The current $999 (!) Thunderbolt Display is showing its age to put it mildly, now significantly overshadowed by Retina MacBooks and iMacs in terms of screen resolution and quality. Reaffirming earlier reports, we have heard that stock of the Thunderbolt Display at Apple Stores is quickly running out with no indications of more units on the way to replenish availability. This is often a good indicator that a refresh is imminent. We are led to believe that WWDC will be very light on new hardware. However, given the opportunity for cheers in the audience, perhaps Apple could announce the new display at the keynote with a release pencilled in for later in the year.
Independently, we have heard some rumblings about what the new display might offer. Finally bringing it up to speed with its Retina display Mac cousins, the new ‘Thunderbolt Display’ will likely feature a 5K resolution display 5120×2880 pixels. Moreover, sources indicate that Apple will take the display in a surprising direction, specifically suggesting that Apple plans to integrate a dedicated external GPU into the display itself …
At first, the idea of Apple including a GPU in the external display may sound crazy. Our sources explain that the reason for it is primarily for compatibility with as many future Macs as possible. Due to the immense graphics needs required to push 5K worth of pixels, normal super high-resolution displays require connected computers to include significantly powerful GPUs.
As Apple wants to keep making MacBooks as thin and light as possible, which typically cannot include powerful GPUs by nature, the company has been exploring ways to introduce a 5K display that can be relevant with a wider Mac lineup — it wants to be able to release thin and light MacBooks and MacBook Pros that all work with its 5K external display.
Apparently, Apple has settled on a solution: to include a powerful GPU inside the display itself, rather than relying solely on the graphics power of the connected Mac.
Technology within updates to OS X (MacOS 10.12?) software will enable the process to happen seamlessly and automatically. Upon connection to the new Apple Display, the Mac will intelligently decide whether to use its own internal graphics power or rely on the external GPU included with the Thunderbolt display; the more powerful GPU will be used while the less powerful GPU will be inactive. From what we understand, the GPU will not be able to work in concert with the internal GPU at all — it’s one or the other.
The details on how the new Apple Display connects to a Mac is not clear, but it will almost certainly require the purchase of a new Mac to use the display at full 5K resolution. Connection via a USB-C port over Thunderbolt 3 is the most likely solution. It is doubtful that the current Retina MacBook will be able to take advantage of the display-integrated GPU due to the lack of sufficiently-capable ports. The new Apple Display would be backwards compatible with existing Macs at standard resolutions.
Aside from the GPU, sources indicate that the panel will be very similar to the display that ships in the Retina iMac. This means the display will likely feature the same DCI P3 color gamut for industry-leading color reproduction and vibrancy. The physical appearance of the Thunderbolt display is almost certainly going to have change to accommodate the new internals but we could not source more information on the new appearance.
When Apple plans to unveil the radical new Thunderbolt Display is not known. Although it will be the successor to the current Thunderbolt Display, there is a possibility Apple will change the name to no longer include the word ‘Thunderbolt’ if appropriate. Developers and creative professionals have been longing for an update to Apple’s external display — an update is due. With Apple Stores running out of stock of the current model right now, a launch at WWDC seems like a good bet.
An unveiling during the keynote would be a huge crowd pleaser. Another possible strategy is that Apple may want to release the display alongside Mac software updates and the revamped MacBook Pro line which are slated to be launched sometime in the fall.
Zac Hall and I discussed Apple’s new 5K display on the Happy Hour podcast, so listen in for some additional analysis (go to 28:55 for the Thunderbolt Display discussion). Stay tuned to 9to5Mac for more WWDC coverage as it breaks — Apple will unveil the next-generation software operating systems of iOS, OS X, tvOS and watchOS in just under two weeks time.