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What if HDMI Actually Worked?

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Let me be clear with the fact that without HDMI there wouldn't be volumes of 1080p HD content, complete with beaming video, 7.1 uncompressed HD audio and all of those feature-laden supplemental materials that we get from Blu-ray. At the same time, you will be hard pressed to find an honest custom installer or quality AV retailer who won't tell you that HDMI is the number one headache facing them as they sell and install today's top performing home theater systems.

HDMI by specification needs a constant two-way connection between source components, receivers/preamps, switchers of various kinds and video monitors. Establishing this connection or "handshake" requires keys to be exchanged (like one of those swinger parties in the 1970's but with the real possibility that you won't get lucky in the end). This means that the entire system needs constant two-way communication which often causes grief, cursing and/or violence on the part of an installer or end user who wants his or her system to smoothly connect - as HDMI proposes to do. The main issue facing HDMI today is that there isn't a clear, quick and or meaningful way to get A to talk to B and B to talk with C. Sources all differ in the time that they need to exchange keys. AV preamps often need more time and/or have trouble authenticating sources in a meaningful way. Video sources can take the HDMI feed but often struggle when they are long distances from the receiver as 1080p content over traditional copper cable can have issues when running over 10 feet.

There are just so many issues facing HDMI that the format seems plagued, yet Silicon Image keeps coming out with new versions. Version 1.1 and 1.2 offered small changes that didn't freak the consumers out too badly, but version 1.3 was needed to pass HD audio from Blu-ray to an AV preamp or receiver which means that clients need to take a total bath on earlier HDMI-based electronics to get HD audio via HDMI. The good news? Silicon Image is coming out with HDMI version 1.4 which offers yet another reason to devalue your AV preamp by 40 to 50 percent so that you can have features you don't need while getting the same, unreliable connection that we've been suffering with since HDMI 1.1.

Dealers hate HDMI as they can't in good faith charge for labor to deal with intermittent handshake issues but that doesn't make consumers call any less frequent. Analog component video cables can pass 2K and 4K video content but don't have copy protection so Hollywood understandably says no to that idea, although there are already enough copies of top grossing films selling on the streets of Beijing. Most installers would make more money and have fewer service calls if they could connect via analog component cable or if they could use HDMI without the HDCP copy protection.

HDMI, while not run by Microsoft, feels very "Microsoft" when you look at the paranoid nature of needing a two-way constant connection. What PC geeks liked about Windows XP better than Vista was that XP was a little more out of your business. Vista is constantly checking for updates, virus protection and so on. It's always in your face. Thankfully, I use a Mac.

Speaking of Mac, Apple is using a new copy protection system called Display Port. I don't know of any consumer grade AV products using it yet, but consider this: I can leave my Mac Pro computer run for three months without a software update, without getting a virus and without even restarting the system. Conversely, my $250,000 home theater often needs to be restarted completely to get a suitable connection between HDCP copy protected sources like Blu-ray. Note: HDMI components like my DirecTV receiver without HDCP work like a charm and switch flawlessly.

Silicon Image needs to forget about coming out with new versions of HDMI for a while. Adding features to a flawed system is killing the business. Consumers don't want to deal with rebooting their home theater systems. They simply will spend money on other things. Consumers who often buy AV preamps or AV receivers using the "laundry list" criteria get flustered and confused when there is always something new to add to that list. It's hard to illustrate to consumers that they don't need 2K bandwidth but it's easy to show them how their lives would be better if their systems connected correctly. It's hard to explain to consumers why their $6,000 AV preamp is worth $900 three years later because it doesn't have HDMI 1.8.

Every player in the game would make more money if HDMI set their sole focus on making their connection bullet proof. Studios will sell more software. Electronics companies will sell more players, receivers and monitors. High-end companies who sell exponentially fewer SKUs and volume of product would be able to keep up. Consumers wouldn't need to constantly change equipment and wealthy people might feel more comfortable investing in media rooms, distributed audio systems and more overall consumer electronics when their gear doesn't cause them the same unnecessary headaches that come from their tweaked out PCs.

HDMI is the single biggest problem in the AV business today. Gary Shapiro from the CEA needs to pressure Silicon Image to get it right. Same with the studio heads and the CEOs of the big consumer electronics companies because 9,999 out of 10,000 consumers have no ill intentions when it comes to stealing media. They just want their systems to work - yet HDMI and its prohibitive HDCP copy protection limits sales in ways where every single partner in the deal suffers. Before HDMI looks to version 1.4, they need to rethink the issues related to the format and its copy protection. Perhaps shelving HDMI 1.4 is prudent right now for something called HDMI 2.0 - a format that actually works backwardly compatible to HDMI 1.0 and opens up tens upon tens of millions of new customers to the consumer electronics business.

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