What is HDMI 2.1: A Complete Guide for Beginners?

HDMI is a popular name in the world of high-definition entertainment. The format has passed through several iterations to become the standard for video and gaming devices. Recently, the HDMI organization announced the introduction of the new HDMI 2.1 format. Along with several changes, you will now need to get a new cable to support HDMI 2.1. But is it the right time to act?

The HDMI 2.1 format packs a range of improvements over the HDMI 2.0 format. But you don't have to rush and buy a new cable yet! 

Today, we will provide a detailed takedown on HDMI 2.1 and whether you need to upgrade. 

The Journey to HDMI 2.1

HDMI started its journey in 2002 to become the most popular standard in the audiovisual industry. The format went through many changes to reach where it stands today. The most significant upgrades were in terms of data transmission rates, resolutions, frame rates, and audio capabilities. 

The HDMI format opened the doors to endless possibilities, encouraging the advancement of 4K and high-definition content. However, till now, the HDMI format used the same cable for all iterations. 

The HDMI 2.1 format brings a new cable along with a host of improvements. Let's explore what has changed from the HDMI 2.0 version. 

What's New In HDMI 2.1

As we said earlier, the HDMI 2.1 format brings a host of new upgrades-

48Gbps Bandwidth

You might think the 18Gbps bandwidth of HDMI 2.0 is more than enough to support your high-definition content. However, many home entertainment systems may find the limit inadequate. 

Let's say you are dealing with a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc. You will need enough bandwidth to support the high level of data the disk produces. They include several elements like-

  • 4K image resolution

  • 60fps content or more

  • 10-bit color

  • HDR metadata

  • 4: 4: 4 color sampling

  • Dolby Atoms

The amount of data the Blu-ray disk needs to send to your TV is quite humongous, and can find the 18Gbps rate insufficient.

HDMI 2.1 almost triples the capacity of HDMI 2.0 when it comes to data transmission. You can support content at 48Gbps to take advantage of all HD and 4K/8K features. 

Higher Resolutions and Frame Rates

You can reach unimaginable levels of resolution and frame rates with HDMI 2.1. Till now, the HDMI format was limited to supporting 4K at frame rates up to 60fps. But with the new upgrade, you can go as high as 10K with frame rates of 120fps.

Playing 8K content at 120 fps will be a breeze for HDMI 2.1!

Along with TV viewers, gamers are also happy with the HDMI's support for higher frame rates. They can now expect smoother and improved performance with real-time gameplay. 

Current HDMI 2.0 cables can go up to as much as 8K at 30fps. However, 8K content is almost non-existent, so you won't have many opportunities to max out frame rates yet.

Dynamic HDR

HDR or high dynamic range is a great technology to improve the quality of images and videos. HDR uses metadata to control how scenes appear on the screen. The current HDR format is HDR10+ and sends metadata to your display only once to instruct how to process the scenes. 

As a result, bright and dark scenes use the same metadata and suffer in quality. 

Dynamic HDR takes the technology to the next level and optimizes each frame and scene. A dark scene with bright lights will be processed differently than a bright frame with dark highlights. You get a rich visual experience where all scenes appear closer to life. 

Along with HDMI 2.1, the content also needs to support dynamic HDR. Otherwise, you will end up with only static HDR. 

eARC

ARC or Audio Return Channel was the norm for HDMI TVs and soundbars. The technology simplifies the connection between audio and display devices and supports features like object-based audio. However, due to the low bandwidth of HDMI 2.0, sound capabilities were still compromised.

HDMI 2.1 brings eARC, or Enhanced Audio Return Channel, to improve the audio experience. You can now transmit full resolution, uncompressed audio over the HDMI 2.1 cables. As a result, Dolby Atoms can play out their fullest capabilities using the lossless Dolby TrueHD audio signal.

Game Mode VRR

Variable frame rates are important for gamers to enjoy their games properly. Games don't maintain the same frame rate all the time and vary according to the scene complexity. This creates a mismatch between the game and display's fps, creating lags or frame tearing. 

Some advanced GPU technologies like Nvidia G-Sync reduces these limitations by using variable refresh rates. The same is now available for HDMI 2.1 for better gameplay and enjoyment. 

Your PC or console's graphics processor will now be able to telecast the real-time frame rate of the scene. You won't have to worry about buffering or judders and can enjoy the greatest details even for most complex scenes. 

The technology will also make TVs a suitable option for gaming display with matching frame rates. 

Quick Frame Transport

The quick frame transport is another boon to gamers. The technology ensures a frame of video takes as less time as possible to reach from the source to your display. You will be able to rule out lags and enjoy real-time gameplay, especially for first-person shooter games. 

The technology will also benefit VR applications by reducing lags and speeding up content delivery.

ALLM or Auto Low Latency Mode

ALLM makes way for your display devices to become smarter and faster. The technology allows TVs or other displays to recognize and differentiate between the source of signals. As a result, the display unit can deliver videos faster by switching off any unnecessary image processing workload. 

You can get several benefits due to this, like low latency and lags.

Quick Media Switching

HDMI 2.1 will eliminate all the black screens you encounter while switching between sources and apps. You will get instant videos without any hindrances. 

Perfect Audio and Video Sync

Image processing is a heavy task for displays like TVs. However, processing audio is much simpler and faster. 

The mismatch creates lip-sync issues where the audio is not in line with the video on the screen. HDMI 2.1 enables displays to sync with sources like consoles or Blu-ray players in real-time. The audio matches exactly what is being shown on the screen without exceptions. 

These are more or less the major upgrades of HDMI 2.1 over 2.0. Now, let's find out if you really need to switch to HDMI 2.1.

Do You Need a New HDMI 2.1 Cable?

You will need an HDMI 2.1 cable to take advantage of the advanced features. They are called the Ultra High Speed HDMI cables with a bandwidth of 48Gbps. However, you might not find adequate use of the features in the current scenario. 

The truth is, most of us don't need a new HDMI 2.1 cable right now. You will not find content, either in 4K or 8K, to use the full potential of HDMI 2.1 cables. Even though they support 10K, we still don't have any official discussion on even 8K content. 

Sending content at 120fs or 60fps is still not possible as such materials don't exist. Of course, games do use higher frame rates, like Xbox One X, and can reach 120fps. However, the high frame rate is only possible at lower resolutions, that are perfectly okay for HDMI 2.0 cables.

Coming to Dynamic HDR, some technologies like HDR10+ and Dolby Vision currently use dynamic metadata over current HDMI 2.0 connections. The improved capabilities of 2.1 are impressive, but only if supporting content is available. 

Additionally, gamers can also enjoy VRR over HDMI 2.0 if the devices at the two ends support the technology. 

For now, you don't have many options to use the advanced features of HDMI 2.1. 

Best of all, HDMI 2.1 is backward-compatible and supports older technologies. You are fine with your HDMI 2.0 cable for at least now. 

What about TVs with HDMI 2.1?

TV manufacturers are always quick to adopt the latest technology. Following the trend, many companies like LG and Samsung are selling TVs with HDMI 2.1 ports. Should you get a new cable for your new HDMI 2.1 TV?

Before making your purchase, you should be aware of a few nuances. It's true we have TVs with HDMI 2.1, but not all of them are equipped to make the most of the format. Additionally, the HDMI Licensing allows manufacturers to enlist their TVs and HDMI 2.1 even if they don't offer all features. 

For example, a TV can say its HDMI 2.1 even if it offers eARC and ALLM without supporting 8K at 120fps. 

We will need many more years before TVs are able to utilize the full capabilities of HDMI 2.1. So, you don't need to worry unless about buying a new cable right now. Your current HDMI 2.0 cable is enough to meet the requirements of the current industry.

Can I Upgrade my HDMI 2.0 Device to HDMI 2.1?

 Most TVs don't support the full range of HDMI 2.1 capabilities. Even the new 8K TVs are not equipped with all HDMI 2.1 features. But, can you expect a firmware update at a later date?

Most probably, you will not be able to update devices like your TV to HDMI 2.1. A whole range of hardware is needed to support HDMI 2.1, so a firmware update may not be adequate.

Additionally, your TV manufacturer may not profit by updating your TV. Moreover, in most cases, the upgrade is not physically possible. 

However, Samsung has promised an upgrade to HDMI 2.1 for current 8K Q900S QLED TV owners. But we aren't sure if the update will unleash all HDMI 2.1 capabilities or will be a limited upgrade. Samsung hasn't made any announcement as yet. 

If you purchased your TV within the past two years, you should be okay for at least a few more years. It's also better to wait as the prices will come down only after a few months of the product's launch. 

The Best Option is to Wait

We need fitting content to utilize the full capabilities of HDMI 2.1. However, the current industry has a serious lack of content that needs such advanced features. So, going for HDMI 2.1 will empower you with capabilities you cannot put to use. 

Most TVs today are okay with 4K content unless you rev up the frame rates. 10K content is still completely out of the picture, as we haven't even been able to generate enough 4K content. 

Additionally, you won't be able to get all benefits of HDMI 2.1 unless the devices support the features. Your current HDMI 2.0 setup with your 2.0 cable is enough to exploit even the most advanced technologies available today.

Final Thoughts

HDMI 2.1 brings a new cable for the first time since the introduction of HDMI. The change in the cable is mostly to accommodate the larger data transmission capacity, while the connectors stay the same. Newer gadgets like TVs and gaming consoles will be coming out with HDMI 2.1 in the future and support even 10K content at 120fps. Along with that, you have advanced capabilities like VRR to improve gaming performance. We have also seen a great improvement in the audio section with support for uncompressed, full-resolution audio. Wait out a few years till the format attains maturity and achieves full potential for everyday use. 

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