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Can I use an Apple Thunderbolt monitor with a PC?

A long-term PC user, I went to Apple eight years ago. Now I need a hardware update and, frustrated by the limitations of Office 365 on Mac, I am considering switching back. Question: Can my 27in Apple Thunderbolt screen work with a PC? Paul

Generally, the answer is no, but it could be yes or maybe. Confused? Most of us are.

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Your Thunderbolt display should work with a PC with a Thunderbolt port, but I wouldn’t buy one without a guarantee that it will work. Also, it might work in the future if the widespread adoption of the new USB Type-C port makes Thunderbolt more popular. But this is not guaranteed, and it won’t be soon enough for you.

Thunderbolt is one way of connecting a computer to a monitor, but it’s not very common. The more popular options include VGA, DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort. VGA is DVI’s legacy computer standard that DisplayPort has replaced. HDMI is a licensed consumer electronics connection designed for flat-screen TVs and things that connect to them: Blu-ray players, games consoles, PCs, etc.

Monitor manufacturers usually support more than one standard to increase the chance that their screens will work with more devices, though adaptor cables can sometimes bridge the gap. In this case, unfortunately, Apple only supports Thunderbolt and nothing else.

Indeed, Apple doesn’t seem to offer a screen for users with older Macs that don’t have Thunderbolt ports. The same 27in the screen used to be available with a DisplayPort connector – it was called the Apple Cinema Display – but it was discontinued in 2011. Yes, at the time, we complained that the Cinema Display’s DisplayPort didn’t support older Macs and MacBooks either, but at least it worked – and still works – with PCs running Windows. As things stand, there’s not much incentive for Windows PC manufacturers to worry about supporting an £899 Apple monitor.

A historical interlude

Intel originally developed a thunderbolt called Light Peak, partly because it used a fiber optic cable. I first saw it working in 2010. Thunderbolt appeared the following year, in a version co-developed with Apple but running over copper wires. The PC manufacturers had rejected Light Peak because fiber optics cost too much, and Thunderbolt looked like a good compromise.

As Intel pointed out way back then, Thunderbolt wasn’t the new USB; it was the new FireWire (another connector that Apple fitted to everything, then dropped). Intel said that USB would remain the “mainstream” input/output connection for PCs, and Thunderbolt was “complementary.”

Apple had ended up making its (excellent) FireWire connection an open industry standard to get more support for it, but it failed. Presumably, Apple hoped that Intel’s backing would preclude Thunderbolt from suffering the same fate. It didn’t.

Enter USB Type-C

But that’s not the end of the story. Intel has returned to the market with USB Type-C, which uses a new reversible connector that plugs in either way up. The next version of Thunderbolt, Thunderbolt 3, will use the same USB-C connector instead of the previous miniDisplayPort.

A USB-C port is, essentially, a souped-up USB 3.1 port. However, some USB-C ports will double as Thunderbolt 3 ports, while all Thunderbolt 3 ports will work as USB 3.1 ports. It remains to be seen whether this will increase Thunderbolt’s adoption and by how much. I suspect it will still leave most consumers confused.

For example, Apple’s latest £1,049/£1,299 MacBook has a USB-C port that doesn’t support Thunderbolt, so it doesn’t work with Apple’s Thunderbolt display. I assume the next MacBook will if there is one.

Possible PCs

You could, as mentioned, buy a new PC that supports Thunderbolt and – if you are lucky – use it with your Apple Thunderbolt screen. Unfortunately, I don’t know of a reliable list of PCs that have Thunderbolt ports. However, Wikipedia has a List of Thunderbolt-compatible devices, while the Thunderbolt Technology website has a searchable database of products.

The “early adopters” include Asus – which sells Thunderbolt-capable motherboards – and Acer, Dell, HP, and Lenovo. The last three are players in the business workstation market.

At the moment, I think your best bet would be the latest models in the Dell XPS range because they all feature Type-C ports that support USB 3.1, DisplayPort 1.2, and Thunderbolt 3. I reviewed an earlier version of the Dell XPS 13 here. I also briefly looked at a pre-launch version of the XPS 15, which is arguably even better. It has the same thin-bezel “Infinity Edge” display as the XPS 13 and is remarkably thin for a laptop with a 15.6 screen. At 3.9lbs/1.78kg, it’s not much heavier than a 13.3-inch MacBook Pro (3.5lbs, 1.58kg).

In general, I’d look for something with an Intel Skylake processor and a Type-C port that supports Thunderbolt 3, but I don’t know if such a machine would work correctly with your Apple monitor. I don’t have either to try, and I have not found convincing evidence on the web.

Change the screen?

One advantage of Apple products is that they retain some resale value. Depending on its age and condition, you could probably sell your monitor privately or on eBay and make enough to buy a PC monitor that’s as good or better.

For example, you could buy a Dell UltraSharp U2715H for £384 or less. According to The Wirecutter website: “It has the best picture quality of any monitor we tested right out of the box. You can even adjust the height! It’s the monitor to get if you want a bigger picture and more workspace in Windows or OS X since its 2560 x 1440 resolution is ideal for photos, videos, and gaming.”

I haven’t seen this model myself, but I’ve used Dell monitors – including an UltraSharp model – for more than a decade and would not hesitate to recommend them.

Dell’s inputs include two HDMI ports, a DisplayPort, a mini-DisplayPort, and a USB 3 port. The outputs include another DisplayPort, five USB 3 ports, and an audio jack for speakers. It doesn’t have Thunderbolt or Type-C ports yet. Nonetheless, like most PC monitors, it will work with almost every PC or Mac on the market, including the Apple MacBook.

Buying a PC monitor will enable you to buy whichever laptop, desktop, or workstation you like. And if you decide to switch back to a Mac, a DisplayPort converter cable will enable it to work with that as well.

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