When it comes to HDMI 2.1 vs 2.0, it’s important to know which is the best HDMI cable for your needs. Both cables support some of the most impressive resolutions and refresh rates, but only one can hit the heights needed for the latest consoles and desktop PCs.
Both cables are compatible with any device fitted with an HDMI port, but only one supports the latest generation of connective features and technologies. It’s a little more expensive than its older counterpart, though, and its range isn’t as great – especially if you’re opting for passive, rather than active HDMI cables.
As with every generation of HDMI cable, it’s not as straightforward as ‘the latest generation is better all-round,’ even if it is better in key areas.
The humble HDMI cable has been connecting all sorts of devices to all sorts of displays for over a decade. Over that time it’s seen huge leaps in its capabilities, data rate, and features, and no more so with the latest generation. HDMI 2.1 took the technology through its most dramatic improvement to date, almost tripling bandwidth over the older HDMI 2.0 standard, and providing far broader support for all sorts of visual and audio technologies.
That doesn't mean older HDMI connections and cables are useless, or even that you should upgrade to HDMI 2.1 just for the sake of it. But it means that in a battle of HDMI 2.1 vs. 2.0, it's not much of a contest.
HDMI 2.1's Explosive Bandwidth Advance
HDMI 2.1 is a landmark revolution of the standard, rather than the incremental evolutions of the past few generations. Where HDMI 2.0 made small steps in building upon HDMI 1.4 by improving color spectrum support, increasing transmission and data rates by over 50 percent, and doubling the support for audio channels, HDMI 2.1 took a massive leap instead. However, HDMI 2.1 took a massive leap, increasing overall bandwidth and data rates exponentionally, and making it a rival for even next-generation standards like DisplayPort 2.1.
Pitting HDMI 2.1 vs 2.0 on raw performance has a very clear outcome. Where HDMI 2.1 supports a maximum bandwidth of 48 Gbps, HDMI 2.0 is only capable of a mere 18 Gbps. HDMI 2.1 vs HDMI 2.0 cables on max effective data rate is a similar wash, with HDMI 2.1 supporting up to 42.6 Gbps, whereas HDMI 2.0 manages just 14.4 Gbps. All that additional bandwidth opens up the HDMI standard to higher resolutions and refresh rates than it ever had before, making it much more competitive with DisplayPort 1.4 and 2.0/2.1.
HDMI 2.1 offers native support for 4K resolution at high refresh rates like 120Hz, and even up to 144Hz in select cases. This made it a great candidate for the main display connection on the latest generations of gaming consoles from Microsoft and Sony. Both the Xbox Series X/S and the PlayStation 5 use HDMI 2.1 to deliver 4K 120Hz gaming on supporting TVs and monitors.
That just wouldn’t have been possible with an HDMI 2.0 connection. Although it does support 4K resolution, HDMI 2.0’s more-limited data rate only lets it do so at up to 60Hz. With Chroma Subsampling of 4:2:0, it is technically possible for HDMI 2.0 to deliver 4K at up to 120Hz, and even 8K resolution at 30Hz, but that’s not possible for the latest games consoles. Gamers are also unlikely to be on board with the idea of making their games look worse, even if the difference is almost imperceptible.
HDMI 2.1 cables, on the other hand, can deliver the full 4K 120Hz experience without any form of compression. That’s not the limit of HDMI 2.1’s capabilities, though.
When not running at such high refresh rates, it can support higher resolutions. HDMI 2.1 has full support for 5k resolution at up to 60Hz (where HDMI 2.0 needed compression technology to make that viable) and 8K at a 60Hz refresh rate. Previous generations of HDMI cables were more limited in the options for compression, with chroma subsampling being the preferred option. However, in more recent generations of HDMI cable, Display Stream Compression has unlocked a new lossless compression technique that delivers impressive results. With the new, lossless DSC 1.2 now supported by the new HDMI standard, even higher resolutions and refresh rates are possible.
With DSC 1.2 enabled, HDMI connections can handle up to 10K resolution at up to 120Hz. The same goes for 8K and 5K resolution, with 4K resolution playable at up to 240Hz when compression is used.
These are major advancements of the HDMI standard and put HDMI 2.1 vastly ahead of HDMI 2.0 in terms of its raw power and capabilities. HDMI 2.1 vs. 2.0 is a blowout when it comes to performance.
HDMI 2.1 vs 2.0 on Features
As impressive as HDMI 2.1’s specifications are, no connection standard dominates through its bandwidth alone. Features are also an important consideration in picking it over any of the other competing standards. With HDMI 2.1, the HDMI Licensing organization that manages and licenses the standard, co-developed a number of other generational improvements which give it an advantage over even more performant cables, like DisplayPort 2.1.
HDMI 2.1 supports dynamic HDR, letting a connected display alter the HDR metadata on a scene-by-scene or even frame-by-frame basis. This can have a dramatic impact on how effective the HDR is in enhancing the picture. It allows the latest generations of TVs with high brightness, and contrast to really make the visuals on-screen pop in ways that they can’t with traditional, static HDR.
This makes HDMI 2.1 a useful cable to use even if you aren’t watching something at 4K resolution or playing games at high refresh rates. But it’s not the only great feature that makes HDMI 2.1 the standout in the HDMI 2.1 vs 2.0 head-to-head.
The enhanced audio return channel, or eARC, is the latest evolution of HDMI ARC technology that allows for a single cable run between your A/V system, source devices like desktop PCs, Blu-ray players, and set-top boxes, and the display. It also unlocks support for uncompressed 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound setups, for the ultimate at-home cinema system.
HDMI 2.1 also offers full support for important audio standards, like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, helping to give your favorite movies and shows vertical placement in your soundscape, rather than purely horizontal. This is what makes an HDMI 2.1 A/V setup so much better at capturing that movie-screen-like experience.
HDMI 2.1 continues to offer support for variable refresh rates, too, including G-Sync and Freesync, depending on the support of both the display and source device. This helps eliminates screen tearing at higher frame rates when gaming and makes stuttering at lower frame rates far less noticeable. There’s also quick media switching so there's less delay in switching between video sources, and quick frame transport, for better utilization of the HDMI 2.1 connector's expanded bandwidth.
There's also an automatic low latency mode (ALLM) which can help cut down on signal latency in settings where that's useful, like gaming.
Although HDMI 2.0 does have its own impressive set of features, including variable refresh rate support, ARC support, and support for static HDR, it just cannot offer the same array of visual and audio enhancements that HDMI 2.1 can.
HDMI 2.0 supports none of that, so HDMI 2.1 vs. 2.0 on features isn't very competitive either.
HDMI 2.1 vs. DisplayPort 2.0
Although HDMI 2.1 has had its time as the world’s premier consumer, of high-bandwidth connection, how does it stack up against the new kid on the block, DisplayPort 2.0, or rather, the newly released DisplayPort 2.1 now found on AMD’s RX 7000 graphics cards?
When it comes to data rate, DisplayPort 2.0 and 2.1 have HDMI 2.1 beat, offering up to 77.37 Gbps of raw data rate, which enables even higher resolutions and refresh rates with and without compression than HDMI 2.1. However, DisplayPort 2.0 and its nominal successor, DisplayPort 2.1, are still incredibly rare. There are only a handful of upcoming DisplayPort 2.1 displays at the time of writing, and only AMD’s RX 7000 graphics cards have a DisplayPort 2.1 connection on them.
That will change in the future, however. Next-generation graphics cards from both AMD and Nvidia, and perhaps even Intel, will absolutely include DisplayPort 2.1 connections, alongside at least one HDMI 2.1 connector. That will ensure that both cable types are represented in high-end PCs and laptops in the future.
For now, HDMI 2.1 remains the most available and viable high-bandwidth connection standard. It will likely remain the premier one for most consumer devices for the foreseeable future, though DisplayPort 2.0/2.1 may start to dominate in gaming PCs in the coming years.
A New Cable For a New Age, But Do You Need It?
HDMI 2.1 cables have been available for several years now and there are plenty of supporting devices and displays that can make use of them. The release of the Xbox Series X/S and PlayStation 5 consoles from Microsoft and Sony heralded a new era of HDMI 2.1 connections. A few years on from that, the HDMI 2.1 vs. HDMI 2.0 battle seems all but finished.
While you won't get any of the performance benefits of HDMI 2.1 cables if you buy them to use on an HDMI 2.0 or earlier device, they are entirely backward compatible. HDMI 2.1 cables can be bought from Cable Matters for not too much more than an HDMI 2.0 cable, so as you upgrade your devices, gradually transitioning to the new standard makes a lot of sense.
Cable Matters’ line of 48Gbps HDMI cables includes passive cables and active cables for reliable performance at a distance. If you want the longest range, however, HDMI 2.0 is the more-capable solution, able to run that bit further than the high-performance HDMI 2.1 cable standard.
Want to push either standard to its extreme? Consider an HDMI extender. They can get you that bit further if you need it.