Connecting a device such as a laptop or a console to a television or monitor only requires a cable. Unfortunately, sometimes making that link isn’t as straightforward as it should be.
You not only have different connection standards to deal with—all with their own specific port shapes and sizes—but you’ve also got various versions of those standards to consider. Choosing the wrong one can result in a picture that’s not as good as it could be or, in the worst-case scenario, no picture at all.
With a little research, you can ensure you’ve got the right cables connecting your TV or monitor to your favorite devices. As a plus, you’ll also get a better idea of what’s possible from the display tech you’re using.
Check your specs
Connecting a device to a display is a three-part equation: You’ve got the device (i.e. the console or laptop), the display (i.e. the TV or monitor), and the cable that goes between them. To get all the features of a specific connection standard, all three links in this chain have to support it.
Start by looking into the specs of your main device, whether it’s a PlayStation 5 or a Mac Mini. A quick web search or a careful read-through of the bundled instructions should tell you what display standards the hardware is compatible with. This is the first step in knowing which cables to get.
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Next, turn your attention to your TV or monitor—you’ll find you have a bit more flexibility here, as perhaps you’ve got several different displays at home you can choose from or you’re already thinking about an upgrade, giving you the opportunity to get one with a certain specification. Look up the model name and number of your display online and you should be able to tell which standards it supports. Most TVs and monitors provide multiple options, and you only need one of them to match up with your primary device.
You’re looking for a matching connection standard, and chances are it’ll be one of the most popular ones such as HDMI, DisplayPort, USB-C, or Thunderbolt. But don’t get it wrong: each of these has a number of nuances and variations you need to know about in more detail to make sure you pick the right cable.
What to know about the HDMI connection standard
High-Definition Multimedia Interface, commonly known as HDMI, has the familiar plug where the top is slightly larger than the bottom. It’s a well-established standard, especially for TVs and set-top boxes, but because the port takes up a lot of space, it’s becoming less common as laptops get thinner and lighter.
The latest version at the time of writing is HDMI 2.1, bringing with it the ability to handle 10K resolution video at 120 frames per second. When you enable HDR (which keeps dark and light parts of the frame well balanced), you’ll be able to get a 4K image at 120 fps or 8K at 60 fps. In total, the newest HDMI version can transmit 48 Gigabits per second to your television or monitor. Compare that to the previous iteration of the standard, HDMI 2.0b, where the Dynamic HDR-enabled resolution immediately drops to a maximum of 4K at 60 fps.
There are a few other extras in HDMI 2.1 that HDMI 2.0b doesn’t have, such as the Variable Refresh Rate (VRR) used by some PC graphics cards, the PlayStation 5, the Xbox Series X, and the Xbox Series S. With that faster 4K refresh rate and VRR, it’s really gamers who benefit most from the standard.
If your primary device and your TV or monitor both support HDMI 2.1, and you absolutely want those top specs, you need a cable that supports it. Older cables will work, but won’t provide the top resolutions and refresh rates. Look for the HDMI 2.1 and “Ultra High Speed” labels on the packaging, as they indicate support for the full 48 Gbps speeds. If a cable isn’t advertising its HDMI 2.1-ness, it’s probably using an older standard, but if you want to make sure, a quick web search on the cable’s brand and model should tell you for sure.
What to know about the DisplayPort connection standard
DisplayPort isn’t as ubiquitous as HDMI, but it’s still extensively used in the world of Windows and macOS computers. While the standard goes up to version 2.1, at the time of writing it’s highly unlikely you’ll see any device on the market that goes beyond DisplayPort 1.4 or 1.4a, as demand for upgrades is not that high and companies are sticking with older technology. DisplayPort 1.4a supports up to 32.40 Gbps of total bandwidth, and resolutions up to 8K at 60 fps and 4K at 120 fps with HDR enabled.
Fortunately, choosing a DisplayPort cable is pretty straightforward—you just have to look for that 1.4 or 1.4a support on the packaging or the listing. There are some DisplayPort 2.0 cables on the market at the moment, but it’s unlikely you’ll find hardware to plug them into, so there’s no point getting a cable that supports the latest standard unless you want to futureproof it for several years to come.
It is also worth looking for a VESA logo on the packaging, which means the cable has been certified by the Video Electronics Standards Association, the organization that develops the DisplayPort spec. That’s not to say cables without this badge won’t work as well, but it’s another mark of quality that could well help you
Another point to bear in mind is that USB-C and Thunderbolt ports and cables support DisplayPort technology as well, which is why some specs lists might seem confusing. But this doesn’t really change which types of cables you need to get, as you’re first and foremost looking at the physical connector ports when choosing what to buy.
What to know about the Thunderbolt connection standard
Another display standard you’re likely to see in the computing world is Thunderbolt, with the latest version being Thunderbolt 4. It brings with it 40 Gbps of bandwidth and is capable of driving not one but two 4K displays at 60 fps with HDR. This works via a daisy chain system, so you can connect one monitor up to your laptop, for example, and then a second monitor to the first monitor.
Thunderbolt 4 can transmit data and video and uses DisplayPort 2.0 technology for the latter. Physically, it uses a smaller version of the DisplayPort connector or the well-known USB-C standard. This can make things confusing as you won’t be able to tell the difference between Thunderbolt 4 and standard USB-C ports and cables just by looking at them. To make sure what you’re dealing with, you’ll need to carefully check the spec listings on the product for a mention of the Thunderbolt tech. One example is the Apple site for the MacBook Pro, where they list Thunderbolt 4 among the device’s specs.
The same applies when you’re shopping for cables, as you’ll also need to look for that mention of Thunderbolt 4. If you find it, the cable connector will always be USB-C. Your monitor may have a USB-C-shaped Thunderbolt 4 port or a DisplayPort port instead, in which case you can buy a cable with USB-C on one end and DisplayPort on the other.
What to know about the USB-C connection standard
Many modern laptops only come with USB-C ports now, which means you’ll need a cable that fits accordingly to output video.
But it’s important that you understand that USB-C is not in itself a video transmission standard like HDMI or DisplayPort, but a connector system—it describes the physical ports and connectors on cables and devices, not their transferring abilities.
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If you want to output video using USB-C you’ll need to make sure the port and cable are also Alt Mode, meaning they can transfer video on top of all the normal USB jobs, such as charging and transferring data. Depending on the hardware or cable, this connector system is able to support any one of the standards previously mentioned on this list: DisplayPort (up to version 1.4), HDMI (up to version 1.4b), and Thunderbolt (up to version 4). If your device’s USB-C port or cable support video transfer you’ll see one of these standards mentioned (and probably Alt Mode too) when looking at its specs list.
Many monitors now come with USB-C ports as well, but you’ll need to check the display’s specs to see whether it uses DisplayPort, HDMI, or Thunderbolt. It’s the same when choosing cables: Look at the product description to make sure it supports the same video standard as your primary device and monitor. The maximum resolution will depend on the video tech, but you can typically get 4K at 60 fps with HDR.
The versatility of USB-C means you can find USB-C-to-HDMI and USB-C-to-DisplayPort cables as well. These may be a better option for you depending on the monitor or TV you’re using, and the product specs should tell you the resolution and fps you can expect from the cable.