Apple Thunderbolt display/MBA review

Apple Thunderbolt display/MBA review

Summary: The Apple Thunderbolt display promises a seamless experience turning your MacBook into a desktop. The reality is something less.


Over 70% of Mac sales are notebooks. With the advent of the fast and high-bandwidth Thunderbolt interface, which carries PCIe and display signals, it promised to make a notebook stand in for a desktop.

And I bought it.

My fully-optioned MacBook Air and Thunderbolt Display arrived in June. I've been working with them for 5 months.

MacBook Air The Air has a 2GHz dual-core i7, 8GB RAM and a 500GB SSD. It is pretty snappy - the SSD usually does a good job of covering for the aging Mach single-threaded kernel antiquated OS X file system stack - but beach balls seem to be occurring more often, perhaps due to SSD aging.

For the most processor intensive things I do - video compression and format conversions - Intel's hyperthreading works well. All 4 cores are usually pegged.

I haven't missed the extra performance of the 3.2GHz quad-core i7 on last year's iMac. But I don't spend hours each day transcoding either.

The Thunderbolt display The display itself is beautiful. Its high-resolution - 2,560 x 1,440 - allows many concurrent open windows.

It includes a hub with USB 2.0, FireWire 800 and GigE for connecting up legacy desktop peripherals, which usually works well. The black bezel is subtle and smaller than the black and aluminum iMac bezel.

It sits on a not-very-adjustable aluminum stand that is not as ergonomic as it should be. But I have an electric desk, so I adjust the height of the desk to get the monitor where I want it.

Since Apple went to a new MagSafe connector, you now have to buy a $10 adapter so the Thunderbolt Display can charge a new MacBook Air. Guys, how about tossing one in the box of the $999 display?

Wake from sleep: How do they work together? Not so well. I expected that I'd be able to take a sleeping MacBook Air, plug in the Thunderbolt Display, hit the return key on my Microsoft Natural Elite keyboard, wake the MacBook Air from sleep and go to work.


Instead I plug in the MacBook Air, crack it open to hit the notebook's return key, wait for the Thunderbolt Display to spring to life and then close the MacBook Air - sometimes several times.

Less than elegant. Certainly not "it just works."

I've also had times where wired Ethernet is seen by network preferences, but not seen by my apps. The wi-fi always works about as well as wi-fi always works.

The Storage Bits take The image of 1-plug, grab-and-go simplicity is a mirage. The reality is that the integration of the Thunderbolt Display and a MacBook is more fiddly than it should be.

Given that the duo can easily cost upwards of $3k, it really should "just work." In my experience, it doesn't.

How much it bothers you will depend on how often you reconnect. I like working elsewhere at home and in local coffee shops, so I reconnect several times a week.

I also connect a USB 3.0 hub and a backup drive for a total of 4 plugs: power, Thunderbolt and 2 USB connections. It isn't like sliding the MacBook Air into a dock - which BTW, don't exist for Thunderbolt notebooks.

I hope that Apple's engineers will decide to finish the product with a firmware update. Until then, the MacBook/Thunderbolt Display duo are a work in progress, not a product.

Comments welcome, of course. Yes, I bought them. Like Apple would give me a review copy! Update: I updated the wording on the SSD's benefits. 

Topic: Apple

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  • Waking the Air

    I find my apple wireless keyboard or trackpad seem to wake the Air or my Retina 15 pretty consistently, for what it's worth. I have another Thunderbolt display I keep connected to a mini - and it has value just in not being part of an iMac - in that I can replace the mini and have an all-new system, as I just did with the new mini with a Fusion drive. That plus 12TB of external LaCie Thunderbolt goodness, and those displays can be part of one heck of a system.
    Michael Whitehead
    • No problem with I/O

      Michael, my Magic trackpad doesn't do any better waking the MacBook Air than my keyboard.

      I also have about 14TB raw attached to the tiny MacBook Air through USB 3.0, Thunderbolt and Ethernet. That is pretty amazing. When the Thunderbolt Display gets upgraded to USB 3.0 it will be even more amazing.

      The modular concept is great. People just need to be aware that Apple hasn't finished the product.

      R Harris
      • Thunderbolt Display

        I just purchased a MacBook Pro retina and am interested in the Thunderbolt Display but want to wait until the USB ports are 3.0. Does anyone know when this be available?
  • Same Setup Here

    Had some problems initially. However when I make sure to plug power in to the MBP first, wait a second for the light on the mag safe connector to come on and then plug in the TB cable, things work as advertised. Less fiddly than your experience, but more than it should be. Also way less fiddly than any other combo I've used since having a real docking station.
  • It's great with an iMac

    I use it as a second display with my iMac - two big 27" screens gives me a ton of real estate and it works absolutely flawlessly... Oddly I have not tried it with a MacBook yet...
  • Other Thoughts

    You might also try doing a systems management controller reset. Power off but plugged in, press and hold shift, control, option, power (mac won't restart), then after 10 seconds or so press power to restart.
  • agging mach and SSD?!?

    "the SSD usually does a good job of covering for the aging Mach single-threaded kernel"

    What is this supposed to mean (except that it's offtopic to the display)

    The OS kernel has nothing to do with the SSD and the OS X kernel is all but single-threaded.
    What is inherits from Mach is the VM model and the rest is BSD UNIX.

    Strange statement, that.
  • Wow That's Whining

    So you spent, if I'm doing the math correctly, about $3,200 on this setup, but you a) are complaining about the $10 connector and b) you bought a POS keyboard instead of a mechanical one even though you blog for ZD.

    Don't get me wrong, I get the point - you want to have a laptop connected but you don't want to use the keyboard, or the screen as a second monitor. Yeah. I got it.
  • Hey! Microsoft makes some good keyboards

    Well, the Natural Elite is a good keyboard. The 4000 series - I've had 5 of them - is a POS. If Apple made a good ergonomic keyboard I'd buy it.

    But what are you saying? I shouldn't be surprised that an external keyboard won't wake the monitor? Hey, I'm surprised, because anyone would use an external keyboard with a closed notebook and most of the time an open notebook too.

    And I didn't arbitrarily change the power connector when there was no need to. Apple did. So throw the connector in with the $999 display already.

    R Harris