Ah, how simple AV life used to be. You just got a new TV home, plugged your VCR into the Scart socket, and that was that until, basically, the TV broke down.
Not any more. For in today's brave new digital world, TVs are an ever-moving feast, introducing new features every year that you're always being told you just can't live without. In fact, the changes are even happening right down at the connection level, with the recent arrival in the UK of products boasting a fourth generation of the now ubiquitous HDMI socket. And as we're about to find out, this 'v1.4' HDMI arguably introduces the most profound change yet in what this slim little socket can do for you.
Shame, then, that its functionality can't be applied via a simple upgrade to the millions of TVs and AV receivers in the UK with the previous HDMI 1.3 inputs.
The single biggest driver for developing a new HDMI standard has been that TV technology of the moment, 3D. For HDMI 1.4 has been designed to recognise the various new HD 3D formats - side by side, top and bottom, alternate frame - now starting to appear in the UK on Blu-ray, video games and Sky broadcasts. It can even cope with 3D resolutions up to dual-stream 1080p.
1.4 for 3D
An interesting little side note to this aspect of the HDMI v1.4 specification is that Sky has managed to figure out a way of 'emulating' v1.4's 3D recognition feature using the v1.3 HDMI output on its current generation of Sky HD boxes. Essentially what will happen following a firmware update to Sky's HD boxes later this year is that data packets telling a TV with HDMI 1.4 inputs what sort of 3D image it's receiving will be encoded alongside the 3D AV data stream as it leaves the HD box's HDMI 1.3 port.
This clever idea allows Sky to add 3D to its channel platform without Sky HD customers having to lift a finger or fork out for a new receiver box. But before you get too carried away here, this Sky instance is the only HDMI 1.3/HDMI 1.4 'workaround' we've heard of. In all other cases, if you want any HDMI 1.4 features, you're going to have to upgrade to TVs and AV receivers with HDMI 1.4 connectors.
The extra bandwidth potential of the new HDMI ports also enables them to support much higher resolutions than our current 1920x1080 HD signals. In fact, it can work right up to the so-called 4K-2K ultra high definition format (4096x2160) that's already starting to be demonstrated at most electronics shows we visit.
Of more immediate practical use to your average UK punter, though, is HDMI 1.4's audio return channel. This new feature allows your TV to send audio signals as well as video signals through an HDMI cable to an AV receiver equipped with an HDMI 1.4 input. This is clearly much more convenient than having to use a separate audio cable as you do with v1.3 HDMIs.
Also potentially practical for the future is HDMI 1.4's support for a smaller 'Micro' connector. This 19-pin 'Type D' connector is barely half the size of a traditional HDMI connection, and so it could provide portable devices - digital cameras, mobile phones, portable media players and so on - with a simple and direct digital video output solution.
Petrol-heads, meanwhile, will likely also embrace HDMI 1.4. For it supports a further connection system - Type E - designed to cope with the heat, vibration and noise issues that usually make distributing HD around a car so problematic.
A more esoteric development of the HDMI 1.4 spec expands the colour spaces or formats which the connector can support, adding SYCC601, Adobe RGB, and Adobe YCC601. These colour formats are used extensively in the high-end digital photography world, and so by supporting them the HDMI 1.4 spec should allow screens with HDMI 1.4 connections to reproduce digital photos more accurately.
The final extra feature HDMI 1.4 brings is potentially one of its most useful but also most controversial: an Ethernet channel. This allows HDMI to be used for high-speed (up to 100MB/sec), bi-directional data communications, permitting internet-enabled HDMI devices to share an internet connection via their HDMIs - with no need for a separate Ethernet cable. Alternatively, it provides an ultra-fast means of sharing content between HDMI-enabled devices.
Which is great, until you find out that this feature will require not only HDMI 1.4 ports on your devices, but also a brand new cable. Your current HDMI cables just won't cut it.
The only good news here is that Ethernet-enabled HDMI 1.4 cables are already available online, and aren't nearly as expensive as was originally feared. For instance, a 10m cable can be had for around £20.
There can be no doubt, then, that HDMI v1.4 represents a really big leap forward for digital technology, offering a number of features that more and more of us are going to find ourselves wanting - badly - in the not-so-distant future. Which is great, of course, except for one small problem: having to buy completely new TVs, Blu-ray players and AV receivers. Again. Sigh. Or maybe we're better off waiting for HDMI 1.5...