HDMI 2.1 is here, but what does it mean for the average consumer? It is a pretty rare occasion that I meet consumers that are up to date on their HDMI specification knowledge, and I wonder if the HDMI Consortium is aware of this fact when they put out press releases. Sometimes, it seems like these press releases are for an engineers only meetings, and I get the feeling it takes a blog post, like this one, to explain the practical applications of the new specification. So, I am going to give everyone a rundown of what’s new, and you can decide for yourself if you should be exited or not.
I almost forgot to mention; I am also going to take some time to clear up some misconceptions about HDMI connectors and cables along the way, and this means I will have to cover some basic information that will result in this post reading like a buying guide.
Contrary to popular belief, and Monster Cables’ marketing department, there are not eight different versions of HDMI cables floating around in the marketplace, there are four, and the HDMI Consortium places one of four labels on these cables based their bandwidth (I trying to avoid using the word “speed”).
From a consumer’s perspective, the bandwidth ratings mainly affect the supported television resolutions, but there are some hidden features bundled in along the way, so you have to pay close attention to get the best performance from a cable. The four categories of HDMI cables are Standard, High-Speed, Premium High-Speed, and Ultra High-Speed.
The Cable Breakdown
Standard HDMI cables were the first ones that were made available to the public; they launched with the original HDMI 1.0 specification, and as such, they primarily support the features that were available through HDMI 1.0 connectors. The most notable aspect of Standard cables is that they do not support 1080p resolution. It was not until the introduction of High-Speed cables that consumers were able to enjoy the benefits of 1080p televisions.
High-Speed HDMI cables support the majority of features that customers find on modern-day televisions. If you bought cables in the last five years or so, then they are probably High-Speed rated, as most retailers have removed Standard ones from their shelves. Every so often I run into some Standard cables on clearance in places like Home Depot or Lowes, and my only hope is that customers are not purchasing them while under the impression that all HDMI cables are the same. In addition to 1080p resolution, high-speed cables also added support for 3D HDTVs (not sure if anyone still manufacturers those), x.v.Color (Deep Color), and 4K resolution (2160p).
After reading the list of features supported through High-Speed cabling, and then comparing them to the features available on your current HDTV, you are probably wondering how there are still two more cable ratings to go. I’ll be honest; there is not much of difference between High-Speed and Premium High-Speed cables. The most notable features deal with unlocking the full potential of 4K content, ultimately showing up as the HDR feature. So while High-Speed cables support 4K content transmissions, if you want the most out of that new television, a new cable purchase may be in order.
Finally, we have arrived at Ultra High-Speed cabling, or as your favorite marketing department calls it, “Future Proof Cabling.” Ultra High-Speed cables support every feature, on every device, currently on the market. They support resolutions up to 10K, most consumers will likely see 8K as the next logical step in HDTV resolutions, but I would not hold my breath for that content to become widely available (4K still isn’t there yet). These cables also include support for Dolby Vision, another HDR specification, and Quick Switching, alleviating the blank screen that appears for 2 seconds while you are switching inputs.
The Connection Breakdown
Now that I have taken the time to make sure you are all caught up on cables, it is time to talk about then new HDMI 2.1 connectors. Why? Because that is the topic of this article, but explaining how to enable all of the specification’s features is nearly impossible without making sure you have an understanding of cabling basics. The reason for my concern is that there is no clear correlation between cables and connectors. That’s right, there are only four HDMI cable categories, but there have been roughly seven different types of HDMI connectors released over the last ten years.
The 2.1 specification focuses on tweaking the previously released HDMI 2.0 connector specs, and most of the features are tied up in minute tweaks at an engineering level. There is the Variable Refresh Rate feature, reducing the amount of lag higher resolution televisions produces during gaming. There is aforementioned Quick Media Switching (QMS), reducing the amount of time there is no picture on-screen while switching HDMI inputs. However, it is the ability to transmit resolutions up to 10K that has most manufacturers taking notice.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who covers HDTV sales that software-based features have failed to drive new hardware sales in recent years. Whether we are talking about 3D TV, Smart TV, or HDR, it seems as if the only thing that motivates HDTV enthusiasts to make a new purchase is a discernable change in resolution. After all, the switch to 4K has brought about new competition between content providers, a new type of blu-ray player, and new versions of the most popular gaming systems.
The new 2.1 specifications can usher in a new set of HDTVs, a new disc format, all new cabling, and force content and internet providers to step up their game once again. Consumers should never forget that the goal of a specification is to drive sales, and when it comes to the new HDMI connectors, consumers will never realize the potential of their systems without a complete makeover. Now, let’s talk about how all these components are configured.
What’s often lost in the explanation of HDMI configurations is the comprehension of the lowest common connection. If someone has ever told you that “you are only as strong as your weakest link,” he or she could have been talking about your HDMI setup. When it comes to putting everything together, the features available through HDMI are dictated by the lowest featured cable, or connection, in the chain.
The optimal situation for HDMI 2.1 involves both pieces of equipment having new connectors, linked together with an Ultra High-Speed cable, resulting in every feature being available. In extreme cases, connecting two HDMI 1.3 devices with a Standard HDMI cable will restrict the feature set to those enabled with HDMI 1.0 connectors. The most common situation in most households involves reusing cables or connecting a new television to an out-dated cable box. In scenarios like this, even if your TV has the latest HDMI ports and a new Ultra High-Speed cable securely plugged-in to it, the features available will be restricted by the HDMI 1.1 connector outputting the signal from your cable box.
With everything laid out on the table regarding HDMI 2.1 connectors, I leave it you to decide if upgrading your hardware is worth it. Make sure to leave your comments on how you perceive the value of the new specification. Will you update your disc players, televisions, gaming systems and cables?