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Review of the Apple Thunderbolt Display

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Before I get into the review, I think it’s important to understand the decision making factors which lead me to purchase the Apple Thunderbolt Display.  I decided to buy my first Mac back in March of 2011 – a MacBook Pro 15.  Up until that point, I was a lifetime PC user.  Once it arrived, I ran it side-by-side with my PC desktop, switching back and forth via a KVM switch.  This set up worked swimmingly well for the first few months, but the more acclimated I became to the MacBook, the less I found myself switching to my desktop PC.  Over the last three months, I don’t think I ever switched over to my PC.  I was hooked on the Mac platform.

With the ringing in of the new year, so too came time to do my capital equipment expenditures for my business.  Normally I upgrade my laptop and desktop on an every year cycle – one year I upgrade the laptop, the next I upgrade the desktop.  Having done the laptop last year, it was, in theory time to upgrade my desktop.  So I began investigating Mac desktop options, which are essentially two – iMac or Mac Pro.   Even a modestly equipped iMac will run north of $2000.00, and I’m not crazy about the everything-integrated-into-the-monitor design.  Mac Pro?  You’re looking at at least four grand (with monitor) just for starters – they’re hideously expensive.  As I considered these options, it occurred to me that perhaps I don’t really need a desktop.  I’ve been doing both photo and video editing on my Mac Book Pro connected to my 24″ Samsung monitor via a KVM switch, a USB hub (to give me some additional USB ports beyond the two on my MacBook), and gigabit switch for sharing data with my Buffalo LS-Q4.0TL/R5 NAS drive.   My MacBook 15 didn’t feel compromised when using Lightroom, Photoshop, or Premiere Pro from a performance perspective – it was every bit as capable as the Wintel desktop I had been using prior to purchasing the MacBook.  Then I heard about the new Apple Thunderbolt display.

By mating its 27-inch LED Cinema Display with a bunch of integrated IO controllers, Apple has created the ultimate “docking station” for MacBook Pro users.  Not only is it a fantastic 27-inch, 16:9, 2560 x 1440 LED display, by using the Thunderbolt port, it can pass a nearly unlimited amount of information (data, video, and audio) between the MacBook Pro and the Thunderbolt Display – at the same $999.00 price point as the Apple 27″ Cinema Display monitor.  It also features an integrated microphone and FaceTime HD camera capable of  resolution to 1280 x 720 (which is better than the integrated camera on the older Cinema Display) as well as integrated stereo speakers.

Desktop clutter is amazingly reduced by the Thunderbolt Display’s use of just two cables – a MagSafe power cable (which can be connected to an MacBook powered by Magsafe) and a Thunderbolt cable.  In this photo of the back of the Thunderbolt display, you can see that the MagSafe power cable splits off from the Thunderbolt cable:

Stock photo from Apple.com

Thanks to this design feature, you can pack up the MagSafe power cable which comes with your MacBook, and keep it ready to go in your laptop bag.

Here’s a close up of the ports on the back of the Thunderbolt Display:

Stock photo from Apple.com

 

In addition to the Thunderbolt port, there’s three additional USB 2.0 ports, a gigabit port, and a Firewire 800 port.  For added security, there’s also a Kensington Security slot.  Because the MacBook Pro only comes with two USB 2.0 ports, the three additional ports on the Thunderbolt display are quite helpful in my office set up.  Here’s a photo of my workstation with the Thunderbolt Display – note that I have a memory card reader, an iPad 2, and an iPhone 4s all plugged into the USB ports on the Thunderbolt Display – it can charge and synch both of the iOS devices simultaneously.  And it looks great on my desk!

You’ll note that I’m using an old set of Altec Lansing speakers on my desktop – the Thunderbolt Display does have integrated stereo speakers.  But they pale in comparison to my Altec Lansing speakers with subwoofer.  The speakers, along with my Logitech mouse are about the only accessories which carried over from my old PC setup.

From a video display standpoint, the Thunderbolt Display is essentially the same great 27″ Apple Cinema Display which has drawn accolades from users for a couple of years now.  It uses LED backlighting technology and is “instant on.”  Just move the mouse and the screen instantly jumps on at full brightness – no waiting to warm up.  The screen is amazingly clear and contrast rich – perfect for the sort of photo and video editing I do professionally.  You can get better image quality displays from pricey manufacturers like NEC and Eizo if image quality is paramount.  But from an image display quality standpoint, the Thunderbolt is as good or better than most options on the market.  Plus, for me with my Thunderbolt port equipped MacBook, the sheer convenience offered with the docking station like features of the Thunderbolt Display made it an easy decision.  The only aspect of the screen I’m not crazy about is the glossy screen – it picks up reflections and glare quite easily.  In the lighting of my basement office the glossy screen isn’t  a big problem but I could see where it might be for others.

….and before I get a flood of emails, yes that’s the Promise Pegasus R6 NAS drive on my desk.  It was ordered at the same time as the Thunderbolt Display.  Review forthcoming.  🙂

About John B. Holbrook, II
John B. Holbrook, II is a freelance writer, photographer, and author of ThruMyLens.org, as well as LuxuryTyme.com and TheSeamasterReferencePage.com. *All text and images contained in this web site are the original work of the author, John B. Holbrook, II and are copyright protected. Use of any of the information or images without the permission of the author is prohibited.

  1. Thanks for the extensive review of this display. I found your blog while searching for more information on it. The setup you have it about what I am looking to do. Only difference is I will be using it with the highest speced 13″ MacBook Air. Like you, I have been using a desktop/laptop combo for a long time, but realize that Apple has made it so much easier to use just one machine as both now. Just wondering how accurate the colors are on the display for photo editing? Also, I love the stand you have for your MBP. What is that? Looks very convenient when docking your machine.

  2. Nora – here’s the stand I’m using:

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0053XG1AW/ref=asc_df_B0053XG1AW1854206?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=asn&creative=395093&creativeASIN=B0053XG1AW

    I think they make a specific one for the MacBook Air. Color reproduction is excellent on this display.

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