Ever since I moved to a notebook as my main work computer I've become increasingly annoyed with the process of actually moving my notebook-as-a-desktop around. At my desk I've got DisplayPort, Ethernet, two USB, FireWire 800, speakers and power all plugged into a 15-inch MacBook Pro. What makes it frustrating isn't the first-world-problem of having to unplug seven cables, rather that it doesn't need to be seven cables - Apple could make the whole thing happen with just two.

Every Mac released in 2011 has at least one Thunderbolt port (the iMac has two), and Thunderbolt can deliver exactly what I'm looking for. Thunderbolt can carry two things: PCI Express and DisplayPort, the former for data and the latter obviously for video. Why would you want to carry PCIe and DP over a single cable? To address problems like the one above.

Pretty much all device expansion on modern day PCs happens via PCI Express. Several years ago it was hard to find PCIe sound cards or Ethernet controllers, but these days vanilla PCI slots are nearing extinction and PCIe is the de facto standard. Ethernet, USB and FireWire controllers all exist as single-lane PCIe devices. Put a bunch of them at the other end of a Thunderbolt cable and you no longer need to plug in a bunch of individual cables into your notebook when at your desk. Send DisplayPort over the same cable and you can actually move all of those ports onto your monitor, thereby using a single cable to carry everything but power to your display. And this is exactly what Apple has done with its new Thunderbolt Display. By mating its 27-inch LED Cinema Display with a bunch of integrated IO controllers, Apple is hoping to deliver a display that's more of a mobile docking station than just a passive way to display video.

Apple has tried this in the past. The old Cinema Displays used to feature an Apple Display Connector (ADC) that actually carried DVI, USB and power from a desktop Mac to the monitor. You only needed to plug in a single cable to your display, significantly reducing desktop clutter. Although Thunderbolt does carry power, it's limited to 10W - not enough to power any reasonably sized display. Where Thunderbolt does win out over ADC however is in its universal appeal. Intel created the standard. Although it's used almost exclusively on Apple systems today, come 2012 Intel is expecting PC OEMs to embrace the interface with its Cactus Ridge line of Thunderbolt controllers.

Apple's Thunderbolt Display

The Thunderbolt Display uses a near, if not perfectly, identical panel to what was in last year's 27-inch LED Cinema Display. You get a 27-inch, 16:9, 2560 x 1440 LED backlit display capable of at least 350 nits at full brightness. Apple seems to conservatively spec its desktop displays as we were able to measure 425 nits at max brightness. The uber brightness comes in handy because the display does have a glossy finish. Indoors it's not really a problem unless you're watching a dark movie scene with the display lit by a sun-facing window. Even then, cranking up the brightness all the way is usually enough to overcome any significant glare. As with all glossy displays, if you have light control (e.g. curtains or blinds) you'll be just fine.

The similarities don't end with the internal panel, the chassis is very similar to its older sibling and the Thunderbolt Display retails for the same $999 price.

The display sits on an aluminum swivel base that allows for -5 degrees to 25 degrees of tilt along the horizontal axis. There's no height adjustment for the display either, only tilt. Personally, I use a height adjustable desk as I find it helps me avoid any carpal tunnel pain. Combined with a height adjustable chair, the lack of height adjustment on the display doesn't bother me. If you have a fixed height desk however, this may be a problem.

Aesthetically the Thunderbolt Display continues Apple's aluminum meets glass design language. The front of the display is all glass, while the edges and back are all aluminum. Along the top surface of the display is a mic for the integrated FaceTime HD camera. The outgoing 27-inch LED Cinema Display (still available for purchase online) sported a 640 x 480 camera, while the Thunderbolt Display ups capture resolution to 1280 x 720.

There's an ambient light sensor hidden in the top bezel of the display, but as always you can disable its functionality from within OS X.

There are two integrated speakers in the display, again unchanged from the previous LED Cinema Display.

Two cables attach directly to the display: a removable power cable and an integrated IO cable. Cable management is done through a round cutout in the aluminum stand. The IO cable is where things really change with the Thunderbolt Display. Instead of a breakout of three cables as was the case with the Cinema Display, there are now only two: MagSafe and Thunderbolt.

The MagSafe connector remains unchanged. If you've got any Mac that can be charged by an 85W MagSafe adapter, the Thunderbolt Display will charge said Mac. This feature alone is particularly awesome for notebook-as-a-desktop users since it allows you to just keep your actual AC adapter tucked away in your travel bag. For me I keep my MagSafe adapter in my bag and never take it out so I never have to worry about forgetting to pack it. Given how expensive MagSafe adapters are ($79 for an 85W), this is a nice feature for MacBook Air/Pro owners.

The Thunderbolt cable is obviously what gives this new display its name. Inside the Thunderbolt Display is an Intel Light Ridge Thunderbolt controller. The type of controller is important as it bestows upon the display some clear limitations. The biggest of course is the lack of support for all non-Thunderbolt systems. That's right, the only way to get video to the Thunderbolt Display is by using a Thunderbolt enabled Mac (or theoretically a Thunderbolt enabled PC). For Mac users that means only 2011 MacBook Pro, Air, iMac or Mac mini models will work with the Thunderbolt Display. Everyone else has to either buy a new Mac or stick with older displays.

I believe the limitation here is actually on the cable side. A Thunderbolt cable can only transmit a Thunderbolt signal. Although DisplayPort is muxed in, if the display on the other end is expecting Thunderbolt and it receives DisplayPort it won't know what to do with it. It's possible Apple could have built in logic to autosense and switch between Thunderbolt and DisplayPort as inputs, but Apple traditionally employs clean breaks rather than long technology transitions. If Apple wants to ensure Thunderbolt gets adopted (at least by its users), this is the way to do it. As we learned from other legacy interfaces (e.g. PS/2, IDE), if you enable backwards compatibility you'll ensure the survival of systems that implement those interfaces. It's not so great for existing customers unfortunately.

The Changing Role of Displays
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  • PWL_Steve - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    I'm planning on buying an MBA soon so really appreciated the review of the display. For just about the same price, I could purchase the smaller iMac. Would it work the same way with a MBA as the Thunderbolt display would? Buying the IMac would allow my wife to have her own system and I would still be able to occasionally use it as a large display.
    Thanks
    Reply
  • JasperJanssen - Saturday, September 24, 2011 - link

    No, the iMac in target display mode *only* provides a display. No power, no USB, no camera, and definitely no ethernet/firewire. I'm not sure about audio -- displayport Target Display Mode included audio as well as video, but the thunderbolt iMac is different enough that I don't know about that one.

    But as long as the display is all you want, sure, that works. Do keep in mind of course that the smaller iMac is a much smaller (cheaper) display.
    Reply
  • tanjo - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Apple, the biggest advocate of (almost)everything-in-one. Is it hard to separate the Thunderbolt to the display? If you find the Thunderbolt lacking and need to upgrade, you have to replace the Thunderbolt Display instead of just the Thunderbolt controller - a waste of a perfectly good display. How about making the Thunderbolt "box" dock at the back of the display? It'd still look clean. Reply
  • mcnabney - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Like maybe a VESA-compliant box that attaches to the back of any monitor?

    The lack of logic astounds me.

    Oh, no, the iPeople couldn't handle the ugliness of a sleek box attaching to the BACK of their sleek display.

    /aren't we in a recession?
    Reply
  • slashbinslashbash - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    No, there's no need to replace the Thunderbolt Display if something better comes out in the future. The beauty of Thunderbolt is that it is chainable, and the Thunderbolt Display has a chainable Thunderbolt jack. You can add an extra box in between the laptop and the Thunderbolt Display, or you can add an extra box after the Thunderbolt Display.

    Need USB3? I'm sure somebody will come out with a little box with a USB3 controller inside and a Thunderbolt interface. Your use of the Thunderbolt Display does not preclude your additional use of such a USB3 device: just plug it in to the Thunderbolt Display. Need an external GPU? Hook up the MBA to the external GPU Thunderbolt box, and then hook up that box to the Thunderbolt Display. Voila.

    You still get 100% use of the stuff built in to the Thunderbolt Display (USB2, GigE, FW800) and you get the additional use of whatever you tack on to the Thunderbolt chain, either before or after the display.
    Reply
  • JasperJanssen - Saturday, September 24, 2011 - link

    There's not going to be an external GPU that can handle thunderbolt output any time soon. Mini Displayport, yes. Thunderbolt, no. And that means that it'll be a while before you can hook this particular display to an external GPU box, if ever.

    Everything except external GPU, yes, sure, that's what Thunderbolt is for and will combine great with this display. External GPU: for the time being, will require a VGA/DVI/DP display.
    Reply
  • JasperJanssen - Saturday, September 24, 2011 - link

    Oh, and I forgot (but there's still no blasted edit button...): Your MagSafe cable will be in the wrong place, if you put a dock between the display and the laptop.

    Extension cables are available build-to-order at $199 according to google (seems to be they take a complete adapter, and graft a MagSafe laptop port onto it) -- easier just to get a second $99 adapter.
    Reply
  • RandomUsername3245 - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Since I decided to try using a Mac laptop for work about 6 months ago, and also observing others with Mac laptops, it seems like everyone has a rat's nest of wires running from every port on the computer to various peripherals. I think the lack of a docking station is a big negative for using a Mac laptop in a work environment. This new monitor almost fixes the problem, but unfortunately requires another "Apple Tax" payment. Reply
  • michal1980 - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    apple obsoletes ports, forces users to buy new products and its called...

    'Clean Brake'

    Microsoft doing something like that and there would be pitch forks.
    Reply
  • Phynaz - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    What computers does Microsoft make? Reply

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