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HDMI, VGA, DisplayPort or DVI? – A Display Cable Technology Primer

Welcome to VRZone’s display cable technology primer! With the recent release of the HDMI 2.1 standard, many consumers, especially gamers, have been wondering what the new standard means for them and their TVs, DVD players, monitors and gaming rigs. Fret not, because the team here at VRZone have taken a deep dive into the various display standards out there to bring you this explanation and comparison of the various technologies available.

The Basics

Different display resolutions. Source: HDMI

The resolution of a screen refers to the number of pixels you can find on the display. In a 1920×1080 display, you will find 1920 pixels across horizontally, and 1080 pixels vertically from top to bottom, for a total of 2073699 pixels, or around 2 megapixels. The most common format for expressing resolutions is (number of horizontal pixels) x (number of vertical pixels). However, this has been increasingly shortened to terms like “qHD” or “1080p” or “4K”.

A display’s resolution also determines its display ratio. If you paid attention back in your primary school math classes, you will know that 1920:1080 simplifies to 16:9, which is the resolution of (almost) all HDMI-compliant displays. Other common display ratios include the traditional 4:3 used in old televisions and monitors, or 3:2 which is used by most cameras and tablets like the Surface Pro.

The refresh rate of a display refers to the number of times the image on the screen changes (or ‘refreshed’) per second. A display with a higher refresh rate would give smoother transitions. 60Hz is currently the most common refresh rate, with 120Hz and 144Hz getting increasingly popular among gamers.

HDMI – An Improving but Confusing Standard

The different HD resolutions. Source: HDMI

The new HDMI 2.1 standard supports up to 10K resolution. Never heard of 10K? Don’t worry, HDMI is a really weird standard. First, there was 1280×720, commonly known as standard High Definition, or just HD. Then came 1920×1080, known as Full HD, or FHD for short. HDMI version 1.4 brought about 3840×2160, now commonly known as 4K. So where did the number 4 and letter K come from? Does 4K simply mean 4x more pixels as Full HD? Apparently not, because “4x 4K” or “16x Full HD” is not called 16K, but 8K instead. Confused? Me too.

So what is 5K and 10K? To put it simply, it is a wider version of 4K and 8K. From the diagram above, you should see that the vertical resolution remains unchanged, while the horizonal resolution is expanded. 5K has 5120 horizonal pixels, which roughly 5 thousand, or 5K. 10K has 10240 horizonal pixels, or roughly 10K. As you can guess by now, the same naming scheme applies to 4K and 8K as well, 3840 is roughly 4 thousand, and 7680 is roughly 8 thousand.

HDMI 2.1 is currently the most futureproof of the display standards available. It supports up to 48Gbps of bandwidth, compared to HDMI 2.0’s 18Gbps. This improvement is what allows it to support much higher resolutions at even higher frame rates.

Supporting up to 10K at 120Hz, you should be able to game very smoothly at a very high resolution, provided that you have a gaming rig with enough power. As no monitor currently has 10K resolution, HDMI 2.1 should remain a relevant display standard for many years to come.

The great thing about the new standard is that it also comes with backward compatibility, somewhat. HDMI 2.1 cables would support the full 48Gbps of bandwidth, but older cables can only support a lower bandwidth. So while you can use your old HDMI 1.4 cables on HDMI 2.1 devices, it would only work at a lower resolution and frame rate. A newer cable would work fine on older devices though.

DisplayPort – The Traditional Gold Standard

A DisplayPort Connector. Source: Belkin

Popularized by the Apple Macbook Pro and its MiniDP, which notoriously made Apple users carry around a display adaptor so they can use it with HDMI or VGA, the DisplayPort (DP) was regarded by many as the gold standard. Before the release of HDMI 2.1, DP had the highest bandwidth, and supported the highest resolution at the highest frame rates. It has now been surpassed by HDMI 2.1, but an updated DP standard is expected anytime now.

DP 1.4, the current standard, supports up to 8K resolution at 60Hz, or 4K resolution at 144Hz. Nvidia’s Gsync technology, which prevents frame tearing at high frame rates, also require the use of DP to work. This makes DP the go-to standard for many gamers.

Furthermore, USB-C also uses the DP standard for video output. Unlike HDMI, daisy chaining is also possible on DP, meaning you can output to 2 different screens from just one port. Thus, even though HDMI now has a greater bandwidth and is technically superior in certain ways, DP remains the undisputed king when it comes to versatility and remains the traditional gold standard for gamers.

DVI – A Slowly but Surely Dying Standard

The different DVI connectors. Source: Amazon

DVI is another confusing standard, with DVI-A, DVI-D, DVI-I, and single or dual-link variants. In this section, we are looking at dual-link DVI-D, the one most commonly found on graphics cards. (And very rarely, on some old DVD players and TVs.) While DVI has largely been phased out on many modern graphics cards, it remains quite popular due to its support for 1080p at 144Hz. It is also able to support up to 2560×1600 at 60Hz, which used to be another popular resolution for office monitors. Beyond that, DVI is a pretty much dead standard, with no further updates expected.

VGA – That Irritating Connector Used by Your Office Projector

A VGA Connector. Source: Wikipedia

Finally, we come to VGA. The only analog connection in this bunch, VGA was first introduced by IBM in 1987. As an analog connection, the quality of the connection is highly dependent on cable length and cable quality. While it is able to support up to 2048×1536 at 85Hz, it is commonly used only at 1024×768 or 1366×768 to connect to that old projector or monitor in your office. Often problematic and sometimes difficult to trouble shoot, VGA cables have been the bane of many office workers, teachers and students alike. Thankfully, it is now being phased out on most modern devices, with many of the newest laptops, monitors and projectors no longer coming with VGA ports.

Conclusion

Display connectors through the years. Source: pchardware.co.uk

Which standards should you use? That depends on the device and display you are using.

For gamers, DP should be your first choice, especially if you are after high frame rates, 120Hz and above, at resolutions 4K and above. HDMI is an acceptable substitute, though the HDMI 1.4 and 2.0 standards only support 120Hz at 1080p and below. DVI is also okay for 1080p at 144Hz, and the 2560×1600 resolution it supports is a very good resolution for productivity use. However, DVI offers little room for upgrades, and unless you are using older hardware it is best to avoid this connector altogether. It will be quite a few months before HDMI 2.1 compliant displays, cables and devices hit the market, so until then, DP remains your best option.

For connections to your TV, you do not have much choice beyond HDMI. Most TVs do not have DP, and DVD players and gaming consoles only have an HDMI output.

For productivity use, unfortunately, many offices and schools currently stick to the legacy VGA connector. Until old monitors and projectors are eventually replaced, you would be forced to carry around an adaptor if your laptop no longer has a VGA output.

Have any further questions? Feel free to leave a comment below!

 

References: (1) (2) (3) (4)

Adi.

Adi is a student that is interested in all things IT. From motherboards and processors to smartphones and cameras, Adi follows the latest tech news and owns some of the coolest gadgets. A geek at heart, he enjoys taking apart old computers and laptops, fixing and upgrading them in his spare time.

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