Iteration is something that 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 2560x1440-pixel resolution, made the transition with no degradation in quality. Aesthetically, the chassis design is almost exactly the same as before, and virtually everything that 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 aluminium 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.
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.
These ports will be of particular interest to MacBook Air users, who can use the Thunderbolt Display as a sort of dock, adding more functionality to the lithe device.
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 while already connected to the display to work properly. Also, according to Apple, there's no support for non-Thunderbolt-enabled Macs.
The display includes a 20-degree back tilt as its sole ergonomic option, with no screen-height adjustment, pivoting or swivel offered. Calibration is done through OS X, rather than through the screen itself.
We tested the 27-inch Apple Thunderbolt Display through its Thunderbolt input, connected to a MacBook running Windows 7, through Boot Camp. We were impressed with the deep blacks that the monitor achieved, colour 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.
The monitor also displayed near-perfect saturation in games, with no evidence of streaking or perceivable lag. Apple's choice of an IPS panel means wide viewing angles, potentially mitigated by its choice of a glossy screen, which can cause reflections in direct light. Without this interruption, though, the choice of a glossy screen means deeper contrast.
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 an AU$129 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.