10 September 2013

Everything you need to know about HDMI 2.0 (Hint: You don’t need new cables)

Cables aren’t sexy technology. So it’s no surprise that innovations and advancements in the wires that make so much home entertainment possible usually fly under the radar for the average consumer. But HDMI 2.0 is a little different because its introduction is tied tightly to the advancement of Ultra HD, or 4K, televisions. When Panasonic and Sony launched their latest 4K/Ultra HD televisions at IFA 2013 this week, they gave HDMI 2.0 a lot of lip service. As a result, even consumers who don’t own those next-gen televisions are starting to ask questions: Will I have to buy new cables? Is the connector different? How long until my HDMI equipment is obsolete?

Here’s the short answer: You have nothing to worry about. You don’t have to do a thing because although HDMI 2.0 opens up a new world of possibilities in TV, nothing about the cables or the connectors is changing. Here’s everything you need to know about HDMI 2.0.

You can thank 4K Ultra HD

HDMI 2.0 is the successor to the HDMI  1.4a/b standard most of us use today, which works well, so why change it? The primary reason is that 4K Ultra HD televisions require much more bandwidth to realize their full potential. Since 4K Ultra HD is four times the resolution of 1080p, the current HD standard, it means there’s a need for more throughput to handle extra data going back and forth. Lot’s more.

HDMI 1.4 can support 4K resolutions, yes, but only at 24 or 30 frames per second. That works fine for movies, but is of no use for gaming and many TV broadcasts, which require 50 or 60 fps. Also HDMI 1.4 limits 4K Ultra HD content to 8-bit color, but it is capable of 10 or 12-bit color. HDMI 2.0 fixes all of that because it can handle up to 18 gigabits per second. That’s plenty enough to allow for 12-bit color and video up to 60 frames per second. But wait, there’s more!

Get ready for some crazy surround sound

HDMI 2.0 can handle 32 channels of uncompressed audio. If that sounds like overkill, well … it might be for some. But don’t tell that to the folks over at Dolby. The latest Dolby Atmos surround format is capable of 64 channels of surround in the theaters. Scaling it back to 32 channels (or less) for a home-brewed version of Dolby Atmos is now within grasp. And we have it on good authority that Dolby is working on something exactly like that. Are your ears excited yet? They should be.

Don’t throw away your HDMI cables

As we mentioned earlier, HDMI 2.0 changes nothing about the size, shape or wiring of HDMI cables. Should you wind up getting devices that are HDMI 2.0 compliant, your existing cables will work just fine. And since HDMI 2.0 is backward compatible with older HDMI versions, you’ll be able to connect your old Blu-ray player and/or A/V receiver to a newer HDMI 2.0-equipped 4K Ultra HD with absolutely no problem.

Soon, you will need fewer remote controls

While you won’t want to toss your HDMI cables in the bin, you might soon be able to have a remote control burning party (actually, that sounds toxic and irresponsible. Maybe just throw them away instead). If you’re not familiar with CEC, it’s a protocol that allows for one connected device to control another, and vice versa. That’s why you can often control your Blu-ray player with your TV remote, even though they come from different brands. However, implementing CEC has always been up to the manufacturer; sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t. No more “sometimes,” folks. With HDMI 2.0, there are standards that require the inclusion of certain control features. Soon enough, one remote is going to be able to control a whole lot more devices, and without requiring you to whip out an encyclopedia of four-digit remote control codes and punch in a bunch of button combinations. Doesn’t that sound nice?

For some, HDMI 2.0 is just a download away

When Sony announced it’s newest 4K televisions at IFA 2013, it also announced that most of its existing 4K sets can be upgraded to HDMI 2.0 by the end of 2013 through a simple firmware update. Just download the update and let the TV install it. And if Sony can do it, that means other manufacturers probably can as well. We’ll know in time which manufacturers and which devices can take advantage of a simple firmware update, but it is nice to know that an upgrade won’t necessarily involve a screwdriver or expensive technician.

What else can it do?

All that bandwidth opens up a whole bunch of possibilities. The HDMI forum says HDMI 2.0 makes simultaneous delivery of dual video streams to multiple users on the same screen possible – just imagine what that could do for video games! Also, hardcore cinephiles will be pleased to know that this latest version supports 21:9 aspect ratios; so we can probably expect to see more ultra wide-screen TVs soon.

There you have it. It’s a brave, new HDMI 2.0 world and you don’t have to do much of anything to enjoy its rewards. Well…except maybe buy a really expensive 4K Ultra HD TV and wait around for broadcast standards and stuff like that. Still, it’s nice to know that we’ll be set for at least a few more years without having to gut and rewire our home entertainment systems. Unless, of course, HDBaseT takes off.


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