It took a while, but Apple’s Thunderbolt technology is finally proving its worth. The new Thunderbolt Display is called “the ultimate docking station” on Apple’s website, and this may just be the case. With a single cable carrying power, display, and I/O from a thunderbolt equipped MacBook Pro or MacBook Air, the Thunderbolt Display really does transform what a laptop computer can be.
A Quiet Surprise
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Apple introduced the latest version of their OS X operating system alongside the new MacBook Air, the cancellation of the old plastic MacBook, and a refresh of the Mac Mini this month. With so much news, it was easy to overlook another key product introduction: the Thunderbolt Display.
But far from being a simple monitor, the new Thunderbolt Display is really the first non-storage Thunderbolt peripheral as well as a demonstration of the power of this new interconnect. Taking a step forward from previous Cinema Displays, this new monitor includes a single cable for power and video signals and also leverages Thunderbolt technology to carry I/O traffic, turning the monitor into an extension of the attached MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, or Mac Mini.
The Thunderbolt Display includes three full power USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire 800 port, a Gigabit Ethernet port, a “FaceTime” HD webcam and microphone. All of these signals are multiplexed over a single Thunderbolt connection along with the DisplayPort via signal. Attaching this display to a brand-new Thunderbolt equipped MacBook Air transforms it into an iMac equivalent, with the same I/O capabilities and performance.
Note that the Thunderbolt controller in the MacBook Pro is twice as powerful as the one found in the new MacBook Air, allowing the Pro computers to use to Thunderbolt Displays at once. This “LightRidge” chip is also found in the Mac Mini and iMac, so all are capable of dual displays.
Changing the Shape of Computers
This is the real power of Thunderbolt technology in action. By extending the PCI bus outside a computer’s chassis, advanced peripherals like the Thunderbolt Display can add full speed I/O ports without sacrificing a thin, portable form factor. The previous generation MacBook Air was seriously compromised in terms of performance, with just two slow USB 2.0 ports and no Ethernet. The new Thunderbolt MacBook Air is an entirely different league, boasting 10 Gb of external I/O that can be used for full speed Ethernet, FireWire, and (hopefully) USB 3.0 in the future.
Thunderbolt allows a slim portable computer to have the same massive I/O capability as a desktop, and it has implications for nonportable devices as well. Consider the new Mac Mini, which has slimmed down to the size of the old Apple TV. Although it lacks an internal optical drive or any other expansion capability, equipping the Mac Mini with Thunderbolt enables it to challenge the tower desktops in the future. Already, companies like Village Instruments are promising to introduce PCIe expansion chassis for Thunderbolt, allowing computers like the Mac Mini and MacBook Air to use full-size PCIe cards.
Thunderbolt is important not because it is fast but because it extends the PCI bus outside the computer chassis. The next iteration of the Mac Pro could be as tiny as the Mac Mini, as long as it has two or more Thunderbolt ports and an expansion chassis for video and I/O cards.