Remember the 90’s? Computers were on a permabulking diet: massive CRT screens, ugly steaming desktops, a blocky keyboard and a hardly-responsive mouse. Some might have guessed that these things would progressively get bigger in size, but alas, here we are – it’s 2018, and the manufacturer with the most compact device wins.

Given today’s mobile lifestyle, neither the hobbyist nor the professional can afford to have a hefty workstation, which is why many opt for nothing but a tablet. Obviously, these things are restrictive, so a laptop is probably your best bet. Except… In order to fit inside most bags, laptops have to make certain sacrifices in size, which also ends up drastically reducing your work desk.

Enter the world of portable monitors.

With a simple USB plug-in, you can transform your laptop into a dual-screen monstrosity that will make multitasking a breeze. The monitor fits nicely along with the laptop and will hardly add much to the travel weight. There’s just one problem: there’s enough of these things on the market to form a slideshow the length of the Great Wall of China, and one can get confused with all the options, but no worries, we’re here to help.


What you should be looking for when buying a portable monitor in 2018?

Choosing a portable monitor is no different than picking a regular or built-in one. There are numerous parameters that determine its image quality, motion reproduction and behavior in different environments. Some of the most important are:

1.) Which display type are you looking for? These days, it’s a battle between TN and IPS displays. TN (twisted nematic) displays are the most common – if you have an LCD display in your home or office, chances are it’s TN. Despite the impressive reproduction of modern models, TN displays are generally considered inferior to IPS (in-plane switching) ones. The latter tend to have better image quality on average, including more accurate coloring due to a higher contrast and improved angle viewing.

We say average because IPS displays aren’t the end-all-be-all, and the technology is actually some decades old. A lower-end IPS monitor will undoubtedly perform better than a TN one, which is something to keep in mind. IPS also sacrifices motion reproduction due to a lower response time, but this isn’t really going to be an issue for you (more on that in a bit).  So, if possible, your portable display should carry the IPS tag, and you can expect a significant improvement in overall image quality from it.

TN vs IPS difference

Best explanation of the difference in TN and IPS monitors, by Gamers Nexus

2.) The refresh rate is important: For desktop monitors, 120Hz and 240Hz have replaced the standard 60Hz variety with most power users and gamers, and there’s no question that they produce less blur on moving objects. With portable monitors, it’s a bit different – there are no portable displays that go above 60Hz yet, although there are some that go below in certain modes.

Depending on the type of cable the monitor will be using, you need to check that the monitor’s refresh rate is 60Hz across the board. If it only goes up to 30Hz when displaying 1080i, for example, you could be facing a significant loss of image quality when streaming HD content. So in this case a 60Hz protable monitor would be the way to go.

3.) Contrast and brightness play a huge role also: Because every manufacturer uses their own contrast measurement, this value can be difficult to assess without actually using the monitor. What counts as 5000:1 for one manufacturer could look exactly the same as 5,000,000:0 for another. However, you can compare the contrast numbers of different models from the same manufacturer to give you an idea of which display from the same brand has the best colors.

With brightness, it’s a bit more straightforward: you want to look at a value called nits. The more the better, even if you don’t like particularly bright displays – in general, you should go for a minimum of 200 nits on your portable display while keeping in mind that this is still a fairly low number. Anything under that, and you’ll spend most of your time on the move playing Dungeon Keeper.

4.) Glossy vs matte, which is better? Possibly one of the most important things to look out for in a portable monitor, whether your screen is glossy or matte can make or break its utility. Simply put, a glossy display will reflect light from its environment while a matte one will absorb it. This means that glossy displays can do very little when used in a sun-lit room, airplane or, even worse, outdoors.

Because you’re likely to use your portable monitor in a wide variety of locations, choosing a matte one is the only way to ensure you’ll actually get to do work on a sunny day. We’d only advise you to go for a glossy display if you’re absolutely sure that you’ll only use it in artificially-lit areas, but even then, a matte surface will perform just as well while leaving you with more options.

5.) USB Type C is slowly pumping up the game, but other cable types are still there: Finally, we come to the way you’ll connect the portable monitor to your laptop. Portable displays are grouped into three categories: HDMI, USB and USB-C. HDMI connectivity is the standard with desktop monitors, and many portable displays turn to it because it’s able to deliver high-definition imagery without a hitch. There’s just one problem – you need to have a separate USB cable to provide power to the display.

Since portable monitors don’t have batteries or adapters, they receive power from the laptop itself. And since HDMI can’t transmit power along with data, you’re forced to also plug in a Type-A USB cable. What this means is that you’ll have to carry two cables and use them whenever you want to use your portable display.

USB portable monitors promise to fix this, but the end result is rarely optimal. Using a high-end portable monitor with a single Type-A cable will likely impair performance and force you to switch to a Y cable. Not as clunky as two separate cables, but still a nuisance, and having to buy a separate cable isn’t exactly ideal.

Because USB Type-C can send data and provide power to the monitor much more effectively, it’s the best option between the three. However, since USB-C is so new, many laptops and devices come without a USB-C port, which will render your USB-C portable display useless.

A final point to make is that the port used for USB monitors needs to be 3.0 or higher to avoid a reduction in quality. If you’re forced to pair your USB portable monitor with a 2.0 USB port, expect a significant reduction in image quality and performance.

Now, since we explained everything regarding the technology being used in them, let’s go and check out the best portable monitors of 2018.


Battle of the Titans – the best USB-C portable monitors of 2018

Before we begin, keep in mind that producers in this category are big fans of names which do not make that much sense at first, but the name probably makes sense to an engineer within their company. So, let us start first with the MB169C+ and after that with the I1601FWUX (see, told you).

ASUS MB169C+ 15.6″ Full HD 1920×1080 IPS USB-C Portable Monitor

ASUS MB169C+ 15.6 Full HD 1920x1080 IPS USB Type-C Powered Eye Care Portable MonitorThe sequel to “the world’s slimmest portable monitor”, the MB169C+ is one of the first monitors with a USB-C port. A single cable without struggles to transfer data or power is a definitive plus, but only if your device has the appropriate port. Whereas many portable displays are confined to a 1366×768 resolution, the MB169C+ offers full support for 1920×1080 on a clear, 15.6″ IPS display. The superior viewing angles that come from the IPS panel mean you can position the monitor virtually anywhere and still enjoy crystal-clear imagery. It’s compatible with all “DP Alternate Mode” or “DisplayPort over USB-C” devices, without the need for additional drivers or programs. It needs just one USB cable for both its video signal and power.

The laptop’s powerful screen is also its downside, however, as it will rapidly drain the battery from whichever device it’s connected to. Along with less-than-ideal brightness numbers, there isn’t really a lot to complain about this model, as it has quickly become one of the portable standard-bearers. Let’s summarize the whole story:

Model name: Asus MB169C+ 15.6
Resolution: 1920×1080
Panel type: IPS, 60Hz
Brightness: 200 nits
Connection: USB C, one cable to rule them all
Price: Click here for the current price on the official Asus Amazon store

AOC i1601fwux 16-Inch IPS Extremely Slim USB-C Portable Monitor

AOC i1601fwux 16-Inch IPS Extremely Slim USB-C Portable MonitorAOC wasn’t gonna let ASUS parade their high-tech gizmo around without answering with a USB-C monitor of their own. The I1601FWUX is that answer: like his Asus competitor, it’s a USB-C portable monitor with a native resolution of 1920×1080, but it’s a bit brighter and 0,4 inches larger. The I1601FWUX comes with dark and grayscale color reproduction that leaves something to be desired, especially when viewed at angles – even the IPS panel does little to offshoot this. Other colors are better, but not in games, as the I1601FWUX’s 5ms response time gives way to quite a bit of motion blur.

Being a bit cheaper than its rival, the I1601FWUX can work well as a budget option that offers slick design and reasonable features. Just don’t place it on the magnetic stand while offroading.

Model name: AOC i1601fwux 16-Inch
Resolution: 1920×1080
Panel type: IPS, 60Hz
Brightness: 220 nits
Connection: USB C, one cable to rule them all
Price: Click here for the current price on the official AOC Amazon store


The runner-ups – cheaper and more affordable USB 3.0 portable monitors

Ok, we get it, USB-C is not everyone’s game, so this is why we created a list of USB 3.0 portable monitors which are still worth the buck, and they are also quite useful if you’re low on desk space and just need something to make your older laptop a bit more useful until you update it.

So, let’s start of with the top pick, the Asus ZenScreen MB16AC

Asus ZenScreen MB16ACIf, as we mentioned, your laptop lacks USB-C connectivity, the Asus ZenScreen MB16AC is probably your best bet when it comes to portable USB monitors. It offers backwards connectivity, the Type-C port can connect to either an USB-C or USB-A device, meaning you don’t have to worry about your laptop being left out.

Besides intuitive button controls that go well with its design, the model also boasts a sturdy base that lets its 15.6″ screen stand even on shaky ground. While it suffers from the same dimness of many portable monitors, the color reproduction is otherwise satisfactory, and the built-in blue light reduction will reduce strain during lengthy sessions.

Model name: Asus ZenScreen MB16AC
Resolution: 1920×1080
Panel type: IPS, 60Hz
Brightness: 200 nits
Connection: USB C and USB A
Price: Click here for the current price on the official Asus Amazon store

 

The best budget choice award goes to the AOC e1659Fwu 16-Inch Ultra Slim

It’s not uncommon for portable monitors to cost as much as a decent laptop. So what do you do if you aren’t willing to spend as much but still need dual screens on the go?

AOC e1659Fwu 16-InchAOC’s e1659Fwu is among the best budget options on the market, so much so that it can seem as if it makes heavy sacrifices in quality. Not the case, though – the 16″ display, although in its TN version, produces impressive image quality, helped by a brightness of 200 nits and an 8ms response time that rival much more expensive laptops. Plus, it’s as slick and portable as any other high-end model (we’d hope so, given its “Ultra Slim” moniker.

On the downside, the 1366 x 768 resolution and the TN panel are not exactly market-leading and the absence of a HDMI port means you’ll probably have to use a Y cable for decent performance. Still, you can’t beat the quality versus the below $100 price.

Model name: AOC’s e1659Fwu 16-Inch
Resolution: 1366 x 768
Panel type: TN, 60Hz
Brightness: 220 nits
Connection: USB 3.0
Price: Click here for the current price on the official AOC Amazon store

If you’re in the touchscreen game, then the Gechic On-Lap 1503I is your best bet

Gechic On-Lap 1503I 15.6-Inch Portable Touchscreen MonitorFor all the features that manufacturers of portable monitors flaunt, the most important one is conspicuously absent. That’s because larger touchscreens are still expensive to produce, which is why Gechic’s 1503I costs as much as it does.  Still, if you’re in dire need of a touchscreen portable display, there isn’t really a better option than the 1503I. The 15.6″ IPS Anti-Glare display with a 1920×1080 resolution makes no trade-offs in quality and provides full 10 point Multi-Touch Capacitive Touchscreen.

It’s compatible with a wide variety of operating systems and features both HDMI and VGA connectivity, depending on your preferences. Yes, that means two cables, but you’ll have to make do. It also has built-in speakers, which many higher-end models lack, and its stand is much more reliable than those of its non-touch rivals (looking at you, AOC). Although it was manufactured some time ago, it remains virtually peerless in the category of 1080p touchsceen monitors, provided you can afford it.

Model name: Gechic’s 1503I
Resolution: 1920×1080
Panel type: IPS, 60Hz
Brightness: 301 nits
Connection: HDMI and VGA
Price: Click here for the current price on the official Gechic Amazon store


Where is the market of portable monitors heading?

With the ever-increasing surface requirements both professionally and in our free time, it’s safe to say that portable displays are just getting started. Over the coming years, we expect to see a couple of trends take roots in the market, starting with the screen type.

We’re quickly reaching a point where TN displays are looking outdated even though they were the standard just a few years ago, not to mention that they themselves pushed out the clunky CRT monitors. It doesn’t matter that some TN screens are considerably better than their IPS rivals – the users want IPS, and they want it now. Fortunately, IPS really is a better option between the two, and it’s bound to keep improving.

Another major drawback of current portable monitors is their refresh rate and response times. While 120Hz displays are becoming common for the desktop power user, the complete absence of anything above 60Hz for portable monitors shows that the market still has some ways to go. Paired with this is the abysmal response time that even some top-of-the-line models have – 25ms is way too much lag for a monitor in 2018, especially one that calls itself modern.

Since gaming is quickly moving out of a niche and becoming a common hobby, we’ll undoubtedly see portable gaming monitors with 120Hz or even 240Hz in the coming years, along with an elimination of double-digit response times.

A final point to make is the touchscreen option – currently, portable touchscreen monitors are prohibitively expensive for many would-be users, which is a shame considering they are actually useful compared to their desktop cousins. While there’s no timeline to put on it, touchscreen should slowly become the norm with portable displays as there are very few users that won’t benefit from it.