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Iteration is something Apple is good at. Its 24-inch Cinema Display was good, but it appealed to an extremely small minority of users. In 2010 Apple released a new version with an improved screen and by that time there were many more Mini DisplayPort-compatible Macs in the wild, thus widening its appeal.
With its Thunderbolt Display, Apple adds a superfast connection, as well as some other functionality, but does the very nature of the monitor's Thunderbolt-based origin ultimately hold it back from pleasing more than just Mac users?
Design and features
The Apple Thunderbolt Display shares the same basic design as the (non-Thunderbolt) Cinema Display released in 2010. Thankfully, the gorgeous 27-inch IPS screen with its 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution made the transition with no degradation in quality. Aesthetically, the chassis design is almost exactly the same as before, and along with the new features, virtually everything you got with the Cinema Display, you get in the Thunderbolt Display. Well, almost, but we'll get to that later.
The monitor's chassis, including the back of the monitor and its foot stand, has the same smooth aluminum gray finish as the Cinema Display, and just as the Cinema Display did, it includes an ambient light sensor, a built-in camera and microphone, built-in 2.1 speakers, and three USB 2.0 ports located on the lower back left.
The panel is 2.25 inches in full depth and about 25.6 inches wide. The bezel, flush with the screen, is 1.1 inches wide on the right and left sides, and the distance from the bottom of the bezel to the desktop is 3.6 inches. The foot stand is 7.4 inches wide and 8.2 inches deep, and the monitor hardly moved when we knocked it from the sides. This is in part thanks to the flatness and width of the foot stand, but also to the display's heavy 24-pound weight.
So what are the differences? To start with, the Thunderbolt Display adds a Gigabit Ethernet port, a FireWire port, and, wait for it...a Thunderbolt connection.
However (and this is the "well, almost" referred to earlier), because there's currently no Thunderbolt support for PCs, the display will not work with them. But, thankfully, it will work with Macs running Windows through Boot Camp. Note that the Thunderbolt Display doesn't support hot-swapping to a Mac running Windows in Boot Camp. The computer must be restarted already connected to the display to work properly. Also, according to Apple there's no support for non-Thunderbolt-enabled Macs. Once we've gotten our hands on an older Mac, we'll confirm this.
The display includes a 20-degree back tilt as its sole ergonomic option, with no screen-height adjustment, pivoting, or swivel offered. Calibration options in OS X include brightness, color temperature, gamma, and contrast controls. The interface for the latter can only be accessed by turning on expert mode from the Display Calibrator Assistant.
As an interesting and welcome bonus for MacBook Air owners, plugging the display into an Ethernet connection allows the Air to take advantage of full wired Ethernet speeds as opposed to being limited to Wi-Fi.
|Design and feature highlights|
|Ergonomic options:||20-degree back tilt|
|VESA wall-mount support:||No|
|Included video cables:||Thunderbolt|
|Number of presets:||n/a|
|Picture options:||Brightness, Contrast|
|Color controls:||Color temperature|
|Additional features:||Thunderbolt, USBx3, FireWire, Ethernet, built-in camera, ambient light sensor|
We tested the 27-inch Apple Thunderbolt Display through its Thunderbolt input, connected to a MacBook running Windows 7, through Boot Camp. The display posted a composite score of 97 on CNET Labs' DisplayMate-based performance tests.
Thunderbolt performance: We copied a few megabytes of files over from the Promise Pegasus R6 to a MacBook Air both from the Air's direct Thunderbolt connection and through the display, and noticed identically fast transfer speeds.
Text: Black text on white looked clear, without any obvious color tint problems. Text was easily legible down to a font level of 8.
Movies: We tested the Apple Thunderbolt Display using a number of 1080p movie trailers. As with previous incarnations of the display, we were impressed with the deep blacks the monitor achieved.
Color popped from the screen, and dark detail was visible in dark scenes, meaning that the monitor can hit those really low black levels in dark movie scenes without losing detail incorporated in them.
Games: When evaluating the look of games on a monitor, the two most important features to consider are vibrancy and color. If the monitor can display games with a bright and vibrant cleanness, this goes a long way. If colors can also pop with fullness and depth, games can usually look great.
Running at a resolution of 2,560x1,440 pixels, Torchlight on the Apple Thunderbolt Display has a definite advantage in presentation; however, it's the fact that the monitor displayed colors in the game with nearly the perfect amount of saturation that really impressed us.
Also, we saw no evidence of streaking while playing, and character reaction to our button presses was quick, with no perceivable lag.
Viewing angle: The optimal viewing angle for a monitor is usually from directly in front, about a quarter of the screen's distance down from the top. At this angle, you're viewing colors as the manufacturer intended. Most monitors aren't designed to be viewed at any other angle. Depending on the monitor's panel type, picture quality at nonoptimal angles varies. Most monitors use TN panels, which get overly bright or overly dark in parts of the screen when not viewed from optimal angles.
The Apple Thunderbolt Display uses an IPS panel, so it has a wide viewing angle from all sides. Although its glossy screen equals a lot of reflections, this wasn't problematic unless the screen was in direct sunlight or when we were viewing a completely dark screen. Otherwise, we prefer the deeper perceived contrast when viewing movies and games on the glossy monitor.
Editors' note: All power consumption tests were conducted while not charging a MacBook.
The Apple Thunderbolt Display showed high power consumption, with a Default/On power draw of 106.05 watts, compared with the 93.72 watts drawn by the Dell UltraSharp U2711 in the same test.
In our Sleep/Standby test, the Thunderbolt Display used 13.7 watts and the U2711 pulled a lower 1.19 watts.
Based on our formula, the Thunderbolt Display would cost $41.17 per year to run, compared with the U2711's $28.78 per year.
|Apple Thunderbolt Display||Average watts per hour|
|On (default luminance)||106.05|
|On (max luminance)||106.05|
|On (min luminance)||27.5|
|Calibrated (200 cd/m2)||65.4|
|Annual power consumption cost||$41.17|
Find out more about how we test LCD monitors.
Service and support
Apple backs the Apple Thunderbolt Display with a one-year limited warranty that covers the backlight, but only includes 90 days of toll-free telephone support. With the purchase of a $249 AppleCare package, the warranty is extended to three years from the date of purchase, which seems almost like a necessity given the proprietary nature of the display. Compared with what you get from other monitor vendors, the duration and cost of support for the Thunderbolt display leaves a lot to be desired.
The lack of native PC support is still a disappointment. That said, the stellar performance and added connection features, including Ethernet and Thunderbolt, make it a powerful and functional monitor for users of Thunderbolt-enabled Macs.