USB-C vs. HDMI vs. Dis­playPort

Maximum PC - - QUICKSTART -

DVI is pretty much dead. VGA ports are but a dis­tant me­mory. Wel­come to 2018, and the age of the mod­ern dig­i­tal video con­nec­tion, where HDMI and Dis­playPort rule, the lat­ter in the form of both ded­i­cated Dis­playPort sock­ets and cour­tesy of an al­ter­nate mode via the neat lit­tle USB-C con­nec­tor. But how do th­ese cut­ting-edge video in­ter­faces com­pare? Does it mat­ter whether you’re gam­ing or ham­mer­ing through spread­sheets? Let bat­tle com­mence.

ROUND 1

Band­width

In this age of ever higher res­o­lu­tions, color depths, dy­namic ranges, and re­fresh rates, the most im­por­tant met­ric for any dig­i­tal dis­play in­ter­face is band­width. In­trigu­ingly, it’s a mov­ing tar­get. To­day, 2K dis­plays with 144Hz re­fresh are be­com­ing more pop­u­lar. To­mor­row, it will be 4K, then in a few years, 8K and plenty of Hz. This also ap­plies to the in­ter­faces. HDMI first ap­peared in 2002, and sup­ported up to 3.96Gb/s of raw data, and a max­i­mum res­o­lu­tion of 1920x1200 at 60Hz. To­day, the HDMI stan­dard in avail­able de­vices is at 2.0b spec, de­liv­ers 18Gb/s, and maxes out at 3840x2160 at 60Hz. HDMI 2.1 in­creases that hugely to 48Gb/s, but has yet to ap­pear in ship­ping de­vices. The sit­u­a­tion with Dis­playPort is more com­pli­cated. Ver­sion 1.4 is the lat­est spec you’ll find, and en­ables a max­i­mum to­tal band­width of 32.4Gb/s. How­ever, by way of ex­am­ple, while Nvidia’s GeForce 10 graph­ics chipsets sup­port DP1.4, it’s not im­ple­mented in all boards. For some, it can be en­abled in a firmware up­date. Sim­i­lar un­cer­tainty ap­plies to USB-C, which varies ac­cord­ing to the un­der­ly­ing Dis­playPort im­ple­men­ta­tion.

Win­ner: Dis­playPort and USB-C, but

check your ver­sion

ROUND 2

Fea­tures and Ease of Use

We’ll drop the sus­pense on this one, and de­clare the un­am­bigu­ous win­ner: USB-C, of course. It takes ev­ery­thing Dis­playPort can do up to ver­sion 1.4, and adds a whole slew of funky ad­di­tional func­tion­al­ity. Firstly, it adds plain old USB data trans­mis­sion, so you can use a sin­gle cable for video sig­nals, and to drive a USB hub on your mon­i­tor. It also adds power, and crit­i­cally in the down­stream di­rec­tion. That means you can use a sin­gle cable from a lap­top to a mon­i­tor to have the former drive the video sig­nal to the lat­ter, and have the lat­ter charge the former. Clever! It’s also worth not­ing that USB-C is en­tirely re­versible. You don’t have to fum­ble around the back of a PC or dis­play try­ing to ori­ent the end of the cable cor­rectly. It works both ways. As for the con­test be­tween Dis­playPort and HDMI, it’s prob­a­bly a dead heat. Both sup­port au­dio and video si­mul­ta­ne­ously. HDMI has the edge in terms of com­mon­al­ity—it’s the in­ter­face of choice for con­sumer video prod­ucts—while Dis­playPort takes the prize for flex­i­bil­ity, thanks to its sup­port for daisy­chain­ing mul­ti­ple dis­plays from a sin­gle out­put source socket (some­thing USB-C also of­fers).

Win­ner: USB-C, eas­ily

ROUND 3

Gam­ing

So, you game a lot. But does it mat­ter what video con­nec­tion in­ter­face you use? That de­pends, mostly, on your dis­play. If you have a pretty ba­sic mon­i­tor with 60Hz re­fresh, mod­est na­tive res­o­lu­tion, and noth­ing by way of fea­tures such as adap­tive sync, it makes lit­tle dif­fer­ence. If you want to drive a VR head­set with a sin­gle cable for power, video, au­dio, and con­trol in­put, there’s only one op­tion: USB-C. In the mid­dle, Dis­playPort tends to be the best op­tion for gamers, be­cause of the greater band­width from Dis­playPort 1.4. If you have, for in­stance, a 1440p mon­i­tor at 144Hz, both HDMI 2.0 and Dis­playPort 1.4 have you cov­ered. Up to 4K and 144Hz, how­ever, only Dis­playPort 1.4 will get the job done. Then there’s adap­tive sync and vari­able re­fresh rates. That in­cludes Nvidia’s G-Sync tech and AMD’s sim­pler FreeSync. For now, Dis­playPort is re­quired to ac­cess th­ese fea­tures, and thus im­prove the smooth­ness of your gam­ing, even at lower frame rates, while elim­i­nat­ing screen tear­ing. How­ever, the up­com­ing HDMI 2.1 in­cludes sup­port for the VESA vari­able re­fresh rate stan­dard.

Win­ner: USB-C for VR, Dis­playPort is

OK for ev­ery­thing else

ROUND 4

Pro­duc­tiv­ity

Get­ting things done makes dif­fer­ent de­mands on your PC from gam­ing. So, what’s best for con­tent cre­ation, work, and gen­er­ally mak­ing things hap­pen? In part, that de­pends on your bud­get. Larger screens with higher res­o­lu­tions and greater dy­namic range re­quire more band­width, for in­stance. Right now, any­thing beyond 4K re­mains pretty niche. On the other hand, fu­ture-proof­ing is worth­while, even if you can’t af­ford the lat­est $3,000 8K dis­play. If you’re buy­ing a new PC, some­thing with a graph­ics sub­sys­tem that sup­ports 5K-plus is worth­while. Af­ter all, 4K mon­i­tors went from ex­otic to fairly af­ford­able in just a few years. The same will prob­a­bly hap­pen with 8K within five years. To­day, that means Dis­playPort or USB-C, but with the caveat that you need to check what ver­sion of Dis­playPort is sup­ported in each case. DP1.4 is what you want to en­sure sup­port for fu­ture high-res dis­plays. Of the two, USB-C has the edge. It gives the full Dis­playPort ex­pe­ri­ence, and adds USB func­tion­al­ity, plus the abil­ity to charge and drive a dis­play, all with a sin­gle cable. That’s a ma­jor ben­e­fit when it comes to keep­ing work ar­eas tidy. Win­ner:

USB-C

ROUND 5

HDR

High dy­namic range, or HDR, is the lat­est and hottest dis­play tech. It also makes very par­tic­u­lar de­mands of your dis­play sub­sys­tem. The HDR10 stan­dard in­cludes 10-bit per chan­nel color, so re­quires 25 per­cent more band­width than con­ven­tional 8-bit color. HDMI 2.0b does sup­port HDR, but only up to 4K and 50Hz. For 4K at 60Hz over HDMI 2.0b, the chroma sub­sam­pling must be re­duced slightly to re­duce the band­width, which means you’re not get­ting the full range of col­ors. HDMI 2.1 will de­liver the full HDR10 ex­pe­ri­ence at 4K and 144Hz, or higher res­o­lu­tions with lower re­fresh rates, but HDMI 2.1 de­vices aren’t quite here yet. As for Dis­playPort (and USB-C), HDR sup­port was added with ver­sion 1.4. That sup­ports HDR at 8K and 60Hz us­ing “vis­ually loss­less” Dis­play Stream Com­pres­sion, or HDR at 4K and 60Hz with­out any com­pres­sion or chroma sub­sam­ple re­duc­tion. So, as it stands, the cur­rent best Dis­playPort im­ple­men­ta­tion is su­pe­rior to HDMI for HDR. The catch is that no new Dis­playPort stan­dard has been an­nounced, while HDMI 2.1 will out­strip Dis­playPort 1.4.

Win­ner: Dis­playPort and USB-C now,

HDMI later this year

Left: USB- C takes the best of Dis­playPort and adds some charg­ing and USB awe­some­ness. Mid­dle: The in­ter­face of choice for TVs, HDMI is in­creas­inglyca­pa­ble as a PC in­ter­face. Right: Dis­playPort is a pure­bred and pur­pose-builtin­ter­face for the PC.

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