Matrox DS1 full review

Thunderbolt, the high-speed data interface developed by Intel for Apple, promised plenty when it launched in spring 2011. Aside from its sheer bandwidth, one of its mooted benefits was that one cable could replace many others, simplifying the tangle of wires that desktop computing still demands.

See: What is Thunderbolt?

The grand idea is that of the universal expansion box, a Thunderbolt dock where one single high-capacity connection takes on diverse video, audio and data roles. This is all centred on a single break-out box, to make a convenient multi-purpose digital hub. 

And that’s the very principle behind the Matrox DS1 with its one high-speed Thunderbolt port feeding a range of useful desktop peripherals.

Running that one Thunderbolt cable from your PC to the box here gives you three USB ports, gigabit ethernet, DVI for connecting a display, plus analogue audio in and out. For ultraportables like the MacBook Air, such expansion should be a godsend as it reinstates culled legacy interfaces like wired ethernet.

The Matrox DS1, like several other fanfared Thunderbolt expansion docks, is nearly two years late. Shortly after the launch of Thunderbolt with the Apple MacBook Pro (Early 2011) in February of 2011, several third-party manufacturers were announcing their intention to launch such devices. 

Belkin, for example, showed assorted rehashed incarnations of its Thunderbolt expansion box over successive trade shows, with none quite making it to market. Its Thunderbolt Express Dock is now scheduled to appear sometime early this year. 

In the case of Matrox’ DS1, its specs were revised between initial announcement and production, including the repositioning of the USB 3.0 port from rear to front by the time it came to market.

But it is Matrox who was the first to ship product with this Matrox DS1, which went on sale in the final fortnight of last year.

Matrox DS1: Features

The Matrox DS1 box is a compact enclosure, the size of a tall pocket phrasebook, designed to lie flat on its rubber feet. It's made from folded aluminium, spray-painted with a darker silver metallic finish.

The placement of ports is a little peculiar: the one and only Thunderbolt port is at the front, along with the single USB 3.0 port.

All the remaining socketry is at the rear. Ranging from left to right, we have: DVI-D, gigabit ethernet, two USB 2.0, 3.5mm headphone jack, 3.5mm audio line/mic input, and DC power input. 

It’s confusing to establish which is the ‘front’ and which the ‘back’ of this unit. Whichever way you face it, it’s not especially pretty and you will still have a minor birds’ nest of cables to contend with. There is the potential to stash the whole ensemble out of sight – but that leaves you without handy access to the USB ports and headphones jack.

Thunderbolt is a powered bus, but with far less power available to it than FireWire, for example, and the box does require additional external power.

A small 24W mains adaptor plug is included, which ought to be sufficient to power any connected USB device too. When we plugged an iPhone into one USB 2.0 port, the DS1 was able to charge it, although a USB keyboard plugged into the adjacent USB 2.0 port then became disconnected. 

[This review was updated 1 Feb 2013 to reflect the correct power rating of the included DC mains adaptor.]

Two options are provided for display connection, either DVI or HDMI, and you must choose between them at time of purchase.

Matrox DS1/DVI

Matrox DS1 is available with a single-link DVI video output...

Matrox DS1/HDMI

..or with HDMI 1.2, limited to 1920 x 1200 pixel resolution output

Both version are limited in quality, to just 1920 x 1200-pixel output. While HDMI 1.3 and above and dual-link DVI both support output to 2560 x 1600 or more, if you have such a display you’re out of luck here.

That’s because Thunderbolt is a daisy-chainable serial data standard, and devices can be positioned either within the chain or at the end of it. But with its single Thunderbolt port, the Matrox DS1 is relegated to be connected only at the end of this chain, where you would otherwise connect your monitor.

For Macs with one Thunderbolt port, for instance, that means you won’t be able to get 2560 x 1600-pixel displays to work as designed.

Also missing from the Matrox DS1's roster are any FireWire ports, or digital-audio interfaces such as Toslink or coaxial S/PDIF.

Matrox DS1: Performance

As an expansion box for splitting Thunderbolt’s fast PCI Express lanes into various other formats, the Matrox DS1 needs to ensure that all its user-facing ports behave within their specification. 

We already discovered first-hand that the amount of power supplied to the three USB ports is insufficient to run connected peripherals correctly. In addition, the Matrox DS1 also seems to compromise data throughput.

We tested the speed of the USB 3.0 port, relative to a built-in example on the connected MacBook Pro (Late 2012), using an attached solid-state drive. 

The drive was a Plextor M5 Pro, a SATA 6Gbps SSD capable of in excess of 500 MBps, even if all USB 3.0 adaptors we’ve tried to date are unable to meet this 4 Gbps throughput. Using a Seagate GoFlex USB 3.0 HBA adaptor, we recorded sequential read speeds up to 210 MBps and write speeds up to 195 MBps, through the MacBook’s native USB 3.0 port.

Turning to the USB 3.0 port on the front of the Matrox DS1, read speeds fell to 151 MBps and write speeds to 143 MBps. So in this instance the Matrox DS1’s USB 3.0 port couldn’t even support the below-spec speed of an underperforming USB 3.0 SATA adaptor.

The headphone jack worked well enough, its output a little lower in volume than the built-in port on the MacBook and with slightly reduced fidelity. Bass did not sound so full extended although noise levels were below our office hearing threshold.

In use the Matrox DS1 ran very warm but never to the point of being hot. We experienced some issues with disconnection, primarily when trying to restore the MacBook from sleep – sometimes the USB keyboard wouldn’t wake the laptop, forcing us to remove and replug the Thunderbolt cable.


Matrox DS1: Specs

  • Thunderbolt expansion dock
  • 1x Thunderbolt port
  • DVI-D (HDMI 1.2 verson also available)
  • 2x USB 2.0, 1x USB 3.0
  • gigabit ethernet
  • 3.5mm line/mic input, 3.5mm headphone/line out
  • 12V DC input
  • 24W mains adaptor plug
  • 200 x 90 x 32mm
  • 472g

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