Which monitor is right for your computer? There are many factors to consider before making a purchase, but a big one is port availability. Different ports have different capabilities and compatibilities, so take a look at the back of your PC to see what you’re working with.
If you’re looking to plug a new monitor into your gaming computer, you’ll probably notice two ports that look remarkably similar. There will be HDMI and DisplayPort ports to choose from, but what’s the difference between the two, and does it really matter which one you use?
The answer, as always, is “it depends.” What are you looking to do? For instance, you will have different needs depending on if you’re gaming, or photo editing, or just looking to hook your Mac up to something that works.
Even if your monitor supports both connections, it may only support certain versions of each, which determines what resolution, refresh rate, and other features it can handle. Here’s what you need to know.
Connecting With HDMI
Let’s start by talking about HDMI, the standard with which you’re probably most familiar. HDMI is most commonly used on TVs, sending high-definition video and audio signals over one cable for an easy, clean setup. There have been multiple versions of HDMI, each improving on the last. On modern monitors, you’ll find any combination of the following ports:
HDMI 1.4: Supports up to 4K (4,096 by 2,160) at 24Hz, 4K (3,840 by 2,160) at 30Hz, or 1080p at 120Hz.
HDMI 2.0: Supports up to 4K at 60Hz, and later versions (HDMI 2.0a and 2.0b) include support for HDR
HDMI 2.1: Supports up to 10K resolution at 120Hz, as well as improved HDR with dynamic metadata and enhanced Audio Return Channel (eARC) which allows sending Dolby Atmos and DTS:X audio from the display to a receiver. It also includes variable refresh rate (VRR) like FreeSync in the standard, though there are plenty of HDMI 2.0 monitors that also support the feature.
These are somewhat simplified explanations of each HDMI version, as there are other feature improvements in each standard, but they’re the things most PC users will care about.
If you want to take full advantage of those specifications, you’ll also need an HDMI cable capable of the correct bandwidth. For example, if you’re running 4K at 60Hz with HDR, you’ll want a cable labeled Premium High Speed or 18Gbps (or better). For 8K at high refresh rates, you may need even more bandwidth, so check the description and reviews of any cable you plan to buy.
Lower-spec cables may still work under certain circumstances, but can be finicky, adding “snow” to the image or not routing your surround sound audio properly. If you ever experience issues, check the cable—you may find it isn’t up to snuff.
In addition to the above, all modern HDMI ports should support AMD’s FreeSync technology, which eliminates screen tearing in games by matching the monitor’s refresh rate to your video card’s output framerate (with newer HDMI versions supporting FreeSync at higher refresh rates). Nvidia’s similar G-Sync technology, however, does not always work over HDMI—on many monitors, it’s DisplayPort-only.
Connecting With DisplayPort
DisplayPort looks similar to HDMI but is a connector more common on PCs than TVs. It still allows for high-definition video and (in many cases) audio, but its standards are a bit different. On modern monitors, you’ll likely find any of the following:
DisplayPort 1.2: Supports up to 4K at 60Hz, some 1.2a ports may also support AMD’s FreeSync
DisplayPort 1.3: Supports up to 4K at 120Hz or 8K at 30Hz
DisplayPort 1.4: Supports up to 8K at 60Hz and HDR
DisplayPort 2.0 (currently slated for late 2020): Supports 16K with HDR at 60Hz and 10K without HDR at 80Hz
When shopping for a DisplayPort cable, I recommend picking one from DisplayPort’s certified cables list to ensure it performs as advertised.
In addition, DisplayPort has a few other useful features. First, it supports AMD’s FreeSync and Nvidia’s G-Sync, so you can have a tear-free gaming experience no matter which brand of card you use (as long as your monitor supports the technology, of course).
You can also drive multiple monitors from one DisplayPort connection, rather than having to use multiple ports, which is handy. Laptops can even send DisplayPort signals through a USB-C port. Many DisplayPort cables also have clips to keep them securely in your monitor, which is both a pro and a con because they can sometimes be tough to get out!
It’s not just about specs, each cable also has its place. If you have the choice between DisplayPort 1.4 and HDMI 2.0, DisplayPort would be the better option. In other cases, if a monitor only gives you the choice between HDMI 2.0 and DisplayPort 1.2—like this Pixio display does—HDMI could be the way to go for the HDR support, as long as all your devices support the HDMI version in question.
And there’s the final rub: which port you choose depends on both your monitor’s capabilities and your video card’s. If you’re looking to use the features of HDMI 2.1, for example, you need a monitor with an HDMI 2.1 port and a video card with an HDMI 2.1 port—if one of them is running HDMI 2.0, you won’t be able to take advantage of those newer features. So check every link in the chain before you buy a cable, so you can pick the best combination for optimal performance.
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