New HDMI Spec on the Way

HDMI has become the first choice in making the connection between HDTVs and other components in a home entertainment system; the installed base includes more than a billion connections. The single cable carries video and audio, which helps eliminate the rat’s nest of wires that often accompanies electronic equipment. The high speed digital connection provides “perfect” accuracy, as opposed to the analog component connections that can lose bits of data in translation. HDMI can even be used to send commands between components, turning them on and off or switching sources and other settings. And HDMI supports the copy protection features required by some Hollywood studios and other content producers to prevent piracy of their product.

Well, here comes a new HDMI. Version 1.4 of the specification is scheduled to be finalized by June 30, when it wil be available for download at the HDMI Licensing Web site. This new specification adds a number of interesting and useful features to the connection. First and foremost, it adds an Ethernet channel to the connection. Home networks are becoming increasingly important in home entertainment systems, providing access to content from shared storage as well as from the Internet. HDMI 1.4 will provide the network connection between the devices without the need for extra cables or ports.

HDMI 1.4 will also have an audio return channel. This means that either device in a connection can send audio signals to the other. This will allow a TV that is receiving an audio stream over the air to direct it to a home theater sound system without the need for separate cables. The new design also supports higher resolutions, up to the “4K” currently used in digital cinemas, with 4,096 by 2,160 pixel resolution that is the equivalent of four 1080p displays. There are also provisions for extended color support, 3D video formats, a new micro connector, and even HDMI connections for use with car entertainment systems.

These changes will clearly enhance and improve the appeal of HDMI to make HDTV connections easier and more versatile. It will take time for the manufacturers to catch up with some of these features — hardware always is out in front of software developments — but eventually we can expect to see devices that have more intelligence and require less interaction from the user in order to get the desired effect. Instead of having to control individual devices, we should be able to push a single button on the remote that lets us watch a movie, with all the components of the system automatically configuring themselves the way we want.

While I’m on the subject of HDMI, let me repeat my advice about cables. Because they are digital, HDMI connections are generally pass/fail; either they work, or they don’t. It’s not like an analog signal where a poor connection can lose information that degrades the quality of the image or sound. As a result, my advice is to spend as little as possible on your HDMI cables because — in most cases — they will work just as well as the ones that cost up to 10 times as much. And I just found a site on the Web that has some very attractive prices for HDMI cables. I have not tried any cables from Optimized Cable Company http://www.optimization-world.com — but they appear to be of good quality and come with a lifetime warranty against defects. And the prices are about as good as I’ve seen, even though they use gold plated contacts (to prevent corrosion and oxidation). If you need cables, I’d give them a try. (And if you do, please write to me at alfred@hdtvprofessor.com and let me know how they work for you.)