The Changing Role of Displays

Thunderbolt carries PCIe and DisplayPort, which enabled Apple to change the role of its display. The Thunderbolt Display is no longer a passive monitor, but it's a full fledged docking station.

Thunderbolt can carry PCIe x4, that's four lanes, which gives Apple the ability to put four PCIe x1 devices in the display itself. Apple chose wisely and included a Broadcom Gigabit Ethernet controller (BCM57761), a FireWire 800 controller and a USB controller. The FaceTime HD and integrated audio codec both use the internal USB controller. Just to be clear, these controllers are present independent of what you connect to the Thunderbolt Display. If you have a Mac with an integrated Gigabit Ethernet controller, hooking it up to the Thunderbolt Display now gives you two GigE ports - and you can use them both in tandem if you'd like. The same goes for FireWire 800 and USB.

Apple doesn't see the Thunderbolt Display as a way to offer more expansion ports, but rather a way to shift those ports to a different location. Chances are you won't need GigE while mobile, but you would like it while at your desk. The same goes for FireWire 800.

What's particularly awesome about the Thunderbolt Display's integrated controller farm is what it does to MacBook Airs. The 2011 MBAs ship with two USB ports and a Thunderbolt port, that's all you get in terms of high-speed IO. With their internal SSDs capable of moving data at up to 200MB/s, you're quickly bottlenecked by the MBA's 802.11n WiFi stack. Had Apple included a Gigabit Ethernet port on the MBA it would ruin the thin form factor. The Thunderbolt Display takes care of all of this. Connect a MacBook Air to a Thunderbolt Display and not only do you get more pixels, but you get more connectivity. Gigabit Ethernet and FireWire 800 are now retrofitted to the MacBook Air. For those notebook-as-a-desktop users who migrated from old MacBook Pros to the 13-inch MacBook Air, the Thunderbolt Display is a must-have. The biggest feature for me is Gigabit Ethernet. For large file transfers 802.11n just doesn't cut it.

While connected you can use the Thunderbolt Display with your MacBook Pro/Air closed or open as a secondary display just like you could with last year's 27-inch LED Cinema Display.


These aren't just ports, they are backed by controllers physically located within the display

The Thunderbolt Display not only adds functionality but it also simplifies cable management as a result. Users who are constantly docking and undocking their notebooks now only have to deal with two cables: power and Thunderbolt. Whereas today I have no less than seven cables plugged into my notebook.

The Limitations

What's missing from the Thunderbolt Display's port repertoire? For starters, there's no analog audio out. While the display does feature a pair of integrated speakers, they don't produce the best sound in the world. Thanks to their diminutive size and unusual enclosure, the speakers don't cover a lot of dynamic range and you can forget about any ultra low frequencies. If you like bass, you still need a sub. Unfortunately there's no way to use the display's integrated audio codec to drive external speakers. You either have to plug a 1/8" stereo cable into your Mac or buy a USB sound card and connect your external speakers to it. In my opinion this is a pretty significant oversight. It either defeats the purpose of the simplified cable setup by requiring you plug in yet another cable into your Mac to use external speakers, or it defeats the purpose of having an integrated audio controller since you need another USB audio controller to get audio out. This is something Apple could've easily solved by just including a 1/8" jack on the back of the display.

Apple has done a great job of including SD card readers on most of its Macs (although I'd love one on the 11-inch MBA, ahem #waystomakeanandhappy). The Thunderbolt Display oddly enough doesn't include an SD card reader. If it weren't for this and the missing 1/8" jack you'd have almost no reason to reach over to your Mac once at your desk.

There's also no USB 3.0 support. While Thunderbolt does enable some very high speed IO, there are still far more USB 3.0 devices than Thunderbolt devices. Not to mention that you likely won't see Thunderbolt enabled flash memory sticks but we already have quite a few portable USB 3.0 drives. USB 2.0 is just ungodly slow today and I'd much rather have Apple introduce USB 3.0 support with its first Thunderbolt Display instead of introducing it with an updated version down the road. The controllers are available on the market today, although it won't be until next year with Ivy Bridge before Apple considers enabling USB 3.0 on Macs.

The final complaint shouldn't come as a surprise, but the Thunderbolt Display just doesn't have enough USB ports in my opinion. The MacBook Pro & Air come with two, while all desktop Macs have at least four. The Thunderbolt Display only gives you three. USB hubs are easy to come by, but I would've preferred to see at least 4 or 5 on the display.

Apple's Thunderbolt Display Testing the Pieces
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  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    We do not accept payment for any review, this one included.

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    I needed to start somewhere :) The next video review won't be an Apple product ;) And we do try to take great photos of everything we review when possible. I believe some of the best photos to-date have been of Android smartphones imho done by Brian Klug.

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • Aikouka - Saturday, September 24, 2011 - link

    It's a good review overall, but I do have a comment or two:

    - When switching to a completely different view, I would recommend using a quick transition such as a fade. It's rather jarring to just suddenly switch to a completely different picture like that.

    - If you'd like to make video reviews a bit more common, it might be worthwhile to consider a slight site change to make them a bit more accessible. Some sort of thing (tabs, buttons, etc.) near the top to switch between a text review and a video review.

    I'm trying to figure out though... did you build that entire stage area for the review, or is that a blue screen behind you? The shadows on the lettering made me wonder.
    Reply
  • G-Man - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    I'm guessing they make the extra effort on Apple-products, simply because A LOT more people read those articles than the odd generic laptop review.

    If you've been following Anandtech for a while, you will see that they recap and explain (basic) technology and concepts in Apple review, because more people read them, and less tech savvy people read them.

    So it's only natural for them to put extra effort into Apple-reviews.

    PS: Anand, LOVE the video review. Please keep making them! :)
    Reply
  • gevorg - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Anandtech just loves Apple products, hence the special treatment. :) Reply
  • MrX8503 - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Maybe you're the fanboy. Its a good review just like any other, accept it. Reply
  • KoolAidMan1 - Monday, September 26, 2011 - link

    B3an is definitely the fanboy, there is massive bias when he posts in DT threads Reply
  • KoolAidMan1 - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Part of it is that Apple products generally photograph better than others. It is hard to polish a turd, no matter how well you frame or light it. On the other hand, a beautiful object can photograph well under most circumstances.

    As for effort into reviewing Apple products, it is generally because they are on the leading edge of physical interfaces, form factors, and technologies. Three years after the debut of the Macbook Air and now there is a massive push from other companies to deliver comparable machines.

    The reasoning behind the Thunderbolt review is that it points to a very probable future for PCs, one in which your laptop is also your main computer. One option will be to have a laptop that plugs into a Thunderbolt hub (which may or may not be integrated into a display) which has all of your external devices and other things such as a dedicated desktop GPU, etc etc.

    It is interesting how much anti-Apple bias there is here. I'm typing this on my PC but I"m not blind to how vital Apple is to the industry.
    Reply
  • seapeople - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    You're comparing the reviews Anand does himself to what some of the other editors do for cheaper/less advanced products. Look at Anand's SSD reviews (especially when its for a new/unique controller) and you'll see the same detail. Reply
  • Kristian Vättö - Saturday, September 24, 2011 - link

    And at the same time, many SSD reviews consist of just benchmarks and a small introduction. Take for example the Samsung 830 SSD review, it's not that massive, mainly because Samsung isn't that big player. Reply

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