Apple’s Thunderbolt Display is the worst Apple product I’ve ever owned

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.

Widespread problems

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.

About the author

Justin Harter

18 Comments

  • Justin, I must be very lucky.
    I have two Thunderbolt displays daisy chained to my late 2017 17″ Macbook Pro. I have many different peripherals constantly attached via usb. These include a usb audio adapter for a headset with mini jacks, a Logitech web cam, and most of the time at least three usb drives.
    Never a glitch or a dropout from anything.

    I wish you the best of luck in the future.

  • Hey Justin.

    Could it be that you’re connecting a non-Thunderbolt enabled Macbook Pro to the Thunderbolt display? The mini Display Port is physically identical to the Thunderbolt port but it’s not compatible with Thunderbolt devices.

    The Thunderbolt display specifications state that it’s only compatible with Thunderbolt-enabled Macs, and all the things you’re describing are the expected symptoms of connecting and old Macbook to a Thunderbolt display, which means you’re better off with a Cinema Display…

    Take a look at this:
    http://www.cnet.com/news/confusing-mini-displayport-with-thunderbolt/
    http://superuser.com/questions/452177/using-a-thunderbolt-display-with-a-mini-displayport-mac
    http://arstechnica.com/apple/2011/09/apples-thunderbolt-display-doesnt-play-nice-with-mini-displayport/

  • Its because you have a macbook from the future and 2017 TB 4 is not backwards compatible with the older but current TB 2. Not to mention Apple is just beta testing on the customers is all.

    Best of luck though as that sucks, make apple replace the monitors!

  • Same problem here. Almost everytime after my macbook has gone to sleep I have to unplug and reattach my thunderbolt display. Most annoying is that I usually charge my phone/ipad through a usb-port of the screen and they stop charging. So it’s someway of a lottery in the mornings, is my phone charged or not

  • Use a Cinema display : exactly same shape as the Thunderbort display but WITHOUT Thunderbolt, but a normal mini display plug and a USB. apple had rolled them out before then upgrading them with Thunderbolt wires. You can plug the Mini display plug of the Cinema Display into the thunderbolt of your Macbook. (same shape). Thunderbolts recognise mini display plugs. (the other way around would not work).

    As a matter of fact I own a cinema display (as I said EXACTLY same shape , resolution and size as the thunderbolt display but still using mini-display plugs) and works perfectly. I bought a second display which was a thunderbolt display and and encountered all the problems you mentioned.

    So try to find a second hand Cinema display to use until Apple rolls out a New Thunderbolt Display

    The only issue is you will not be able to daisy chain a cinema display and a Thunderbolt display.

  • Hi Justin,

    I found this site by searching “thunderbolt display usb sucks” after my Apple USB keyboard refused to work when plugged in my TBD. I used to love the 30″ Cinema Display…

    I had a particularly torturous experience; keeping my Time Machine drive plugged into the TBD. The drive remained powered and constantly spinning even when the TBD wasn’t connected to a computer, decreasing its life and wasting electricity, but the worst part was that every couple weeks my backups would fail with an error, “the backup drive isn’t readable”. The driving was experiencing massive data corruption every couple weeks. After several reformats and reoccurrence of the corruption, I started plugging it into my MBP instead, and I haven’t had a single problem (with the Time Machine backup drive) in over a year.

    Indeed, I wish Apple would address these issues. It’s not like a TBD is a cheap gadget…

    In responce to your question about using only the MBP’s 15″ screen; it sucks. Screen size is like oxygen content in the air; if you move from Denver to Seattle, you don’t feel a surge of energy due to all the “extra” oxygen, but when you go back to Denver after living in Seattle for a year, you absolutely feel the lack of oxygen. Same with screens; you don’t realize how great the extra screen space is until you go back to a smaller screen, then you begin to suffocate.

    Get a Cinema display, like I did in a million alternate universes where I’m smarter than I am in our universe… It’s not our fault though; the prospect of turning your MBP into a desktop with one little cord was too attractive to pass up!

  • I use a thunderbolt display with my Mac Mini. Worst hookup ever. Trying to boot into recovery mode? Forget it.

    I honestly think a class action lawsuit is a valid way to go. It’s a $1,000 piece of shit.

  • I found this while searching for why my TB display will not power up on my APC but will when plugged into the wall. It’s 4 months out of Applecare and this just started. Seems like a known issue likely with the power supply.
    Apparently, Apple is working on a firmware update but no firmware will fix a bad power supply issue. Deja vu. This is the cinema display power issues all over again.

  • I’ve had a retina 13 plugged with a TBD since almost a year. I’ve had zero problems until i swapped a couple of weeks ago my 10.8 system with a yosemite 10.10.3 upgrade. It all appeared at once as you described. No sound, no brightness control and no usb power. Only solution to get it back is to unplug the thunderbolt cable and power the screen off , then relaunch power and plug the cable back.

    there must be something with the software that causes this. I’m stuck now coz my laptop screen is broken so I can’t even downgrade the system…

    also, if you guys ever get the lovely new 15″ retina (which i highly recommend, a beautiful and powerful piece…) don’t ever plug it into the TBD power chord. It will screw your battery (i’m still weeping on mine! – a bloody 3000$ investment)

  • I have 1st gen TB Display. Worked like a charm for 3 years, then problems started to appear. Not like your problems, but far worse.

    Display would go to sleep, but then it wouldn’t start at all. I had to disconnect it from the power supply, wait a couple of minutes and then reconnect it. It worked like that for a year maybe, but then all of a sudden, it stopped working completely.

    I can hear audio, my MBP recognizes USB HDD connected to the TBD, but no video, no picture what so ever. Found a huge topic on apple forums about this. Looks like it happens a lot!

    I don’t have access to Apple Store, since my country doesn’t have one. But I’ve payed over a 1000€ for my TBD. And this is the last display from Apple I will ever buy. I’ve tried contacting them via email, via phone… But to no success. Only phone number I can contact apple from my country (Croatia) is sales phone. But support? Nahh…

    So all they want to do is sell me some more crap? Thanks Apple, but this is all the crap from you I (and my budget) can take.

    • I am having the same problem that you were having. What did you end up doing? I have an appointment at the apple store tomorrow and I am hoping that they can fix it without costing me too such.
      Thanks!
      Chloe

  • Hi,

    My complaint ain’t so much about the thunderbolt display, it’s more about the thunderbolt technology with apple products.

    It doesn’t matter what I use as a hub, if it’s a Belkin THUNDERBOLT dock or if it is the thunderbolt display or any other thunderbolt peripheral, they all act like described in this article, new updates, new firmware it never seems to redeem the problem.

    To me it seems that thunderbolt was put to use to early, reminded me a lot of the early firewire connectivity problems. Let’s hope they havnt done the same mistake with the new USB c connection.

    Disclaimer: I have no experience using thunderbolt on other platforms or devices so I dunno if this is an actual thunderbolt or apple problem. My guess is that is a little of both

    Cheers

  • Interesting, I have a late 2013 15′ Macbook Pro Retina hooked to a Thunderbolt Display and have had very little of the problems you’ve mentioned with yours.

    I use the display as a Thunderbolt & USB hug for a Drobo, a Wacom tablet, and some external hard-drives, never a drop off, never a problem. Very occasionally in certain programs the audio will default to the quieter Macbook Pro speaker instead of the louder Thunderbolt Display speakers (usually when making Skype calls) and I have to go in the program preferences to manually switch them, but that’s the extent of my issues. I hate to be an Apple Acolyte, but mine “just works.” In fact, my experience has been so consistently good that I would absolutely buy mine again and would accept no substitutes.

  • I’ve been having the same issue described. I have a 2015 13″ macbook pro retina and a 15″ 2013 macbook pro retina and the same thing happens for both.

    I’ve been working from my home office more and it’s driving me insane. I’ve looked at tons of forums, posts etc. and this most accurately describes the issue and solution I’ve come up with so far.

    The TB goes works fine for a while, not a consistent length of time, and then will randomly just disconnect and go blank. The only thing that seems to work is to unplug from the wall for 30s-1minute and plug back in. That works about 90% of the time.

    For some reason, 10% of the time it will not work. When that doesn’t work, I’ve plugged it into a different power source and it works. I’ve got other items plugged into both power sources that remained on and working fine. This is crazy.

    Is it as simple as problem in the power cord? Maybe some safety feature that deals with power surges that’s over sensitive? It doesn’t seem good to keep plugging and unplugging a monitor.

  • Whoever at Apple Decided to make a monitor with no power button deserves a swift kick in the ass. This thing is riddled with problems. I wasted damn near $1K buying this PoS. Doesn’t start start up after disconnecting or when shutting down, have to follow 18 steps that only sometimes work to get it going, this is a nightmare. I wish there was so sort of class action suit over this thing