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Are HDMI Cables Backwards Compatible?


You’ve never linked HD devices before. 

Maybe there are specific HDMI cables for particular devices, and you just haven’t figured it out yet.

Is the HDMI cable you’re about to buy going to complete your GPU-to-monitor connection? 

Let’s find out.

Are all HDMI cables backward compatible?

A long black hdmi cable on a wood table

Yes, all HDMI cables are backward compatible. What this means is that all HDMI devices and cables can work together.

But there is a caveat. 

When the HDMI devices you’ve connected have different HDMI versions, the displayed image bears the capabilities of the older and lower HDMI version. 

Please note that the HDMI cable you use does not affect the image quality in any way. It is there to link the two devices. It’s a mere conduit. 

Here’s an example of a connection you can make:

  • You have a 4K TV with an HDMI 2.1 port. 
  • You wish to play a movie from a DVD or Blu-ray disc player that supports HDMI 1.4, with the TV as your display. 
  • You’re using an HDMI 2.0 cable to connect the two devices. 

The cable will link the two devices, but the movie will only feature HDMI 1.4 capabilities. 

Why?

You are connecting a device with an older HDMI specification to a device with a newer HDMI specification. So you only get the features available in the older HDMI specification because that is the version both devices support.

If you wish to enjoy the features available in a specific HDMI version, ensure that all the devices you’re connecting support that HDMI version. 

To get HDMI 2.0 features on your 4K TV, for example, connect a DVD or Blu-ray disc player with HDMI 2.0 capabilities using any high-speed HDMI cable.

Always remember the golden rule of upgrades when buying any HDMI component: 

An upgrade offers more capabilities and advanced (better) features than previous versions of the product.

That means the newer the HDMI specification, the more capabilities it has. 

So if you want the most advanced technologies, you choose devices that support the newest HDMI specification. 

In the future, when a higher HDMI specification is released, you will still be able to connect your older devices to the newer HDMI components. That is how backwards compatibility in HDMI works. 

How does the HDMI interface work?

What is HDMI? (High Definition Multimedia Interface)

HDMI interface transfers video and audio signals together in one cable. This is a departure from how analog technology works. 

The analog interface translates video and audio signals to electric pulses and can only carry each signal separately. 

So it uses separate cables to do that—a composite video cable (the yellow plug on an RCA cable) and audio cables (the red and white plugs on an RCA cable). 

That means it only transfers one video channel and two audio channels, one for the right side and another for the left side. 

To get both video and signals, you must plug all three jacks into the RCA sockets of your analog device. 

By contrast, HDMI translates video and audio into binary form—digital ones and zeroes—and transfers the data as a single entity. 

While the HDMI signal requires more bandwidth to process and transmit, it suffers little, if any, deterioration due to noise interferences. 

Analog signals, on the other hand, use little bandwidth, which is remarkable. The drawback is that the fidelity of the signal is compromised when there is noise interference.

Compared to the analog interface, HDMI transfers huge amounts of data at a time. Therefore, it produces sharper, more detailed images than what you get from analog technology.

Connecting HDMI devices

To get an HDMI signal, you must connect an HDMI source to an HDMI receiver or display using an HDMI cable. 

It’s a simple connection where one end of the cable goes into the HDMI port of the source device, and the other end of the cable goes into the HDMI port of the receiving device.

You can transmit an analog signal to an HDMI display screen and vice versa. But you need adapters and converters to do so. 

And while they complete the transmission, they involve converting the signal from analog format to digital format and vice versa. Sometimes, it calls for you to convert the signal twice. 

Each conversion downgrades the signal quality, so the image you finally get on the screen is not as sharp as the original image.

What are the differences between HDMI versions (1.4, 2.0, 2.1)?

All HDMI cables have the same basic structure, but they may have different capacities across numerous parameters. 

The most important of these parameters is transmission bandwidth because it influences how much data the cables transfer from one point to another.

These differences define the different versions of HDMI cables. So far, we have HDI 1.4, 2.0, and 2.1. 

Let’s look at each version in greater depth.

HDMI 1.4

StarTech HDMI 1.4 Cable
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HDMI 1.4 was released in May 2009. It:

  1. Supports two high-definition formats: 4096 x 2160 at 24Hz and 3840 x 2160 at 24Hz/25Hz/30Hz. 

The first two figures refer to the resolution, while the third is the refresh rate in frames per second.

HDMI 1.4b, which was released in October 2011, added a full HD feature that supports 1080p at 120Hz.

  1. Has a transmission bandwidth of 10.2 Gbps. 

Here, bandwidth refers to the amount of data the cable can transfer in a second. It’s measured in bits per second.

  1. Supports 3D and a limited range of color landscapes.
  2. Has Audio Return Channel (ARC), which supports more audio formats and has better audio quality than optical cables.
  3. Supports HDMI Ethernet Channel. This means it allows the transmission of video, audio, and data in one HDMI cable without connecting a secondary Ethernet cable. So IP-enabled devices can send and receive signals over HDMI.

HDMI 2.0

HDMI 2.0 Cables
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HDMI 2.0 was released in September 2013. 

These are its main features:

  1. Supports 4K at 60Hz.
  2. Has a transmission bandwidth of 18 Gbps.
  3. Supports more color landscapes.
  4. HDMI 2.0a and 2.0b, which were 2.0 updates released between 2015 and 2016, support High Dynamic Range (HDR) video.

HDR technology supports a wide color range and brings out the sharp and subtle contrast in colors, resulting in detailed images.

HDMI 2.1

8K HDMI Cable 2.1
Click image for more info

HDMI 2.1 was released in November 2017.

Its main features are:

  1. It supports up to 10K at 60Hz and 120Hz.
  2. Has a transmission bandwidth of 48 Gbps.
  3. Supports dynamic HDR.
  4. Has Enhanced Audio Return Channel (eARC). eARC is an improved ARC format that supports the most advanced audio formats and offers the highest audio quality.
  5. Supports enhanced gaming features, including Variable Refresh Rate (VRR), Auto Low Latency Mode (ALLM), and Quick Frame Transport (QFT), all of which eliminate lagging. 
  6. Supports Quick Media Switching (QMS), a technology that eliminates the delays that lead to a blank screen before a video or an image is displayed.

Conclusion

All HDMI cables have backward compatibility. That means they work with all versions and models of HDMI devices regardless of the HDMI specifications the devices support. They do not discriminate.

Any HDMI cable will work when you’re trying to connect two HDMI devices. The cable just needs to fetch the HDMI signal from the HDMI OUT port of your source device and deliver it to the HDMI IN port of your receiving device.

Note, however, that high-resolution video like 4K and 8K requires high-rate HDMI cables because of the sheer amount of data that needs to be transferred in a second. 

Standard HDMI cables cannot handle that much data. Only high-speed and ultrahigh-speed HDMI cables can transmit high-resolution video.

And that’s where the various HDMI cable groupings come into play.

Bandwidth capacity and other metrics determine the different specifications HDMI cables fall into, with HDMI 1.4, 2.0, and 2.0 being the specifications in use at present.


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