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HDMI Fails at 4K; Will CES Show a Faster Wireless Connector?

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Will 2015 be the year we move beyond the HDMI connector? “It only takes a spark to get a fire burning,” or so says the song we used to sing at my summer camp.

Consumer electronics (CE) manufacturers meet this month for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the annual early event in Las Vegas that brings both buyer’s remorse (for those who bought the latest and greatest for Christmas) and anticipation (for those who received money for the holidays).

CES is also known as the place where CE manufacturers roll out bigger-and-better televisions, from the smart televisions of CES 2013 to the 84" behemoths of CES 2014 to the 8K monitors that were likely on display in Vegas this month (this article was written in November 2014) and should be in stores in time for the 2015 holiday shopping season.

Not all of the ideas presented at CES spark, and even fewer are fanned into flames by mass consumer desire, but there’s one interesting part of the CE market that seems underrepresented at recent CES shows: miniaturized streaming devices.

This has always struck me as odd; CE manufacturers will invest heavily in particular streaming technologies—many outdated or even hobbled by content owners, which is the price they pay for trying to simultaneously integrate streaming into millions of HDTV sets.

These same manufacturers bet that consumers will pay good money to have the convenience of watching all this over the air, cable, and even live or on-demand streaming content on the largest screen in the house. Yet the sales numbers for smart TVs pales in comparison to non-smart TV sales.

Yet this doesn’t mean that consumers rejected the idea of an almost-integrated media solution. In fact, one might even argue that smart TVs ignited the idea, but then the limitations of smart TV software and navigation elements left only embers.

If the current streaming media device adapter landscape is any indication—a landscape replete with fire metaphors, from the Fire TV Stick by Amazon to the almost-ready Matchstick by 9x9.tv and Mozilla—the idea of viewing all content on the same device hasn’t been lost on consumers. These easy-to-use and quite inexpensive set-top boxes and “streaming sticks” have transformed the spark into a raging fire.

Given the small size of the new batch of streaming sticks, the illusion of a smart TV also holds. Many of the devices are nothing more than an HDMI connector and about 2 inches of processing real estate, almost equal in size to those early 2G and 3G data modems that mobile road warriors used to connect to our laptops, easily hiding behind the HDTV’s bezel and using Wi-Fi to connect to internet- or local-area-based media content.

As small and appealing as these devices are, though, they still have a few limitations.

One is the type of Wi-Fi connection used: Anyone who wants to watch HD-quality media content on an 802.11b/g network will be sorely disappointed, and even those on the 802.11n standard will notice a number of hiccups for Blu-ray-quality content if even one or two other users are on the network.

802.11ac holds promise to eliminate these issues, meaning that the second issue—the HDMI connector itself—appears to be the only major limiting factor. Why HDMI? It turns out that, even though there are newer standards to allow 4K connectivity via HDMI, the connector itself limits the quality of high frame rate 4K.

DisplayPort probably isn’t much better, as it needs a slightly larger connector, and mini DisplayPort doesn’t really have the thickness to support the overall size of the dongle that houses all the processing and Wi-Fi and decoding hardware.

Which brings me back around to my earlier comment: What I’m looking for at this year’s show is a new connector and a new way to move content from the wired network to the back of the next 4K monitor. If so, we might just see a second spark in the quest to fire up the home’s biggest screen.

This article appears in the January/February 2015 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Sticking to Streams."

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