Your monitor or TV probably has a range of ports on the back, so which one should you use? Before you buy any cables, make sure you understand which ones you should be using.
HDMI stands for High Definition Multimedia Interface, and it’s the most common type of digital audiovisual cable. The standard first appeared on products in 2003 and has been revised many times since, increasing bandwidth to enable higher resolutions and refresh rates.
HDMI is the go-to cable for connecting components (including PCs) to a standard television. An HDMI cable carries both video and audio plus CEC data (to control other connected devices) and Ethernet in some applications. While the standard is most common on TVs, many monitors will also have an HDMI input you can use, which is ideal for connecting game consoles to a monitor.
The latest iteration of HDMI is version 2.1a, which provides a total throughput of 48Gbps, which is enough to transport 4K resolution video at 120Hz with full high dynamic range (HDR) support. The standard can also carry an 8K resolution at 60Hz, or a 10K resolution at 30Hz. It supports variable refresh rate (VRR) technology like AMD FreeSync and NVIDIA G-SYNC, plus a native form of VRR defined by the HDMI 2.1 standard.
To use HDMI 2.1, you’ll need a TV that supports the standard on at least one of its HDMI ports and an HDMI 2.1 source like the Xbox Series X, PlayStation 5, or NVIDIA 30-series graphics card. If you don’t have an HDMI 2.1-compatible display you’ll be limited to HDMI 2.0b speeds, which caps your output at 4K resolution with 60Hz (and support for full HDR).
If you have a laptop you may find yourself stuck with a different HDMI output like mini-HDMI, which requires a specific cable but works in much the same way. If you’re in the market for cable, make sure you don’t overspend on expensive HDMI cables that offer no benefits and that you don’t fall for “fake” HDMI 2.1 cables.
When Should You Choose HDMI?
HDMI is the natural choice for TV use. Most TVs lack DisplayPort, so you’ll probably need to use HDMI if you want to display your computer on a standard TV. If you’re connecting a console, set-top box, Blu-ray player, or similar device then HDMI is what you’ll be using. HDMI has built-in support for HDCP, a form of encryption required to output copyrighted material (like movies on BluRay) to a display.
With the advent of HDMI 2.1, HDMI is a solid choice even for enthusiasts. High refresh rate gaming of 144Hz or 165Hz and more is possible over HDMI, provided you have enough bandwidth. You can use an HDMI bandwidth calculator (like Kramer Electronics’) to work out what your bandwidth requirements are and whether they fit inside the HDMI 2.0b (18Gbps) or HDMI 2.1 (48Gbps) specification.
DisplayPort is similar to HDMI in that it is a wholly digital standard for carrying audiovisual data. The key difference is that DisplayPort is more commonly found on monitors, and so has typically been the go-to choice for PC users (particularly gamers). The standard can carry video, audio, and USB data.
The current DisplayPort standard is 1.4a, with a maximum throughput of 32.4Gbps, which means a maximum resolution of 4K at 120Hz (with full HDR) or 8K at 60Hz (standard definition). DisplayPort 2.0 was finalized in 2019 and after several delays is expected to launch in 2022. It will support a total throughput of 80Gbps, enough for 16K video at 60Hz, or three 10K monitors at 60Hz using when daisy chained together.
Like the HDMI standard, DisplayPort makes use of Display Stream Compression to enable “visually lossless” compression. Unlike HDMI, DisplayPort doesn’t support HDCP which makes it unsuitable for use with devices like BluRay players, since it doesn’t meet the required encryption standards. DisplayPort supports VRR technologies like FreeSync and G-SYNC, which are popular with PC gamers.
To use DisplayPort you’ll need a source device that supports it and a monitor with a DisplayPort input. Most modern graphics cards will have DisplayPort outputs, with many lacking HDMI ports altogether. It’s rare for TVs to have a DisplayPort input, so you may find yourself needing to use a DisplayPort to HDMI adapter if you drag your TV through to the living room.
When Should You Choose DisplayPort?
DisplayPort 1.4 has roughly twice the bandwidth of HDMI 2.0b, so it’s a good choice if you want to make use of the higher bandwidth throughput. For example, a monitor with DisplayPort 1.4 and the older HDMI 2.0b standard will be able to hit higher resolutions and refresh rates (up to 4K 120Hz with HDR) if you opt for DisplayPort over the older HDMI standard.
You may find yourself reliant on DisplayPort depending on your monitor. If you have the option of using HDMI 2.1 (and you’ll need both a source and a monitor that supports it) then it might be the better choice. Whether or not you need all that additional bandwidth entirely depends on how powerful your PC is, since hitting even 4K at 120Hz in most games is still beyond the reach of many gamers.
USB-C DisplayPort and Thunderbolt
An extension of the DisplayPort standard, USB-C DisplayPort allows you to connect a notebook or tablet to a display using a single USB-C cable. This cable is also able to send power to your laptop using the USB Power Delivery (USB-PD) standard. This allows you to plug a single cable into your laptop to power it and use a second display.
The Thunderbolt standard has used the USB-C format since Thunderbolt 3. Many Thunderbolt devices, including Apple’s 2017 range and onward, support DisplayPort over USB-C and can be used with most monitors that support the standard. For best results, do some research to make sure your notebook works with any monitors you’re considering purchasing.
It’s important to note that the USB-C DP and Thunderbolt standards are separate, even though Thunderbolt devices often support the slower USB-DP standard. Thunderbolt displays, like Apple’s Studio Display, require a Thunderbolt source to use this connection via an active Thunderbolt cable.
Most monitors on the market that feature USB-C connectivity don’t use the (faster) Thunderbolt standard. If you want to use a single USB-C cable for power and display output, make sure you match the monitor’s power delivery (measured in watts) to your laptop’s power requirements.
When Should You Choose USB-C or Thunderbolt?
USB-C DisplayPort connections are convenient for notebook owners who want a single cable to do everything. USB-C DP may be limited by bandwidth, with support for an uncompressed 4K resolution at 60Hz, or 8K resolution at 60Hz using Display Stream Compression. This is usually more than enough for standard productivity and office use.
If you have the option of using Thunderbolt then it may be a better choice than USB-C DP since it provides higher bandwidth throughput (for higher resolutions, less compression, and higher refresh rates) and supports features like daisy chaining for connecting more devices to your host (notebook) using a port.
VGA, DVI, and Others
If you have older hardware, you may find yourself stuck with an older standard like VGA or DVI. VGA is an analog standard, while DVI comes in three flavors: hybrid DVI-I (both analog and digital), DVI-A (analog), and DVI-D (digital). You generally won’t need to worry about these connectors, since most devices no longer use them.
Many early high-definition TVs featured a “PC” port that used a VGA input. You’re likely to find DVI inputs on older monitors since the standard was designed to replace VGA. You can use adapters to convert VGA to HDMI or DVI to DisplayPort which can aid in getting old hardware working with modern displays.
How to Choose Between HDMI, DisplayPort, and USB-C
To choose the right ports, match your bandwidth requirements to your available connection. USB-C is a little different from the rest in that it has the benefit of providing power too, allowing you to charge your laptop while using an external display.
Unfortunately, USB-C doesn’t always play nicely with some laptops. You might be forced to rely on a slower HDMI 2.0b connection, or even have to purchase an adapter to get your monitor working at all. For more, read our full guide to choosing between HDMI, DisplayPort, and USB here.
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