The case for an Apple Thunderbolt 2 Display

We all have our big and little wishes for WWDC 2014 next week. The grand unveiling of OS X 10.10 is a forgone conclusion, and we're seeing pundits and analysts chime in on what they expect to see. Our own Rene Ritchie offered his thoughts this morning on what he'd like to see regarding iOS 8. For my part, among the hardware hopes that I have is a replacement for Apple's aged Thunderbolt Display.

Apple doesn't sell a lot of Thunderbolt Displays. At least that's my experience working for a third-party reseller for the past year. But people who buy them are usually outfitting Mac Pros or other high-end, murdered-out Mac workstations built around a loaded up 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro or even a 27-inch iMac. And most people who get them love them. They're excellent monitors.

At $999, Apple Thunderbolt Displays are expensive - the very high end of the 27-inch display spectrum — but they're well-calibrated, easy to work with and they integrate well into a Mac workstation. The display offers three USB ports, a FireWire 800 port, Gigabit Ethernet and a Thunderbolt port, making it an expansion interface of its own for a companion MacBook connected with a single, thin Thunderbolt cable. A nice way to reduce clutter and wear and tear on the connectors of your laptop, to be sure.

The very design of the current Thunderbolt Display is showing its age, however. It came out in July of 2011m, and it closely resembles the iMac of that year, enough so that my customers regularly confuse it with an iMac. But upon closer inspection it's clear that it's not an iMac. It's too thick to be an iMac.

But in 2012, Apple redesigned the iMac. One of the things they did was make the iMac a lot thinner. The Thunderbolt Display still has a thick bezel around the edge, the chunkier design more reminiscent of iMacs that still have internal CD/DVD drives. If you stay up to date on Apple's design trends, the Thunderbolt Display just looks older.

Next, let's look at the expansion options: Three USB ports. Correction — three USB 2.0 ports. USB 3.0 is now standard across the Mac product line, and is practically ubiquitous now when you're shopping for an external hard drive. USB 3.0 is up to ten times faster (on paper, anyway) — it definitely makes a difference for some applications, like cheap external storage.

FireWire 800 and Gigabit Ethernet come in handy if you have a legacy device you need to connect or want to hardware your workstation to a Local Area Network (LAN). But let's look at the Thunderbolt port.

The current Thunderbolt Display uses the original Thunderbolt interface instead of the twice-as-fast Thunderbolt 2. Thunderbolt 2 is now standard issue on the Mac Pro and the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, two systems primed for use with the Thunderbolt Display. Presumably Thunderbolt 2 will be adopted across the rest of the product line before too long.

For laptop users, the Thunderbolt Display even offers a MagSafe power charger, so you can top up your MacBook Air or MacBook Pro without having to haul out an additional AC charger. But the Thunderbolt Display sports the original MagSafe adapter, instead of the MagSafe 2 interface that all the newer Mac laptops now sport. Apple includes a MagSafe 2 adapter in the box, to bridge the connection to newer laptops. But it's one more thing to misplace on your desk.

2560 x 1440 resolution in a 27-inch screen is enough for me to get lost in. Heck, sometimes I have to jiggle around the cursor just so I can get my bearings, it's so big. That's one reason I'm not convinced that Apple has to go 4K with the next Thunderbolt Display. Another is because 4K support is still relatively limited across the Mac line. Mac users who need it can opt for a third-party DisplayPort-equipped monitor that better meets their needs.

Will we see a new Thunderbolt Display next week? I have no idea. Looking at Apple's release schedule, five of the past nine Apple-branded displays were released in the summer, though of those, not all appeared at WWDCs.

Still, I'll keep my fingers crossed. I'd love to see a shiny new Thunderbolt Display show up on stage next week.

How about you? Any interested in a Thunderbolt 2 Display? Or is it silly for Apple to keep making external displays at all? Sound off in the comments — I can't wait to read what you have to say.

Peter Cohen
  • The MagSafe->MagSafe 2 adapter also can break over time if the cable is in a position that stresses the junction, so that it eventually loses contact and will no longer charge. (happened to me, and if you Google "Thunderbolt Display not charging", it is fairly common.). The display and cable are still fine though - a new adapter fixes it. That aside, I really like my display, overpriced as it may be. I would trade up for a 4k screen, but $DEITY alone knows how expensive that would be. Sent from the iMore App
  • Yes lord, for the love of all that is Apple, upgrade it! lol I've been waiting for a year to see this happen.. it's time.. it's soooooo time.. I'm int he same boat.. Don't care for 4k right now.. but I don't want to invest in old USB 2.0, TB 1.0, or FIREWIRE.. zomg... really? Its time! way, way, way past time..
  • If you don,t care about 4k get this: 100 times better then a thunderbolt display in every way
  • I do like the look of it and it's in the same price range.. I will wait until WWDC though to see if they release something comparable. I like the power to my rMBP from the TB.. I know, odd thing, but it's a nice addition.. and I like the built in Ethernet while plugged in as well.. Will see what, if anything, Apple does.
  • Except one can't apparently actually get one shipped.
    And no ethernet or USB
    And I think it needs a TB2-equipped system to drive at native rez -- no joy for my 2013 MBPR.
    And we have no idea if the thing will need EDID override or some other kind of ugly "will it keep working when OSX is updated" hack, like my Dell 2713HM at the office requires. I've wanted to get a monitor for home, but have been waiting for an ATD update forever. I don't want to get a Dell or ASUS or Samsung or such and have to worry about it not working properly with next year's OSX, or digging up the right EDID dickery to get the thing to not be treated like a TV.
  • If you have a late 2013 rMBP it has TB2 but either way any TB mac will be able to use the monitor at full resolution and the full refresh rate. The only problem you would get is if the monitor was connected with HDMI it would be running at a lower refresh rate but the same resolution. Also the monitor has a USB hub and 2 thunderbolt ports so you could always use a thunderbolt to ethernet adapter. Hope that helps!
  • ^this
  • Apple's in a bit of a predicament now with Retina, 4K, and an aging Thunderbolt display. Do they go 4K? They can do that, but at 27" the UI widgets would be incredibly small, and if it was Retina, they'd be a bit too big and you'd lose usable real estate. 4K at 24" would be great but again, you lose usable real estate over the 27" non-retina. I don't think Thunderbolt 2 has the bandwidth to support resolution greater than 4K right now, and if it did, could the mac mini or macbook airs support it? So yeah, Apple could use the same screen res as they do now and just flatten it and add USB 3, but I wonder if too many users would expect something more in the display itself. Personally, I'd love to see a 24" 4K Retina display.
  • #1 on the long list of things i hope to see from WWDC, i would order one it in a heartbeat and possibly look to pick up a second one at some point later on. I will be moving to the LG UM95 if there is no 4K thunderbolt display release.
  • Thunderbolt 2, MagSafe 2 and USB 3: Yes! But please only if they also adopt another big feature of the newer iMacs, the greatly reduced glare. I think they should do both, a legacy resolution and a 4k/Retina resolution model at 30-32", as they need to support existing devices and should also have something to complement the new Mac Pro.
  • Don't care too much about 4k, but I would love a new one with lots of USB 3.0 ports.
  • I'd really like to see an HDMI input in addition to Thunderbolt 2 and USB 3.0.
  • If Apple cared about its display line they'd update it in lockstep with their computers. It's not as if they don't have the resources to do it. They will not have new displays at WWDC.
  • I bought one of the current-gen Retina MacBook Pros in November and would have bought an Apple display in a second if the two primary buses (TB and USB) weren't a generation behind what was on the MBP. I waited about 6 months hoping there might be an update with the new Mac Pro, realized it was probably never going to happen, and got a Dell U2713HM instead because I needed the screen space at my desk now. I know displays are far from Apple's primary revenue source, but they're throwing money away by not at least updating the TB and USB chips in the display. I know at least two other people who WOULD buy a Thunderbolt Display if it just had USB 3.0.
  • It feels like a good time for an upgrade. Apple, if they are going to continue producing a stand alone monitor, will eventually enter the 4k race. This could be a good time to introduce the new form factor with all the updated ports and then a large 4K version next year....ok, maybe the year after. I'm not sure why Apple would make a 4k monitor if there was not a viable set of services supplying content to match. Personally I would like a larger screen than 27". I currently use a 27" iMac with a 21" external monitor. My next upgrade will be a Mac Pro and I would love a monitor that was large enough to replace my external. The 27" is almost there as I still have room down one side for IM apps, but there just isn't quite enough room for everything I need.