Apple’s 27″ Thunderbolt display is a pain in the ass. A beautiful, impressive, pain in the ass.
My current work setup
My current work setup involves a 13″ MacBook Pro attached to said 27″ Thunderbolt Display. I’ve owned two displays from Apple over the years, not counting a couple of iMacs before I switched to laptops. The former Cinema Displays were really great. But with Apple’s switch to Thunderbolt connections, the displays are worse.
I’ve had my current display since they came out a few years ago. But the thing is a horrible USB/connection hub and an increasingly worse display in the age of increasing Retina display devices.
I’ve had several MacBook Airs and now a MacBook Pro attached to this thing and half the time the connected peripherals, like external hard drives, never show up. I rarely get sound to come back through the display’s speakers when I restart or plugin. It’s so bad I rarely take my laptop with me anywhere for fear that it’ll take 30 restarts and a religious sacrifice to get the audio to work again. Plugging it just makes the display come on with a visual, but nothing else works.
It’s not just me, and it’s not just this display. I’ve tried this at Apple Stores, I’ve tried this on a handful of other Thunderbolt Displays in offices I’ve worked in. Other MacBooks — both Pros and Airs — have similar problems on those displays.
Apple’s support forums are an explosion of complaints about these issues: hard drives don’t connect because the USB ports just drop off, audio doesn’t work, or the case of my latest MacBook Pro, the screen just disconnects after it goes to sleep. Waking the MacBook back up just results in a laptop on as if there’s no display connected at all.
Solved by unplugging and sacrificing a goat
So what’s a guy to do? I find that nothing helps. Restarting doesn’t work most of the time, nor does plugging or unplugging things. I’ve tried different combinations of restarting and shutting down, with and without the cables plugged in and with and without peripherals plugged in. I’ve done everything from resetting the PRAM on MacBooks to unplugging the whole display from the electrical outlet. The most successful thing when restarting half a dozen times doesn’t work is to unplug the display from the wall, wait 30 seconds, plug it back in, and reconnect everything.
What really puts a bee in my bonnet is that it’s so bad it prevents me from taking my laptop with me to the couch or Starbucks or the library. And because I’m currently giving a 13″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display a run, looking at that and then going to the display side-by-side makes me dizzy and induces a headache after any length of work.
I’m switching to a 15″ MacBook Pro without an external display
So that’s why I ordered a 15″ MacBook Pro. I found a refurbished model from Apple for $400 off the $2000 price tag, which puts it in spitting distance of the 13″ Pro’s price that I have now.
I want to see if I can do my job using nothing but the 15″ Retina MacBook Pro. I can’t find anyone on the Internet who has written about this very process. What I want to know is: Can I use only a 15″ MacBook Pro and not miss my Thunderbolt Display?
Honestly, I don’t know yet but will no doubt follow up later. I know I couldn’t do my job with a 13″. The only reason I think this is possible is because if you turn the Retina setting off on the display, you really can cram a lot pixels on the screen, and at the right distance on a desk, it rivals the number of pixels on the non-retina Thunderbolt Display. Aside from maybe wanting some external speakers, I think it can work. I’ll know more Thursday when UPS arrives with the new MacBook Pro. At which point this 13″ Pro could be going back to the store while it’s still in its 14 day return window. Plus, I’m pretty excited about testing SimCity on it after having played it on a MacBook Air and a 13″ MacBook Pro and knowing how it runs (poorly, if you couldn’t assume that).
The upshot of this is huge to me: I’d have one unified device. I’d have a more powerful computer. After selling the display on eBay, I could profit as much as $500 over the current setup. I’d be more inclined to work away from my desk and be more mobile. I’d have a better system for playing Sim City 4, too (which is about the only real game I play).
I really want it to work. But I’m not insane. I spend my day working in Photoshop, Illustrator, staring at TextMate and other code editors working on websites all day. I write a lot — blog posts, letters, emails, memos, reports. For some things, I might enjoy the ability to switch between Retina resolution and not, depending on the job. It sounds like a better setup, but if I can’t handle reading things easily or the pixels are too smashed together, I’ll ditch it and go back to the 13″ Pro and keep my Thunderbolt Display.
I’ll just have to keep jiggling cords and hoping it works if I do.