If you recently bought a new 4K monitor, you may be surprised by the many ports on the back. HDMI, DisplayPort, USB-C and Thunderbolt are all commonplace these days, but what's best and why?
: the all-rounder
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 that can be exchanged at will (disconnected and connected without turning off devices).
HDMI 2.1 is the latest standard adopted by device manufacturers and supports 48 Gbps throughput. That's enough to drive a 10K screen at 60 frames per second in full 10-bit color. Since we're talking about 4K displays, HDMI 2.1 is more than enough.
Daisy chaining – connecting a computer to a monitor and then connecting that monitor to another monitor – is possible with HDMI 2.1. However, monitors that support this are quite rare and you can only daisy chain two displays at a time.
HDMI 2.1 has a few extra tricks up its sleeve, including limited power delivery (sometimes) and the ability to act as an Ethernet adapter (with the correct cable). It can also use FreeSync (or VESA AdaptiveSync) to prevent screen tearing.
HDMI cables are cheap, but keep in mind that you need to upgrade them to be compatible with the 2.1 standard if you want to take full advantage of the feature set.
While HDMI 2.1 is very capable, watch out: your 4K monitor may only support the older HDMI 2.0 standard. This means that it is limited to outputting a 4K signal at 60 frames per second in 8-bit color. You're also limited to 44.1 kHz and 16-bit pass-through 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 (the HDR 10 standard) compared to 2.1, which supports dynamic metadata (including HDR10 + and Dolby Vision). These older HDMI 2.0 4K monitors will save you some money, but you will also lose some functions.
If you rock a 4K monitor with HDMI 2.1, you are unlikely to encounter serious bottlenecks at this stage. If your monitor only supports HDMI 2.0, DisplayPort can provide a better experience in terms of general functions, especially if you want to daisy chain more than two displays.
DisplayPort: Better, Faster, and Stronger
DisplayPort has long been the PC enthusiast's choice, and on paper, it's not hard to see why. While HDMI 2.1 comes out at 48 Gbps, the upcoming DisplayPort 2.0 standard can handle 80 Gbps throughput. It's worth noting, however, that DisplayPort 2.0 devices won't hit the market until the end of 2020.
This means that most people will still use the DisplayPort 1.4 standard, which is still favorable compared to HDMI 2.0.
DisplayPort 1.4 can handle 8K resolution with 60 frames in true 10-bit color, but only with compression of the display stream. Uncompressed performance is the same as HDMI 2.0, at 4K / 60/8-bit. You can connect up to two displays in series connection with 4K resolution, provided your monitors support it.
There are no limits to pass-through audio like with HDMI 2.0. DisplayPort 1.4 is capable of up to 192 kHz and 24-bit sound with 7.1 channels of uncompressed audio. You also get FreeSync support because DisplayPort was a prerequisite for this before HDMI 2.1 arrived.
DisplayPort 1.4a also supports dynamic metadata for HDR content, meaning Dolby Vision and HDR10 + support for wider brightness and color gamut. However, the capabilities of your monitor will be the limiting factor here, not DisplayPort.
Unlike HDMI, DisplayPort lacks any form of Ethernet support. This is mainly because DisplayPort is mainly used for computer-to-monitor connections. HDMI, on the other hand, has broader applications, including connecting AV receivers, TVs and other consumer electronics.
DisplayPort offers some good advantages over HDMI 2.0, but they usually only apply if you want to daisy chain multiple monitors. . In the future, with the arrival of DisplayPort 2.1, 4K with frame rates over 60 frames in true 10-bit colors 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 applications. The ability to send a playback signal via USB-C depends on a technology called USB-C Alt Mode. Essentially, this is just DisplayPort via a USB-C plug. Raw throughput and supported resolutions depend on the DisplayPort standard being used (probably 1.4 at this stage).
This means that all technical aspects of USB-C DisplayPort via Alt mode reflect those of regular DisplayPort 1.4. With display stream compression, it is theoretically possible to get a 4K signal at 60 frames with 8-bit color and 8K resolutions in 10-bit.
One of the main reasons for choosing USB-C is ease of use: USB-C ports are on all modern laptops. However, you need to make sure that your laptop supports display output through USB-C Alt mode. This will likely be included in the technical specifications or on the manufacturer's website.
USB-C Alt Mode screen output must also support USB Power Supply (USB-PD). If your laptop supports USB-PD (and many do), you can charge your laptop and output to a monitor with one cable.
You must do your research first to ensure that your monitor provides the correct power output for your laptop. For example, the Dell UltraSharp U3219Q offers USB-C connectivity, with 90W USB PD. That's more than enough to charge a MacBook Air or a Dell XPS 13 laptop. However, it lags slightly behind the 96W "required" for a 16-inch MacBook Pro (although the machine rarely sucks that much power).
USB-C is a good choice if your laptop is compatible with it – especially if you move around the house or workplace a lot. USB PD means you don't need to bring a charger to connect to a monitor. You also get all the benefits of DisplayPort 1.4, which is still a very capable standard.
There is some debate as to whether daisy-chaining multiple 4K monitors is possible via USB-C. If that's important to you, you'd better go for DisplayPort, or opt for a Thunderbolt 3 monitor instead.
RELATED: USB Type-C Explained: What Is USB-C And Why You Will Want It
Thunderbolt: Great for daisy chaining and Macs
Thunderbolt also uses the USB-C port, but that's where the similarities end. Thunderbolt 3 is an active technology and provides throughput up to 40 Gbps using a Thunderbolt 3 cable. USB 3.2 Gen 2 is a passive technology that offers up to 20 Gbps.
While these two technologies use the same USB-C port, they are not interchangeable. Thunderbolt 3 offers some serious advantages over the latest USB standard, thanks to all that extra bandwidth. It is possible to output two 4K displays (with 60 frames), a single 4K display (with 120 frames) or a single 5K display (with 60 frames) with only one Thunderbolt 3 cable.
On a 2019-16-inch MacBook Pro, two Thunderbolt cables can drive four daisy-chained 4K displays or two 5Ks. Apple has been a strong proponent of the technology since the first iteration, which is why Thunderbolt may be the ideal choice for Mac owners.
Thunderbolt 3 allows you to daisy chain not only other displays, but also other devices, such as external storage arrays, docks, or even external GPU enclosures.
You must purchase a Thunderbolt 3 capable monitor if you want to use Thunderbolt 3 to connect your display. These generally cost more than your average HDMI or DisplayPort 4K monitors. The Thunderbolt 3 cables needed to power them aren't cheap either.
Keep Thunderbolt in mind when upgrading if it is not currently an option for you. The fast Thunderbolt storage is worth the investment and it also reduces cables.
If you already have the option, Thunderbolt is definitely worth it, especially if you want to daisy chain multiple 4K monitors.  It's probably not worth spending the money for an expensive Thunderbolt 3 cable if you only use one monitor, because it wouldn't bring you much benefit.
RELATED: Thunderbolt 3 vs. USB-C: what's the difference?
So what is right for you?
Which option to choose ultimately depends on what you hope to achieve and which technologies are available to you. At the time of writing, HDMI 2.1 is already on the market. It offers the greatest throughput in terms of maximum resolution, frame rate and color depth and is a solid choice.
DisplayPort 1.4 is still preferred over HDMI 2.0 due to its superior throughput and loop through capabilities. However, if you're not using multiple monitors, the two are fairly evenly matched.
USB-C ultimately depends on whether your laptop supports USB-C Alt mode with DisplayPort and whether the monitor provides enough power to charge your laptop. If your laptop has both options, USB-C is a useful choice.
Thunderbolt 3 is the fastest connection with the highest data throughput. To daisy chain two 4K monitors or connect a 5K display is virtually unbeatable. You can also connect other devices, which is handy. However, you need both monitor and computer support, and an expensive cable or two.