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Apple's Thunderbolt Display Explored and Explained

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Originally announced in July 2011, but not shipping until the September, Apple’s Thunderbolt Display is a high-specced external 27" display for Thunderbolt-equipped Macs.

At some £899 in the UK ($999 in the USA), this Apple accessory does not come cheap, but it is perhaps better equipped than you realised. Here, Apple’s Thunderbolt Display is explored and explained.


Opening the Box

As you might expect, at 27-inches, this display is not light. Weighing some 10.8 kg (23.5 lbs) it’s lighter than the late–2009 to Early 2012 iMacs but it is still a substantial piece of kit. You’ll want to put it on your desk and leave it there.

Nor is it small. It’s 49.1 cm (19.35 inches) tall, 65 cm (25.7 inches) wide and 20.7 cm (8.15 inches) deep with the stand.

Apart from the screen itself, inside the box you will find:

  • an AC power lead
  • a combined Thunderbolt and MagSafe 2 lead
  • a small MagSafe to MagSafe 2 converter
  • Printed documentation

Requirements for Using a Thunderbolt Display

Before you order a Thunderbolt Display, you’ll need to ensure that your Mac is compatible.

This means that you will need a Thunderbolt-enabled iMac, Mac mini, MacBook Pro or MacBook Air. Macs from mid–2011 should already be equipped with Thunderbolt. Have a look for a Mini-DisplayPort sized port, on your Mac, that is marked with a lightning bolt.

You will also need to be running Mac OS X Snow Leopard v10.6.8 or later.


The Screen

The Apple Thunderbolt Display
The Apple Thunderbolt Display connected to a Mac mini Core i5

This 27-inch, diagonally viewable, TFT Active-Matrix LCD displays a native resolution of 2560x1440 pixels in 16.7 million colours presented in a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio.

The display can be viewed, without distorting the colours, at viewing angles of up to 178º horizontally and 178º vertically. It’s maximum brightness of 375 cd/m2 ensures visibility in even the brightest of work environments.

The display’s contrast ratio of 1000:1 ensures that blacks are black and that there is excellent colour detailing that is not possible from lesser monitors. A frequecy response of just 12ms ensures no ghosting of images when playing fast-paced video, for example.


The Cables

Thunderbolt and MagSafe 2 cables
Thunderbolt and MagSafe 2 cables

You’ll notice that there aren’t many cables with the Apple Thunderbolt Display. There’s an AC power cable, to go the the wall power socket, as you’d expect.

Then there is one more cable coming out of the display. This splits into two: a Thunderbolt connector and a MagSafe 2 connector.

That’s it.


Turning it On

Once out of the box and on to your desk, you might be having trouble reaching around the to the rear of the display in the hunt for a power button. In short, the Thunderbolt Display does not have one.

Simply hook the Thunderbolt cable up to your Mac and turn on your Mac. When your Mac is turned on, the Thunderbolt Display is turned on. Turn your Mac off and the Thunderbolt Display turns off.

One power button for two devices. You may probably never appreciate the convenience that this affords, but it is clear that Apple has been paying attention to the details. These are the little things, which we take for granted, that make a huge difference to our productivity.

Notwithstanding the fact that turning your display off means that you are consuming less energy.


MagSafe 2 Charger

It’s all in the details, and someone at Apple has clearly thought about this. The Apple Thunderbolt Display doesn’t just connect to your Mac – it can charge it, too, in the case of a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air.

The included small MagSafe to MagSafe 2 converter allows for older MacBooks to be charged when being used with the Thunderbolt Display.

The advantage of this is that you can leave your MacBook charger at home, for instance, if you are plugging into the Thunderbolt Display at the Office. One less thing to lug around with you.


Connectivity

Similar to the iMac, the Thunderbolt Display carries a number of ports on the righthand rearside of the display.

Thunderbolt Display integrated expansion ports
Thunderbolt Display integrated expansion ports

USB 2.0

You’ll find three USB ports on the rear of the Thunderbolt Display.

On the one hand, it’s great that the display is acting as a powered USB hub. On the other hand, it is a drawback that this is using what is now outdated USB 2.0 (also also known as Hi-Speed USB) technology.

If your Mac dates from 2012 onwards, you’re likely to have USB 3.0 (also known as SuperSpeed USB). Since USB 3.0 runs at speeds of up to 5 Gbps, around ten times faster than USB2.0, (480 Mbps) you are best connecting your USB 3.0 external hard drives to your Mac and not to the Thunderbolt Display.

FireWire 800

The Thunderbolt Display carries one FireWire 800 port in a rare-nod, from Apple, towards backwards compatibility.

Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt is Apple’s name for Intel’s light-peak I/O technology lets you move data between your devices and your computer with unprecedented speed.

Thunderbolt operates two channels of 10-Gbps throughput in both directions. It is up to 20 times faster than USB 2.0 and up to 12 times faster than FireWire 800.

Thunderbolt devices can be daisy-chained allowing you to connect up to six devices through a single, compact port.

This means that you can connect another Thunderbolt Display to this one that it connected to your Mac. And to that, you might connect some Thunderbolt external storage.

Ethernet

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for wondering why there is an ethernet connection on a display. It is not that video and audo signals can be transmitted via ethernet. They can’t. This is Apple sweating the details, again.

It may be that it is more convenient to plug a wired connection, to your network, via the Display as this is static.

This can be incredibly useful for mobile workers in that they can benefit from a wired network connection without the need to be plugging and unplugging another cable into and out of their MacBook.

With the Apple Thunderbolt Display, all of your network connected data is coming over the Thunderbolt cable when you have the ethernet cable plugged into the back of the display.


In-built iSight Camera

Camera and microphone
Camera and microphone on top of the display bezel

In the centre of the black bezel, at the top, sits an HD 720p camera. This allows for FaceTime functionality for owners of Mac minis which do not have an in-built camera of their own.

The beauty of the Apple Thunderbolt Display is that, unlike many PCs, you do not need extra cables for the extra features. All of the data moving between the Thunderbolt Display and your Mac does so over the Thunderbolt cable. There is no need for an additional cable to connect the iSight camera.


Microphone

Built in to the top of the display, above the FaceTime HD Camera, the microphone provides Mac mini owners the opportunity to use services, such as FaceTime, Skype, VoIP, that would not otherwise be possible without investing in a separate USB microphone.


Ambient Light Sensor

Situated adajcent to the FaceTime HD Camera, the ambient light sensor is intelligent so as to automatically adjust the brightness of your Thunderbolt Display, depending upon the room conditions.

This helps to maintain the optimum brightness, for a given situation, whilst minimising the amount of energy used.


In-built Speakers

It’s not always immediately clear from Apple’s advertising, but the Thunderbolt Display incorporates a 2.1 Speaker system that includes an integrated subwoofer to deliver a full-range of sound whether you are listening to music, watching films or playing games.

For the Mac mini owner, the Thunderbolt Display doesn’t just provide a bigger screen, it provides speakers, camera and microphone that are lacking from Apple’s diminutive Mac.


Keyboard Control

Brightness keys
Brightness keys on the Apple keyboard will adjust the brightness of the Thunderbolt Display

The brightness of the Thunderbolt Display can be quickly decreased or increased using the F1 and F2 function keys on your Apple keyboard -- just as you would change the brightness on an iMac or a MacBook.

Media keys
Mute, decrease and increase the volume of the sound coming from the Thunderbolt Display

Likewise, the volume from the Thunderbolt Display speakers can be easily muted, decreased or increased, using the F10, F11 and F12 function keys, on the Apple keyboard, respectively.


Multiple Displays

The daisy-chaining of Thunderbolt devices, through a small compact port, allowed for two Thunderbolt Displays to be connected to a 15-inch MacBook Pro or to an iMac to provide in excess of seven million more pixels of screen space.

For those who like to work with more than one display, this is a fantastic experience.


Conclusion

Despite it’s 2560x1440 pixels in 16.7 million colours, there’s more to the Apple Thunderbolt Display than first meets the eye. Incorporating an HD camera, microphone, quality speakers and a MagSafe 2 charger, the Apple Thunderbolt Display is the perfect accessory for Mac mini and MacBook owners alike. It’s even great for iMac owners for whom the existing 27-inches is just not enough.

In this tutorial, I have introduced you to some the the benefits of owning an Apple Thunderbolt Display by explaining the features and the level of thought that has gone into the details.

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