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Will USB Type-C Eventually Replace HDMI?

Only one thing is certain when it comes to predicting where tech is headed.

Someone is probably in a lab right now, developing new technology which will render most of those predictions meaningless.

Bear that in mind as we take a look at the impact of USB Type-C, which many experts believe may eventually supplant HDMI as the “connector of choice” for high-definition display communication.

What Is USB Type-C?

In simplest terms, USB-C has been developed and rolled out as a “universal” connector for cables running between devices and power sources.

Here’s why that’s important.

Currently, you have to use all sorts of cables to connect all of your electronics. Your flash and external drives, keyboard and mouse probably connect through USB-A ports. Your printer and scanner connect through USB-B ports. Your phones, music players or tablets are likely connect to other devices or charge through USB mini or micro cables. Most modern computer monitors use HDMI, DisplayPort or DVI connections. Your home theater uses HDMI cables (or possibly still uses RCA or component cables).

That’s an awful lot of non-compatible cables. They’re confusing to buy, confusing to set up, and confusing to keep straight.

The USB-C standard has been designed to change that. It accommodates virtually all types of signals – data, audio, video, power – all using the same ports on equipment and the same cables to connect them all together.

Once most equipment is outfitted with USB-C ports, and that day seems to be coming sooner rather than later, you’ll only need one type of cable for just about any connection you have to make.

There are many other great things about USB-C. It can carry both data and power at the same time, in either direction. It can handle much greater power and much higher bandwidth for data transfer than previous USB standards, meaning a simple USB-C cable can charge a laptop and carry 4K video signals. And the connectors are not only smaller than those used by previous USB iterations, but they’re reversible and symmetrical, meaning there’s no “wrong side” to plug in.

In short, it’s almost the ideal connector. (One important note: USB-C has nothing to do with the transfer capacities of USB standards 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0, which have increased over the years. Type-C simply describes the connecting hardware that’s used, and USB 3.0 will always be faster than USB 2.0 no matter what types of connectors are used.)

The promise of USB-C has led many to speculate that it will eventually replace the high-quality HDMI standards and cables that we’ve all finally adopted for our video and audio equipment.

But is that realistic?

HDMI via USB-C: It’s Already Possible

It’s important to start by restating the fact that USB-C is simply a standard for connectors and cables. There is nothing to prevent HDMI signals from being delivered via USB-C.

In fact, the company that sets rules for the HDMI standard has released what’s called an “alternative mode,” which lets USB-C devices send signals directly to an HDMI display with a single cable and no adapter necessary. Samsung and LG, just to name two manufacturers, already produce HDTVs with USB-C ports.

So you can do it. Should you?

USB-C and HDMI: Compatibility

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There are many reasons why HDMI is universally praised as a video standard.

  • For nearly twenty years, it’s been the best option for delivering top-quality uncompressed video at today’s highest resolutions, without signal degradation.
  • It can carry audio, video and control signals simultaneously, and allows for two-way communication through HDMI cables.
  • It supports the data encryption technology that prevents piracy.
  • It supports all modern formats and color depths, and is compatible with just about all video and audio devices.
However, the key phrase to focus on is “for nearly twenty years.”

Engineers continue to improve HDMI standards, but it’s a time-tested method of signal transmission. On the other hand, USB-C is just a few years old, so you’d probably guess that HDMI tech is far ahead of USB-C. You’d be right.

Here are some of the current issues you’ll face when using Type-C USB connectors and cables with HDMI signals.

  • Since the “alternative mode” approach is needed to make HDMI work seamlessly with USB-C, there’s a compatibility issue. The alt-mode specification uses an older HDMI 1.4b standard, while modern TVs and monitors use the newer HDMI 2.0 standard which is much more advanced. For example, 1.4b supports 4K and 3D video, but does not support the latest breakthrough for high-def display, HDR (high dynamic range).
  • You can find dongles which will take care of that problem, but they use the DisplayPort alt-mode to do it. That means they have to convert the video signal, so there’s at least a slight degradation of the signal.
  • The current maximum bandwidth that USB type C cables can support is 20 Gbps, suitable for 4K high-definition signals. But 8K video displays are on the horizon, and they require the higher bandwidth capabilities of new HDMI 2.1 cables, which can handle 48 Gbps.
  • USB-C supports older versions of the HDCP copy protection standard, but cannot yet handle the latest HDCP 2.2 standard. Only HDMI can currently do that.
  • You’ll still need HDMI cables to support “legacy” devices which weren’t built with USB-C ports and will take years to disappear from homes.
The bottom line: we’ll continue to see USB Type-C make inroads, but it’s not ready to replace HDMI just yet.

The Future

A significant financial investment is required for manufacturers to switch from HDMI to USB-C as the standard for high-def signal delivery. Some have committed to that investment; others are hedging their bets for now.

The real keys to whether USB-C truly becomes the ubiquitous standard are how quickly Type-C technology can catch up to the requirements of video signal delivery in the 2020s – and what else those pesky engineers are whipping up in their labs.

In the meantime, you can find all of the high-quality HDMI cables you could possibly need at Cmple, all manufactured to industry specifications and our demanding standards, and available at our always-lowest prices.
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