The humble HDMI cable has been one of the most popular options for connecting all sorts of devices 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 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.
HDMI 2.1 supports a maximum transmission bit rate of 48 Gbps, compared with HDMI 2.0's 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, even if it still can’t quite match DisplayPort 2.0.
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’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 weren't capable of compression, but 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
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.
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. It also supports an enhanced audio return channel (eARC) for improved support of Dolby Atmos and DTS:X audio standards; variable refresh rate support, which eliminates stuttering and frame tearing in games; 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.
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?
When it comes to data rate, DisplayPort 2.0 has it beat, offering up to 77.37 Gbps, 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 no DisplayPort 2.0-compatible displays at the time of writing, and only AMD’s RX 7000 graphics cards have a DisplayPort 2.0 connection on them.
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 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. With the release of mainstream consoles from Microsoft and Sony heralding a new era of HDMI 2.1 connections, 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.