Testing the Pieces

Before we get to the display and Thunderbolt specific testing I wanted to confirm that the individual controllers in the Thunderbolt Display were just as capable as those in the Mac it was connected to. For the most part, they are.

Following in Brian Klug's footsteps, I created two RAM disks - one on a MacBook Air and one on a MacBook Pro. I connected both systems to my local GigE network and copied giant files between them. I measured over 780Mbps going from the MacBook Air to the MacBook Pro, and 832Mbps in the other direction (images below). That's about as good as it's going to get.

Next I tested performance over FireWire 800 and USB 2.0. For FireWire 800 I used a Western Digital My Book Studio Edition II configured in RAID-1 and measured peak read speed from the device. For USB testing I turned to a Corsair Flash Voyager 3.0 (USB stick) and a SF-2281 SSD connected to a SATA-to-USB bridge. In both of the USB tests I measured write speed to the USB 2.0 devices. Apple appears to have chosen its FireWire controller well as performance was only off by 2MB/s compared to the FW800 port on the 15-inch MacBook Pro. USB 2.0 performance wasn't nearly as good however, I maxed out at 16.4MB/s and saw typical rates closer to 15MB/s:

Transfer Rate Comparison
  FireWire 800 USB 2.0 (stick) USB 2.0 (SSD)
Apple Thunderbolt Display 70.0 MB/s 14.1 MB/s 16.4 MB/s
Apple 15-inch MacBook Pro (2011) 72.0 MB/s 21.2 MB/s 32.2 MB/s

Both the audio controller and FaceTime HD cameras interface via the Thunderbolt Display's internal USB controller. It's likely that one of those devices is forcing the controller to negotiate at a lower speed and thus ultimately limit peak USB 2.0 performance through the display. Note the gap in performance is much smaller if you're looking at transfers to a USB stick vs. an SSD. I happen to have a lot of SSDs around so I tend to use them as glorified USB sticks, I suspect the majority of users won't notice much of a difference due to the lower overall performance of standard USB sticks.

FaceTime HD Camera

Although Photo Booth in Lion captures at 1080 x 720, using iSightcapture I was able to confirm that the sensor in the Thunderbolt Display appears to be able to capture 1280 x 720 natively. Quality is what we'd come to expect from the current generation of FaceTime HD cameras.

I tested the camera both in Photo Booth and in a FaceTime chat with our own Brian Klug. The experience worked fine in both cases.

FaceTime seems to have issues when one party is in a noisy environment but that doesn't appear to have anything to do with the Thunderbolt Display hardware as I duplicated the issue on a MacBook Air as well. If you're curious, the problem I'm talking about occurs when the party in a quiet environment is trying to talk to the person with a lot of background noise. The quiet party will hear audio just fine but the noisy party will get a lot of broken up audio from the other side. It seems like FaceTime is trying to do some active noise cancelation that ends up doing more harm than good. I confirmed it's a FaceTime software problem by calling Brian via Skype without any issues.

The Changing Role of Displays Thunderbolt Performance
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  • NCM - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    At under a grand for a giant IPS display that incorporates at least $200 worth of extra connectivity (laptop power supply, T'bolt, additional ports, speakers) this monitor is good value for a MacBook Pro or Air user.

    Colour accuracy is more than adequate for most professional work. If it's not good enough you should be taking a big step up to something like an Eizo, both shrinking the display size and doubling the price in the process.
    Reply
  • jecs - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    You did read but you just don't understand what color accuracy means or what to do with it.

    What you call poor color accuracy is the gamut space that is important only if you work with wide gamut color. Apple does not cares for wide gamut, not with this display or with past displays. It does not means the display is not accurate in color, it is very accurate. But Apple optimize their displays for print accuracy were wide gamut is not required. Even for FCP Apple doesn't work with wide gamut. For consumer use wide gamut is also a mixed bag because many complain the color in general looks to bright or "artificial".

    I have a 2410 Dell display because I care for wide gamut for what I do but I do appreciate Apple displays and this thunderbolt display is good and other vendors should pay attention to the connectivity and function for desktop use. I would want a mate screen version for more serious professional design but for demanding consumers who appreciate quality and efficiency this is a nice option.

    But right now what you need to know is what display is best for what you do.

    Are you a professional. Are you a consumer or an aficionado looking for an intermediate option. Or buying the cheapest display.

    The Apple displays are for entry level professionals or high end consumers or hobbyist.

    For broadcast professional work or for cheap options look else where.
    Reply
  • hechacker1 - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    While I agree with your overall point, I don't think the calibration used by Anand is really informative unless you are doing photo processing work.

    He's targeting the Adobe 1998 profile, which is great for photo editing and printers that support that target (rare unless in a professional setting).

    Most of the Internet is SRGB profile by default, and I'm guessing this display would perform even better there. Most consumer cameras also target SRGB unless you are talking about RAW mode prosumer cameras.

    The fact that this display can accurately display most of the Adobe profile bodes well for its accuracy.

    If you were in Broadcasting or video editing, you should target Rec. 709 profile, which has completely different gamma curves.

    In my opinion, Apple displays are generally very good for the money. Even my late 2009 Macbook Pro can calibrate to excellent color accuracy with VERY little error.

    However, my biggest complaint is that lately Apple displays target 6800-6900K color temps, which are too blue for most calibrations and profiles. Sure it looks good to the untrained eye, but it's bad for color accuracy.
    Reply
  • jecs - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    I agree to your more expert opinion than mine.

    Apple is moving more than ever to the high end consumer or prosumer and the move to the higher kelvin could be another sign. Final Cut X and the price is another example.

    But all in all Apple displays are still good monitors.

    If you want a very cheap desktop IPS panel Dell also has a new Ultrasharp line with a shorter gamma space and fewer connectors. But there are other cheap options.
    Reply
  • Ratman6161 - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    ...that I would not be in the market for a $1000+ display from Apple, Dell or an other manufacturer. What i'm in the market for is the best I can get for $200 - $300. Now, what I can get for my dell is a docking station that comes with an additional power brick for $129.00. So I can get a decent (not great but decent) 22 to 24 inch display + a docking station well within my budget.

    I guess if a 27" is what you absolutely have to have and you are willing to pay for it, this is a good option...but not for me.
    Reply
  • NCM - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Which is fine and all, but the fact that you aren't in the market for a monitor in this category is completely irrelevant to the discussion.

    What's next, that we start posting about our cats?
    Reply
  • BrooksT - Saturday, September 24, 2011 - link

    Why would you spend $200 on a monitor when you can get a legal pad and pen for $8? I guess if you have to have a computer monitor and you're willing to pay for it, but paper and pen are better options for many people. Reply
  • name99 - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Professionals pay for quality tools.
    Look, if you're earning $100K a year, and this makes you more productive (not to mention happier) it's worth it.

    Are you amazed that professional carpenters don't use $5 saws from Target? That professional truckers rig up the insides of their rigs with fancy electronics? That professional musicians buy high quality instruments, not what they can find on Craigslist?
    Reply
  • seapeople - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    You can also buy a $60,000 Cadillac Escalade SUV to pick up your kids at soccer practice.

    What's your point again?
    Reply
  • alphaod - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Nice review as usual; very tempted to purchase one, but I think I'm fine with my current setup; already have a power supply I keep plugged in at times.

    Honestly if Apple added a powerful GPU, yes I think it would a more enticing purchase, but than they'd have the issue of cooling this unit, powering this unit, and constantly upgrade GPUs; at the same time, we'd have people posting online asking all day when the next Thunderbolt GPU updates will come. This would probably also cause problems with pricing; it would come awfully close to the price of an iMac which I'm sure most people would then consider buying an iMac instead (making this product redundant).

    Personally I'd prefer if Apple added an optical drive (for those of us who replaced the optical drives in our MacBook Pro notebooks), optical out, better GPU in the display~Hell forget about releasing this display; redo the iMac as a dock for the MacBook Air/Pro!
    Reply

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