture of my arrival in the office each morning. When I get to my desk I pull my MacBook Pro out of my bag and then go about connecting it up. This involves connecting the power cable, plugging my external monitor into one Thunderbolt port, plugging my Ethernet adapter into the second Thunderbolt port, plugging my Arcam rPAC DAC into one USB port and plugging my iPhone dock into the other.

Thankfully my keyboard and touchpad are wireless, so I don’t have to find a way to plug those in, but it’s still something of a hassle every morning and every evening. But with the DS1, all I’d have to do each morning is plug in my power connector and one Thunderbolt cable, while leaving everything else permanently hooked up to Matrox’s new baby.

There’s a single Thunderbolt input at the front of the device, with every other port on the DS1 being an output (bar the power socket of course). At the rear of the DS1 you’ll find a video output – either DVI or HDMI, depending on what version you purchased – along with an Ethernet port, two USB 2.0 ports, a headphone socket and a microphone jack.

There’s also a USB 3.0 port on the front of the device, giving you quick and easy access for super-fast USB devices, and also adding USB 3.0 support to MacBooks that don’t have native ports.

You might have noticed that there’s no Thunderbolt output, so you can’t hook other Thunderbolt devices to the DS1. However, if you do need to use another device, such as an external hard disk, you can place that between your laptop and the DS1 (assuming it has a Thunderbolt pass-through), without affecting any of the DS1’s functionality.

So, in theory the DS1 is a simple, yet brilliant device that’s also extremely effective in practice – up to a point. For many users, that single Thunderbolt cable will give them all the connectivity they need, hooking their notebook up to the network, to peripherals and to an external monitor. Unfortunately it didn’t work quite so well for me.

After much frustration trying to get my monitor to work properly through the DS1, I resorted to reading the documentation. That’s when I realised that I couldn’t drive my monitor through the DS1 because Matrox has only equipped the device with a single-link DVI port.

The reason that Matrox gives for going with a single-link DVI port is that “the vast majority of DVI monitors currently on the market are single-link DVI.” That may well be true, but the fact remains that a dual-link DVI port would have been compatible with every DVI monitor on the market, and not just the majority that Matrox cites.

For me, this is a deal breaker because the 27in monitor on my desk has a 2,560 x 1,440 resolution, so I need a dual-link output. The highest resolution supported by the DVI version of the DS1 is 1,920 x 1,200, while the HDMI version can only manage 1,920 x 1,080.

It’s also worth noting that if the DS1 did have a Thunderbolt output, I could have connected my monitor via a mini-DisplayPort to DisplayPort cable, which is what I use every day.

When I hooked everything up to a 22in monitor running 1,920 x 1,080 everything worked flawlessly, and I was reminded why I so much wanted to review the DS1 in the first place.

The DS1 can be found for as little as £164 online, which makes it quite attractive when you factor in that a Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet adapter costs £25 by itself. Of course you do have to buy a Thunderbolt cable to connect to the DS1 in the first place, though.

When the DS1 works, it works beautifully, so if you already know that the external monitor you want to use tops out at 1,920 x 1,200 or 1,920 x 1,080, then this device will be the perfect companion for your MacBook. But if you want to use a higher resolution screen, you’re going to have to sign my petition for Matrox to build a DS1 with a dual-link DVI or DisplayPort output.

Verdict

Matrox has come so close to creating a brilliant product in the shape of the DS1. The idea of having a single cable to connect every time I get to the office is very compelling. The design and build quality are also first rate, and will complement your Apple hardware perfectly.

However, if you’re looking to hook your MacBook up to a 2,560 x 1,440 or higher resolution monitor, the DS1’s lack of dual-link DVI or DisplayPort outputs will rule it out of consideration.

Hopefully Matrox will update the DS1 so that it can drive higher resolution screens, and if it does, I’ll be first in line to buy one.

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