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Interfaces in LCD Display modules – SPI, I2C, LVDS, MIPI, VX1, EDP and others

Welcome to Riverdi University! In this lecture we will talk about interfaces in LCD display modules.

We will organize the kinds of display interfaces we offer, and how they differ. You will get to know what kind of external and internal interfaces we have and what are their main applications.

First, let us start with dividing internal and external interfaces in LCD modules. Internal interface of display means it used inside the device. Those are usually the embedded interfaces that are not visible, and we do not have access to them as the users of the device. External interfaces, on the other hand, are connected to the device using a cable. Once we have defined internal and external interfaces, both of these categories come as universal or image transfer interfaces.

What is an interface and what is a protocol?

A protocol defines the rules of information exchange, where the interface is the medium. The example here could be the language. When I use my voice to communicate with other people, my voice is an interface. Over this interface my voice is being sent to other people’s ears, and the protocol is the language used. Right now, I am using the English protocol. If you understand the protocol, you understand what I am saying. If I switch to a different language, Polish or some other language that you do not understand, you have the same interface, you will still hear me, but because of a different protocol, you do not understand me anymore. In this article we will talk only about interfaces, how to connect devices to each other. We will not focus on protocols.

Universal interfaces and Image transfer interfaces in LCD modules

Let’s try to get the interfaces right. For internal interfaces, interfaces embedded into the device, we have universal interfaces and image transfer interfaces. Universal display interface can send other data, not only an image. Being universal, they are not perfect for image transfer, because in most of the displays used nowadays, the image transfer is one of the most demanding. The bit rate, the data transfer needed for the image transfer is rather high. Higher that many universal interfaces can offer. If we need to send an image every once in a while, then we don’t need very high bandwidth. If we do not need live video stream, then we can use some of the internal universal interfaces such as SPI, I2C or even slow interfaces as RS232 or UART.

SPI (Serial Peripheral Interface).

The first universal interface will be SPI (Serial Peripheral Interface). This interface is serial, used for communication between a host, in SPI called a Master, and devices called Slaves. One host can communicate with many slaves. To select the Slave, we use the Chip select or SS line and then we use two data lines, Master output or Master input. And of course we have to define the clock, to synchronize the data, because this is a clock synchronized interface.

It can be fast but is not fast enough for live video. The baud rate can be 1 MBd, but it can also be 10 MBd or even 50 MBd on the SPI or QSPI. QSPI is a Quad SPI, a kind of modification of SPI that is faster. But still this interface is very universal, we can use it to connect memory or some input and outputs internally in our device. In the display universe the SPI is used for simple displays, for small size displays, where we can transfer the image relatively fast, because the resolution is low. The maximum size for SPI display interface would be 3.5 inch, 320 by 240 pixel TFT displays. If we have higher resolution, image transfer will be too slow to use SPI even with a high-speed SPI.

I2C interface

Next, we have the I2C interface. This kind of interface is usually slower than SPI. It uses only two lines, so one is a clock for synchronization, and the other one is the data line. This data line is bidirectional. It means that if in SPI we have two data lines, one outgoing and one incoming, then in an I2C interface we have only one data line.

If, for example, the Master is sending some data, the only thing Slaves can do is to receive it. And then we need to wait a little bit for the Master to finish. We can then respond as Slave to Master. In I2C Slave selection works a little bit different than in SPI, where  we had a Chip Select line (CS line) or SS line to select from. In I2C we first need to send the logical address to the interface that is being written by Slaves. In general, this procedure is slow and universal interface used also to connect the simple memory and some other I2S that we have around our microcontroller on the PCB. It is very useful, but usually not used for image transfer. This interface is very popular in the display world for touchscreens. Most of the embedded touch screens that we use have I2C interface because the touchscreen does not generate many data. We only have coordinates of the finger or few fingers at most, that need to be sent back to the microcontroller, to the device processor. The slow baud rate is good enough for the touchscreen, but not enough for the image.

RS232 interface

The next interface, a very old one nowadays, is RS232. This is also a serial, slow interface, which can be used internally in the device or externally. On the picture above we can see the external connectors, but it is still being used internally because it has a variation – UART.

UART interface in LCD modules

The UART is basically the same as RS232, but it is a fully internal interface. It is pretty slow. We have a TX line and a RX line – a Transmit Line and a Receive Line. We do not have a clock here, we only have a clock to synchronize the device internally, but the clock signal is not sent out. So, we need to synchronize the data that is coming through the lines and to do that we need to set the same baud rate on both sides of the communication line. That means that before we use UART we need to agree first what speed we will use.

That is not a case for SPI or I2C, because we have a clock there that gives the speed to every device. Then each device works according to the clock. In UART we do not have a clock. It is rather not used for image transfer. The UART, or SPI, or I2C can be used for low resolution displays. For high resolution displays we need an Intelligent Display, a display that will generate the image internally and through these slow universal interfaces we only send commands, or we send the image once, the image is being stored into the internal memory of the intelligent display, that we will use later sending the commands. You can find Riverdi’s intelligent display line on our website:

These Riverdi products are very advanced Intelligent Displays, made with Bridgetek controllers. The controllers use SPI and QSPI for communication. That means your software, your system, your microcontroller can be simple. You can use SPI interface to drive them, and you can still have high resolution image, even as high as 1280 by 800 pixels in 10.1-inch LCD displays. So, please remember that if you want to use a slow universal interface and have a high-resolution image, you need to use an Intelligent Display.

Internal image transfer interfaces in LCD modules

There are also the internal image transfer interfaces. The image transfer interface allows continuous high speed image transfer. Internal transfer is high enough to refresh the display many times per second. This is called the refresh rate of a display. When you go to a display, monitor, or TV set specification, you will see  refresh rate or maximum refresh rate parameter. If it’s 60 Hertz, that means the display image is refreshed 60 times per second. More advanced displays would have higher values, like 100 Hertz. The refresh rate means we need to send full image 60 times or 100 times in each second. To visualize this amount of data, we need to multiply refresh rate by the resolution of the screen. For example, for a 7-inch Riverdi LVDS display with resolution 1024 by 600 it is roughly 600 thousand pixels.

This subject was explained in the LCD TFT display modules – theory, special features, comparison lecture. LCD TFT displays have three color subpixels, so there is three times more data to be sent via the interface. 600 thousand pixels multiplied by 3 gives us roughly 1.8 million subpixels. To each subpixel we need to deliver data about its ON or OFF state and brightness. We usually use 8 bits for that. If we have a 2 mega subpixel display and 8 bits brightness, we will need roughly 16 million bits frame to be transferred. With 100 Hertz screen refresh rate  we need to do it 100 times per second. The image transfer interfaces need to be really, really fast and they work at a hundreds of Megahertz baud rate (or even at Gigahertz rate) to be able to transfer this amount of data each second.

LVDS – Low Voltage Differential Signal interface

The most common internal image transfer interface in industrial LCD displays nowadays is LVDS – Low Voltage Differential Signal. A crucial feature of this interface is that it is differential. It means that the signal is immune to interference and we can use a twisted pair of wires to transfer the data. We can send data fast and it will not be corrupt by any noise, interference. This kind of data corruption is quite common in other interfaces.

Key Takeaway: In LVDS display interface the differential signal allows you to send the signal at a very high speed and keep it safe from noise.

RGB interface

The next, older image transfer interface is called RGB. Name comes from the colors sent parallelly to the display: red, green and blue. LVDS is a serial interface and the RGB is a parallel interface. The main difference is that RGB is not differential, so it is easier to disturb signal with noise and you configure the speed of this interface too high. Parallel interface means that we send every bit in a separate line. In theory this interface could be fast, but because it is not differential, the transfer speed is limited. Moreover, the RGB display interface will work with rather small screen sizes –  usually up to 7-inch or 10-inch.

12 inch screen size is the total maximum for a LCD display with RGB interface, but the resolution will be lower, like 800 by 600. For this display size it is very low resolution. This is the reason why the 7-inch is size above which the LCD displays are being switched from RGB to LVDS interface. Among Riverdi products (if you go to the Riverdi website and to the IPS display tab), there are displays without the controller, and the small displays like 3.5-inch, 4.3-inch and 5-inch are equipped with RGB interface. But when you go to the 7-inch LCD displays tab on Riverdi website, you will find RGB, LVDS and MIPI displays. But when you go to the 10-inch or bigger displays, you will only find the LVDS displays because our 10-inch LCD displays are high resolution 1280 by 800, and it is impossible to build it with the RGB interface.

Key Takeaway: RGB is low speed and not immune to noise. Use it for the smaller size displays or with lower resolution.

MIPI – Mobile Industry Processor Interface

MIPI – Mobile Industry Processor Interface – is an internally embedded image transfer interface, getting popular these days. This kind of interface is used in mobile applications, tablets or mobile phones, but it is entering as an option in industrial applications. In Riverdi we offer 7-inch MIPI displays, but please be careful with other MIPI displays on the market. Many come from mobile phones or tablet market. Also, the TFT glass availability may not be stable as the mobile market changes really fast, every six months or every year. When you buy a 7-inch Riverdi MIPI interface display you are safe, because it is an industrial display.

This is why we have a limited number of displays with MIPI interface – we want to be sure that what we sale will be available for a long time. Longevity is one of Riverdi’s core values and we do not want to deliver anything that will not be supported for a minimum 3 to 5 years. It is because many of our customers are making industrial, medical or military devices and they need displays to be available long-term.

Key Takeaway: MIPI is an important and growing interface in the display market.

Vx1 image transfer interface

Next interface is the Vx1. It is similar to LVDS  and MIPI, so it’s low voltage differential signal. Vx1 is a very high-speed interface, usually used in large high-resolution screens, like 55-inch 4K TVs or even larger ones. If you buy this kind of a TV set right now, probably the embedded interface inside will be the Vx1.

Key takeaway: Vx1 is a super-fast interface used for high bandwidth image transfer, with high refresh rate and high-resolution displays, used in 4K screens and above.

eDP image transfer interface

The last internal image transfer interface is Embedded DisplayPort (eDP). We call it the new LVDS, because many new industrial displays are equipped with the eDP. If you go through industrial manufacturers of TFT LCD displays, you will notice increasing number of models available with the eDP. eDP is also a native interface in new Intel or AMD based processors.

Key Takeaway: With the embedded DisplayPort as a native display interface you can cut down costs, because you do not need anything extra to connect a display to the processor.

MIPI vs LVDS vs eDP – Industrial internal interfaces comparison

We covered most of internal interfaces:

  • Universal: SPI, I2C, RS232 and UART
  • Parallel: RGB
  • Fast image transfer: LVDS, MIPI, Vx1 and eDP (Embedded Display Port)

Now, with the processors on the market, we need displays with embedded DisplayPort. Many laptops or monitors already use embedded DisplayPort as an internal interface instead of LVDS. LVDS still is the most popular industrial LCD display interface. All the internal image transfer interfaces like MIPI, Vx1 and eDP are variations of LVDS, where the protocols and the signals are a little bit different. For example, for eDP we can have lower noise and reduced power consumption. All of them have advantages over regular LVDS, but they are all LVDS type.

External interfaces

Now, let’s take a closer look at external interfaces. Those are the ones that we usually have direct access to. It can be TV or monitor connected to your computer with the HDMI . It can be a DVI usually used for monitors. Or VGA which is an outdated image interface for monitors.  The DisplayPort that is a HDMI successor. Finally, an universal USB-C, the most common interface nowadays used to connect devices.

USB C universal external interface

Let us start with USB-C, the most universal interface . It is one of the best interfaces that we have ever designed, because it is really fast and also very universal. It not only transfers data, not only it is fast enough to transfer image, but it can also transmit a lot of power.

USB-C transmits up to 100 watt of power, because you can increase voltage and current. In a regular USB it is usually 5 volt and 0.5 or 1.0 amp, so only a couple watts. In USB-C you increase the voltage up to 20 volt and with the 5 amp current, so in total it’s even 100 watt of power.  This interface is made not only for data, but for real power transfer. Through USB-C you can charge your phone and your laptop. If you buy a new laptop right now, you may even not get a regular power connector, but only an USB-C. The USB-C is a very smart interface. If you connect the devices, they can negotiate with each other which one has more power. For example, if we connect a charger to a laptop, the charger has more power and will charge the laptop, but if you connect the laptop with the same interface to your mobile phone, then they will discuss the power levels, and of course the laptop will be charging the phone. You can already find monitors on the market that have USB-C instead of HDMI. Those monitors can be powered from your computer and need only one USB cable, both for image transfer and power.  For sure the future belongs to USB-C implementations.

Key Takeaway: USB-C is a really smart, universal and fast interface for displays. It comes with power transmission option.

HDMI image external interface

Let’s move on to image transfer interfaces. The most common one is HDMI – High-Definition Multimedia Interface. M stands for Multimedia, because it transfers image with sound. If you connect your computer to your TV set with HDMI, you will need one cable for both the video and the audio. There are variations of HDMI connectors:

  • standard HDMI,
  • mini-HDMI,
  • micro-HDMI.

The connector is little bit different in each, but the pinout and everything else stays the same.

Key Takeaway: HDMI is an extremely popular and easy to use interface. It can send both multimedia A/V data.

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DVI image external interface

The next one is DVI – Digital Visual Interface. The first DVI was not a multimedia interface, because it did not have audio data transfer. Nowadays, there are some variations that can transfer audio, but it is non-standard. We can assume DVI is rather for image transfer. It is a digital interface, similar in signals to HDMI. The latest variation is DVI-I, where I stands for integrated interface. It can have a digital and analog part for VGA compatibility. In the picture above there is a DVI-D, digital only, where we do not have the pins for analog VGA interface. Analog VGA is sometimes available in your desktop computer, but not in laptops anymore.

Key Takeaway: DVI is digital visual interface with multiple variations and updates, similar in signal to HDMI

VGA image external interface

The oldest video interface still in use  is the VGA – Video Graphic Array interface. It becomes less and less popular. This is an analog interface, not a digital one like all the other abovementioned interfaces. Analog interface means that we do not transmit the bits, but we send the voltages values. The analog signals are not stable, they are quite easy to disturb, so the transfer cannot be very high in speed and volume

Key takeaway: VGA’s popularity is declining, and it is not the best solution if you have a high-resolution display or noisy environment.

DP (Display Port) image external interface

The last external interface that we can find in our devices nowadays is a DisplayPort. DisplayPort is similar to HDMI or DVI. It can also transfer image and sound. It is even faster than the HDMI. Usually, the DisplayPort is used for high resolution displays, for new monitors and TVs with 4K or 8K resolution where it is really hard, or nearly impossible, to achieve such resolution using HDMI interface.

Key Takeaway: DisplayPort is super-fast image and sound transmitting interface, used in highest resolution displays.

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