Apple Thunderbolt display/MBA review

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.