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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  • sportherz - Tuesday, September 27, 2011 - link

    if I understand correctly, the test was done with a MBP. I was excited about the new TB display together with a new MBA so I ordered both. Since my TB display arrived last week I am not so excited anymore. The display causes the MBA to heat up such that the fans of the MBA are constantly running at 6000rpm making a loud and annoying noise. If I use the MBA on my old 24 inch cinema display I don't have that problem. Could you please test the performance using a MBA and see if this is a problem about the particular monitor MBA I have, or if it is general

    Thanks
    Reply
  • MacTheSpoon - Tuesday, September 27, 2011 - link

    Is it really necessary to spend all that money just for a laptop dock? I guess if you're already going to buy an external display and it must be an Apple display it makes sense. But what about a cheaper solution like this third-party dock, the Henge Dock? I think it's $70. I'd be curious to see Anand test that out. Maybe there are other third-party docks out there he could test, too. Reply
  • Constructor - Tuesday, September 27, 2011 - link

    The Henge Docks only re-route existing ports, so you gain nothing, except being able to (dis)connect those multiple ports in one single motion, but you lose the use of the internal display, keyboard and touchpad of the MacBook Pro.

    For the MacBook Air that's not even an option since there is just one USB port to re-route anyway on the side of the MagSafe connector.

    With the Thunderbolt Display you primarily pay for a large 2560*1440 display with LED backlight in a high-grade casing and with relatively good environmental compatibility. You don't get any comparable display alone for much less.

    All the additional ports and the easy connection through MagSafe and Thunderbolt in a single thin cable are effectively a bonus, if a very welcome one, particularly for the MacBook Air.

    And you can still use the built-in display, keyboard and touch pad of the MacBook in additon to the other ports of the MacBook directly.

    Not a bad deal, all in all.
    Reply
  • sheh - Tuesday, September 27, 2011 - link

    that "DC brushless" thing.

    About the audio problem, wouldn't it be the fault of both the display and the TB device? I wouldn't expect a faulty USB device to cause problems to other things connected to the computer (at least if the computer didn't get stuck), why not expect the same with TB?
    Reply
  • Wskcondor - Monday, October 10, 2011 - link

    I read this review and also the 2011 iMac review. I have a couple of questions someone with the hardware in front of them or with more knowledge may be able to answer...

    My idea is to travel with the 2011 Macbook Air, with the 1.8G i7 upgrade and 256G SSD.

    -I like the Thunderbolt display idea of a dock, because when I am "at home" I do a lot on the computer at the desk and I store a lot externally from the Air (movies, music, photos) and also still use an optical drive regularly. In effect, with a T-Bolt display, all of these things would be hanging off the display.

    Then I thought: why couldn't I buy a 2011 iMac and use it as a "display/dock station" when at home?

    1) Could I boot the 11" Air into TBolt target drive mode and then BOOT the iMac from the Air's drive, so all the "local changes" would be on the drive I take away on travel with me? The processor would be an i7 also in the iMac. BUT the configuration would be different, of course.
    -will this jack up settings in the Air's hard drive when I disconnect and reboot the Air from it's internal processor?
    -will this be too slow a configuration because the TBolt target drive mode has such slow throughput that the iMac will crawl along?
    -Can I even boot an iMac off the Air's TBolt target SSD drive?

    2) Can the iMac become a "Thunderbolt monitor" with drives, ports, etc if I boot the iMac into TBolt target mode? Or would it just be a blue screen with drives and ports, extending my Air's ports, but not acting as an external monitor?

    Questions.

    thanks to anyone who knows.

    Wskcondor
    Reply
  • mashimaroo - Monday, October 31, 2011 - link

    i love this review. i have been thinking about setting up this EXACT same thing. i currently have a dell laptop that i plug in a billion cords into each time i take it somewhere. Its frustrating to have to plug in 7-8 things and have so many cords.. simplifying is great. My aaxa p4 pico projector is built with the same concept with an onboard media player that can play all my files directly off its memory, Reply
  • freedownloadaz - Wednesday, November 09, 2011 - link

    you review is very useful and can I buy it on eBay, I often download and buy here: http://freedownloadaz.com Reply
  • EmmanuelDécarie - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link


    FYI, I just bought a Thunderbolt Display yesterday (2012-01-19) and I have plugged a Creative Xmod USB sound card (http://us.store.creative.com/Creative-Xmod/M/B000I... in the monitor and it works perfectly. I can use my own speakers that are much better than what comes with the monitor. So from my point of view, I don't miss the audio port on the monitor.

    I guess the Griffin iMic (http://store.griffintechnology.com/imic) could also works as a USB sound card to output sound from the monitor to your own speakers. But this solution is a bummer since this sound card don't add anything to the quality of the sound as do the Creative Xmod. So, you're right to say that's an oversight from Apple not to have an audio port. And Apple could have added more USB ports too.

    Thanks for your great review that helped me to take the jump to this magnificent display.
    Reply
  • EmmanuelDécarie - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    Your CMS mangled the URLs.

    Creative Xmod

    http://us.store.creative.com/Creative-Xmod/M/B000I...

    Griffin iMic

    http://store.griffintechnology.com/imic
    Reply
  • anthony11 - Friday, July 20, 2012 - link


    "today I have no less than seven cables"
    Reply

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