Future of Thunderbolt Monitors
November 15, 2021 5:47 AM   Subscribe

What's the near future likely to be for monitors that I can connect directly to my Macbook Pro M1 13" via Thunderbolt? There are few options now (and all way beyond my budget), but how soon can we reasonably expect that to change? Or are there complications that I don't know about that mean they'll never be more mainstream?

My eyes are absolutely killing me working on a small laptop screen all day, and I thought maybe I could find a semi-affordable 24" monitor that connected via thunderbolt, but I'm coming up empty. I'm always behind on buying tech so I just expected that there would be lots of options by now, but maybe supply chain/covid issues are causing problems with that like so many things.

I'm just curious if it would be worth it to wait a little while, and hope that semi-affordable 24-27" options pop up in the future, or if the current options are likely it for the next 6 months or so.

Also if nothing is likely to change soon, I'd be very thankful for any sub-$500 ideas for 24" or 27" thunderbolt monitors that I may have missed. What I care most about is the ability to plug and play. No HDMI adapters or messy tangles of cords. Thanks for any thoughts or ideas about this.
posted by asimplemouse to Technology (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There are several monitors that fit your budget. Several are by lesser known brands, and my guess is their color reproduction isn't top of the line, but that may not matter.

This article lists a few: https://www.imore.com/best-usb-c-monitors-mac
posted by jonathanhughes at 5:58 AM on November 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Is there something particular preventing you from using a Thunderbolt-to-HDMI converter? I've had a Thunderbolt-to-DVI cable running a 24" monitor on a 2011 Mac Mini since about 2011, and it works perfectly fine. The monitor was one that was on clearance at a local Best Buy for around $125. The cable was probably $40 at the time.
posted by jgreco at 5:59 AM on November 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

I suspect you're running into issues finding monitors because you're searching for monitors with Thunderbolt ports rather than merely USB-C ports or "DisplayPort over USB-C". Thunderbolt is a high-powered add-on to USB-C that isn't strictly necessary for the task of connecting to a typical monitor.

There are lots and lots of cheaper monitors that can connect to the M1 to display video and provide power over a single USB-C cable in a "plug and play" way just fine, but that aren't technically a Thunderbolt monitor. This one is just the first that came up in my search, but seems to tick your boxes.
posted by eschatfische at 6:10 AM on November 15, 2021 [9 favorites]

There's nothing magic about Thunderbolt. Yes it is higher bandwidth (although as I understand it, Thunderbolt 4 is the same as USB 4). In the meantime, you can buy a monitor with a USB-C port (or HDMI port, or DisplayPort…port) and get some work done. I've connected my MacBook using both DisplayPort and USB-C.

At some point, there will be a USB 4 chipset that become a de-facto standard, but with the chip shortage, I wouldn't wait.
posted by adamrice at 6:11 AM on November 15, 2021

Response by poster: Yes, you guys are correct about me being oblivious to the actual USB-C/Thunderbolt situation. I'm not used to having anything but a dying 12 year old macbook air, so I'm super out of the loop. Looks like I can expand my search and also get something cheaper. Many thanks.
posted by asimplemouse at 6:24 AM on November 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

Unless you need the super-high-data-throughput of true Thunderbolt ports on a monitor, you're better off just getting the best monitor you can with different ports (DisplayPort would be my first choice, but HDMI is probably fine, too) and a cable that has different ends, such as a Thunderbolt/USB-C to Displayport or Thunderbolt/USB-C to HDMI. I have a cable like the first one I linked for connecting my M1 Mac Mini to my Dell Ultrasharp monitor and it works great.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:44 AM on November 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

I use one of these -- it's a hub with USB-A and HDMI ports and an SD card reader, and isn't much more expensive than a single-port adapter. With HDMI you can use pretty much any monitor you want.
posted by irrelephant at 6:59 AM on November 15, 2021

Seconding Betelgeuse - I have several fancy dell monitors and have found them to be a reliable and no fuss way to getting a decent solution for my macs.
posted by zenon at 7:07 AM on November 15, 2021

You absolutely want a USB-C monitor. Anyone who is recommending a docking port or HDMI or DisplayPort has never used the wonder that is the single-cable docking of a USB-C monitor.

Plug your laptop into the monitor with a USB-C cable, and your laptop will charge from the monitor, and plug a keyboard and mouse into the monitor and your laptop will use that keyboard and mouse. It's life changing.

USB-C is not optional. Get USB-C.
posted by bowbeacon at 7:18 AM on November 15, 2021 [7 favorites]

To expand on this whole thing, Thunderbolt 3 uses the USB-C connector, but is a super-set of USB-C itself - you can think of it as USB-C plus some extra stuff. (Technically, I believe it's a USB-C Alternate Mode partner specification.)

With a Thunderbolt 3 port and Thunderbolt cable, you can connect DisplayPort, PCIe and Thunderbolt devices, and provide power. Thunderbolt 3 ports also support DisplayPort over USB-C, so you can do DisplayPort, USB and power without having a Thunderbolt device on the other end.

For the best experience, you're looking for is a monitor that
  • provides USB-C power delivery of 61W or greater, so you can power your laptop over the single cable
  • Has DisplayPort*. Apple is remarkably non-specific as to which version of DisplayPort the MBP 13 2020 would prefer. I think TB3 started with DP 1.2, but I think it won't hurt to have a monitor that understands DP 1.4.
* I'm pretty sure it's near-impossible to get a USB-C monitor that doesn't have DP, since the HDMI USB Type-C spec is this weird looking thing.
posted by zamboni at 10:08 AM on November 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

There are a few technologies where spending more has always the best option for me.

Monitors is one.

I've been using "Apple's" 5K monitor ( the LG thunderbolt 27" 5k), and I have never once regretted spending the extra $.

I'm likely to have this monitor for 5 years, so it's costing me well under $1.00 per day.

What is your eyesight, sanity, work productivity, etc worth?
posted by soylent00FF00 at 1:39 PM on November 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

LG do a 24” 3840x2160 screens, approaching the retina pixel density of your device.

Also, pay attention to the brightness and contrast levels on that screen, and set it up on a stand so it's not killing your wrists and neck. Move around frequently so the rest of your body, not just your eyes get a break.
posted by k3ninho at 2:05 PM on November 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

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