So with the purchase of a 14” MacBook Pro, I’ve been in the market to buy a Thunderbolt dock to live to 1 cable life style. Unfortunately it’s been a bit difficult to find much information on the parts used in many docks, thus I’ve decided to document my research on Ethernet controllers built into many Thunderbolt docks, with the goal of easily finding docks that use PCIe Ethernet.

Why PCIe over USB

With macOS, Apple generally prioritizes PCIe devices over USB for better driver support as drivers are written explicitly for them (see next section). Whereas with USB, Apple writes semi-generic drivers based off USB CDC (Controller Device Class). As of Monterey, the following are supported:

  • ACM: Abstract Control Model
  • DMM: Device Management Model
  • ECM: RNDIS, Ethernet Control Model
  • EEM: Ethernet Emulation Model
  • NCM: Network Control Model
  • WCM: (WebCaM) Device Management Model

Additionally PCIe NICs generally offload much of the compute task from the CPU onto the on-board controller, giving your system some headroom during bandwidth intensive tasks. Compare this to USB, much of the compute task is still on the CPU side.

  • Note 1: Not all USB Ethernet devices are supported in macOS (namely AX88179) however the vast majority are thanks to this generic driver struture.
  • Note 2: Apple may sometimes have additional support for certain USB Ethernet controllers via add-on drivers such as AppleUSBRealtek8153Patcher.kext

Finally the most noticable issue with USB NICs is that they share bandwidth with the rest of your USB devices on the same controller. USB 3.0 for example has a shared bandwidth of 5Gbps, and when you have a dock with multiple devices plugged in, that takes up precious resources:

Device Bandwidth Notes
USB to SATA HDD 3Gbps Lower end HDD (SATA 2 speeds)
USB to SATA SSD 5Gbps SATA 3 SSD (capped at USB 3.0)
USB Ethernet NIC 1Gbps Standard 1Gbe
USB Capture Card 5Gbps  
TOTAL 14Gbps  

As you can see, devices will be strained for bandwidth as we’re exceeding the 5Gbps bandwidth allowed under USB 3.0. Removing devices from this chain can greatly alliviate contrains, allowing your NIC to run without comprimise as well as allowing other USB devices to run faster.

PCIe Driver Support

Currently in macOS Big Sur/Monterey, there are 3 PCIe Ethernet Vendors natively supported. Besides the Intel8254X driver, all other drivers in macOS natively support both Intel and Apple Silicon machines:

  • Drivers can be found under /System/Library/Extensions/IONetworkingFamily.kext/Contents/PlugIns/
Vendor Driver Supported Architectures Hardware
Intel AppleIntel8254XEthernet.kext x86_64 80003ES2LAN, 82545EM, 82571EB/82571GB
Intel AppleIntelI210Ethernet.kext x86_64, arm64e i210, i225
Intel Intel82574L.kext x86_64, arm64e 82574L, 82566DC
Broadcom AppleBCM5701Ethernet.kext x86_64, arm64e 5764M, 57761, 57762, 57765, 57766
Aquantia AppleEthernetAquantiaAqtion.kext x86_64, arm64e AQC107, AQC113

Model Notes

With the above 5 drivers, currently Apple only uses 2 of them in their products:

  • Aquatia is used on all Macs with 10Gbe
    • ie. 2017 iMac Pro, 2019 Mac Pro, 2018 Mac mini
  • Broadcom is used on all 2011+ Macs with 1Gbe
    • ie. 2011-2020 iMacs, 2010-2020 Mac minis, 2013 Mac Pro

Apple previously used Intel with their 2006-2012 Mac Pro’s:

  • MacPro1,1-3,1 (2006-8): 8254X
  • MacPro4,1-5,1 (2009-12): 82574L

However as of Big Sur/Monterey no native Macs use Intel. Additionally Apple maintains the i210 kexts solely for Thunderbolt docks, and i225 support was added into AppleIntelI210Ethernet.kext with macOS Catalina.

Dock Recommendations

Best Bang for Buck

The best bang for buck for the majority of users would be the Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Express Dock HD soley for the reason of being insanely cheap on eBay while still including essential features:

  • Fresco Logic USB 3.0 Controller
  • Intel i210 PCIe Ethernet Controller
  • 85w USB-PD Charging
  • Single DisplayPort 1.2
  • Thunderbolt 3 passthrough
    • can be used as additional DisplayPort output

It’s a very bare bones dock, but if all you need is some USB ports, PCIe Ethernet and DisplaPort, this dock is a great value! Ensure you look on used markets such as eBay to get better pricing, as these docks usually sit under $100 CAD without PSUs or just over with them.

Best Overall

From my research, I’ve found that the best dock overall in the field seems to be CalDigit’s TS3 Plus dock. The main reasons why:

  • Includes 3 dedicated USB Controllers
    • Dual Fresco Logic USB 3.0 Controllers (one for rear and front)
    • Single AsMedia USB 3.1 Controller (for rear 10Gbps USB-C)
  • Intel i210 PCIe Ethernet Controller
  • 87w USB-PD Charging
  • Single DisplayPort 1.2
  • Thunderbolt 3 passthrough
    • can be used as additional DisplayPort output
  • SD 4.0 and UHS-II reader
  • Optical Audio

If price is no issue, the TS3 Plus surpasses every dock out there currently. However due to how long this product’s been out, a TS4 Plus is sure to be on the horizon.

Best for eGPU

If you’re an eGPU user, you’ve really only got 2 realistic options:

  • TUL mini eGFX prototype
  • Visiontek Expansion Chassis TB3 Mini eGFX

Both of these enclosures include an Intel i210 PCIe Ethernet Controller while still giving you the flexibility of a PCIe slot for eGPUs. However due to the 15w charging, you will need to supply the laptop with an additional cable.

Thunderbolt Ethernet Table

USB

OEM Model Power Ethernet Controller Connection Notes
Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Dock Pro 85w Realtek RTL8153 USB  
CalDigit USB-C Pro Dock 85w Realtek RTL8153 USB  
ThinkPad Universal Thunderbolt 4 Dock 100w Realtek RTL8153 USB DisplayPort MST, no multi-monitor in macOS
OWC Thunderbolt 4 Dock 90w Realtek RTL8153 USB  
Sonnet Echo 11 Thunderbolt 4 90w Realtek RTL8153 USB  
Satechi Thunderbolt 4 Dock 96w Realtek RTL8153 USB  
WAVLINK Thunderdock SP 3/Thunderdock SP 5 85w Realtek RTL8153 USB  
Dell Thunderbolt Dock TB16 130w Realtek RTL8153 USB 130w limited to Dell systems
Plugable Thunderbolt 3 USB-C Dual Display 96w Realtek RTL8153 USB  
HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 120w? Realtek RTL8153 USB  
Razer Thunderbolt 4 Dock Chroma 90w Realtek RTL8153 USB  
Corsair TBT100 Thunderbolt 3 Dock 85w Realtek RTL8153 USB  
Seagate Firecuda Gaming Dock N/A Realtek RTL8153 USB  
Mantiz Saturn Pro 97w Realtek RTL8153 USB  
HP Omen Accelerator 60w Realtek RTL8153 USB  
WAVLINK Thunderdock SE/Thunderdock SE III N/A Asix AX88179 USB Requires 3rd party drivers in macOS
Razer Core X Chroma 100w Asix AX88179 USB Requires 3rd party drivers in macOS

PCIe

OEM Model Power Ethernet Controller Connection Notes
Apple Thunderbolt Display N/A Broadcom BCM57761 PCIe  
Apple Thunderbolt 1 to Ethernet adapter N/A Broadcom BCM57762 PCIe Same NIC as 2020 M1 iMac
Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Express Dock HD 85w Intel i210 PCIe  
Plugable Thunderbolt 3 Dock + 60W 60w Intel i210 PCIe  
i-tec Thunderbolt 3 Dual 4K Dock + 60w 60w Intel i210 PCIe  
CableMatters Thunderbolt 3 Dock + 60w 60w Intel i210 PCIe  
StarTech Thunderbolt 3 Dual-4K 15w? Intel i210 PCIe  
StarTech Dual 4K Mini Thunderbolt 3 Dock N/A Intel i210 PCIe  
StarTech Thunderbolt 3 Dock - Dual 4K 60Hz 85w Intel i210 PCIe  
CalDigit TS3 Plus 87w Intel i210 PCIe  
Sonnet Echo 11 Thunderbolt 3 87w Intel i210 PCIe  
OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock (14 port) 85w Intel i210 PCIe  
Targus Thunderbolt 3 DOCK220 85w Intel i210 PCIe  
Mantiz Titan Thunderbolt 3 dock 85w Intel i210 PCIe  
TUL mini eGFX prototype 15w Intel i210 PCIe  
Visiontek Expansion Chassis TB3 Mini eGFX 15w Intel i210 PCIe  
Goodway DBD1330 96w Intel i225 PCIe 2.5Gbe, must buy in bulk
ThinkPad Universal Thunderbolt 4 Dock 100w Intel i225 PCIe 2.5Gbe, not offically available. DisplayPort MST
OWC Thunderbolt 3 Pro Dock 60w Aquantia AQC107 PCIe 10Gbe, same NIC as 2017 iMac Pro/ 2019 Mac Pro
Akitio Thunder3 Dock Pro 60w Aquantia AQC107 PCIe 10Gbe, same NIC as 2017 iMac Pro/ 2019 Mac Pro
Sonnet Twin 10G SFP+ N/A Intel X540 PCIe Requires 3rd party drivers for macOS, no Apple Silicon support
HP Elite Thunderbolt 3 Dock 65w Broadcom BCM57786 PCIe Not supported in macOS