When you purchase a modern graphics card or a new monitor, the most perplexing, ambiguous setup task you're faced with is a choice of interface: Which cable is the best one to use to connect your panel to your PC?
The four familiar PC-centric display interfaces--VGA, DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort--come in various combinations on both video cards and monitors. Often, a cable for one (or more) of them comes bundled with a new monitor. You might be tempted just to plug in that cable and run with it, with no further consideration.
But which interface should you be using, especially if you're a dedicated PC gamer? Does it make a difference?
Recapping the Big Four
Any modern video card will have several display output connectors, and usually among them will be the familiar, many-pinned DVI. That connector is fast becoming a legacy one, though. (The occasional high-end video card these days drops it altogether.) Old-school VGA is fading out even faster, and it now tends to be found only on low-end video cards, if at all. It's mainly a solution nowadays just for connecting legacy monitors.
HDMI and DisplayPort are your modern choices. An HDMI port ("HDMI" stands for "High-Definition Multimedia Interface") is almost a given card-side, with most video cards offering at least one, if not more. HDMI is used primarily to connect consumer electronics gear to a television, be that a game console, an A/V receiver, or your Roku/Amazon box. The vast majority of computer-centric monitors also sport an HDMI input, though the port is more prevalent on consumer/home monitors than on business-oriented displays.
A modern video card will almost certainly feature one or more DisplayPort connections, as well. On the display end of things, DisplayPorts are rare on TVs; they're much more likely to appear as one of the connection options on an computer monitor.
Taking Stock of HDMI
Many PC owners aren't clear whether HDMI or DisplayPort is superior for gaming--if they have a choice between them at all. Further, the waters get muddied by the fact that Nvidia’s G-Sync (the graphics giant's high-refresh-rate technology that battles tearing) requires DisplayPort, whereas AMD’s rough equivalent, FreeSync, will work over HDMI .Keep in mind, though, that FreeSync only works over HDMI on newer screens. Early FreeSync monitors required a DisplayPort for their variable-refresh feature. What’s a gamer to do?
The latest HDMI spec (at this writing) is HDMI 2.1, and its capabilities are impressive compared to older digital display connector tech. This version of HDMI boasts a 48Gbps-rated bandwidth, and the spec delivers support for HDR (of varying flavors, depending on whether you're talking about HDMI 2.0a or 2.0b), as well as Enhanced Audio Return Channel (eARC) functionality. (eARC allows TVs to send back audio signals to a receiver, in the event that's a factor in your gaming setup.)
Note that some older (pre-2.0) versions of HDMI limited 4K (3840x2160) output to a top refresh rate of just 30Hz. As a result, if your video card is tied to that HDMI limitation, and you mean to play PC games at 4K, that's a big strike against using HDMI with your existing hardware.
What could be most important for some gamers, though, is HDMI's ability to support FreeSync. If you own a late-model AMD Radeon video card that supports FreeSync, that could be your decision-maker right there between the two major interfaces. (Of course, your display will need to support FreeSync, as well, for you to garner any benefit.)
As for the bandwidth issue we alluded to earlier, HDMI 2.1’s bandwidth is technically pushing an 8K display resolution at a 120Hz refresh rate. In fact, it’s even capable, via some compression trickery, of a whopping 10240x4320 pixels--that is, what might eventually be termed "10K." (Of course, faster refresh rates are possible at lower resolutions, if that's your aim.) Keep in mind, though, that it will likely be several years before displays of those resolutions and refresh rates will be available, particularly at reasonable prices. Mostly, it's just nice to know that the latest HDMI spec has plenty of bandwidth for all the pixels and all the hertz--within reason.
DisplayPort: The Details
Meanwhile, DisplayPort 1.4, the very latest DisplayPort spec, is no slouch. Its 32.4Gbps bandwidth might be limited in sheer muscle compared to HDMI, but its 3:1 compression ratio is virtually lossless, so it's also plenty capable of extreme display tasks, as well.
Interestingly, in the most recent DisplayPort iteration (DisplayPort 1.4), compression allows DisplayPort to operate over a USB Type-C connection, as opposed to the traditional DisplayPort cable pictured above. This enables high-definition video (including 8K and HDR) and, as a bonus, SuperSpeed USB over an increasingly common cable. Another interesting feature of DisplayPort is its ability to power multiple display panels: If you're using USB-C with cutting-edge screens that also sport USB-C, you can deliver power and image data over the same cable. Also, keep in mind that DisplayPort 1.4 displays are just starting to hit the market. If you have an older model with DisplayPort 1.3 support, you can check out a full list of the features of that spec here.
HDMI Vs. DisplayPort: The Bottom Line for Gamers
So, which of the two makes the most sense for PC gaming? Well, it depends on what you already own, and what your intent is.
In some cases, your choice is pre-ordained. If you pick up a GeForce graphics card and a G-Sync monitor, you might notice that you don’t have much (or any) choice in your display technology. The only connector that currently works with G-Sync is DisplayPort. (Newer G-Sync-capable monitors also have HDMI ports, but those ports won't support the G-Sync feature.) So, if you do have a G-Sync display, you'll want to stick to DisplayPort--at least for gaming purposes.
If you do have a decision to make--that is, if both your graphics card and your PC display have HDMI and DisplayPort on board and available--what’s a gamer to do?
Well, the current state of HDMI supports higher theoretical maximum resolutions. But you’d need a monster of a system--that is, one that probably doesn’t exist yet (at least in any reasonably attainable price range)--to play games at anywhere near the top bandwidth and resolutions that HDMI supports. And games you play will have to expressly support those extreme frame rates, as well. So a higher theoretical resolution ceiling doesn’t make HDMI the inherent right choice for PC gaming, for the vast majority of folks.
DisplayPort, meanwhile, makes sense if you want to game on multiple monitors but have just one DisplayPort connection available (say, if you're using a gaming laptop with just one DisplayPort out). The port is "splittable" via DisplayPort hubs, or displays can be daisy-chained. Note, though, that this works only if the monitor has DisplayPort out and supports a feature called Multi-Stream Transport (MST). Most monitors have the latter, but very few have the former. It's more typical to run multiple cables from a single video card rather than daisy-chaining.
All else being equal, though, for gaming on a single display at workaday resolutions and refresh rates, you'll get roughly the same results from either interface, as long as you're not running up against the limitations of G-Sync/FreeSync support. For what it's worth, the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA)--the governing body that fashioned DisplayPort as a replacement for DVI and VGA--intended it for PC-centric uses, whereas HDMI was conceived by a group of consumer-electronics companies with TV implementations in mind.
Because of its TV-based aims, one of the primary initial features/goals of HDMI was content protection. This arrived in the form of High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP), which was developed by Intel to prevent copying of digital video and audio. You'll need HDCP support to use most major steaming services from your PC, as well to watch DVD and Blu-ray discs. But fear not, as HDCP support is baked in to both DisplayPort and HDMI. As long as your graphics card--or the integrated graphics inside your CPU--were made in the last several years, you should be able to watch HDCP content over either HDMI or DisplayPort. The two connectors (and the tech inside them) were meant to be complementary, not competing, technologies.
Don’t despair if your laptop or desktop has only an HDMI port. As long as your monitor isn't G-Sync or FreeSync enabled, the truth of the matter is that you won’t notice a glaring difference in anything that matters (frame rate, refresh rate, latency, or anything that gamers love to brag or argue about) either way.