HD and Beyond: What's Under the Hood? HDMI Product Differences
More often than not, when you go out to purchase a brand new car, you start with brands. Who do you like the look of? Do they have a good reputation? Have I bought this brand before? What’s surprising to a lot of people is that many cars share a serious amount of hardware.
The one that probably comes to quickest to mind for most people is the Volkswagen Audi Group. Recent news aside, they are responsible for car brands ranging from Skoda to Bugatti. Parts are shared across brands, including engines, chassis, electronics, and software.
The car world is also made up of partnerships. When I worked as a recruitment consultant to the car industry here in the UK, car parts all had reference numbers. Chassis were shared across manufacturers you wouldn't necessarily know were linked together. The simple reason for these partnerships was money. The cost of developing a car is massive. What you can borrow and buy from other brands to make a car cheaper to bring to market was seen as more sensible.
There are parallels here that can be drawn to the world of HDMI distribution. There are a finite number of HDMI (or TMDS shall we say) chipset manufacturers worldwide. The major players could be counted on one hand (Silicon Image, Analog Devices, Maxim, Explore etc). Couple that with a limited number of Cat-x transmission chipset manufacturers (Valens, Maxim etc) and you begin to see that things could be quite similar across the board.
HDBaseT, for example, a technology designed and owned by Valens. They are the only people who then produce the silicon that uses it. These products only transmit and receive chips, so every HDBaseT product out there makes use of one of Valens products. Full stop. What varies is the implementation of the electronics around the Valens product. But again, there are only so many ways to skin the cat for each product. It will matter how well you skin that cat, but with maturity coming to the market, things are beginning to vary less and less in quality across manufacturers.
These chips cost very much the same to every manufacturer worldwide. They are, as silicon goes, massively expensive in comparison to every other component, sometimes accounting for up to 80% of a products build cost. The thing to look for, therefore, is value for money. What additional features (are you actually going to use) that you aren’t getting elsewhere? Scaling in receivers, audio down mixing and ARC / optical passback are all examples of things that aren’t HDBaseT dependant but can be implemented. Why would one HDBaseT product cost more than another? Make sure you aren’t paying over the odds for something where it’s major cost to manufacturer is very much the same as every one else.
You do have to factor in other things of course, like support. Do they have a team in your territory that can give you instant technical support or is it half-way around the globe and you have to wait for a different timezone to come online?
Let’s not beat about the bush. There are then only a small number of factories, in a small number of countries worldwide, actually building this kit. HDMI distribution is, in reality, a niche little world all of its own. There aren’t many what you might call truly “independent” HDMI distribution manufacturers out there. Brands are the lion share of the market space. Different brands using the same factories on the most part. I won’t list who uses who here (or who’s truly designing and building hardware), that’s not fair, but chances are you’ve loved a product from one brand, scorned another brand and they are one and the same under the hood.
HDBaseT is a prime example of where you can really dig down and find the best value as a dealer by knowing a bit of what hides beneath. Away from that, things are less obvious. Maxim 3xxx chipset-based hardware is usually single wire Cat-x and most brands offer something based on it. HD over IP is different again. Just Add Power is propriety technology, for example. But more and more HDMI to TCP/IP data over Cat-x cable chipsets exist off the shelf. In some form of flattery, they have worked for years to emulate those independents who developed something innovate all that time ago.
What I’m getting at here is that by asking what’s under the hood, which chips are in use in a product (and are they open to telling you?) can help you decide if a product is truly value for money. Understanding more deeply the silicon and the technology in use can help you make more informed decisions, perhaps even push a dealer to a more expensive product, but you get much more than just the box to fit in the rack.
As HD distribution electronics reach some maturity, reliability, and similarity across brands, it might be time to delve deeper and re-assess what you buy.
Daniel Adams is the Director of Technical at HDanywhere.