HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) was introduced to simplify connections between digital devices – a single high quality cable that could take the place of up to nine analog audio and video cables and support the transfer of digital high definition video and multichannel sound. It just made sense, and as consumer electronics makers quickly integrated the connection into products, consumers also got onboard.

Now common in video component, games consoles, TVs and even computers, cameras and camcorders, HDMI an industry success. But with the recent release of specifications for the latest iteration of HDMI, version 1.4, the simple cable that could is poised to create a havoc of complexity for buyers as they struggle to choose between five different versions of the new cable.

Internet over HDMI

First up, though, what enhancements does v1.4 offer? A full description of the seven key new capabilities follows at the end of this article, with those of most interest including support for resolutions up to four times higher than 1920 x 1080p, accommodation of future 3D standards, and HDMI Ethernet Channel (HEC).

This last feature allows Ethernet to be carried – at a high speed 100Mbps – alongside video and audio in a HDMI cable, meaning you could share, say, a broadband connection from a internet-enabled TV with a PVR or games console – or vice versa – provided they all support HDMI HEC.

This is a terrific development, considering the number of components behind the home entertainment rack that now require Ethernet cable. It’s an acknowledgement also that, in the future, content will increasingly be sourced from online. This trend is already in play in the US, where Blockbuster has partnered with Samsung for on-demand movie services with Samsung’s internet-enabled TVs, and similar arrangements are in place between Netflix and LG, Amazon and Sony and Panasonic.

The downside is that HDMI HEC and all the other enhancements of v1.4 are realised only on equipment that supports the v1.4 connection standard and the install base of HD gear is predominantly v1.3 or earlier. Buy a HEC-capable Blu-ray player and you won’t be able to share its broadband connection with your v1.3 TV. If you want that you’ll need a new TV that supports HEC over HDMI, plus HEC cables between the devices.

One cable, five-ways

Just for fun, these HDMI HEC will come in two flavours – one supporting high data rates of up to 100Mbps, and the other low data rates. The first will join 1080p sources such as Blu-ray players and games consoles to HD displays, while the latter will connect 1080i digital TV/Freeview and Pay TV set-top boxes, DVD players and audio equipment. There will also be two versions (high and low) of HDMI cable that supports v1.4 enhancements but not Ethernet connectivity, plus a special cable specifically for use in cars.

That’s five different HDMI cables. Five.

We don’t know why all the v1.4 fruit couldn’t be achieved in a single cable – perhaps the engineering challenges were just too great. What we do know, however, is that we will need to be sure of which type of equipment we want to connect before going shopping for HDMI cables in the future.

Complicating matters further is knowing which v1.4 functionality is supported by a cable or product. Do you get Ethernet and 3D in a cable, but no support for high resolutions and other enhancements? Or do you get the lot? It was not mandatory for manufacturers to support all the features of previous iterations of HDMI in the product they marketed, and perhaps this will again be the case. As before, we’ll need to carefully read the packaging to be sure we’re getting the features we want.

Products supporting HDMI v1.4 are expected in the US in early 2010, with compatible cables likely to hit the market at the same time. Pricing is unknown, but with the premium-grade one metre length of HDMI from Australia’s leading cable brand costing more than $300, we predict some truly heart-stopping stickers on high-speed HEC cables next year.