Thunderbolt and lightening is supposed to be very very frightening, but can it also be the be-all and end-all to your desktop needs?
We’ve been living with the Apple Thunderbolt Display, a monitor that lets you turn your MacBook Pro or Air into an iMac, for the last month. Is it worth the expense of a new monitor, or does it really only offer the same as a regular screen? We looked closer.
Looking like a giant iPad, just without the home button, the Apple Thunderbolt Display offers a glossy 27-inch IPS LED backlit screen with a resolution of 2560 x 1440. As you'd probably expect, it has a 16:9 aspect ratio and an impressive 16.7 million colours. It also has a wide viewing angle of 178 degrees both horizontal and vertical.
That screen, plus the bezel gives you a monitor 49.1 x 65 x 20.7cm in size with a weight of 10.8Kg. It’s big, but it's also pretty.
From the front, the design is typical Apple minimalist with no lights, no buttons, and no faff to clutter the stylish fascia. There are just two marks; an HD webcam at the top and the Apple logo sitting bottom centre in the bezel, finished in silver. It doesn’t glow, it doesn’t double as a power button, it just sits there looking pretty and advertising one of the world's most valuable brands.
The bottom of the panel includes a 2.1 speaker system (49 watts) that is hidden within the monitor. It sounds good, and is perfectly ample for music while sitting at your desk. Don’t, however, expect it to fill the room with music.
The back, which still looks like an iPad, is clad in metal, has a large L-shaped stand protruding from the rear that allows you to angle the screen, up to 20 degrees, and features a number of connections and ports. What it doesn’t have is power button - yes we went mad trying to find it when we first got it out of the box - or any other button for that matter.
There is no power button, because the screen automatically comes on when you connect a laptop to it, and no other buttons, because why would you need them?
As for those connections, there are plenty: Three powered USB 2.0 ports; one FireWire 800 port; a Gigabit Ethernet port so you can benefit from a faster connection rather than rely on your Wi-Fi only MacBook Air, and a Thunderbolt port to connect a suitable hard drive or another Thunderbolt display.
There are two cables that trail out of the back. One for the power, the other to connect your MacBook's Thunderbolt port.
What is Thunderbolt?
If you’re wondering what all this talk of Thunderbolt actually is, here is a quick recap. Apple's latest lineup of MacBook Air and MacBook Pro laptops are the first products to feature Thunderbolt, which Apple describes as "the most powerful, most flexible Input/Output technology ever [put] in a personal computer". What that means, in reality, is that if used in a hard drive you can transfer a full-length Blu-ray movie in less than 30 seconds, far quicker than USB 2.0. In fact, its more than 20 times faster than USB 2.0 and more than 12 times faster than FireWire 800. And if you thought that was fast, then you'll be pleased to hear that the technology has the potential to become even quicker in the future – all backwards compatible of course.
Here the monitor uses the technology in place of VGA and DVI ports (Digital Visual Interface) meaning you can plug a Mini DisplayPort screen straight into the Thunderbolt port, or connect DisplayPort, DVI, HDMI or VGA displays using an adaptor. This reduces the number of holes you need on the side of your laptop's chassis. It also means that you can treat the monitor as a docking station.
Ready to dock
Aside from being a mammoth screen, one of the key reasons to get the Apple Thunderbolt Display for your desk is to take advantage of the de-cluttering effect it will have on your desktop. One cable, with a twin end, does the same as sending audio and video to the monitor, while powering your Mac via its power port. This is very neat, and very Apple. But it also makes for a much nicer working environment.
Currently though, only the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops have Thunderbolt. Plugging it into a MacBook Pro is easy as both the power and Thunderbolt connectors are on the same side. For MacBook Air users you will have to plug in the power on one side and then loop the cable behind the screen and plug in the Thunderbolt cable on the other. It is easy stuff and there is plenty of cable, but we would have thought Apple would have designed the Air to have both connectors on the same side. Yes that’s us being a bit picky, but we do expect such forethought from the mighty Apple.
Once you’ve got yourself plugged in you can then start loading up the monitor with your USB drives, devices and the like. The whole thing turns the static monitor into a handy hub for your ultra-portable laptop. It makes a lot of sense, but forgoes the traditional hideous docking station that a lot of PCs expect you to use.
If you’re a laptop user who also sits at a desk all day this, saves you having to plug in and out your main peripherals every day, day-in, day-out.
Get your makeup on and tidy your house
Above the screen, you’ll get Apple’s HD FaceTime camera and a built in microphone that offers 720p recording and a very wide recording angle so you can get in not just you, but a couple of other faces as well.
That’s great if you’ve got the family gathered around your new Thunderbolt Display, not so great if you’ve got an untidy office, as we soon realised when we started making video calls.
In practice and the camera works well, is crisper than the one fitted to the MacBook Air, and nobody we called complained about quality.
The only complaint we do have is that when using Skype it didn’t automatically know to switch to the FaceTime camera in the monitor, forcing us to have to do it manually every time we connected the monitor to our MacBook Air. Annoying.
When the Apple Thunderbolt Display isn’t being a docking station or a videophone it is, first and foremost, a monitor. And a very good one too.
The resolution is stunning, the clarity brilliant, and the overall performance very good with blacks reproduced well. All tasks are carried-out with aplomb, whether it’s writing a letter, watching a movie or playing a game.
That resolution helps too with fonts, which look incredibly crisp and detailed. The main side affect is that, at the maximum resolution, everything is so small. We’ve found that means typing in word at 16- rather than 12-point and sometimes having to zoom in on webpages - especially if they use a small font.
Calibration options in OS X include brightness, colour temperature, gamma, and contrast, although these are rather buried in your Mac OS settings, with Apple opting to set this for you at the start.
It isn't all perfect, perfect, perfect. We initially experienced issues with the monitor sometimes not turning on, because it had not been recognised by our laptop. Something that now seems to have been fixed via a recent firmware update. Additionally it is also worth pointing out that you won't be able to use the display on non-Thunderbolt devices. For us that isn't really a problem - it is like complaining that you can't put petrol in a diesel engine - but it is worth noting if you plan to use this with older MacBook models that aren't Thunderbolt ready.
If you are a MacBook Air user, then the ability to turn it into an iMac for a further £899 is a compelling one, especially if you are using that MacBook Air as your main work machine and want something a little bigger for the screen at your desk. The quality of the IPS screen is very good, the connectivity options allowing it to be a docking station superb, and the overall ease of use great.
If, however, you're a power MacBook Pro user, you’ve got all those ports on the side of your computer already, so the advantage isn’t going to be as great as just plumping for a standard DisplayPort monitor instead.
So should you get it? Well if you’re looking for a bigger picture and the extra connectivity options and the you need a sort of docking station, then it is worth the investment, even though it's a little pricey. The one thing we would warn you of, however, is that full-screen video chat is very scary, as our photo above proves.