Apple Thunderbolt Display Review: All Style, No Substance?

Apple Thunderbolt Display Review: All Style, No Substance?
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Not Really a New Display

Apple’s new 27-Inch Thunderbolt display is, for the most part, not really a new display. It is much the same as the older 27" LED Cinema Display, except it now includes Apple’s Thunderbolt technology.

Still, that may not be a trival new feature. After all, the press releases say Thunderbolt is the coolest connection ever invented, so perhaps this product is worth a closer look.

Display Quality (5 out of 5)

Apple’s new Thunderbolt display may not offer a lot in terms of new display panel technology, but that doesn’t mean it is behind the times or lacking in quality. Besides simply being big, it offers everything that most users could possibly want. LED backlighting allows for more precise lighting control, lower energy use, and better black level reproduction. Meanwhile, IPS display technology allows for vivid colors and wide viewing angles. And just to add some extra sprinkes of awesome, the resolution is 2560x1440.

Though Apple has dropped the “Cinema Display” brand name from this new product, it would still apply. This is a monitor that is geared towards the enjoyment of multimedia content like movies, photos or even video games. The use of high-gloss glass rather than a matte surface is evidence of that. It results in more glare, but also drastically increases contrast. Images appear to have real “pop” and don’t suffer from grainy details if viewed closely.

There are monitors that, according to technical measurements, provide more accurate colors. Few, however, can match the subjective brilliance of this display.

Connectivity (3 out of 5)

Thunderbolt Display Back

Monitors are not required to offer a lot of extra ports when they’re cheap, but as the price rises beyond a few hundred dollars, extra connections become expected. Apple has a reputation for poor connectivity compared to similarly priced competitors, and while the Thunderbolt display does buck the trend somewhat, it could be better.

The main connectivity feature, the Thunderbolt port, is in effect nothing more than Mini DisplayPort. Thunderbolt’s more attractive feature is its bandwidth, but that doesn’t offer any advantage here. It’s also possible to daisy-chain multiple Thunderbolt devices using a single port, but given the lack of compatible devices currently on the market, it’s hard to imagine this advantage being commonly used. The only common application I can think of is daisy-chaining two displays to a single MacBook Pro, which is said to be possible (I have not tested it personally).

You’ll also receive 3 USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire 800 port, and an Ethernet port. These ports can act as extensions of the connected Mac, which is handy in some cases. MacBook Airs, for example, don’t have Ethernet available even as an option, but can use an Ethernet connection via this display.

What’s lacking is, of course, HDMI and DVI. The lack of USB 3.0 ports is also a downer, though many competitors have yet to offer USB 3.0 as well. The connections available on the Thunderbolt display makes sense if you are connecting it to a Mac, but if you aren’t, it’s going to seem rather limited.

Additional Features (3 out of 5)

The speakers on this display are a 2.1 system which provides reasonably adequate sound. However, like every single built-in monitor sound system ever made, the lack of proper sound staging limits enjoyment. Many external speaker options under $100 will provide better sound quality, and you’ll want to purchase such a solution unless you almost never listen to music, watch movies or play games. If you don’t watch movies or play games though, you probably wouldn’t be buying this monitor.

To enable FaceTime, a microphone and a webcam are included. The webcam quality is much better than most built-in monitor webcams and even many inexpensive stand-alone webcams. Microphone quality is adequate for FaceTime and web calls, but isn’t a good choice for recording a podcast.

Although the display’s large stand is stable and stylish, it only tilts slightly, and there’s no height, swivel or pivot adjustment. For some users, this is going to be a big deal, and almost all other monitors priced above $400 offer these features. This is one instance where Apple’s commitment to simple design seriously limits a product.

Verdict (3 out of 5)

There’s no question that the Thunderbolt display, like the previous 27" LED Cinema Display, offers a top-notch viewing experience. Apple has not skimped on display technology, and while the glossy glass panel may be annoying in bright rooms, it offers jaw-dropping visuals in more ideal lighting.

It’s a shame, then, that the display is average by almost every other measure. Limited connectivity and a lack of ergnomic adjustments are major dings against any monitor priced above $400, nevermind one that’s just a buck shy of $1000. If you wait for a sale, you could potentially grab a 30-Inch Dell Ultrasharp for the same dough.

Given the poor value, it’s impossible to rate this product as anything better than average despite the excellent image quality. The main reason to buy this display is not because it’s the best value but rather because you own a Mac already, and you want to stay within the confines of Apple’s ecosystem.