Should You Use HDMI, DisplayPort, or USB-C for a 4K Monitor?

A hand plugging an HDMI cable into a desktop computer.DUO Studio / Shutterstock

If you have bought a new 4K monitor recently, you may have been intrigued by the range of ports on the back. HDMI, DisplayPort, USB-C and Thunderbolt are now common, but which is better and why?

HDMI 2.1: the versatile

The high definition multimedia interface, or HDMI, is the most common display interface today. It is used in televisions to connect game consoles and Blu-ray players. It provides a stable digital signal which can be replaced hot (unplugged and plugged in without switching off the devices) at will.

The HDMI logo.

HDMI 2.1 is the latest standard adopted by device manufacturers, supporting a speed of 48 Gbit / s. This is enough to drive a 10K screen at 60 frames per second in 10-bit color. Because we are talking about 4K displays, HDMI 2.1 is more than enough.

Serial connection (connecting a computer to a monitor, then connecting this monitor to another monitor) is possible with HDMI 2.1. Monitors that support it are quite rare, however, and you can only chain two screens at a time.

HDMI 2.1 has a few extra tips in its bag, including limited power (rare) and the ability to act as an Ethernet adapter (with the right cable). It can also use FreeSync (or VESA AdaptiveSync) to eliminate screen tears.

HDMI cables are inexpensive, but remember that you will need to upgrade them to be compatible with the 2.1 standard if you want to make full use of all the features.

Two HDMI cables.Amazon / DTECH

Although HDMI 2.1 performs well, be careful – your 4K monitor may only support the old HDMI 2.0 standard. This means that it is limited to the output of a 4K signal at 60 frames per second in 8-bit color. You will also be limited to 44.1 kHz and 16-bit audio with only two uncompressed audio channels (5.1 audio channels are compressed).

For gamers, HDMI 2.0 does not support the FreeSync standard. HDR content is limited to static metadata (HDR 10 standard) compared to 2.1, which supports dynamic metadata (including HDR10 + and Dolby Vision). These old HDMI 2.0 4K monitors will save you money, but you will also lose some functionality.

If you are using a 4K monitor with HDMI 2.1, you are unlikely to experience any serious bottlenecks at this point. If your monitor only supports HDMI 2.0, DisplayPort could provide a better experience in terms of general functionality, especially if you want to chain more than two screens.

DisplayPort: better, faster, stronger

DisplayPort has long been the choice of PC enthusiasts and on paper it is not hard to understand why. While HDMI 2.1 tops out at 48 Gbps, the next DisplayPort 2.0 standard can handle a speed of 80 Gbps. It should be noted, however, that DisplayPort 2.0 devices are not expected to hit the market until the end of 2020.

The DisplayPort logo.

This means that most people will still use the DisplayPort 1.4 standard, which still compares favorably compared to HDMI 2.0.

DisplayPort 1.4 can handle a resolution of 8K at 60 images in true 10-bit color, but only with compression of the display stream. The uncompressed performance is the same as HDMI 2.0, at 4K / 60/8-bit. You can connect up to two displays via a daisy chain connection at 4K resolution, as long as your monitors support it.

There are no limits on audio pass-through as there are with HDMI 2.0. DisplayPort 1.4 is capable of producing up to 192 kHz and 24-bit audio with 7.1 channels of uncompressed audio. You will also benefit from FreeSync support, as DisplayPort was previously required before the arrival of HDMI 2.1.

A DisplayPort cable.Amazon / Cable Matters

DisplayPort 1.4a also supports dynamic metadata for HDR content, which means Dolby Vision and HDR10 + supported for wider brightness and color gamut. The capabilities of your monitor will be the limiting factor here, however, not DisplayPort.

Unlike HDMI, DisplayPort does not have any type of Ethernet support. This is mainly due to the fact that DisplayPort is mainly used for computer to monitor connections. HDMI, on the other hand, has wider applications, including the connection of AV receivers, televisions, and other consumer electronics.

DisplayPort offers good advantages over HDMI 2.0, but they generally only apply if you want to connect multiple monitors in series. In the future, with the advent of DisplayPort 2.1, 4K at frame rates above 60 10-bit true color images will be possible, but only on a monitor that supports it.

RELATED: DisplayPort 2: what’s different and why it’s important

USB-C: ideal for laptop owners

USB-C has a wide range of uses. The ability to transport a display signal via USB-C is based on a technology called USB-C Alt Mode. In essence, it is simply DisplayPort via a USB-C socket. The raw throughput and resolutions supported depend on the DisplayPort standard used (at this point, it’s probably 1.4).

This means that all technical aspects of USB-C DisplayPort in Alt mode mirror those of standard DisplayPort 1.4. With the compression of the display stream, it is theoretically possible to obtain a 4K signal at 60 images with 8-bit colors thanks to 8K resolutions in 10 bits.

One of the main reasons for choosing USB-C is its ease of use: USB-C ports are found on all modern laptops. However, you need to make sure your laptop supports display output via Alt USB-C mode. This will likely be included in the technical specifications or on the manufacturer’s website.

A USB-C to USB-C cable.Apple

The Alt-USB-C mode display output should also support USB power distribution (USB-PD). If your laptop supports USB-PD (and many do), you can charge your laptop and stream it to a monitor with just one cable.

You will need to do your research first to make sure your monitor is providing the right output power for your laptop. For example, the Dell UltraSharp U3219Q offers USB-C connectivity, with 90 W of USB-PD. This is more than enough to charge a MacBook Air or Dell XPS 13 laptop. However, it is slightly less than the 96 W “required” by a 16-inch MacBook Pro (although the machine rarely draws as much power).

USB-C is a great choice if your laptop is compatible with it, especially if you travel a lot at home or at work. USB-PD means you won’t have to take a charger to connect to a monitor. You will also benefit from all the advantages of DisplayPort 1.4, which is still a very efficient standard.

However, there is some controversy over the possibility of daisy chaining multiple 4K monitors via USB-C. If that’s important to you, you’d better use DisplayPort or opt for a Thunderbolt 3 monitor instead.

RELATED: USB Type-C explained: What is USB-C and why you will need it

Thunderbolt: ideal for serial connection and Macs

Thunderbolt also uses the USB-C port, but that’s where the similarities end. Thunderbolt 3 is an active technology, delivering up to 40 Gbps throughput with the use of a Thunderbolt 3 cable. USB 3.2 Gen 2 is a passive technology that offers up to 20 Gbps.

The Thunderbolt logo.

Although these two technologies use the same USB-C port, they are not interchangeable. Thunderbolt 3 offers serious advantages over the latest USB standard, thanks to all this additional bandwidth. It is possible to operate two 4K screens (at 60 images), a single 4K screen (at 120 images) or a single 5K screen (at 60 images) with a single Thunderbolt 3 cable.

On a 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro, two Thunderbolt cables can drive four daisy-chained 4K displays, or two 5K. Apple has been a staunch defender of technology since its first iteration, which is why Thunderbolt may be the ideal choice for Mac owners.

Thunderbolt 3 not only allows you to daisy chain other displays, but also other devices, like external storage bays, docking stations or even external GPUs.

Thunderbolt 3 cable.Belkin / Apple

You will need to purchase a Thunderbolt 3 compatible monitor if you want to use Thunderbolt 3 to connect your screen. These usually cost more than your average 4K HDMI or DisplayPort monitors. The Thunderbolt 3 cables required to power them aren’t cheap either.

Keep Thunderbolt in mind when you upgrade, if it’s not an option for you right now. High-speed Thunderbolt storage is worth the investment, plus it cuts cables.

If you already have the capacity, Thunderbolt is definitely worth it, especially if you want to chain multiple 4K monitors.

It probably isn’t worth spending the money for an expensive Thunderbolt 3 cable if you only use one monitor, as that would offer you no huge benefit.

RELATED: Thunderbolt 3 vs USB-C: what’s the difference?

So which one is right for you?

The option you need to choose ultimately depends on what you hope to achieve and the technologies available to you. At the time of writing, HDMI 2.1 is already on the market. It offers the best throughput in terms of maximum resolution, frame rate and color depth, and is a solid choice.

DisplayPort 1.4 is still preferable to HDMI 2.0 because of its higher speed and serial connection capabilities. However, if you are not using multiple monitors, the two are the same.

USB-C ultimately depends on whether your laptop supports Alt USB-C mode with DisplayPort and whether the monitor provides enough power to charge your laptop. If your laptop has both of these capabilities, USB-C is a practical choice.

Thunderbolt 3 is the fastest connection with the highest data rate. To chain two 4K monitors or connect a 5K screen, it’s pretty much unbeatable. You can also connect other devices, which is good. However, you’ll need support for both the monitor and the computer, and an expensive cable or two.

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