The fastest data interface ever seen on a consumer PC was launched in February this year. Thunderbolt, the technology formerly known as Light Peak, is now featured on all Apple Macs. Except, ironically, the Mac Pro workstation which is arguably most in need of professional I/O.

Only a few devices are available to use the technology though. The first two were storage drives from Promise and LaCie. A third is Apple’s new Thunderbolt Display.

Apple used to have a great line in desktop monitors, classic designs with anti-glare screens available in 20in, 23in and 30in sizes. These aluminium-chassis displays were launched in 2004, and discontinued in 2008 (the 30in in 2010). Their replacements were glass-fronted Cinema Displays, in 24in and 27in sizes, with LED backlighting.

There are still stocks of the latter 27in available at the same £899 price, but Apple is focusing on just one display now, the 27in Thunderbolt Display.

The Apple Thunderbolt Display looks identical to the outgoing Cinema Display LED from the front. It has the same gorgeous 2560 x 1440-resolution LCD. Like previous metal-framed Studio and Cinema Displays, the LCD uses IPS technology to give unspoilt viewing from every angle. 

And like the last generation of Apple displays, the Thunderbolt Display adds a pane of glass in front of the LCD, which at a stroke makes the display useless for many design professionals who cannot work with a mirror-like surface.

We found the Thunderbolt Display could be viewed easily with the blinds down and the lights dimmed. In any other situation, it was too reflective for comfortable use. There’s also no provision for adjusting panel height.

Features

The Thunderbolt Display is customised for use with Apple MacBook laptops, and adds a MagSafe power connector on the same umbilical as the video connector, in order to power a MacBook Air or Pro from the screen.

The white cable that snakes out of the Thunderbolt Display is 90cm long, and then branches into two 32cm-long feeds for power and data to the MacBook. 

Because those ports are on opposite edges on the MacBook Air, it attaches stethoscope-like to those ports from behind. On a MacBook Pro, its fitting is somewhat neater as all ports are ranged down the same side.

Port expansion

Once laptop and screen are coupled, several more useful ports become available to any connected MacBook. At the rear of the Thunderbolt Display are gigabit ethernet, FireWire 800, three USB 2.0, and another Thunderbolt port to daisy-chain to a Promise or LaCie storage drive.

Sadly there’s no support for USB 3.0, even though the Thunderbolt connection could easily accomodate the lower bandwidth of this increasingly popular high-speed interface.

Built into the screen bezel front is a mic and webcam. Like the cameras fitted to recent Macs, it’s now specified as a ‘FaceTime HD’ camera instead of ‘iSight’. When used with Apple FaceTime or Skype video conferencing services, the camera can provide an HD resolution image.

It’s not clear what that actual webcam resolution is, but it seems to be about 1280 x 720 pixels. In order for your chat partner to see you in higher definition, you’ll also need a fast upload speed on your internet connection.

Sound

Speakers are built into the lower edge of the screen bezel, entirely out of sight. Like the sound system of the 27in iMac, they provide excellent, clear sound with reasonably rounded bass response. The speaker system comprises a pair of two-way speakers with additional speaker for more bass output, in a combination Apple calls 2.1.

Like most modern consumer electronics, these speakers use high-efficiency class D amp modules which give a slightly gritty sound. Compared to any other desktop monitors we’ve tested though, they rate as good as they come.

Windows support

If you’re used to booting your Mac into Windows with Boot Camp, there is a limited amount of support. You can connect and use the Thunderbolt Display as a monitor and hub – we even got FireWire working – but a recurring glitch meant that the brightness control did not work. The only fix we found was to switch off the display and reboot into OS X.

NEXT PAGE: Original Macworld review


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