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Thunderbolt monitor delivers a higher-than-high def experience

Apple's Thunderbolt Display takes its name from Intel’s new input/output technology, Thunderbolt, which promises data transfer speeds up to 20 times quicker than USB 2.0.

Apple's new Thunderbolt Display, successor to the Cupertino, CA company's successful Cinema Display, is nothing if not a treat for aesthetically-minded gear hounds.

A 27-inch, 11-kilogram behemoth, it has a gorgeous glass front that stretches seamlessly from edge to edge. The sides and back are covered by Apple's signature brushed aluminum casing, the attractively smooth surface is pocked only by a sextet of ports: three powered USB 2.0, one FireWire 800, one Gigabit Ethernet and one Thunderbolt. Speaker grates are hidden under the front edge, and a FaceTime HD camera, mic, and ambient light sensor are concealed in the top bezel. A power cord and a two-ended Thunderbolt/MagSafe cable feed out from the back.

The panel is supported by the same, elegant flat-foot stand used for Apple's Cinema Display, which is still surprisingly sturdy. Short of clumsily falling against it with the entire weight of your body, the chances of accidentally toppling the display are remote.

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However, its stability comes at a price: A lack of height, swivel, and rotation adjustments. Apart from a hidden hinge that lets it tilt up and down a few degrees, the screen is pretty much locked in place. The smooth base makes it fairly easy to push left or right, but that's not an ideal solution.

I also noticed that the bottom corners of the display were fiery hot to touch when running at maximum brightness. Of course, aside from viewing angle adjustments and occasional cable insertions, there really is no need to touch the monitor; display settings are handled via software rather than physical keys. Still, all that heat suggests the display won't go easy on your power bill.

Paying a few dollars more for energy might be worth it: I fell in love with the Thunderbolt's picture from the moment I powered it on. The glossy, backlit LED panel with in-plane switching (IPS) delivers a higher-than-high-def 2560-by-1440-pixel resolution complemented by gratifyingly deep blacks and colours that pop with intensity.

It does wonders for still images, making my old family photos seem new and vibrant. I even found myself getting lost staring at spectacularly high-resolution shots of planets and moons in the background of the space theme I use for my Gmail account.

HD video, meanwhile, is gloriously cinematic in presentation. I've never been one to watch movies on a computer, but I couldn't take my eyes off the screen after cuing up a downloaded copy of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek. The space scenes appeared theatre-worthy on the Thunderbolt, it's just a shame that MacBooks don't have Blu-ray players.

The built-in 2.1 speaker system won't convince audiophiles to abandon their external systems, but it suffices for casual listening. Thanks largely to an integrated subwoofer – which adds just a bit bottom-end punch – sound quality is much better than that of most laptops and certainly adequate for background music while working.

As savvy readers no doubt already know, Apple's display takes its name from Intel's new input/output technology, Thunderbolt, which promises data transfer speeds up to 20 times quicker than USB 2.0.

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Some of the tech's perks aren't exactly geared for a mainstream audience. You can, for example, daisy chain half a dozen displays together, connecting them all to your computer via a single Thunderbolt port. As I had only one Thunderbolt Display, I wasn't able to test this function.

However, Thunderbolt does offer benefits that just about any computer user can appreciate, such as much speedier rates for transferring data between MacBooks and Thunderbolt-equipped external hard drives.

Plus, the fatter, dual-channel Thunderbolt pipe means that a single cable connecting the screen to your MacBook can carry not just the monitor signal but also data for any peripherals connected to the half-dozen ports on the back of the display. The upshot: Mobile workers need plug in just a single cord when they get home.

The current pool of potential Thunderbolt Display consumers is pretty small. The screen requires either an iMac or a MacBook with a Thunderbolt port (identifiable by a tiny thunderbolt logo), and they've only been in production for the last year or so.

Also, PC users who have dipped their cables into the Apple display well in the past should note that there's no easy way to connect a Thunderbolt display to Windows computers – at least not yet. Intel's PC partners will likely roll out laptops, desktops and all-in-ones with Thunderbolt ports sometime in 2012.

Apple's Thunderbolt Display is currently available for $999, the same price as the Cinema Display it replaces.

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