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
POST A COMMENT

289 Comments

View All Comments

  • JasperJanssen - Saturday, September 24, 2011 - link

    Not every product merits an in-depth review. 1 in-depth equals about 4 or 5 short reviews, and every site has to choose carefully how to spend its time.

    The first time we saw SF2000, there were *massive* reviews. If Samsung would suddenly put out an SSD that is a few dozen percent faster than the current fastest SSD, (and not cost the earth) it'll no doubt get an extensive review. When Apple puts out something very new that could well be the way of the future for the industry as a whole, they get a large review. Makese sense to me.

    And before you jump all over me on that score: Just look at the Sony implementation of Light Ridge on the current Vaio Z. That's a docking station that has everything this thing has (apart from the display) and some more.

    The market as a whole may well not go for integration into displays and integrated power supplies, but Thunderbolt/Thunderbolt-style docking stations seem likely to sweep the world.
    Reply
  • Zink - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    +1 top notch video review in every way Reply
  • Sunrise089 - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Agree as well. While I definitely hope the text reviews will continue and receive the most resources, these video reviews are a great supplement, especially with less "numbers driven" products like displays and mobile devices.

    I wish all the CNET, television, etc. reviewers would take a look at this simple, engaging, intelligent review style and adopt it as well. Most reviewers spend way too much time trying to be entertaining and talking down to their audience.
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    The text reviews will continue, this is simply something we're experimenting with to offer an augment :)

    It's always been my opinion that we should treat the readers as equals. It turns out that if you don't treat your readers like idiots then you'll find that you actually attract some really smart people :)

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

    The video was quite good indeed.

    And I like the eye-level-approach. Especially since you had a pretty good balance between talking about the actually interesting bits and still keeping it easy to follow.

    Maybe in some places you might want to slow down just a tiny little bit. ;-)
    Reply
  • Iketh - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    NOO!! If anything Anand, talk even faster! Throw it at me at full GigE! I'm a busy man! Reply
  • Constructor - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Just play the video in fast forward then. ;-)) Reply
  • pmcg - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    I agree too. What an impressive setup and continuous, cogent presentation. I have never seen a video of Anand but now that I have, I demand more! Should there be an anandtech.tv? Reply
  • jleeworking - Saturday, September 24, 2011 - link

    Wow! nicely done, can we have more of those videos? Reply
  • mymoon - Saturday, September 24, 2011 - link

    Also agreed! Well done Anand on the video review. Felt my time well spent. Reply

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now