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Next-gen USB gives HDMI rival a piggyback ride

DisplayPort technology lost out to HDMI in the marketplace, but it could get some help from next-gen USB connectors coming in 2015. Don't kiss those copper cables goodbye just yet.

The upcoming USB Type-C connectors also will be able to carry DisplayPort video signals.
The upcoming USB Type-C connectors also will be able to carry DisplayPort video signals. VESA

DisplayPort, a technology for connecting monitors to PCs that mostly lost out to HDMI, could get a new lease on life by hooking up with the next-generation version of USB.

DisplayPort is far less common than HDMI when it's time to hook up a TV, monitor, camera or other video device. Universal Serial Bus, in contrast, has been a tremendous success, spreading from personal computers and keyboards to external hard drives, smartphones, car stereo systems and countless other products.

A next-gen version of the USB connector, due to arrive in 2015, reshapes the port and cable jack that plugs into it. The biggest differences: the new Type-C cable will plug in either side up, it'll run either direction, and it'll be good for either PCs or slim smartphones.

On Monday, though, the Video Electronics Standards Association announced another change. Monitors equipped with DisplayPort also will be able use the Type-C cable. The technology is called DisplayPort Alternate Mode and will work with either new or old DisplayPort devices.

"A USB Type-C connector and cable can deliver full DisplayPort audio/video performance, driving monitor resolutions of 4K and beyond, SuperSpeed USB (USB 3.1) data, and up to 100 watts of power-over a single cable," VESA announced Monday.

The move shows that, despite Intel's aspiration to create completely cordless computing in the next few years, those strands of copper still are mighty useful. Wireless charging mats and video signals sent over 802.11ad Wi-Fi networks are well and good, but the reliability, convenience, security and data-transfer speeds of cables ensure they'll be a fixture for years to come.

USB 3.1 doubles data-transfer speeds to 10 gigabits per second, but a more dramatic departure is the 100 watts of power. That innovation is called USB PD, short for power delivery. It was designed initially to let people charge smartphones and tablets faster than possible today. USB PD plans then extend to powering external devices that draw a lot more power, including monitors and laptops.

Universal Serial Bus has lived up to its ambitious if ungainly name. It's the incumbent connector now, and any challengers must fight hard to justify the space they take up around the edges of PCs, tablets, phones and other devices.

USB vanquished FireWire, aka IEEE 1394, despite the latter technology's higher speed. So far another challenger, Thunderbolt, has failed to spread beyond the premium niche of Apple computers and high-end Windows machines. To give itself a head start in hardware, Thunderbolt engineers recycled the DisplayPort connector and can be used to connect DisplayPort monitors.

The Thunderbolt camp isn't giving up. Next-gen Thunderbolt should double data-transfer rates to 40 gigabits per second. But with relatively few PCs supporting it and even fewer peripherals, Intel's initial Thunderbolt ambition -- one port to rule them all -- looks more likely to happen through USB.

The DisplayPort technology isn't a dead end, at least in the eyes of VESA. The consortium just announced version 1.3 of the technology, increasing data-transfer rates to 32Gbps, enough to support uncompressed video at a 5K resolution of 5120x2880 with a single DisplayPort cable. It also supports copy-protection schemes that let video signals be converted to HDMI.