Image courtesy of Roku
What is MHL and what devices have it?
Mobile High-definition Link (MHL) is a new interface that allows you to connect mobile and portable devices to a television via an MHL-enabled port. The standard is being developed and licensed by the MHL Consortium, a collection of electronics manufacturers started by Sony, Toshiba, Samsung, Nokia and Silicon Image (the creator of the technology). A wide number of additional electronics manufacturers have signed on as adopters.
The MHL port has the same form as an HDMI port, but it isn't HDMI. HDMI is High-Definition Multimedia Interface, a standard connector included on most new TVs, which allows for uncompressed high-definition digital video and multi-channel audio via a single cable. MHL also allows for the same quality of video and audio input, and uses the same physical end-connector, but it's a different technology that uses five wires or pins to transmit high-def video and audio from a device to your TV while at the same time sending power back to the device.
MHL (and newer HDMI) standards also include Consumer Electronics Control (CEC), which makes it possible to use your TV's remote control to operate the plugged-in device. With HDMI, this only works if both the device and TV are the same brand. But with MHL, you'll be able to use your TV remote to control any MHL-enabled device, regardless of brand.
There are some MHL-enabled mobile phones that you can connect to an HDMI or MHL-enabled television set or monitor via a special MHL-to-HDMI adapter to display the phone's output to the screen. The cable connects to a micro-USB port on the phone and to an HDMI or MHL port on the monitor. An internal switch in the device allows it to determine which is plugged in, the adapter or a normal micro-USB cable, and it reacts accordingly. If the monitor is just HDMI and not MHL, a power supply needs to be plugged into the adapter via another micro-USB port. But if it's plugged into an MHL port, the monitor will power the device while it's streaming. Keeping your mobile phone powered will mean that you can use it to play content to a large screen and not have to worry about rendering it temporarily useless by draining the battery.
HDMI is already pretty ubiquitous, so people could start using this new standard with a compatible smart phone and an adapter. But at present, MHL-enabled TVs are very rare. They're even a little difficult to locate unless you dig for the information. As of mid 2012, when you go to the LG Electronics site and search for MHL, you get no hits, even though LG has three high-end MHL-enabled TVs on the market in the U.S. You have to go to the individual televisions' technical specifications to confirm that they have MHL. The Toshiba U.S. site gets no hits because, while Toshiba makes MHL devices, none are available in the U.S. LG, Samsung, Insignia and Sharp have some offerings in the U.S., but many existing devices listed by the consortium are not available here.
Unless you have a fairly new smart phone, or a very rare TV, you are unlikely to be able to take advantage of MHL just yet. But the technology does foretell of some exciting possibilities for streaming all manner of data to our big screens from small gadgets, and more and more devices are slated to adopt the standard.
So once MHL becomes more widely available, will this new device really convert your TV into a Smart TV?