Apple Thunderbolt Display perfect MacBook Air companion

From most angles, Apple’s new 27-inch Thunderbolt Display looks justlike the 27-inch LED Cinema Display  released last year.

However, if you take a closer look at what the Thunderbolt Display hasto offer, you’ll find a display that’s ideal for owners of theThunderbolt-equipped MacBook Air.

Glance at the back of the ThunderboltDisplay, down at the lower left side, and you’ll find twicethe number of connection ports than the LED Cinema Display. Like itspredecessor, the Thunderbolt Display has three USB 2.0 ports, but italso has a FireWire 800 port, a gigabit ethernet port, and 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 Safeadapter for charging laptops, and a Thunderbolt cable, which takes theplace of the separate Mini DisplayPort and USB 2.0 connectors found onthe LED Cinema Display.

The Thunderbolt Display has a resolution of 2560 by 1440 pixels, abrightness rating of 375 cd/m2, support for displaying 16.7 millioncolors, a 1000:1 contrast ratio, 178 degree viewing angles, a built-inmicrophone, and a 49- watt speaker system-features that are allidentical to the LED Cinema Display. The built-in camera has beenupdated from a standard iSight to a FaceTime HD camera.

The Thunderbolt Display requires OS X 10.6.8 or later, and aThunderbolt- equipped Mac, such as the 2011 MacBook Air, MacBook Pro,Mac mini, or iMac. The Mac Pro is the only line of Apple’s computersyet to be updated with Thunderbolt, and you can’t plug the ThunderboltDisplay into a Mac Pro’s Mini DisplayPort-or any Mac’s MiniDisplayPort-and expect it to work. It won’t, which is why Applestill sells the LED Cinema Display.

Making adjustments
Apple doesn’t provide much in the way of ergonomic adjustments. Youcan’t raise, lower or pivot the display. Apple doesn’t offer ananti-glare screen option for the display, so using the ThunderboltDisplay in an area with a lot of light sources can be problematic.

The Thunderbolt Display also doesn’t have easily accessible controls toadjust the image quality. There are no control buttons on the displayitself and no on-screen display menu. While other displays offermultiple color settings and different viewing modes, the ThunderboltDisplay, like the LED Cinema Display, offers only a brightness sliderin the Displays system preferences. The Displays system preference hasa dated, squint-at-the-screen, manual calibration process, where youcan also change the gamma and the target color temperature.

Sharing the monitor between two Macs is also tricky. Many displaysoffer multiple inputs and the ability to easily cycle through theattached computers, but the Thunderbolt Display doesn’t offer suchfeatures. You can attach a second Thunderbolt-equipped Mac to thedisplay by using Apple’s $49 Thunderboltcable and connecting the second Mac to the display’sThunderbolt port, but you’ll need to then physically disconnect thedisplay’s captive Thunderbolt cable from the first Mac in order for thesecond Mac to take over the screen.

Making connections What you can and can’t attach to each Thunderbolt Mac and theThunderbolt Display is a little confusing. Systems with integratedgraphics, such as the MacBook Air and the $599 Mac mini, can supporttwo displays. The Air’s built-in screen counts as one display, meaningyou can use it with one external Thunderbolt display. Laptops withdiscreet graphics can use three displays; the MacBook Pro can have two external displays working while its built-in screen is operational.

If you have a Thunderbolt Display, you can connect a second ThunderboltDisplay to it. You can’t connect an LED Cinema Display to theThunderbolt port of the Thunderbolt Display, but in our testing, whenwe attached the Promise Pegasus R6 Thunderbolt RAID,we were able to connect a LED Cinema Display (which uses MiniDisplayPort) to the Pegasus R6’s second Thunderbolt port.

The 2011 27-inch iMac has two Thunderbolt ports. You can connect aThunderbolt Display to one of the Thunderbolt ports, and then connectanother Thunderbolt display to the first Thunderbolt Display. You canalso connect a LED Cinema Display or a third Thunderbolt Display to theiMac’s second Thunderbolt port, for a total of four 27-inch displays.Crazy.

The Thunderbolt Display should be most attractive to owners of the 2011MacBook Air-and, in turn, the Thunderbolt Display makes the MacBook Aira more compelling choice for a computer. The display brings someseriously fast I/O connections to Apple’s smallest laptop. Before theThunderbolt Display, connecting a MacBook Air to a wired LAN requiredan optional USB to Ethernet connector, and external drives were limitedto pokey USB 2.0 transfer speeds. Now, MacBook Air users can usegigabit ethernet and FireWire 800 through the Thunderbolt Display.

Image quality
Macworld Lab used a ColorMunkiPhoto to calibrate the Thunderbolt Display. For comparison,we also looked at the 27-inch iMac, the 27-inch LED Cinema Display, andan HP ZR30w.The displays were set to a D65 white point, a 2.2 gamma and 100 cd/m2brightness. As expected, the Thunderbolt Display looked just like theLED Cinema Display. I didn’t find any dead or stuck pixels, or lightleakage from the edges. Uniformity was not a problem across the screen.

The wide viewing angle means that when sharing the screen, people nextto you are seeing the same thing as you are, color-wise. There was verylittle loss of contrast as you move left to right or up and down fromcenter. Grays were neutral after calibration, and the glossy screenreally helps photos look richer but not overblown, with deep blacks.

Buying advice
For owners of the 2011 MacBook Air, the Thunderbolt Display is afantastic way to get iMac-like features while still being able to walkaway with one of the lightest laptops available. If your Mac hasThunderbolt, FireWire 800, and gigabit ethernet, the case for buyingthe comparatively inflexible Thunderbolt display is a little lessinteresting.

Would you recommend this article?


Thanks for taking the time to let us know what you think of this article!
We'd love to hear your opinion about this or any other story you read in our publication.

Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

Featured Download

Christine Wong
Christine Wong
Christine Wong has been an on-air reporter for a national daily show on Rogers TV and at High Tech TV, a weekly news magazine on CTV's Ottawa affiliate. She was also an associate producer at Report On Business Television (now called BNN) and CBC's The Hour With George Stroumboulopoulos. As an associate producer at Slice TV, she helped launch two national daily talk shows, The Mom Show and Three Takes. Recently, she was a Staff Writer at and is now a freelance contributor.

Related Tech News

Get ITBusiness Delivered

Our experienced team of journalists brings you engaging content targeted to IT professionals and line-of-business executives delivered directly to your inbox.