Friday, May 15, 2009

How the HDMI cable scam works

If you have purchased a new HDTV set recently, you are already familiar with HDMI cables. If you are thinking about purchasing an HDTV anytime soon, you are about to be initiated. The problem is that HDMI cables have become a popular way to scam customers. If you know about this scam, you will be able to save yourself a lot of money.

So let's start at the beginning. When you own an HDTV, you need to have a way to get a high definition signal onto the screen. The signal can come from a cable box, a DVD or Blueray player, a video game console or a satellite antenna. The easy, high tech way to carry that signal from the video source to the screen is a piece of wire called an HDMI cable.

An HDMI cable truly is an innovation. It carries all the video information to the screen in digital form, plus it carries all the sound information. Just a few years ago it took five or more cables to carry all this information and it wasn't digital, meaning that it could degrade along the way. With HDMI it is all in one slim cable. It couldn't be easier to connect things like cable boxes to a new HDTV.

So where's the scam? You can find the scam by going to any big box electronics retailer and looking in the cable aisle. There you will find HDMI cables priced as low as $25 or $30 (if not, definitely head toward your local discount retailer for better prices). But you will also find HDMI cables priced above $100. And if you talk to a sales person, he will definitely be steering you toward the most expensive model. That is the scam. You can understand the scam if you understand how an HDMI cable works and what it does.

Let's begin by going back in history to the birth of really expensive cables. It started with speaker wire. When you connect a normal speaker to a normal stereo system, you are sending both a signal (in the form of an oscillating wave) and a lot of power (potentially hundreds of watts) through the speaker cable. Someone realized that to send a lot of power, a thick cable would cause less distortion. Thus, mega cables were born. And they were expensive.

But with an HDMI cable, you aren't sending any oscillating analog waves, nor any power. What you are sending is a low-power digital signal. The digital signal is either on or off, and it is impossible to distort it without ruining it. The great thing about a digital signal is that, even if there is a little noise in the cable (and there always is, no matter how good the cable), the TV will clean it up when it interprets the digital signal. The whole beauty of moving to a digital world is that it eliminates distortion completely.

What this means to you is that there really is no such thing as a "better" HDMI cable. Either an HDMI cable works or it does not. If it doesn't work, you will immediately know it. Your screen will freeze, or it will skip frames, or it will show big square blocks instead of a picture. It will be completely obvious that there is a problem. In that case you need to throw the cable away.

But if an HDMI cable is working correctly, your TV's picture will look exactly the same no matter how much the cable costs. Paying more for a cable will have no effect on picture quality.

Now that you know this, you can see what you need to do as a consumer. When buying an HDMI cable, you can buy on price and get the cheapest one.

That being said, there is one two things you do need to be aware of when purchasing an HDMI cable. First, you have to get the right length. If the cable isn't long enough, it won't reach to the HDTV. Second, HDMI cables have version numbers. For example, version 1.3 of HDMI can carry twice as much data as prior versions. If you buy a high-end HDTV that needs a version 1.3 cable, you need to make sure that the cable you buy supports version 1.3. Otherwise you are not getting everything that the equipment has to offer. In that case buy the cheapest version 1.3 cable available, and it will work fine.