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HDMI 2.0 vs. HDMI 2.1: What's the difference?

Your new devices may have HDMI 2.1—here's what you need to know.

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As display technology continues to advance, one question on the minds of most A/V enthusiasts looking to upgrade their TV is, ”does this TV have HDMI 2.1?”

The newest HDMI format has officially begun making its way into home theater hardware, and for folks who don’t have their finger on the pulse of the latest advances in gadgetry, the distinction between the old HDMI format and the new format are understandably confusing.

Here's everything you need to know about HDMI 2.1, including how it might affect your living room.

What is HDMI 2.1?

The HDMI 2.1 inputs on the back of the LG C1 OLED TV
Credit: Reviewed / Jackson Ruckar

The LG C1 OLED TV is one of several new TVs to feature HDMI 2.1 ports.

HDMI 2.1 is the newest version of the HDMI standard, which concerns both HDMI ports and the cables themselves. Lately, we’re starting to see AV companies addressing HDMI 2.1 in their current- and next-gen products.

Some TVs, for instance, are starting to come with HDMI 2.1-compliant ports, and ultra-high speed, HDMI 2.1-compliant cables are on sale right now. The Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5 are equipped with HDMI 2.1, too.

The new HDMI interface will support higher performance standards than the current interface, HDMI 2.0 (or 2.0b, to be more specific). In other words, the exciting features of tomorrow—120fps at 4K resolution, for example—will rely on HDMI 2.1.

What's the difference between HDMI 2.0 and HDMI 2.1?

A gamer testing a TV's input lag
Credit: Reviewed

Gamers will likely be the first to feel the advantages of HDMI 2.1, since video game developers are already promoting 4K games that run at 120FPS.

If you've bought a TV in the last several years, there's a good chance that your TV's HDMI ports are either of the 2.0a or 2.0b variety. The difference between 2.0a and 2.0b is relatively minor, so let's focus on 2.0 versus 2.1.

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Essentially, it all comes down to bandwidth: The current bandwidth capacity for HDMI 2.0 is 18Gbps, but HDMI 2.1 clocks in at a robust 48Gbps. This increase in bandwidth allows HDMI 2.1 to transfer way more information. In a nutshell, this means higher-resolution video and higher frame rates.

There's also a host of other benefits to HDMI 2.1 that are a little more in the weeds but nevertheless exciting. For example, HDMI 2.1 supports something called "Dynamic HDR," which allows HDR metadata content to be adjusted on a frame-by-frame basis.

Gamers will be the first group of people to feel the advantages of HDMI 2.1.

With consumer-facing 8K content still a long way from primetime, gamers will be the first group of people to feel the advantages of HDMI 2.1, since 4K games will be able to run at 120fps with the proper hardware. In addition, HDMI 2.1 supports Variable Refresh Rate, a feature that eliminates screen tearing during gaming, and Auto Low Latency Mode, which automatically optimizes a TV’s settings for gaming whenever a console is detected. Full HDMI 2.1 specification is not necessarily required for VRR and ALLM, but TVs that offer HDMI 2.1 ports will likely have these features in tow.

Currently, HDMI 2.0 cables are needed to achieve a 4K picture at 60fps or an 8K picture at 30fps. HDMI 2.1, on the other hand, promises 4K resolution at 120fps, 8K resolution at 60fps, and a ceiling that will ultimately support 10K resolution—whenever the industry happens to reach that point.

Do I need new cables for HDMI 2.1?

An HDMI cable and an Xbox controller on a table
Credit: Reviewed / Lee Neikirk

You probably don't need to upgrade your HDMI cables yet—unless you're an avid gamer.

Unless you own a TV with HDMI 2.1-compliant ports, you probably don't have to worry about buying new cables, since your TV lacks the inputs required to take advantage of those cables in the first place. That said, you'll eventually need to buy new HDMI cables to enjoy all that HDMI 2.1 has to offer, however.

Don't worry: HDMI 2.1 is backwards compatible, so all of your current HDMI cables will still work in the future with HDMI 2.1-supported devices. You just might not be able to get something like 4K at 120fps without newer cables.

Here's the bottom line:

HDMI 2.1 is set to transform how we watch and enjoy content, be it film, games, or streaming TV shows. Despite this, most consumers needn't worry about HDMI 2.1 just yet.

For one thing, in order to take advantage of the format, you need to own at least one device that interfaces with HDMI 2.1—like an Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5—as well as an HDMI 2.1-equipped TV. In addition, unless you’re a gamer, there’s presently a dearth of content that leans on HDMI 2.1.

If HDMI 2.1 is an important specification for you, you’ll find that plenty of the best TVs you can buy support it—though it’s not exactly a standard feature quite yet. As for cables, while we do recommend that HDMI 2.1-equipped TV owners trade in their old HDMI 2.0 cables for reliable HDMI 2.1 cables, it certainly isn’t a pressing issue if you’re not taking advantage of its expanded bandwidth.

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