First Look: Apple Thunderbolt Display

James Galbraith
19 September, 2011
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The Apple Thunderbolt Display may just be the most clever display ever. Macworld Lab received our new display Friday morning, and we immediately set out to test the new features.

The Apple Thunderbolt Display connected to a MacBook Air. A Thunderbolt RAID array (the Promise Pegasus R6, right) and a FireWire 800 RAID array (the Promise SmartStor DS4600, left), are connected to the display.

The $1199 Thunderbolt Display’s specifications are impressive, but not much different from Apple’s 27in LED Cinema Display released last year. Both feature LED backlit displays with a resolution of 2560-by-1440 pixels, the same brightness rating of 375 cd/m2, MagSafe power connector for charging a laptop, and three USB 2.0 ports. The Thunderbolt Display has a FaceTime HD camera, while the Cinema Display has an iSight camera.

The Thunderbolt Display (right foreground) has more connectivity options than the Cinema Display (left background).

What’s new – and what’s really exciting – is the addition of a FireWire 800 port, a gigabit ethernet port, and (of course) a Thunderbolt port to the back of the display. You get all of these extra ports, and at the same time, you have fewer cables to string to your Mac – the Mini DisplayPort and USB 2.0 connector cables on the Cinema Display have been replaced with a single Thunderbolt connection.

The Thunderbolt and MagSafe cables (front) from the Thunderbolt Display. In the background are the MagSafe, Mini DisplayPort and USB connectors from the Apple 27in Cinema Display.

If you, say, have a FireWire 800 hard drive, you can connect it to the Thunderbolt Display. That hard drive is then connected to your Mac via Thunderbolt. Ethernet and USB work in a similar way.

MacBook Air and Thunderbolt Display

The Thunderbolt Display, which was originally announced in July at the same time as the new MacBook Air, should be most attractive to owners of 2011 MacBook Airs, bringing some seriously fast I/O connections to Apple’s smallest laptop. Never before has the MacBook Air been able to use gigabit ethernet or FireWire 800 external devices. Before the Thunderbolt Display, connecting a MacBook Air to a wired LAN required an optional USB-to-ethernet connector, and external drives were limited to pokey USB 2.0 transfer speeds.

The 2011 MacBook Air uses the Eagle Peak Thunderbolt controller, which offers two 10Gbps bidirectional Thunderbolt channels and supports one DisplayPort connection.

To test the new features, we connected the MagSafe and Thunderbolt connectors from the Thunderbolt Display to a new 13in MacBook Air. We connected to our LAN using the display’s ethernet connector. The connection showed right up in our Network system preferences.

The ethernet connection on the Thunderbolt Display appears in the Network system preference as Display Ethernet.

We then connected a Promise Pegasus R6 array to the Thunderbolt port on the back of the display. The drive mounted automatically on the MacBook Air’s desktop. Next, we connected the Promise SmartStor DS4600 RAID to the FireWire 800 port on the back of the display. Again, the drive mounted on the desktop automatically.

MacBook Pro and Thunderbolt Display

The new MacBook Pros, iMacs, and Mac minis use the Light Ridge Thunderbolt controller, which offers four bidirectional Thunderbolt channels and supports two DisplayPort connections.

A 2011 17-in MacBook Pro connected to the Thunderbolt Display (left). The Promise Pegasus R6 array is connected to the Thunderbolt Display, while the Cinema Display is connected to the Pegasus R6.

We connected the Thunderbolt Display to a 2011 17in MacBook Pro and were able to mount the two RAIDs, connect to the LAN through the display’s ethernet port, and connect an LED Cinema Display’s Mini DisplayPort connector to the second Thunderbolt port on the Promise Pegasus R6. The display was instantly recognised and we were able to drive two 27in displays along with the MacBook Pro’s built in display – that, my friends, is a lot of screen real estate.

Our MacBook Pro setup, with the Thunderbolt Display (right), a Cinema Display (left), and a Promise Pegasus R6 (next to the laptop).

The Thunderbolt Display requires OS X 10.6.8 or later, and a Thunderbolt-equipped Mac. The Mac Pro is the only line of Apple’s computers that has yet to be updated with Thunderbolt.

Check back soon for Macworld’s complete review of the Apple Thunderbolt Display.


2 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Damon says:

    Thunderbolt is a masterstroke, it will enable users to buy the MacBook Air with confidence that they can still connect all their devices. My next Mac will be an Air, without doubt.

  2. Josh says:

    A great solution for professionals, offering connectivity for almost all laptops, with the exception of those without thunderbolt. Leave the display at home hooked up to ethernet, etc. Then go to work with laptop, come back home and just plug in thunderbolt. SIMPLE, EFFECTIVE. It has apple written all over it. one slight thing though is the display still only has 12ms response time same as old cinema display. Only a problem if your a gamer though…

    A great refresh to the line of displays

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