Thunderbolt Display review

From most angles, Apple’s new 27in Thunderbolt Display looks just like the 27in LED Cinema Display released last year. However, glance at the back of the Thunderbolt Display, down at the lower-left side, and you’ll find twice the number of connection ports as the LED Cinema Display: three USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire 800 port, a Gigabit Ethernet port and, of course, a Thunderbolt port.

The only other external difference is the display’s captive cable, which now splits into two connectors instead of three – a Mag Safe adaptor for charging laptops, and a Thunderbolt cable, which replaces the Mini DisplayPort and USB 2.0 connectors on the LED Cinema Display.

The Thunderbolt Display has a 2,560 x 1,440 resolution, a brightness rating of 375cd/m2, support for 16.7 million colours, a 1,000:1 contrast ratio, 178-degree viewing angle, built-in mic, and a 49w speaker – identical to the LED Cinema Display. The built-in camera has been updated from a standard iSight to a FaceTime HD camera.

The Thunderbolt Display requires a Thunderbolt-equipped Mac, such as the 2011 MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Mac mini, or iMac. The Mac Pro is the only one of Apple’s computers yet to be updated with Thunderbolt, and you can’t plug the Thunderbolt Display into a Mac Pro’s Mini DisplayPort – or any Mac’s Mini DisplayPort.

The Thunderbolt Display looks just like the Cinema Display but has twice as many connectivity options

Making adjustments

There's little in the way of ergonomic adjustments: you can’t raise, lower or pivot the display. Apple doesn’t offer an anti-glare screen option, so using the Thunderbolt Display in an area with a lot of light sources can be problematic.

The Thunderbolt Display doesn’t have easily accessible controls to adjust the image quality. There are no control buttons on the display itself and no onscreen display menu. In the Displays system preference there's a dated manual calibration process, where you can also change the gamma and the target colour temperature.

Sharing the monitor between two Macs is also tricky. You can attach a second Thunderbolt-equipped Mac to the display using Apple’s £39 Thunderbolt cable, but you’ll need to then physically disconnect the display’s captive Thunderbolt cable from the first Mac in order for the second Mac to take over the screen.

Making connections

What you can and can’t attach to a Thunderbolt-equipped Mac and the Thunderbolt Display is a little confusing. Systems with integrated graphics, such as the MacBook Air and Mac mini, can support two displays. The Air’s own screen counts as one display, meaning you can use it with one Thunderbolt Display. Laptops with discreet graphics can use three displays – the MacBook Pro can have two external displays working while its own screen is operational.

The 2011 27in iMac has two Thunderbolt ports. You can connect a Thunderbolt Display to one, and then connect another Thunderbolt Display to the first Thunderbolt Display. You can also connect an LED Cinema Display or a third Thunderbolt Display to the iMac’s second Thunderbolt port, for a total of four 27in displays.

You can’t connect an LED Cinema Display to the Thunderbolt port of the Thunderbolt Display, but when we attached a Promise Pegasus R6 Thunderbolt RAID, we were able to connect an LED Cinema Display to the Pegasus R6’s second Thunderbolt port.

The Thunderbolt Display should be most attractive to owners of the 2011 MacBook Air – and, in turn, the Thunderbolt Display makes the MacBook Air a more compelling choice for a computer. The display brings fast I/O connections to the Air. Previously, connecting a MacBook Air to a wired LAN required a USB-to-Ethernet connector, and external drives were limited to pokey USB 2.0 transfer speeds. Now, Air users can use Gigabit Ethernet and FireWire 800 through the Thunderbolt Display.

OUR VERDICT

For owners of the 2011 MacBook Air, the Thunderbolt Display is a fantastic way to get iMac-like features in one of the lightest laptops available. If your Mac has Thunderbolt, FireWire 800, and Gigabit Ethernet, the fairly inflexible Thunderbolt Display is a little less interesting.

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