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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  • doubledeej - Sunday, September 25, 2011 - link

    I have many friends that work in "broadcast" and all but one of them lust after the Apple displays because they've got this silly notion that they are the best out there. No matter how many charts, spec sheets, reviews, etc., I throw at them, they refuse to believe that a Dell, Eizo, or anybody else could produce a monitor that performs better, especially if said monitor happens to be less expensive. There are an awful lot of Apple Kool-Aid drinkers out there, and nowhere is it worse than with video "professionals." Reply
  • seapeople - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    My new Dell XPS 17 has an antiglare screen. Moderate progress? Reply
  • Dennis Travis - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Excellent review Anand as always. You covered everything I was curious about and more. Thanks again! Reply
  • HHCosmin - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    want to say i just love your reviews Anand. i can tell you are passionate about what you do.
    this thing seems quite cool and it brings lots of help in cable clutter area. however i'm a pc guy and this is a mac. you talk about the future, and the possibilities. i've been thinking about this for some time now and getting really excited about the implications. i can see getting standard having monitors with thunderbolt and not much else to keep price down. link the display (through thunderbolt) cases that have sata ports and pciexpress ones. i call this a "slave box".

    to have:
    - laptop: slim, light, good autonomy (should be able to power this via display)
    - display with thunderbolt, with ability to extend and not much extra
    - a "slave-box" having psu, hdds, gpus and pciexpress slots for extras (no memory or cpu)

    you get:
    - use (and pay for) a single machine that you can carry around (with igp only)
    - have practically no cable clutter
    - get to feed power to the laptop through the monitor (when/if laptop maker standardize mobile bricks)
    - have extra gpu/storage/sound etc when you are at home/office
    - be able to upgrade the gpu
    Reply
  • willmo - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Anand: I suspect that the Thunderbolt Display uses a Light Ridge controller, and the reason its DP output is not available for daisy-chaining is that it's used to drive the Thunderbolt Display's own panel. Reply
  • willmo - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Never mind, I hadn't gotten to the dissection yet. I assume the part number on the Thunderbolt controller checks out as Eagle Ridge... Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Anand and I actually went back and forth on this. It's our belief that the display is being fed by LVDS, processed by some hereto unidentified controller on the logic board. You can see the ZIF cable connector on the following image, it's the gold colored component near the top-right: http://www.anandtech.com/Gallery/Album/1405#38 Reply
  • ermhmm - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    there is a product i'm not sure if its in production or whether you can use a GPU with it, but its similar to what you were talking about you can read about here. http://news.softpedia.com/news/Magma-Intros-PCI-Ex...

    as for gaming i'm in the UK and recently tried Onlive on my macbook and have to say i love the idea of cloud gaming solves the problem of expensive hardware for gaming.
    Reply
  • efeman - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    One small thing to point out: it looks like the wrong table was used in the "Testing the PIeces" section: it's listed as power consumption instead of something along the lines of transfer rates.

    I picked up the 4GB/128GB 11" Air a few days ago ($300 off!) for campus use; it does everything I need it to do in a great form factor. I was originally looking at a 14" unit, maybe a Lenovo E420s or T420s, but I haven't looked back. I have a self-built gaming desktop at home, yet the idea of a Thunderbolt future really intrigues me. While I don't ever see myself buying something like this display, I'm hoping to see cheaper storage solutions, and my fingers are crossed for external graphics support, as that's the only thing I'm missing on a unit like this.

    Excellent review, as usual. I don't know if a video review has been done before, but I enjoyed it. The main points of the article in an easily-digestible form for those times that I don't want to read through paragraphs. I hope we see them in every review :-)

    Off-topic: In case this post gets any attention, is there any chance the Macbook Air review can be updated with internal temperature data? I was disappointed to only see the surface and exhaust temperature info.
    Reply
  • eXces - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    love your video review! keep on excellent work! Reply

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