Not enough Thunderbolt ports to connect to Display & Network?

I recently took a Service Desk call from a client who was experiencing an extremely slow performance while printing a 60+ page brochure that was created in Adobe InDesign on a new’ish MacBook Air.

I quickly identified the problem to be slow network performance as the MacBook Air was connected to the network via WIFI. Part of my testing process was to copy the InDesign document and associated artwork files (1.67BG in total) locally and test print speed again.

Printing from locally stored files was considerably faster but in this particular instance not ideal for my client as the files needed to be stored on the file server for centralisation for the other users and more importantly backup. Essentially, the MacBook Air needed to be hard wired to the network using Ethernet.

You may already be aware that the latest MacBook Air and MacBook Pro no longer have Ethernet ports to hard wire them to a network. Apple do sell a Thunderbolt to Ethernet Adapter but in our client’s case, with a MacBook Air, there was only 1 x Thunderbolt/DisplayPort which was already in use with a Thunderbolt to DVI Adapter to accommodate an external display.

thunderbolt display ports macbook air

Initially I didn’t see this as a major issue as I was sure that we would be able to track down a reasonably inexpensive Thunderbolt Hub similar to a USB Hub. However, no such luck, as it appeared there were no Thunderbolt Hubs on the market at that present time. This left me with a quandary in order to find some other means of getting both a display and network adapters connected a single Thunderbolt port.

Having not found any Thunderbolt Hubs,  I then looked at Thunderbolt Docks from the likes of Belkin and Sonnet. Both of these breakout boxes or Docks are really cool and provide any Thunderbolt equipped Mac with lots of I/O (input / output connections) and the Belkin Thunderbolt Express product provides…

  • 2 x Thunderbolt,
  • 1 x Firewire 800 (800Mbps),
  • 3 x USB 3 (5Gbps),
  • 1 x Ethernet (1Gbps),
  • 1 x Audio In and
  • 1 x Audio Out.

The only problem with the Belkin and Sonnet Thunderbolt Dock products is for the price being way too much (£200+) to justify for simply hard wiring a Mac to the network.

belkin thunderbolt dock

The next option, which I didn’t bother entertaining (again due to price and being overkill for the client’s needs) was Apple’s 27″ LED Cinema Display which has an Ethernet port at the rear and connects that interface through to the Mac via the display to Mac Thunderbolt connection. Nice bit of kit, but again not an option in this instance.

Now, having exhausted all Thunderbolt products and not being able to find an inexpensive solution, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t look at alternative ports on the MacBook Air and more specifically its USB ports.

USB-to-Ethernet Adapters are relatively inexpensive. There are a choice of manufacturers making Mac compatible USB-to-Ethernet Adapters, including Apple themselves. Recent Mac support for USB 2, and the latest MacBook Airs and Pros supporting USB 3, the network speeds should be reasonably good and certainly much faster and more stable than the current WIFI set-up.

usb to ethernet adaptor mac
If you are in a similar predicament, as above, then have a look at USB alternatives. When choosing a USB-to-Ethernet Adapter check manufacturers network connection speeds to ensure that you’re purchasing the faster Gigabit (1000Mbs or 1Gbs) USB-to-Ethernet Adapters as they’re backwards compatible with slower networks (100Mbs) and the difference in cost is marginal.

This Wikipedia page “Thunderbolt compatible devices”  is a a great reference guide as it is updated as new Thunderbolt products come to market.

2 Replies to "Not enough Thunderbolt ports to connect to Display & Network?"

  • Bernd Stengl

    It appears the problem you encountered still exists, more or less. Was considering purchasing a Mac Mini and the Thunderbolt display. On checking the details discovered that both these devices have a single TB port. So how does Apple expect one to interconnect these two TB devices with a third TB device such as a storage array? Mac Mini needs two TB ports so it can continue to be used as a small work horse, and the TB display also needs two ports for TB flow through. What was Apple thinking?

  • Bernd Stengl

    Since sending last comment I did more research and now have to eat my words. I apologize.
    The TB Display Magsafe to Magsafe 2 converter cable has two connectors at one end, one TB connector for source signal and the other a Magsafe connector for perhaps charging a Macbook Pro. The TB port on the TB Display is thus available for TB flow through.

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