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

  • A5 - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    No shit. Every single review, everywhere, where the hardware is provided by the manufacturer is advertising of some form. This is why you rarely see truly negative reviews of anything. Reply
  • ltcommanderdata - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    And what monitors are you looking at to get those prices?

    http://store.apple.com/us/product/MC914?mco=MjQ1Mz...

    The Thunderbolt Display is $999 not $1200.

    Dell's most comparable device is the U2711 which is IPS and is $1099 regular price, although it's currently on sale for $719.

    http://accessories.dell.com/sna/products/Monitors_...

    I don't know how frequently Dell does sales, but at regular price the Thunderbolt Display is in fact cheaper than Dell's while including more dock features like ethernet, firewire, speakers, etc.
    Reply
  • Stas - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Do a google search on the model and you will find at least 5 online sellers that have the Dell monitor for <$850 Reply
  • Constructor - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Sure. The Dell doesn't have an LED backlight, however, so apparently they're selling off the old stock with CCFL backlights before moving on to LED as well.

    It's tougher to get a larger colour space with a (white) LED backlight, but on the other hand it's mercury-free, uses significantly less power and lives longer than CCFL.
    Reply
  • doubledeej - Sunday, September 25, 2011 - link

    CCFL backlit monitors still have a better image. That's why you find them on the high-end monitors from other manufacturers. Apple is sacrificing quality by moving to LED. Look at the charts in the article. The Thunderbolt and Cinema Display monitors both fall in the bottom third of nearly all of them. They aren't that great. LED gives better power usage, but it comes at a price in terms of image quality. Reply
  • Constructor - Sunday, September 25, 2011 - link

    Better power efficiency, better longevity, zero mercury.

    Quite significant advantages.

    And in most metrics the TBD is actually pretty decent, particularly for its resolution and price.

    CCFL makes it cheaper to get a larger colour space than with RGB LEDs again at the very top.

    But for that it's far dirtier in all three dimensions (wastes power, turns the display into e-waste a lot sooner and releases mercury if not dismantled very, very carefully – and even then the mercury remains hazardous waste).

    Very few people actually have a use for an expanded colour space. Still few people actually experience limitations with brightness uniformity (my iMac 27" is fully sufficient for all my uses, with no problem noticeable). And all people benefit from the advantages.

    It would have been silly for Apple to make a display that's specialized to only very few people's needs and saddling everyone with lots of disadvantages. Eizo can do that. They've got many models and they are largely specializing on these kinds of uses (and even they are on their way towards LED backlights).
    Reply
  • jecs - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    He went to the Apple store and confused the starting iMac to the Thunderbolt display. Some are so eager trying to look calm and cool but forget to check the facts.

    And you started saying "Nice but..."
    Nice to what? if you did not check the real price you are objecting
    Are you going to say now that you like the Apple display?
    Reply
  • TypeS - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Better check the price again there bud, it's $990.00USD

    http://store.apple.com/us/product/MC914LL/A?fnode=...

    The Macbook Air also starts at $990.00USD as well:

    http://store.apple.com/us/browse/home/shop_mac/fam...

    That's a grand total of $1980 before taxes

    The 13" Pros starts at $1199 as well.

    Dell lists it's U2711 at $1099 retail, with a current sale price of $949.

    If we take your assumption that ASUS/Samsung have similar spec'd and functional alternatives or $900, the total savings is $150.That is a far cry from half.

    Anti-apple critics are just as bad as the brainwashed Apple fanboys when they start pulling facts out of thin air.
    Reply
  • cactusdog - Saturday, September 24, 2011 - link

    The prices I quoted are from the Apple website in my country and they are accurate. Apple charge us a lot more than they do in the US.

    You're choosing the cheapest/smallest macbook that nobody wants and saying they are cheap. They are not. You can get a similar speced notebook for much less from Asus.
    Reply
  • mcnabney - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Didn't you read the review? This display has poor color accuracy so you really can't compare it to displays that have it. Anand indicated that people accustom to laptop displays wouldn't notice it, but I guarantee that people who have historically bought and needed high quality displays WILL notice it. So you can't really compare Apple's new display to competitors that make displays for the publishing/imaging business. Reply

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now