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New Connector Could Further Confuse DTV Consumers

by Jim Bray

It seems as if it were only yesterday that the best way to patch an HDTV receiver to an HD-ready TV was component video.

Wait, it was only yesterday!

Well, almost. Early adopters of HDTV, which is only a few years old, never imagined that within a couple of years their expensive TV's would sport obsolete interfaces.

But along came DVI (Digital Visual Interface) to rub their noses in the fact that they paid through the nose for early HDTV. And now that DVI-equipped DVD players, set top boxes and HDTV-ready televisions are in stores, you can make your purchases confident that that's it, interface-wise, for the foreseeable future. Right?

Dream on! Yet another new digital interface is already rearing its head, offering just what the HDTV market needs: more confusion!

More convenience, too, fortunately, at least in some ways.

This interface is called HDMI, for High Definition Multimedia Interface, and it combines video and audio signals into a single digital interface.

The interconnect manufacturers – and sellers - must be beside themselves with joy at the prospect...

On the other hand, since HDMI is supposed to work with A/V receivers as well as the other components, one would think it'll be possible to “daisy chain” all the components together, stringing a single cable between each one. So you'd have one HDMI cable running from the “programming source” to A/V receiver, and another one from the receiver to the TV.

Of course this also means you can expect to see a whole new line of A/V products sporting the HDMI interface – much to the chagrin of consumers who just bought or upgraded their home theatres under the impression they'd be set for the foreseeable future.

Just like the early HDTV adopters with their “state-of-the-art” component video inputs.

Do you see a pattern here? I wonder if (or when) consumers are going to get fed up with all this jerking around at the hands of the industry and just say “to hell with it” and stay home from the stores.

I hope it doesn't happen, even if only for the selfish reasons of "tech pundit job security," but I couldn't blame people for voting with their wallets.

Anyway, HDMI uses the core technology of DVI as its jumping off point, including the High Bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) system. HDCP is a copy protection system designed to prevent the “unauthorized recording or transmission” of digital programming content transmitted via DVI-compliant displays. It's a kiss up to Hollywood who, as usualy, want to have their cake and eat it, too. They're freaked out at the possibility of people making perfect digital copies of the crap (and the odd good thing) they churn out, thus undermining their profit base.

Of course, if they just lowered retail prices they could fight this supposed scourge by encouraging people to buy rather than pirate (and most pirating supposedly isn't done by the ordinary consumer anyway), but that would take vision and guts. But I digress...

While HDMI piggybacks on the DVI interface it not only adds digital audio to the mix, it sports a smaller and more convenient USB-like plug. It's also supposedly forward and backward compatible with DVI, which makes one wonder what the point is other than consumer convenience of adding audio to the single cable (which, of course, isn't a bad thing).

Still, I guess if you have to have such an interface, HDMI may be the best.

If nothing else, it's versatile. The interface transmits all ATSC HDTV standards including 1080p, which is good, and supports 8-channel digital audio with bandwidth to spare for future enhancements and requirements.

The HDMI web site's FAQ ( also lists these benefits:
1. “Superior, uncompressed digital video and audio quality"
2. “Simple, user-friendly connector that replaces the maze of cabling behind the entertainment center"
3. “Integrated remote control"
4. “A popular interface enabling the transmission of high-definition content. HDMI opens the floodgate of digital content from major motion picture producers”

That last sentence, of course, is the thinly veiled reference to ensuring there's sufficient copy protection built into the system to mollify the movie moguls.

HDMI's claimed bandwidth is up to five gigabytes per second, which is pretty good. Today's HDTV broadcasts use much less than that, so HDMI has considerable elbow room for whatever comes down the pipeline next. And HDMI supposedly allows for far longer cables than DVI, which might not be a big deal for normal consumer applications, but could come in handy in commercial or larger home theater installations.

HDMI's development was overseen by “the HDMI Working Group” and includes such usual suspects as Sony, Hitachi, Philips, and Toshiba. Programming providers Fox and Universal, and program delivery operators such as DirecTV, Dish Network, also have their fingerprints on HDMI.

HDMI-saddled devices were first shown at the January 2003 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and there were even more on hand at the CEDIA (Consumer Electronics Design and Installation Association) show I attended in September 2004 in Indianapolis. They're also starting to appear in retail stores.

The part that bugs me is that the bottom line seems to be that yet again the industry is muddying the waters, confusing and possibly antagonizing consumers in its quest to balance technological efficiency with Hollywood's obsession for control.

And no one seems to be asking the consumers' opinions.

At least HDMI does offer exquisite video quality - at least potentially (you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, after all).


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