HDMI Needs a Lot of Work

HDMI stands for High Definition Multimedia Interface. It incorporates HDCP, which stands for High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection. This is the “All New! All Different! All Improved!” connector that we’re supposed to be using to link our high-definition televisions and projectors to our high-definition media sources. The people pushing this claim it gives you a crisp, sharp picture (it does), that it is easy to use and connect (it is not), and that it provides important “content protection” for the poor, struggling companies that provide us movies, music, and television shows.

I’ve spent several hours over the past several days trying to get various audio/video components to work together in my theater room using new HDMI cables and connections. Whoever (or whatever group) thought this up should’ve kept working on it for a while longer. This system is just not ready for prime time. I now have everything (barely) working, but if something changes, or if I turn one component off in the wrong sequence… I have to unplug and then plug things back in one at a time to get all the devices to “see” each other. What a pain.

So that the reader knows where I’m coming from, here are the components I’m connecting together using HDMI:

You may ask, why am I bothering with HDMI, since Component (RGB) connections work fine with all these devices? Three reasons:

  1. The picture is better for every component I tested using HDMI.
  2. DVD upscaling from the Oppo DVD player only works using HDMI.
  3. Many current and upcoming HD devices will only output their highest quality when sent over HDMI (HD-DVD, Blu-Ray, TiVo Series 3, etc)

I finally did get everything working, but it took a lot of fussing, trying several different lengths and brands of cable, and a great deal of trial and error to get there. Based on my experience, and only on my actual experience, here is my humble list of what’s wrong with this system…

The plug itself comes loose way too easily. The HDMI plug itself has no “catch”, unlike any other type of connector out there. It will fall out of whatever it’s plugged into at the slightest nudge. Since I have one very long run of HDMI cable (30 feet) to my ceiling mounted projector, I purchased very heavy, 28-gauge cable to prevent signal loss. Just the weight of the plug pulls it out of my receiver. Even when using short 6-foot interconnects, the plugs fall out whenever I move the components – such as when sliding them into place on the shelf. Why didn’t they design these plugs with some sort of a grip? Even USB plugs, which on the surface look similar, snap into place and hold. So does every other kind of audio and/or video connection. DVI and VGA cables at least have screws to hold them in place when connecting something permanently.

Thank God I don’t live in Los Angeles anymore… every time a tremor hit, I’m sure all the plugs would fall out. I don’t know how this could be fixed, given that the format of the connector itself can’t be changed. For myself, I used blue painter’s tape to hold them in place – which sure makes the back of my receiver looks nasty! Perhaps in the future, the plugs and connectors could be housed in a case that includes lock-down screws on either side, such as in current computer monitor (VGA and/or DVI) cables and connectors.

Connector housing is too long. The connection part of the cable requires at least a full 2″ of clearance behind whatever device you’re connecting it to, and that’s if you’re willing to bend the cable at a hard, near pinching angle. You’re better off leaving at least 6″ to 8″ to allow the cable to curve cleanly away. In the tight spaces available in an audio/video rack, or when connecting to a projector that’s ceiling-mounted near a wall, that’s a lot of extra dead space to come up with.

My suggestion would be for some company to create a “right-angle” connection, so that the cable can drop at a sharp angle away from the given component. Of course, since the HDMI connector can only go in one way, that would require cables to be sold in a wide variety of angle configurations. I doubt this is going to happen. The only other solution I can think of is for a change to the housing, so that it is stiff for only the bare minimum necessary to hold the metal connector in place. This highlights again what a bad design the HDMI plug itself is.

“Handshaking” between devices is buggy and unstable. Currently, I have two content devices (a DVD player and a media center PC) connected via HDMI to my audio/video receiver. The receiver then connects to the projector via a long run of HDMI cable. Both content devices actually supported DVI out, so I used cables that convert from DVI to HDMI. The DVD player works almost all of the time, but the PC connection is much less stable. It also seems to make a difference in which order devices are turned on, and whether any of them are in “sleep” or “hibernation” mode.

Now, I use a programmable “all in one” remote control, so that I don’t have to pick up multiple remotes all the time, and needless to say, the remote simply cannot be programmed to understand that there is an “order” to turning things on and/or off. My temporary solution is to never have the remote turn anything off. I have it turn on every single component, then separately turn on the projector, and then turn everything off at the end of the viewing period in the reverse order that it was turned on.

HDCP confirmation varies widely between devices. HDCP is the reason we have this stupid connector in the first place. Since the movie content providers firmly believe that everyone that views their products are criminals, they’ve locked down (or want to be able to lock down) every new type of disc format or high-definition viewing experience. Thus we have “content protection”, in which every device connected has to be “authorized” in order for a picture to show up at the end. Unfortunately, it appears that the default setting for most devices is “unauthorized unless I am told otherwise”, instead of the other way around. Therefore, a lot of this turning on and off crap has to happen in order to convince the monitor or receiver that whatever you’re trying to watch is indeed legal.

The Oppo DVD player, for example, never fails. My PC, which is currently running Windows Vista Media Center, often does fail. No doubt this is some sort of driver issue between Microsoft, ATI, Panasonic, and Yamaha. But this just makes my point all the more valid: The default state should be “allow”, and only if a device issues something like “Hey! I’m playing something pirated!” should the “content protection” circuits get invoked. And if I ever add a Blu-Ray player into the mix, I’m sure it will get even worse. Interesting side note: My HD-DVD player, which is a drive connected to my Xbox 360, does not even provide HDMI output. It can only be connected using Component or VGA.

In Conclusion, HDMI strikes me as pretty half-baked. I’m sure that over time, new devices and cables will come out that will address and correct many of these problems. Unfortunately, that won’t help me, since I’ve already spent my money on all these goodies. And while I can relatively easily replace the video card in my PC, or get a firmware upgrade for the DVD player, there is nothing that can be done for either the $2,000 projector or the $1,200 receiver.

Personally, I hope every Hollywood big-wig out there is forced to spend a weekend trying to get their HDTV to play a DVD using this convoluted setup that they have forced on us… but who am I kidding? They have little people like me to do all that stuff for them.

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