Which display cable should I use for my monitor?

Most displays have a ton of video ports on the back, and knowing which is the best choice to connect to your PC doesn’t always come down to sorting cables by price on Newegg or Amazon. Go deep enough and it’s easy to get lost in specifications, version numbers, and other hardware trivia. 

Fortunately, there is a definite hierarchy for gamers when it comes to picking video ports. The simple answer is that you should probably be using a DisplayPort cable to connect your graphics card to your monitor. It offers the best bandwidth and support for adaptive refresh features like G-Sync and FreeSync.

Of course, the longer answer is that sometimes another cable will serve you better. Some video cards won’t have the right port, and some monitors won’t be able to display the best signal, so it’s a good idea to know the pecking order and best alternatives. Below we've broken down the advantages and disadvantages of HDMI, DisplayPort, and DVI, and what their various specifications are capable of.

Full-size DisplayPort (left) and Mini-DisplayPort (right) support the exact same features.

DisplayPort: The first choice

For reasons practical and otherwise, DisplayPort is the first choice for hooking up a monitor to a PC. You won’t find these ports on TV sets or non-computer gear, but they are regularly found on modern graphics cards and gaming laptops. 

DisplayPort’s superior bandwidth has given it the edge over HDMI at each step of the standard's evolution. Even the earliest 1.0 and 1.1 versions support 144Hz refresh rates at 1080p, along with audio. Version 1.3 upped the speed to 26 Gb/s.

The current DisplayPort 1.4 version supports HDR, compression, and 32-channel audio support. This swift data rate allows 4K resolutions to enjoy 120Hz and 144Hz refresh rates, although the latter requires the new SDC compression modes enabled. It supports up to 8K resolution at 60Hz.

Nvidia’s G-Sync also requires DisplayPort, and while AMD’s FreeSync is supported over some HDMI connections, adaptive sync technology has been baked as an option into the DisplayPort standard since 1.2a so adaptive sync DisplayPort monitors are much easier to find.

Attaching multiple displays is also more flexible with DisplayPort, since Thunderbolt-style daisy chaining is possible. This is a boon for productivity tasks, although gamers beware since this style of multi-monitor connection shares bandwidth between screens.

USB-C connectors also output video over the DisplayPort standard, which makes it easy to output video from a laptop or Android phone with an adapter to the typical DP plug (or HDMI).

Next generation DisplayPort has already been finalized and bumps bandwidth to a massive 40 Gb/s, enabling uncompressed 4K at 144Hz, 5K at 60Hz, 10-bit color depths and compressed modes supporting up to 8K at 120Hz. It’ll be a while before displays you can actually buy catch up.

What kind of cable do you need?

New versions of the DisplayPort standard (1.4 as of late 2017) require new hardware in your graphics card and monitor, but no changes in the cable. Any generic DisplayPort cable you buy will be future proof.

When is the next update expected?

No new DisplayPort standard has arrived in 2017, making 2018 likely. Since DP currently outstrips the bandwidth and resolution needs of today's monitors, this likely won't affect your monitor usage at all.

Micro, Mini, and full-size HDMI. All three connectors support the same features.

HDMI: Made for the living room first

Found pretty much everywhere, HDMI is handy and cheap, but riddled with compromises. The outdated version 1.4 has a limited 8-bit color range and bandwidth capabilities peaking at around 10 Gb/s. This along with other limitations isn’t enough to support 4K beyond an eye-busting 24Hz, and at 1080p the fun stops at 60Hz.

Fortunately, HDMI 2.0 and 2.0a arrived a few years back and largely match DisplayPort’s abilities, although at a lower peak bandwidth of 18 Gb/s, so 4K is limited to 60Hz. While most current video cards support HDMI 2.0, monitor support is much less certain with even high-end computer displays, such as Asus RoG Swift PG348Q, only offering HDMI 1.4 inputs.

Version 2.0 or better HDMI is mostly found on high end TVs, such as LG’s OLED C7, since it’s required for HDR support. This makes HDMI 2.0 the perfect connector pick for people looking to game at high refresh rates or 4K resolutions with living room PCs on big screen displays, since the standard supports 4K at 60Hz and 1080p at 144Hz.

Just finalized is HDMI 2.1, which blows the doors off HDMI limits with maximum resolutions of 10K at 120Hz, frame-by-frame HDR, and a variable refresh rate gaming mode, but before these dreams come true let’s see better HDMI 2.0 adoption in the PC display market today.

What kind of cable do you need? 

There are a number of HDMI cable variants, but the one you want is a High Speed HDMI cable. This will definitely work with 4K displays and support the full bandwidth of HDMI 2.0.

When is the next update expected? 

HDMI 2.1 could start arriving in high-end devices in 2018. It will require a new cable, though the connector is unchanged. Bandwidth jumps from 18Gbps to 48Gbps, but this will only be significant for gaming at 4K/120Hz, etc.

A dual-link DVI cable has a full set of pins, like this one.

 DVI: Don’t bury me, I’m not dead yet 

DVI connectors are still found on most desktop video cards and still have value, although they are slipping into legacy status. While they are huge, clunky, require yesteryear screw twists to fasten, and generally don’t include audio signals, they do support the sweet-spot 144Hz, 1080p resolution that common HDMI 1.4 monitor connectors don’t, making them the best practical pick for many older gaming setups. They also support up to 2560x1600 at 60Hz, opening up 1440p which remains a useful productivity resolution. 

Evolving as a transition connector of sorts from the dreaded VGA days of the 1990s, DVI comes in myriad versions including a throwback analog variant along with single- and dual-link varieties. Most DVI cables you buy today will be the high-bandwidth dual-link versions, but if you go hunting for a quick replacement in a junk drawer, make sure there’s a full field of pins in the cable’s connectors or you’ll be limited to the lower 1920x1200 resolution and refresh rates of the single link DVI standard. 

After a 20-year run, DVI’s life as a connector standard is drawing to a close so consider it a short-term solution to get the best out of your hardware today, since you’ll likely be using something new before long.

 What kind of cable do you need? 

For 1440p and high refresh, dual-link DVI cables are your friend.

When is the next update expected? 

It's dead, Jim.

Only use when required.

Adapter issues

One final point; while adapters exist for most cable mismatches, tread carefully since additional connectors can introduce problems such as a lost or blinking video signal or HDCP errors. Even if everything works perfectly, you’ll be limited to the slower port’s standards. 

For DisplayPort adapters, both active and passive versions are available when matching ports aren’t built into the target display. In these situations, active adapters are preferred since they allow full support of multi-display features, such as triple monitor arrangements, although you can save a few dollars with passive adapters if you never plan on using more than two displays at once.

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