Reflections on the Thunderbolt Display

As noted by Joe Rossignol, the Thunderbolt Display is being added to Apple’s list of obsolete products.

In addition to making me feel old, this news made me remember just how good the Thunderbolt Display was.

Thunderbolt Displays

Announced in 2011, the Thunderbolt Display was an extension of the previous display, the 27-inch LED Cinema Display which was announced a year earlier. Here’s a bit from Apple’s press release:

Apple today unveiled the new Apple Thunderbolt Display, the world’s first display with Thunderbolt I/O technology and the ultimate docking station for your Mac notebook. With just a single cable, users can connect a Thunderbolt-enabled Mac to the 27-inch Apple Thunderbolt Display and access its FaceTime camera, high quality audio, and Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire® 800, USB 2.0 and Thunderbolt ports. Designed specifically for Mac notebooks, the new display features an elegant, thin, aluminum and glass enclosure, and includes a MagSafe connector that charges your MacBook Pro or MacBook Air.

“The Apple Thunderbolt Display is the ultimate docking station for your Mac notebook,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing. “With just one cable, users can dock with their new display and connect to high performance peripherals, network connections and audio devices.”

All of that connectivity meant that Mac users could sit down at a desk, plug in a few cables and get right to work. There’s an old joke1 that the back of Apple’s computers look better than the front of computers made by other companies; in this case, the back of the Thunderbolt Display was more feature-packed than the front of most other displays.

Rear of Thunderbolt Display

Speaking of the front of displays, the Thunderbolt Display featured a 27-inch LCD running at 2560 by 1440 pixels, covered in glass with black bezels like the iMacs of its time. Above the display was a FaceTime camera running at 720p, and a 2.1 speaker system eliminated the need for external speakers.

All of this was just $999, which seems like an absolute steal given Apple’s current display prices.

Back in 2011, I was working in IT full-time, and was able to pick one of these up for my desk. I paired it with a 15-inch MacBook Pro for years, and it was a great setup.

Despite being announced a year before the first Retina MacBook Pro, the 109 ppi resolution felt old pretty quickly, especially after the iMac 5K arrived in 2014. The Thunderbolt Display hung on until 2016, when it was discontinued with a press statement:

“We’re discontinuing the Apple Thunderbolt Display. It will be available through, Apple’s retail stores and Apple Authorized Resellers while supplies last. There are a number of great third-party options available for Mac users,” said an Apple spokesperson.

Today, the Studio Display serves as Apple’s mainstream display, and Thunderbolt has finally delivered on the notebook/desktop setup promises that the Thunderbolt Display made. I can sit my 14-inch MacBook on its stand, plug in one cable and be off to the races. It feels like the future, even if that future started 12 years ago.

  1. This joke was made when the iMac was introduced in 1998, and then became a bit of a meme in keynotes for years.