Has HDMI 2.0 Been Worth the Wait?

HDMI 2.0

HDMI 2.0 Has Arrived

HDMI Infographic

HDMI 2.1 is here, but what does it mean for the average consumer? It’s pretty rare that I meet consumers that are up-to-date on their HDMI specification knowledge, and I wonder if the HDMI Consortium was aware of this fact when they put out their HDMI 2.0 press release. Sometimes, it seems like these press releases are for an “engineers only” meeting, 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 excited 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 labels on these cables based their bandwidth (I’m 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

Network Cables

Standard HDMI cables were the first ones that 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 HDMI cabling 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, so if you bought cables in the last five years, 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 a 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, although most consumers will likely see 8K as the next logical step in HDTV resolutions, I just wouldn’t hold my breath for either resolution to become widely available shortly (4K still isn’t there yet). These cables also include support for Dolby Vision, other HDR specifications, and Quick Switching, alleviating the blank screen that appears for ~2 seconds while you are switching inputs.

The Connection Breakdown

Audio ReceiverNow 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 (VBR) feature, reducing the amount of lag higher resolution televisions produces during gaming. There is the 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 discussing 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 change is to drive sales, and when it comes to the new HDMI connectors, consumers cannot realize the potential of their systems without a complete makeover. Now, let’s talk about how to configure all these components.

Configuration Breakdown

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.

Hopefully, the infographic associated with this article provides a sufficient aid to understanding everything that I’ve covered, but if it doesn’t, you can always post questions in the comments section. With everything laid out on the table regarding the new HDMI 2.1 specification, I leave it you to decide if upgrading your hardware is worth it. Will you update your disc players, televisions, gaming systems and cables in preparation for 8K/10K content?

A Reality Check for Augmented Reality

Virtual Reality

The Next Big Thing

Augmented Reality

First, there was the IoT, then came wearables, and I can’t remember if virtual reality or self-driving cars came next, but I’m sad to say, none of these will pan out to be worthwhile technology investments (not actual investment advice). All of Silicon Valley’s latest technology flavors of the month have the same undeniable allure of base-metal alchemy. They all revolve around sound theories, like using energy to turn lead into gold, but the amount of energy it takes to make it happen isn’t worth the effort. I recently read an article on CNBC.com that alluded to the fact that industry outsiders are starting to pick on the fact the VR is struggling, and they’ve already counted Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus as a miss for Mark Zuckerberg.

I’m sure Oculus isn’t the only VR headset having a problem living up to the hype because most of us have already set our expectations of the technology somewhere in the upper stratosphere. Since the early 90’s, movies like Lawnmower Man have wowed audiences with the possibilities of a virtual world. If that title is a little bit too obscure for you, we won’t forgo mentioning The Matrix, and if you’re feeling really geeky, you’ll respect my name drop of Sword Art Online. If you’ve seen any of the previously mentioned virtual reality-based movies, you might recognize there is a common element in all of them – “the rig.”

The Rig

The “rig” is a pretty generic term for the contraptions the characters in these flicks strap themselves into while diving into the virtual world. The reason the rig is so crucial in these movies is that they provide a way for these characters to immerse themselves in those worlds without requiring physical movement, something that doesn’t exist today. The ability to effectively enable virtual movement without requiring physical effort is missing a key component to today’s headset based AR/VR units that will limit their commercial success. If you’ve ever used an Xbox Kinect you probably know where this conversation is headed.

For me, the Kinect was as close as any game manufacturer has actually come to producing a fully interactive experience [some us figured out you could still play Wii on the couch], and it opened my eyes to the fallacy that virtual reality represents to the general public. Virtual reality, as it perceived today, is not the next evolutionary step from where Nintendo’s Wii and the Xbox Kinect left us. Those systems were designed to have the appeal of adding physical movement to a traditionally sedentary activity, and if we’re honest, the marketing undertone of “get your potentially obese kid off the couch” was designed to get more parents on board with gaming. Ultimately, what those systems taught us was that we don’t want our virtual experience to require physical movement [not what they intended].

Signs of Exhaustion

Xbox Kinect

The first hint our new found love for immersion may not work out was when game developers had to start labeling how much physical exertion each Kinect game required. I’ve always been in reasonably good shape, but after an hour and a half of Kinect Adventures, I was ready to hit the showers. At the same time, I starting hearing rumors on the internet of people passing out while gaming, and don’t quote me, but I’m pretty sure at least one person died playing the Wii. Either way, we were all reminded why we wanted our virtual worlds to remain separate from our real ones. A lot of the activities we participate in while gaming, are things we are unable to do in real life, so if they start requiring physical movements, you’ll find a lot of us pressing the off button.

A secondary effect of all our newly immersive consoles was an increase in the amount of floor space gaming consumed. Until the Kinect arrived, there was no need to move the coffee table, notify my downstairs neighbors of potential noise, and put on slip-resistant footwear, but now all of those things had to happen before I put the disc in the console. A single player game on Kinect required approximately six feet of space to play, so for apartment dwellers, two-player gaming was mainly out of the question. If this was the kind of space required for the limited in-game movements these games offered, how much space is necessary to reproduce an entire virtual world?

1:1 Movement

One-to-one, say it with me, one-to-one. This ratio is the heart-breaking reality of why the current iterations of VR will never be a success. As of right now, virtual reality has a 1:1 movement ratio, requiring users to move one foot in the real world for every foot they would like to move in the virtual one. This situation compounds every negative aspect of virtual gaming I spoke about in the previous section. Imagine playing a first-person shooter in VR… How much running and jumping does the average avatar do in a single match? Are you planning on doing that in the real world too?

Some newer accessories to VR headsets have illustrated that developers are somewhat aware of the massive problem they are facing, but with each new addition, we get further away from the VR experience we’ve seen in the movies. Oculus and Samsung have both introduced controllers to help alleviate the problem, and I’ve also seen a few custom solutions floating around the internet, but these new accessories introduce a harsh reality that VR/AR may simply be traditional gaming with an expensive peripheral.

The moment a controller is added to the VR experience, gamers become conscious they’re just playing a regular video game while wearing a headset, and the gaming experience returns to people sitting on the couches with controllers in their hands. Until virtual reality develops the ability to “plug you in,” just like they do in The Matrix, I’m afraid the technology will continue to devolve, and I can already see Silicon Valley trying to lower expectations by marketing the experience as “augmented” instead of “virtual.” Without being able to fix the 1:1 problem, I hate to say it, but VR is not the next big thing.