Thunderbold and MiniDisplay Mac Compatibility 101


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I have a MacBook Air 2010 model with the mini display port.  At the office we recently ordered an iMac with the thunderbolt port.  On occasion, I want to use my MacBook Air at the office so I was exploring the option of using the iMac 27 as an external monitor via the thunderbolt port.

The latest macs, both the 2009-2010 models using mini display ports as well as the 2011 using the thunderbolt ports support a feature referred to as “Target Display Mode”.  In essence, when properly cabled with either of the two cables, hitting Command/F2 will enable it.

The main question is, what are all the possible combinations?  Meaning, here I am with a mini display port MacBook Air and an thunderbolt iMac 27″, do they communicate?  Turns out no, a mini display port cannot target a thunderbolt machine (or monitor) as a target display.   So a little frustrated, I went to them Apple store to sort things out and the Apple employee was super friendly on testing all the combinations with a new thunderbolt MacBook Air and cables I had just bought.  Here are the results:

Source Destination Cable Used Result Destination iSight Camera works
MBA Mini Display Cinema Display (Mini Display) Integrated Mini Display Cable Worked Fine Yes
MBA Thunderbolt Cinema Display (Mini Display) Integrated Mini Display Cable Worked Fine Yes
MBA Mini Display iMac 27″ Mini Display Mini Display Cable  Worked Fine No, MBA prevails
MBA Mini Display iMac 27″ Mini Display Thunderbolt Cable Did Not Work NA
MBA Mini Display iMac 27″ Thunderbolt Mini Display Cable Did Not Work NA
MBA Mini Display iMac 27″ Thunderbolt Thunderbolt Cable Did Not Work NA
MBA Thunderbolt iMac 27″ Mini Display Mini Display Cable Worked Fine MBA Prevails
MBA Thunderbolt iMac 27″ Mini Display Thunderbolt Cable Did Not Work NA
MBA Thunderbolt iMac 27″ Thunderbolt Mini Display Cable Did Not Work NA
MBA Thunderbolt iMac 27″ Thunderbolt Thunderbolt Cable  Worked Fine NO, MBA Prevails

One thing to note, when using target display mode and mirroring, the resolution will default to the lowest resolution device. In my case, I had a MacBook Air resolution displayed on the iMac 27 which didn’t look great for extended reading. There are two ways to achieve target display native resolution. One way is to close the MacBookAir and tap on the mouse to wake it up. When it wakes up, it will adjust to the target display resolution. With the Thunderbolt MBA, you will need to have the magsafe power plugged in. I am not sure if this is required also for the Minidisplay MBA.

The second way entails setting up a second monitor side by side (uncheck mirroring). The problem here is, if you want to ignore the MBA’s monitor and solely use the target display, the dock and menu bar are annoyingly on the MBA monitor making it very cumbersome to work. We accidentally came across a nifty solution by trying out various options. We discovered, just like you can move the orientation of the second monitor, you can move around the menu strip too. So while viewing the monitor orientation window, click and drag the little white strip above one of the monitors and drag it to the other. This in essence moves the doc and menu over to the target display monitor. At this point, you can either dim the brightness of the MBA and you are all set to go.

If this helped you out with your purchase decision and or saved you hours of trial and error them I’m delighted as I was able to help you. Unfortunately, I went through the process of buying various cables (including the $50 thunderbolt cable) as well as the thunderbolt MacBook Air (was going to anyways). If it’s in you, a basic donation would help cover some of the costs for this experiment. Thanks!

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7 Responses to “Thunderbold and MiniDisplay Mac Compatibility 101”

  1. thedimka Says:

    A big question on my mind:
    Is it possible to create an adapter that will let me use my mac with displayport to connect to thunderbold monitor (or iMac)?
    It is sad that this does not work out of the box, and you chart confirms, but I hope that at lease a 3rd party solution is possible and someone will be selling it. Have you seen anything like that?

    • Michael Olivero Says:

      I’m hopeful, there is not technical reason why not and this converter will be a high demand item because many devices connect via mini displayport. Kanex has posted on various forms about creating such adaptor I believe.

  2. Vorst Says:

    Great or not great but you have confirmed my fear. My new iMac 2011 can not be used as target display with my MPA 11 displayport. Too bad. Thanks for the review.

    • Michael Olivero Says:

      >Your combination is the ideal from what I’m seeing. Mini display
      >port iMac 27″ in target display mode will work everywhere, even
      >while in bootcamp

      Don’t give up hope, there are many in that situation and there is also hope for a solution, particularly an adaptor which plugs into a thunderbolt port making it appear as a mini display port to all who connect to it.

  3. Michael LoBianco Says:

    I might I am a bit slow, so please help me understand. I have a Macbook Air 2010.

    Can I hook up to the Cinema 27″ Thunderbolt Monitor to the displayport and get video?

    If so, what features will work? Will the Camera and speakers not work because the Macbook 2010 does not have thunderbolt support and only video?

    Please explain, I am trying to figure out if I can purchase a Thunderbolt display and use it until I eventually purchase computers that have thunderbolt. I also have a mac mini 2009. I would prefer not to purchase the regular cinema display due to the cost factor and get the newer technology so I can use it for sometime. Thx

    • Michael Olivero Says:

      Your Mini DisplayPort macs do not work with the Thunderbolt Display — at least not as of this post. Your best bet is to get the Cinema Display with MiniDisplay Port. This is not out dated and will be most compatible with your existing machines and any other device which can convert to display port. With the Display port, you’ll be able to get sound and video from your macbook air. In the future, when say you upgrade to Thunderbolt mac, you can continue to use your cinema display just like before. By then, there will be thunderbolt hubs you can put in-between the mac and the display which will give you the same ports the thunderbolt has today.

  4. Nicolas Says:

    You just made my day!
    I’ve been looking for the info for such a long time!

    After that review I’m ready to buy the new MBA thunderbolt and connect it to my iMac 27′ i7 (mini Display). I was really scared that it did not work and in that case I was ready to buy a refurb MBA with mini Display in order to connect it to my iMac.

    Many many thanks!

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