HDMI encodes, carries and decodes digital signals to high-definition displays, like HDTVs.

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HDMI Signals

One of the common misperceptions about HDMI is that the digital signal is innately superior to an analog signal. In some people's minds, the lack of analog-to-digital conversion means that the signal is in a pure, undamaged state when it reaches the HDTV set. It's easy to imagine a high-definition, digital signal traveling straight from an HD-DVD player to an HDTV. But signal transmission via HDTV does require an encoding step.

HDMI uses transition minimized differential signaling (TMDS) to move information from one place to another. TMDS is a way of encoding the signal to protect it from degrading as it travels down the length of the cable. Here's what happens:

  • The sending device, such as an HD-DVD player, encodes the signal to reduce the number of transitions between one (on) and zero (off). Think of each transition as a sharp drop-off -- as the signal travels, this drop-off can begin to wear away, degrading the signal. The encoding step helps protect signal quality by reducing the number of chances for the signal to degrade.
  • One of the cables in the twisted pair carries the signal itself. The other carries an inverse copy of the signal.
  • The receiving device, such as an HDTV, decodes the signal. It measures the differential, or the difference between the signal and its inverse. It uses this information to compensate for any loss of signal along the way.

HDMI also has the ability to protect data from piracy. It uses high-bandwidth digital copy protection (HDCP) to accomplish this. HDCP is an authentication protocol. Basically, each home-theater device has identification data and encryption data stored on its extended display identification data (EDID) chip. The source device, such as a Blu-ray player, checks the authentication key of the receiving device, such as an HDTV. If both keys check out, the sending device moves on to the next step. It generates a new key and shares it with the receiving device. In other words, it creates a shared secret. Ideally, this whole process, known as a handshake, takes place almost instantaneously.

The source device encodes its information using the key it generated it. The receiving device decodes it using the same information. If an unauthorized device tries to intercept the data, the source device stops transmitting. It also makes sure that the key hasn't changed and that the system is still secure every few minutes. All HDMI-compatible devices are required to support HDCP, but the companies that manufacture and distribute high-definition content aren't required to enable it. In the United States, this content-protection ability is mandated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Next, we'll take a look at the HDMI connector and cable and explore how they carry high-definition signals.