I Got A Portable Monitor

published: 2022-09-25
tags: hardware

Have you ever started looking at what you thought was a fairly niche product, only to discover it seems to have a vast market? I didn't think portable monitors were particularly popular but judging by the sheer amount of them; I think I might have been wrong. Many of them also seem to advertise for use with consoles, which is interesting, seeing as that's part of the reason I got one.

What Am I Even Looking For?

My delve into these devices started, somewhat, with me getting back into playing my Nintendo Switch. I haven't used my Switch properly in quite some time. There was the odd time I'd play a game or two of Tetris 99 or one time when my cousin wanted me to send her some 'bells' in Animal Crossing, but mostly, it's just sat in a drawer for a year and a half. I decided to finish up a bunch of games about two or three months ago, with the intent of selling them; at this point I was considering just selling the Switch itself but there's always something on the horizon with the Switch, this year specifically, Splatoon 3 and Bayonetta 3. I've sort of been on a spree of just getting rid of or selling a lot of stuff I'm not using. I barely used the TV I had for the Switch, and honestly, using it with the TV has been annoying because I'd rather have everything centralised on my desk. Two weeks ago, or so; a week before Splatoon's release, I was thinking of ways to play on my monitor, that weren't going to be a hassle. This lead me down a path to an unexpected solution.

I've only ever had one monitor, but I also always wanted a second one. The main problem with my monitor is that it only has one HDMI port, I could have just got a HDMI switch and been done with it, but I still wanted to be able to use my PC, especially since I'd more than likely be playing Splatoon with people while chatting in Discord. Now, initially, I was looking into getting a capture card for use with my Switch, then playing it through OBS or something. I found that finding a capture card that had the minimal latency to actually be playable, was far too expensive to be viable, and even then, could have inconsistent results. I looked into this for a few days but just ended up convincing myself it wasn't worth taking the chance on. Who knows, there may well-be a perfect capture card that can do what I wanted; I just didn't want to risk it, considering how expensive they are. The quest continued onwards!

A second monitor? That would work, but although I always wanted one, I do like having a nice clean desk and since going wireless with everything, it's never been cleaner! I wanted something I could easily put away when I wasn't using it and I'm not sure what prompted me to suddenly remember portable monitors were something that existed. I looked at a lot of them during those few days; from the beautiful and expensive to the no-name random brands on Amazon.

Dell make a very sleek 14-inch monitor that I nearly ended up buying, but it's almost €300 which is definitely on the higher end. It also has another problem most these monitors shared: it only had USB-C connections, which is somewhat understandable. Portable monitors are mostly marketed towards laptop users, but since I was looking for something to use with my Switch, I prefered something with HDMI.

I went down a rabbit hole trying to decide if converters were viable, but (as it turns out,) converting from HDMI to USB-C is very hard and almost nothing exists that does it well. Though there are plenty of USB-C to HDMI cables and adapters, every one I found mentioned only working one way. This is another one of those situations where I didn't care enough to dig deep and find a way of converting to USB-C because I just couldn't be bothered, and thinking about it, didn't want to also have to deal with adapters sticking out somewhere or breaking anyway.

When I started looking for portable monitors that had HDMI support, most didn't have full size HDMI, just mini-HDMI, which is perfectly fine, there's no difference in visual quality with them. I mentioned finding no-name brand monitors before, it's something I avoid, I realise most of the time there's nothing really wrong with these, but when I'm spending €200+ I want to know I'll have some kind of warranty that I can expect to actually be honoured. While I realise opinions vary greatly on that point, I don't have a huge amount of disposable income and I prefer to feel somewhat confident with purchases.

In the end, I began focusing on two companies, Asus and MSI. The Asus ZenScreens look very nice and seem well enough reviewed, but again, tend to hit that close to, or above €300 mark. MSI then, they only have two, and at the time, I only noticed one of them. The first I saw was the Optix MAG161V. I watched some videos and some reviews. They all seemed to come to same conclusion: it was a decent monitor but it was very dim.

I looked at the spec sheet and it's brightness section says it 150 nits, I'll be honest, I don't actually know a whole lot of the technical details when it comes to monitors, I know I like IPS panels and that 150 nits is very much on the low end when it comes to brightness, for reference though, that nice (and expensive) Dell monitor is 300 nits.

Found It

I was getting kind of bored at looking at reviews at this point. A day or two later I just went browsing again around various sites and randomly, through a sale I noticed the MSI monitor - only it was different - it was actually the MAG162V and it was on sale for €220. Slight version bump, so I went to MSI's website and hit the compare button. This one had an increase to 250 nits and the contrast ration changed from 700:1 on the 161V to 1000:1 on 162V. That sounded better, but I couldn't find a single review of this model anywhere.

I then did some very-not-technical-testing where, knowing the Switch screen was 318 nits and the Steam Deck is 400 nits, tried to set them vaguely where 250 would be, to see if I found it acceptable, of course, doing this isn't exactly indicative of what the monitor would look like but I thought it was better nothing. It looked fine on both devices, not amazing, good enough that I took my chances and ordered it.

A quick run down of what this monitor has before I go on:

  • 15.6 inch screen
  • 1080p Resolution @ 60Hertz
  • 2 USB-C ports
  • 1 mini-HDMI port
  • 1 3.4mm headphone port
  • FreeSync (VRR)
  • 2 1W speakers

There are two controls, the power button, which has a small LED light to let you know when it's on standby, and a "roller" switch (I'm sure there's a technical name but I couldn't find it) that's like a little dial with a little tab sticking out of the middle. You roll this up or down, which by default will activate the brightness and volume control respectively, though these functions can be changed in the OSD menu which is brought up by pushing the dial in. With the menu up, you can navigate with the up and down wheel, pushing it in to enter a sub-menu or pressing the power key to go back. It also comes with a USB-C to USB-C, USB-A to USB-C and HDMI to mini-HDMI cables, along with the magnetic stand/folio case.

The monitor arrived the next week and, well, I was immediately impressed! The default settings had it in "eco mode" with the brightness set to 70% and at that, I'm fairly sure it's brighter than my actual monitor. In fact, this little thing outdoes my main monitor in a lot of ways. My main monitor is a 21.5" Asus IPS monitor, the VS229H-P (I'm fairly sure), which according to the Asus site, came out in 2012 and I've definitely had it for at least 8 or 9 years. I suppose I probably shouldn't have been as impressed as I considering that but I still was.

I played a "screen test" video on YouTube, I think the one I used was of Costa Rica, on both monitors at once to compare them. I even got my sister to watch too, she agreed about obvious difference in quality. It's just a nicer image and colours are so much better looking.

Of course, one of the many benefits of these portable monitors is that they all seem to run on somewhere in the range of 5 to 9 watts of power. Considering the average regular monitor (I checked for comparison) runs on 27+ watts, it's quite a difference. For the Switch, this is a fantastic screen. I know I already mentioned the colours on this, but they really pop in games like Splatoon which are full of colour, absolutely beautiful looking.

I do have two small negatives to say about it though, the OSD control button feel a little on cheap side, especially when pushing it in which feels flimsy, though it's not something I imagine I'll be using very much. The other issue, which admittedly doesn't really bother me too much, but I feel like it's worth noting, that the screen does seem to catch reflections when it's under light. It's not unusable but I think it's enough to annoy some people. Setting the brightness higher alleviates it a little but as I mostly use at my desk it's not something I worry about.

Bit of Linux

I had it a few days before I even hooked it up to my PC to see what it was like as a secondary monitor. This bit is linux specific: Having never had a second monitor before this was where I had go and learn a bit of xrandr

It wasn't too bad! For anyone wondering, the first thing you want to do is start with xrandr -q to get a list of all your connections and monitorsi. You'll want to note which connection has "primary" next to it, as that's going to be your main monitor. As long as you know which connection is going to which monitor the command you need is pretty simple:

xrandr --output HDMI-0 --primary --mode 1920x1080 --output HDMI-1 --mode 1920x1080 --left-of HDMI-0

Of course, replacing HDMI-0/1 with your respective connections and you can swap --left-of with --right-of depending where you've physically placed your monitor.

I use berrywm as my window manager, so this will vary depending on what you're using, it should be easy enough to find within your window manager docs but for me I had to set specific workspaces to the monitor with berryc save_monitor [workspace] [monitor] - then everything worked perfectly.

Back To Generality

It takes a bit to get used to working with multiple monitors when you've never done it before. I feel like I'm constantly leaving my mouse on the wrong one, but ultimately, I'm very much liking having a second monitor.

The connections all being on the side instead of the back like a regular monitor make it quick (and far less annoying) to swap the cable from around to other devices and when I'm not using it, I can just fold the case over and pop it in the drawer out of the way.

I really love this monitor, so much that I'm actually thinking of getting a second one to replace my main one, the only thing really holding me back on that one is the size difference but I might just use it as my main one for a few days and see how I get on with it.

It can also run for a decent length if you power it with a power bank so I've been thinking of trying it with my Raspberry Pi with both running from my power bank, as a kind pseudo-laptop, I'll report how that works out if I do.

Overall, I'm very happy with this monitor and I think it's definitely worth looking if you're in the market for one.