A New Cable for Your Maze

By JOE HUTSKO

THE back of a high-definition television can easily
turn into a snake pit of cables.


Anyone who has tangled with the myriad cables needed to hook up a TV knows the feeling of helplessness. Some throw up their hands and resort to paying several hundred dollars for a crew from the electronics store to make a house call to do the work for them. Others resort to using cables on hand.

The real estate on the back of an HDTV is crowded with ports for connectors of the past. The standard video out (usually a yellow port), S-video (a round port with little holes), component video (red, green and blue ports) are all lined up back there. There are the old RCA plugs that come in yellow, red and white, too.

Some HDTVs have a port for a connector called DVI that was introduced only a few years ago but never caught on. Then there are also inputs for another specialized connector called the optical-in port as well as inputs for U.S.B. flash drives to connect a digital camera, FireWire, possibly some memory-card slots and usually a port to connect a PC to make the TV a monitor.

Out of that mess comes yet another cable, but it is supposed to make everything simple. The HDMI, which stands for high-definition multimedia interface, is used to transfer digital sound and video signals from various devices to the TV without degrading those signals.

Anyone who wants one of the new high-definition DVD players, either the Blu-ray or the HD DVD versions, will need a cable to get the best HDTV picture. A cable will also be desired — though not required — for anyone with a Sony PlayStation 3 or a Microsoft Xbox 360 video game console. (The rival Nintendo Wii does not use a high-definition output.) TiVo’s HD DVR, many cable and satellite receivers, media players like Apple TV and the Vudu movie downloading devices also have ports for HDMI cable.

But the HDMI cable has already presented a problem for TV owners and some consumers shopping for an HDTV: how many HDMI ports on a TV are enough? It depends on what HDMI devices you currently have and what devices you may buy in the future.

If you’re buying a new HDTV, chances are there will be three HDMI ports, currently the standard setup, but a number that could rise in the future. “We’re seeing an HDMI arms race, and we expect to see a set with five HDMI inputs this year,” said David Carnoy, the executive editor of CNet, which reviews electronics online.

So the number of HDMI ports becomes a factor to consider when buying an HDTV. “I am somewhat baffled as to why others do not use more digital inputs,” said Jim Noyd, spokesman for Vizio, the market leader in low-priced HDTVs. Mr. Noyd said two Vizio models had four HDMI ports. Representatives for Sharp, Samsung and JVC all said that most of their 2008 models would have three or four HDMI ports.

“The cost of a single additional HDMI connection can be significant,” said Dan McCarron, a display product manager for JVC. Mr. McCarron said that unlike other types of connections, HDMI required a special set of microchips to enable its built-in copy protection. “In addition, there’s an HDMI licensing fee that’s paid on a per input basis,” he said.

A result is that HDTVs with the most ports are also the most expensive. Although there are a number of other factors in determining the price of a TV, it is clear that HDMI’s have an impact. A 52-inch Vizio liquid-crystal display that has four HDMI ports sells for about $2,500, equal to the price of a 47-inch JVC, a better-known brand, with only two ports.

Many of the manufacturers, like Sharp and Vizio, are putting at least two ports on the sides of their HDTVs to make it easier to plug in digital camcorders or computers.

But what if the TV you already own has only one HDMI port or what if the three that your set came with are not enough? Two options allow you to add up to five additional HDMI ports and may actually be a less expensive option than buying a new top-of-the-line HDTV.

The more expensive option of the two is to buy an AV receiver. AV, which stands for audio and video, is sometimes advertised as being a home theater in a box when it is sold with surround-sound speakers. It is an amplifier with numerous ports — far more than those on the back of a TV — that you can use to connect various devices.

AV receivers range in price from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. Some come with a built-in DVD player and up to seven surround-sound speakers. High-end AV receivers are generally sold without built-in DVD players or with speakers, leaving those choices up to the buyer.

A cheaper option is to purchase a multiport switch box. With it, one HDMI cable connects the HDTV to the switch box, and up to five individual HDMI cables connect each hi-def device to the switch box. A button switches the output from one device to the next, and, as with the AV receiver, a remote control is usually included. These switch boxes offer two to five HDMI ports, and generally cost from $50 to a few hundred dollars.

Another stop-gap is a DVI-to-HDMI adapter cable. The cable, however, does not carry sound, so the audio must be connected to one of the HDTV’s other available inputs like the sound-in or the optical-in port.

There are two catches with HDMI. You rarely find an HDMI cable included in the box with any device you buy. And when you walk over to the cable aisle at your electronics store, be ready for sticker shock — a four-foot shank of HDMI cable can cost $150.

Some can be found for as little as $20, but some store sales representatives are quick to tell you that the expensive cable provides better picture quality than cheaper cables. They say that, in part, because the profit margin on the cables is higher than on many TVs they sell.

Monster Cable, the leading maker of the high-end cables, argues that the cables are worth every penny. “As HDTV displays get larger, people are positioning their flat-screens further and further away from source devices, and screen resolution and color depth can be degraded by using long lengths of low-quality HDMI cables,” said Noel Lee, the company’s founder whose title is head monster.

True? “Monster would say yes,” CNet’s Mr. Carnoy said. “We say no.”

Mr. Conroy said there might be a “tiny difference” with $30,000 digital TV projectors or high-end receivers and speakers. “But for anything you’d buy in Best Buy, it’s definitely not worth it.”

The debate over the quality of HDMI cables, it would seem, is every bit as tangled as the cables in the back of the TV.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/07/te.../07basics.html

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company