Dell's DisplayPort Folly

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Dell is on a mission to prove it's a technology leader by making sure that DisplayPort--the DVI replacement that it's pushing hard for the industry to adopt--appears on your next notebook, PC, and monitor. There's just one problem: We don't need DisplayPort. It currently doesn't offer any real cost or performance benefits over the well-established HDMI interface, which is appearing on a growing number of products. DisplayPort's introduction is likely to cause confusion and frustration for buyers seeking a monitor that will work with their notebook or PC at home. Worse, Dell plans to eventually launch DisplayPort-only monitors that will lack backward compatibility with every single PC shipped to date. This is not technology leadership.

The DisplayPort Dilemma

In addition to writing GeekTech, I'm a research analyst for IDC covering monitors and projectors, so I've watched DisplayPort's evolution closely. Dell, HP, Samsung, and other monitor industry big shots first started kicking around the idea that became DisplayPort in 2003--and back then it made sense. After all, the old analog VGA interface was dead (although to this day it refuses to lie down) and the DVI interface had become technologically moribund, unable to keep up with the promise of next-generation, ultrahigh-resolution monitors. DisplayPort would be the ultimate digital interface for PCs, and it would be an open standard with no associated royalties, unlike the then-new HDMI interface, which was starting to show up on televisions (companies that implement HDMI today pay 4 cents per device plus a $10,000-per-year fee).

If DisplayPort had launched then, we'd probably be merrily using it on our PCs today. Instead, the standard took years to mature (as they often do). In the meantime, high-definition TV sales took off, and so did the acceptance of HDMI: Today that interface is on just about every HDTV sold, and most people with any technical prowess know what it is and how it works. After several tumultuous revisions, HDMI reached version 1.3, which can support even today's highest-resolution 30-inch monitors. As a result, HDMI now ships on many PCs and monitors from just about every major vendor, including Dell.

When HDMI became the de facto digital interface standard, development of DisplayPort should have ceased. Alas, the wheels were already in motion, and Dell--the standard's most vocal proponent--and VESA (the Video Electronics Standards Association, brought in to administer the specification) pushed forward, continuing development and issuing specifications. Finally, in January this year Dell rolled out the first-ever DisplayPort-enabled monitor, its 30-inch UltraSharp 3008WFP. Interestingly, the $1999 LCD also includes an HDMI port.

Why put an HDMI port on the company's first DisplayPort monitor? Because even Dell's top DisplayPort evangelist, Bruce Montag, senior technical staffer in the office of Dell's CTO and chairman of the DisplayPort task force at VESA, acknowledges that HDMI is too well established to omit. Though Dell plans to continue offering HDMI on its consumer gear, it thinks DisplayPort makes more sense for future business products.

I couldn't agree less. Why on earth should my work monitor, notebook, or desktop have a different digital interface than my products at home do? Every day I take my work notebook home, where I often connect it to my consumer desktop monitor. Plus, small-business buyers mix and match consumer and corporate hardware all the time.

DisplayPort backers like to point out that future implementations of the interface could offer compatibility with HDMI, but such support is optional, not required in the specification. In addition, it would need an external dongle and chip sets that can interface with both standards, since the two technologies work in fundamentally different ways (unlike, say, HDMI and DVI). In the end, both the vendor--and the consumer--would end up paying more for the luxury of using HDMI through a DisplayPort connector. Wouldn't it be easier, and less expensive, if everything used just HDMI?

Future Promises

Other arguments in favor of DisplayPort also fall apart upon closer examination. For example, backers suggest that because DisplayPort is royalty-free, the interface will be less expensive to implement. But in reality there's no guarantee that contributors to the specification won't ask for royalties later. Meanwhile, the up-front hardware costs of supporting the new standard are undoubtedly higher than that of HDMI--even considering HDMI's 4-cent royalty fees--since HDMI's parts are already produced in high volume and enjoy economies of scale. And for every monitor that a vendor such as Dell creates with both DisplayPort and HDMI, the company must pay the hardware cost of implementing both standards, plus the HDMI fees it originally sought to avoid.

Engineers agree that DisplayPort's micropacket architecture is pretty slick. It can drive multiple monitors using a daisy-chain configuration, and it could enable future setups such as integrated USB hubs and Webcams that run through a single DisplayPort cable. However, a USB-based technology called DisplayLink already offers multiple-monitor support. And the USB and Webcam features aren't included in the current DisplayPort specification, which means owners of first-generation products won't have access to them even if they become available later. Anybody can promise future features.

Finally, Dell says DisplayPort will let the company build what it calls direct-drive monitors, models that contain fewer internal electronics, which could mean potentially lower prices and allow thinner designs. That sounds great, too, until you realize that such a "dumb" monitor could work only with DisplayPort-enabled PCs or notebooks and not with the millions of laptops and desktops that exist today.

DisplayPort was a good idea that missed its window of opportunity. By forcing the issue, Dell and other DisplayPort backers are only going to bewilder consumers. If you're in the market for a new laptop, desktop, or monitor in the coming months, be sure to take a close look at the connectors on the back. How irritated would you be to find that the best connection on your new high-end monitor won't work with the best connection on your high-end notebook?

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