It’s no secret that ever since the tech industry came up with the concept of “evolving standards” for its products it opened a can of worms giving consumers all sorts of trouble. It has come to the point where people now accept that there’s bound to be a “maturing period” for every new version of an evolving standard, during which we, the consumers, keep buying products we know are far from perfect, essentially beta-testing them for free. It’s insane on so many levels, but it’s an approach that at least helps these technology standards progress. Nobody ever thought that we’d have to report on the regress of any of those standards, though, which is exactly what’s happening now with HDMI 2.1 and the HDMI Licensing Administrator’s recent choices.
The HDMI Licensing Administrator is the agent appointed by the HDMI Forum to license the various versions of the HDMI specification: the standard modern televisions, projectors, A/V receivers, a lot of PC monitors, gaming consoles and players of all kinds follow in order to connect with one another via suitable cables. The HDMI Forum decides on the exact technical specs for each version of the standard and the HDMI Licensing Administrator grants manufacturers who follow those specs a license to use the HDMI brand and version number on their products.
Up until now, the rules were clear: manufacturers would not get to use the HDMI brand and version number if their products did not adhere to the specs laid out by the HDMI Forum.
A tale of two ports, the folly of merging them
Things started to become hazy a long, long time ago, but — for the sake of brevity — let’s stick to HDMI 2.1. Back in 2017, the HDMI Forum revealed the specs for this version, which set a general frame of upgraded capabilities and new features but did not make most of the latter mandatory: it would be up to the manufacturers to decide which features to implement within the general specification. In order for version 2.1 to be an appreciable step forward compared to version 2.0, though, at least some features needed to be there: support for 4K resolution at 120 Hz, support for 8K resolution at 60 Hz, eARC and dynamic HDR color, for instance. Even back then making key features such as VRR or ALLM optional seemed like a bad idea to many, but there were not enough voices of protest raised so… yeah. The result: for the last 3 years manufacturers have liberally adopted or discarded HDMI 2.1 features as they saw fit, but they generally strived to adhere to the specs that differentiate HDMI 2.1 from HDMI 2.0.
Fast forward to December 2021 and it turns out that the HDMI Licensing Administrator chose to render the HDMI 2.1 specification practically meaningless. The issue was first raised by TFT Central, which spotted a new Xiaomi LCD Monitor of 1080p resolution at 240 Hz claiming to sport HDMI 2.1 ports: technically speaking, an HDMI 2.0b port would have sufficed for that and, besides, the spec list did not mention any other HDMI 2.1 feature or function. None at all. Interestingly, a few days earlier yours truly had also come across something similar: a Chinese manufacturer had proposed to send over a new media player for review, the UGOOS UT8 Pro, which claims to offer an HDMI 2.1 port although its output is limited to 4K/60 Hz.
To be honest, at the time I thought it was just a typo and moved on. TFT Central got in touch with the HDMI Licensing Administration regarding that Xiaomi monitor, though, and what it found out was nothing less of astounding: the Administration now only licenses the 2.1 version of HDMI (!), as version 2.0 “is not referenced anymore” (!!), so the features of the latter are now a subset of the former. That’s not the problem, as it was technically true anyway, but this is: all the advanced capabilities and features of version 2.1 compared to version 2.0 are now optional (!!!), including the higher bandwidth, support for higher resolutions, frame rates and color depth (let alone functions such as VRR or ALLM). This in practice means that any manufacturer can now claim to offer an HDMI 2.1 port on any of its devices, even if their actual display capabilities do not exceed those of a typical 2.0 port like the one introduced way back in… 2013.
Standards bodies, it’s your fault. Now fix this once and for all.
This choice on behalf of both agents is the very definition of incompetence and insanity combined. The most important goal of the HDMI Forum and the HDMI Licensing Administration in the global market should be to make the specifications, capabilities and functions they help define as clear for consumers to understand as possible. What they did by wiping out the HDMI 2.0 version and rolling it into the HDMI 2.1 version is the exact opposite of that: now most people will have to delve into the detailed specification list of each device they are interested in buying in order to find out whether it offers the features and functions they are looking for. This assumes that hundreds of millions of consumers are familiar with dozens of technical terms (which is hardly the case) or that they even want to be educated about all this in order to make a simple product purchase.
Granted, the HDMI 2.1 situation was far from ideal already, as almost every manufacturer claimed to offer such ports on their products while often including the bare minimum of features and functions generally associated with that version of HDMI. This was considered to be conveniently hazy or even misleading… but it’s way, way worse now: manufacturers can claim that their products offer HDMI 2.1 ports while their display capabilities are actually in line with 2.0, which is absurd. The end result: even more consumer confusion and frustration, as well as a clear step back in the development of the HDMI standard itself.
The HDMI Licensing Administration claims that it’s the manufacturers themselves that should be informing consumers about which display features each of their “HDMI 2.1” devices provides. It also claims that manufacturers who don’t do that will not be getting the HDMI 2.1 certification they need. But, in the eyes of the average consumer, what’s the point of an HDMI 2.1-certified device anyway if every single feature of that standard is optional to implement? How will people be able to easily tell the difference between a full-featured HDMI 2.1 device and a barely-featured HDMI 2.0 one? And how does the HDMI Licensing Administration plan to prevent the inevitable abuse of such lax rules from manufacturers who will have no problem slapping an “HDMI 2.1” sticker on their products without explicitly mentioning the features these do not support?
At the end of the day, the ones responsible for this spectacular blunder are the ones who can — and should — take care of the problem once and for all: the HDMI Forum and the HDMI Licensing Administration. When defining a technology standard as important as HDMI, it’s simply stupid to just let manufacturers implement it however they see fit (they have proven how untrustworthy they are on countless occasions). It should not be up to them to choose when and to what degree their devices follow the specs of any given tech standard.
No. From now on the HDMI Forum and the HDMI Licensing Administration should set well-defined, adamant rules about the implementation of these standards and only allow for optional features as a bonus (if that). Manufacturers not following those strict rules should not be receiving certification for their products, obviously, while a few bug fixes via firmware updates over time is the only leeway they should generally be granted. We have put up with this mess for far too long. Unless the HDMI Forum and the HDMI Licensing Administration are ready to admit that they only operate with the manufacturers’ interests in mind — never the consumers’ — in which case legal action should follow. So?