- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Television addicts can’t resist the crystal-clear pictures that high definition, or HD, signals provide. What they could do without is the knot of wires needed for the latest and greatest gear.

The modern-day cables that make HD signals a reality clean up much of that potential mess.

The advent of the HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) cable means just one thick thread of wires connects a person’s television set to his or her cable box.

Such a cable became necessary thanks to two major changes to the home-entertainment field. For starters, every other electronic gadget, from cell phones to televisions, has switched from analog to digital signals. That means data is streaming as a crush of ones and zeroes, much like the way a computer reads information.

Then the HD revolution hit, or at least struck a chord with gadget-minded buyers who understood the complexities inherent in the new televisions. HD programming demands more bandwidth, or space to transmit data, than traditional sets.

Steve Koenig, senior manager of industry analysis with the Arlington-based Consumer Electronics Association, says HD technology initially required users to rely on a cable hookup called DVI, or digital video interface.

These cables packed all the video information into one beefy cable but required extra wires for audio signals.

“That’s why manufacturers went to HDMI. It’s a much more elegant solution,” Mr. Koenig says.

Leslie Chard, president of HDMI Licensing, says a key driver of HDMI technology is the need for precision on the home front.

Consumers shelling out big bucks for a new television don’t want the picture quality compromised in any way. Some cable formats will compress — and then decompress — digital signals to carry them more efficiently, but Mr. Chard says doing so threatens the loss of some signal quality in the process.

“When you spend this kind of money, you don’t want to be brought back to reality,” Mr. Chard says.

The HDMI format was created by seven companies — Sony, Panasonic, Hitachi, Toshiba, Philips, Thomson and Silicon Image — and thefirst HDMI cables came out at the end of 2002.

“It’s a constantly evolving technology,” Mr. Chard says, adding that each version is compatible with previous models.

The latest HDMI cable, version 1.3, hit the market in June.

“We doubled the bandwidth,” Mr. Chard says. That means the cables can transmit images sharper than today’s best sets can produce, but perhaps not better than tomorrow’s. The newest cable also lets a television display billions, not just millions, of subtle color variations. That will yield less on-screen “banding” — when a viewer can see a line where one shade of a color bumps into another.

The newest wrinkles in the latest HDMI cables include linking several devices so they can be operated via a single remote and a wider range of colors to be displayed on HD-ready sets, says Gary Yacoubian, president of the Maryland-based electronics chain MyerEmco.

Mr. Yacoubian says the latest HDMI format isn’t being used on many products yet, but he predicts that won’t last long. For starters, the cables can be used with the newest Sony PlayStation game gear and the HD-friendly Blu-ray DVD components.

Mr. Yacoubian says when it comes to audio components, the existing coaxial cables from the past 10 years do a capable job of bringing music into the home.

Current HDMI cables carry 5.1 digital channels of sound and the new 1.3 edition ups that number to 7.1, says Deniz Mutlu, a consultant with J S Audio in Bethesda.

The electronics industry rallied behind the HDMI cable for more than just its ability to transmit information digitally. The wires also offer built-in encryption technology to prevent users from duplicating copyrighted material, Mr. Mutlu says.

An HD-capable television set and a satellite or cable box “talk to each other” via HDMI, Mr. Mutlu says. “If there’s no confirmation, there’s no picture.”

That prevents people from recording an HD program onto a DVD or other device. Otherwise, the potential bootlegger would have a full-resolution copy of something that could be sold illegally.

The price for these cables varies significantly.

“Cables can be pennies or thousands of dollars,” Mr. Mutlu says. Factors for such figure disparities include the length of the cable in question. The longer an HDMI cable is, the more likely minor “drop out” or sparkle effects can be seen on the television monitor. Higher-grade cables can do away with such distractions.

Mr. Koenig suggests that the HDMI format will be prominent in the field for the next few years but that consumer research shows customers want something more.

“Consumers in general are growing increasingly sensitive to managing the rat’s nest of wires [in their homes],” Mr. Koenig says.

Technology trumped all when it made Internet connections wireless, but the amount of data needed for HD programming is far greater and, as of now, is beyond the current wireless technologies.

For others, wireless won’t mean much because their current television sets aren’t set up to receive all the potential bells and whistles.

“Fifty percent of all HDTVs out there are not configured to receive HD content in any way,” Mr. Yacoubian says. “Of those 50 percent, half don’t know it.

“Connectivity is a confusing topic,” he says.

Consumers shelling out big bucks for a new television don’t want the picture quality compromised in any way.

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