Portable monitors–are they worth it?

ViewSonic VG1655 portable monitor press image courtesy of VIewSonic

ViewSonic VG1655 – an example of a portable monitor

Over the last six months, we are seeing a significant number of “portable monitors” being introduced to the personal and small-business IT market.

What are these portable monitors?

These portable monitors are 12” to 17” LCD screens that are designed primarily to be used with a laptop as a second screen. Most of these units are equipped with a USB-C port that takes advantage of power transfer and display data transfer over the one physical cable, a feature that most well-bred laptops issued over the last few years are equipped with. As well, all these displays have a built-in kickstand so that they can be free-standing.

These screens are even being pitched at people who use mobile platform devices for work or play so they can benefit from a larger screen. This is also expedited with the USB-C or Lightning connections supporting display output and power transfer at the same time on these devices.

What can they offer computer users?

ASUS ZenScreen portable touch monitor with laptop press image courtesy of ASUS

A typical use case for a portable monitor – as a secondary screen for a laptop computer

A key selling feature  with these screens for laptop users is to benefit from dual-screen productivity while on-the-go or where they want that minimalist desktop.

Even users who use a multiple-screen setup with their laptop or desktop computer and a larger monitor do stand to benefit from these portable monitors. For example, one of these displays set up in portrait mode could earn its keep with something like an email or instant messaging client. To the same extent, this arrangement could come in handy with a tall spreadsheet or document that you are referring to or a whole lot of source code that is important for that computer program you are working on. This can also come in to its own if the main monitor doesn’t support portrait-mode orientation or you want to have a dedicated portrait-mode display.

Most of these screens will also have at least a standard HDMI connection and / or , perhaps, a standard DisplayPort connection. This can work with computer and video equipment that isn’t equipped with a USB-C with DisplayPort alt connection.

For photographers and videographers, this connection comes in to its own with digital cameras and camcorders equipped with HDMI output connections. That means that the screen serves as a better larger preview screen than what your camera or camcorder offers whether that comes in handy while you compose your shot or review what you have taken.

These portable monitors even serve as small playback / presentation monitors when you want to show something to another person. In a one-to-one meeting, you could be setting the portable monitor to mirror you laptop’s display so that who you are meeting with can see what you are bringing up. Here, this would come in to its own when you are sitting face to face at a table and want to “drive” your computer without always swivelling it around.

Similarly, you could use portable monitors equipped with a standard HDMI input and HDCP support as personal video monitors for devices like DVD / Blu-Ray players or set-top boxes. For example, using one of these portable monitors along with a digital-TV set-top box could allow you to have the equivalent of that portable TV which you use or have previously used for monitoring a news or sports event while in the office, kitchen or garage.

In the same context, they can end up as a portable gaming display for games consoles like the Nintendo Switch, the Sony PlayStation or Microsoft XBox family. This may be for larger-screen personal gaming use. At the moment, most of the current issue of portable monitors aren’t rated for regular-computer gaming due to them being set for 60Hz “productivity-use” frame rates.

Let’s not forget that these screens could simply end up as a “fail-over” display if your laptop’s display doesn’t work. This would be more important for those of us who are pushing that old laptop out further.

It may also benefit mobile-platform device users, especially smartphone users, who want to use them with a large screen at least. Some companies like Samsung are even pushing this idea of using a smartphone or mobile-platform tablet as a full-on productivity device especially when you use one of these monitors and a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse.

What features to look for

The screen that your portable monitor should have is a Full-HD or equivalent resolution and a high-quality display.

The connectivity offered by these screens should be at least one USB-C port with DisplayPort Alt and PowerDelivery support; along with a standard HDMI port with HDCP support. It would be nice to have a second USB-C PD-compliant port as a bonus which means you could plug your laptop’s USB-C PD power supply in to the monitor to supply both the laptop and monitor with power. As well, having a standard DisplayPort connection can be nice to have if you have equipment that has this connection.

Some of these portable monitors will implement MicroHDMI connectors and / or will use the USB-C port as an audio output. Here, you will have to rely on adaptor cables that should be packaged with the monitor in its box.

Most of these screens will have audio support of some sort and most likely have an integrated speaker. But they should have a standard headphone jack so you can plug in a set of headphones or better powered speakers for improved sound. They also should have an easy-to-operate volume control so you can adjust the sound quickly and easily.

If you expect a lot of away-from-AC-power use out of a portable monitor, it should have its own battery with a preferred minimum capacity of 5000mAh. As well the monitor should be efficient on the battery life. As I have said before, I would look towards these monitors having two two USB-C ports with PowerDelivery operation where one can accept power and the other can share power to the host computer. This could allow you to power your laptop and the monitor at the same time.

A nice-to-have feature for a portable monitor is touchscreen input support. This effectively adds touchscreen abilities to computer setups that don’t have this function.

Something worth paying attention to with these portable monitors is that some manufacturers could combine a portable monitor with Android tablet functionality. This is something that Lenovo is lining up with their Yoga Tab 13 tablet that is expected to be launched some time this year.

As well, look out for any of these portable monitors that offer gaming features like 144Hz refresh rate because these could be coming that way as  part of one or more manufacturers’ lineups. They would be important for people who have gaming-grade laptops and want to have the same kind of performance across all displays.

Conclusion

The portable monitor will earn its keep with those of us who want to have multiple-screen computing with our laptops in a portable setup. As well, they will be likely to be of use as an ancillary personal-use large screen for a range of activities.

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