HDMI cables for dummies: the ultimate guide

HDMI Guide

Contents

 

When you need a new HDMI cable, chances are you probably buy the first one you come across without a second thought. But did you know there are more than four different types of HDMI cables? And each has its unique features. To get the best entertainment experience, you’ll need to figure out which cable is best for your systems.

Don’t feel bad; even the most tech-savvy people can’t list all the types of HDMI cables and their features from memory. If you’re not sure how to find the best cable, this guide is an excellent place to start.

You might have heard of terms such as:

  • Hertz Rates
  • Bandwidth
  • 2K, 4K, and 8K
  • Ethernet Ready
  • HDMI Type A, B, C, D, and E
  • HDMI 1.4, 2.0. And 2.1
  • And other terms.

If you’re scratching your head trying to figure out what these features mean, continue reading this post. We’ll be discussing each of those features later on. Ultimately, when you’re done reading this guide, you’ll be able to flip over an HDMI cable box and understand precisely what the listed features mean, and if it’s the right cable for you.

What You Need to Know

There are a couple of things that you should know. On average, HDMI cables aren’t expensive. The only HDMI cables that are expensive are the ones designed for professional gamers, such as in the esports scene, or the 2.1 cables. Otherwise, there’s no need to worry about the budget.

HDMI Cable Types in a nutshell

HDMI Connector Types

Another point to keep in mind is the vast majority of cables and entertainment systems use HDMI Type A. The other HDMI versions are less popular; some are even irrelevant because they have been phased out. Chances are your TV has HDMI A ports, as well as your computer, and monitor (HDMI Type A cables are also the cheapest).

HDMI Connector Type

Physical Size (mm)

Used For

Type A

13.90

Standard HDMI connector for use in digital audio/video connection applications. This is also the cable used to connect to video game consoles, such as the Xbox.

Type B

21.20

A 29-pin version of the HDMI connector, which has never been used.

Type C

10.42

Designed specifically for use with portable equipment.

Type D

6.40

Designed specifically for use in compact portable equipment, such as cell phones.

Type E

13.90 mm wide

Designed for automotive applications. Adds a latching shell to the standard connector, helping to prevent vibration-caused disconnects.

While there is no requirement in the HDMI specification for labelling HDMI connectors on equipment with the type, the difference in size makes it fairly easy to determine which HDMI connector is being used on the equipment. Since most Americans are still uncomfortable working with metric measurements, measuring may be necessary.

If a metric ruler is not readily available for measuring HDMI connectors, a dime can be used as a fairly effective gauge. A Type A connector will be almost as wide as the dime; a Type C connector is a little more than half the width of the dime, and a Type D connector is less than half the width of the dime.

Type D HDMI Connectors and USB Micro connectors are of a similar size and appearance. However, they are not cross-compatible. It should be easy to determine the difference by the application. When all else fails, check the device’s owner’s manual.

HDMI Cable Types

In addition to different connector types, the HDMI specification provides five different cable types. This helps add to the confusion surrounding HDMI cables. However, as with HDMI connectors, each cable type has been developed for a specific application. Keep in mind that with HDMI converters, users can use a plug that is an HDMI cable on one end and a USB on the other. This simple adapter essentially adds an HDMI output to the computer. That opens the door to many applications on various devices and allows for different display interfaces.

Cable Type

Application

Standard

Designed for most home theatre applications including LED and LCD TV screens. These cables can reliably be used to transmit either 720p or 1080i video, and plush surround sound from an HDMI-compliant device to either an HDMI-compatible television or video projector.

Standard with Ethernet

These cables provide the same compatibility as the standard HDMI cables, plus the addition of a dedicated Ethernet channel. The Ethernet channel can be used to provide an Internet connection between devices, especially when HDMI devices are used for streaming video or other content from the Internet.

Standard Automotive

The automotive version of the standard cable provides the same connectivity as other standard cables. The outer insulation of the cable is more robust, providing increased protection from damage caused by pinching.

High Speed

High-speed cables are built to a more exacting specification, providing a connection for 1080p, 4K (UltraHD, also called 2160p), 3D television, and deep colour. Note that the ability of a cable to carry these more intensive signals is degraded over distance. Therefore, it should never be assumed that similar cables from the same manufacturer are all high speed just because shorter ones are.

High Speed with Internet

The same cable configuration as high speed, with the addition of Ethernet connectivity.

Cables Don’t Come in “Versions.”

A common misconception is that there are different versions of HDMI cables (1.4, 2.0. And 2.1b) and I would like to clarify a few things. For one, the HDMI version is mostly hardware related, similar to how USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 use the same ports.

The version depends on your hardware, for instance, a PC, TV, Blue Ray Player, or Console. Most HDMI cables, even the older generations, work with the latest hardware, although you might want to get a cable that has a higher bandwidth for specific activities (the more bandwidth, the more features).

In short, don’t worry too much about the versions. If you’re not sure what version your device supports, check the device’s manual. For instance, if you’re using your PC’s graphics card’s ports, check the specs. For example, a GTX 1060 graphics card supports HDMI 2.1B.

In other words, they’re an all-in-one cable. Usually, if you’re trying to connect a media device to your TV, almost any HDMI cable will work well enough. But if you’re looking for something to improve your PC gaming experience, a better HDMI cable is required.

That’s where things can get a bit tricky.

Understanding Hertz Rates:

HDMI cables can be categorized into three speeds: Standard (30 Hz), Premium Speed (60 Hz), and Ultra High Speed (240 Hz +).

To better understand how this works, let’s talk about displays for a second. The refresh rate of a display is usually measured in Hertz.

For instance, 30 Hz monitors can only refresh the screen 30 times a second, or 30 frames a second. The most common Hertz rate for monitors these days is 60 Hz. When it comes to playing video games, what this means is you can only “see” what the monitor can show you, which is 60 frames a second.

Generally, most professional gamers play with 120 Hz monitors because it’s a much smoother experience, and every millisecond counts. But casual gamers stick to 60 Hz monitors.

What does this have to do with HDMI cables?

The reason we’re talking about monitors is that the HDMI cable determines how much data is transferred from the computer (or another device) to the display.

Much like monitors, HDMI cables have a maximum hertz rate too, and the older versions tend to be limited to 30 Hertz. What this means is even if you have a powerful PC, and a 120 Hertz monitor, but a 30 Hz HDMI cable, the monitor will only be able to run at 30 Hz.

That’s substantially limiting your experience to 30 frames a second, which is unacceptable for most PC gamers. In other words, for the best video gaming experience, you need to make sure your monitor and HDMI cable have the same data transmission rates. We want to make the most of our hardware.

In other words, if you want a 60 frame rate experience, then you’ll need a 60 Hertz HDMI cable and 60 Hz monitor. Likewise, if you’re going to take things up a notch, for an even smoother experience, then you’ll need a 120 Hz and up to HDMI cable and monitor.

Note: Having a 60 Hz cable and monitor won’t limit your framerate in games to 60 frames a second. If you use a framerate counter, you’ll usually see the frames going far beyond 60 frames a second, especially in less demanding video games. But what it will limit is what you can see on the screen because the monitor’s refresh rate is limited. 30 Hertz is very choppy, while 60 Hz is smooth, and 120 Hz (and more) is the smoothest (best for e-sports and competitive gamers).

We’ll talk a little more about getting the best gaming experience later on.

Understanding HDMI Bandwidth

HDMI bandwidth is the amount of data that can be transferred in a second. The most common version of HDMI nowadays is 2.0, which has a bandwidth rate of 2,250 Mbs a second. We won’t get too technical here, but overall, the higher the bandwidth rate, the more features are supported.

For example, the old HDMI version 1.4 could only display 4K at 24 frames a second. In comparison, the new version HDMI 2 can run 4K at 60 frames a second.

Now, the newest version is HDMI 2.1 which was released in 2017 and offers a max bandwidth of 48 Gbit/s or 6,000 Mbs a second. With this speed, you can watch 4K videos at 120 frames a second, and 8K at 60 frames a second. The new version essentially opens up the world to the 8K experience. Of course, most people don’t use these resolutions at the moment.

The problem here is most devices are still playing catch up, and very few support HDMI 2.1. Not to mention, you need to purchase a new cable. HDMI 2.1 cables are much thicker than their counterparts.

Do You Need to Upgrade Cables?

Most HDMI cables are backwards compatible, which means the slots are the same, and the only difference is in your hardware. HDMI 2.0 (the most common version) was launched back in 2013, so chances are you’re using one of those today. For most situations, that’s enough.

However, if your device still uses an older version of HDMI, it might be best to upgrade that component, if possible. For example, an old graphics card. The cable itself rarely needs to be replaced, unless it’s limiting the features of your hardware.

Watching Movies or TV?

In the case of watching movies, the requirements are less strict. Most films are formatted to 24 frames a second, so almost any HDMI cable will work for that purpose. Hertz rate isn’t as crucial for movies, a 30 Hz HDMI cable is more than enough.

Fun fact, The Hobbit was one of the first movies to be shown in 48 frames a second. But since most people were not used to higher frame rates in movies, it led to a lot of people getting motion sickness. It seems like movies won’t be making the jump to higher frame rates just yet.

Of course, there’s the option of watching movies in 4K or higher. Since most films are shot at 24 frames a second, that falls within the limits of a regular HDMI cable (HDMI 2.0 can support 30 frames at 4K resolution). What you will need is 4K-ready TV or monitor. On a side note, keep in mind 4K movies are quite large, with the average being around 100 GBs.

Long story short, if you only need an HDMI cable for watching TV and movies, then almost any moderately new HDMI cable will do the trick. Most older versions are no longer on sale, so you don’t need to worry too much about it.

HDMI Support Resolutions

As you know, HDMI 2.0 is the most common HDMI version, and 60 Hertz is the most common refresh rate for displays. What about resolutions? The most common resolution nowadays is 1080P, which is 1920×1080.

Most computers can run games at 60 frames a second or more at this resolution with no problems. You don’t need a very powerful computer for this resolution, hence why it’s the most common.

Now, HDMI 2.0 can support resolutions from 720P all the way to 5K, with a wide range of refresh rates. The maximum resolution for HDMI 2.0 is 5K at 30 frames a second. But it can support a maximum refresh rate of 240 Hertz for every resolution below 4K.

Do I Need 4K Compatible HDMI Cables?

You’re probably wondering if a 4K compatible HDMI cable is necessary. The problem is most computers are not powerful enough to output 4K at reasonable frames, even if you have a monitor that has a 240 Hertz refresh rate. Watching movies is usually okay because the frame rate is only 24 a second.

Most people agree gaming on a 4K resolution is too much of a hassle because few graphics cards can process that amount of pixels for a smooth gaming experience. It takes a lot of power, and you can usually only reach the 50 frames a second mark, even with a powerful computer.

Note: The RTX 2080 TI can usually output a tiny bit over the 60 frames a second mark at 4K on most modern games. But most people don’t have the budget for that kind of card. Competitive gaming at 4K is pretty much out of the question.

To answer the question, most HDMI cables natively support 4K. It comes down to your source (computer or another device) and monitors to run the resolution.

Do You Need to Buy Expensive HDMI Cables?

You might have seen HDMI cables with labels such as “Premium Certified” or something along those lines. But that is a marketing trick.

The truth is you don’t need an expensive HDMI cable, especially considering you won’t be able to reach the maximum limits with today’s hardware anyways. And if you’re only interested in watching movies, almost any cheap HDMI cable will do the trick. In short, you don’t need to buy an expensive HDMI cable.

In most cases, the price of HDMI cables is based on length. The longer the cable, the more expensive it will be. So make sure you know how much distance is required. The last thing you want is to buy a cable that’s too short or waste money on one that is too long for your setup.

Using HDMI Extenders

For distances longer than 15 meters, HDMI extenders can be used. An HDMI extender is a pair of devices that are used to convert HDMI cables to Cat 5/Cat 6 cables, allowing longer runs. They usually amplify the signal as well, ensuring that the signal level received at the far end will be sufficient. When using HDMI extenders with a Cat 5/Cat 6 cable, runs of up to 250 meters (820 feet) can be made.

There are also HDMI extenders that work over optical fibre lines. With these, the source can be placed as far as 300 meters (980 feet) from the monitor.

Using HDMI Splitters

These are small devices that split the source signal into several monitors and displays.

Conclusion

To summarize, what’s the best HDMI cable? It depends on your personal preferences, whether you care more about watching movies or playing competitive video games at a high refresh rate. As I mentioned, almost any modern HDMI cable will do the trick for most activities, and most support high refresh rates at 1080P resolutions or more.

There are a couple of other features you should keep an eye out for. For example, HDMI cables that have an audio return (ARC). What this feature does is allow audio to be sent back to the device, for example, a soundbar or another ARC-enabled device. This can be useful for saving cables and cutting down on clutter. Most modern TVs are ARC-enabled, but you should always check with the manufacturer before.

On that note, some HDMI cables include ethernet too, eliminating the need for an ethernet cable. The problem is most modems and routers don’t have the function, so it’s not the best idea, and connections can be a bit spotty at times.

In my opinion, when buying an HDMI cable, the most important thing to look for is the refresh rate. If you want to play competitive games at 4K (likely possible in the near future), then you’ll need an HDMI cable capable of carrying that amount of data. Otherwise, almost any HDMI cable will do the trick.

So now, next time you visit an electronic’s store and see a catalogue of HDMI cables, you’ll understand how the features work. Thanks for taking the time to read this guide on HDMI cables. If you learned something new, feel free to leave a comment below.

Sources:

https://www.hdmi.org/news_events/index.aspx

https://www.crutchfield.com/S-NRd1ksdbWPd/learn/learningcenter/home/cables/hdmi.html

https://www.cnet.com/news/hdmi-2-1-what-you-need-to-know/

 

 

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