HDMI has been the mainstream connection for most game consoles, PCs, and external display adapters for well over a decade and with good reason. It's a fantastically versatile connector that offers support for some of the most popular resolutions and refresh rates, all while transferring video and audio over a single cable. And it's getting better all the time.
HDMI 2.1 benefits are many and important. It marks the first time in a while that HDMI can compete with the more recent DisplayPort connection in just about every way. For a crash course on the new high resolutions HDMI 2.1 can support, read up on 8K here.
What does HDMI 2.1 mean?
HDMI connections have come a long way since their first generation release in 2002. Subsequent versions improved support for higher resolutions and refresh rates, better color depth, and support for a wider color gamut. Those have been relatively incremental updates, however, with the overall maximum transmission bit rate of HDMI only increasing by 3.5 times over almost 15 years of development.
HDMI 2.1 benefits are far greater. What is HDMI 2.1? Its the new standard with a maximum bandwidth that leaped from 18 Gbps in the previous 2.0 version, to 48 Gbps in just one generation. Its maximum data rate went from 14.4Gbps to 42.6Gbps and it supports four data channels where every previous generation of HDMI supported just three. It even supports DSC (display stream compression) for the first time.
All of this means that the HDMI 2.1 connection supports a much more data-rich stream. That lets it handle 4K displays at up to 144Hz (240Hz with compression), 5K at 60 Hz, and even 8K at 30Hz (up to 120Hz with compression). That's an enormous leap and one that makes HDMI a far more competitive standard.
It also improves the HDMI feature set, adding support for dynamic HDR metadata, an enhanced audio return channel, variable refresh rates, auto low latency mode, and quick media switching, among others.
Should you get HDMI 2.1?
HDMI 2.1 is very much a future-proof connection, enabling the best resolutions and refresh rates of today and tomorrow. But does that make it worth upgrading to right now? Is HDMI 2.1 worth it?
Although it depends on the kinds of media you want to view and how you view them, HDMI 2.1 is certainly worth recommending over other HDMI connectors. If you have a choice between two comparable TVs and one has HDMI 2.1, it's worth upgrading to. It will make it so that you can connect next-generation devices without worrying about not taking advantage of all their exciting new features.
It's also doubly important if you're a gamer. 48Gbps HDMI cable supports faster refresh rates than any HDMI cables that have come before, at both 1440p and 4K resolution. If you plan to play games on your display at higher refresh rates, now or in the future, HDMI 2.1 is the display cable to use (unless you have DisplayPort as an option).
Do I need HDMI 2.1, is a question you might ask when buying a new TV. The answer is, if you can, do it, as you'll find yourself trying to take advantage of it sooner or later. You certainly want it as an option if your display supports higher resolutions and refresh rates or you plan to buy new HDMI 2.1 compliant devices in the future, like current or next-generation games consoles. If you plan on buying the new Xbox or Playstation consoles being released during the 2020 holiday season, then you'll want an 8K TV and need HDMI 2.1 cables to go with it. Sony has confirmed 8K support on the PS5 and Microsoft is sure to follow suit with their new console.
Do older HDMI cables work with HDMI 2.1?
One of the greatest benefits of the HDMI standard is that the cables are interchangeable generationally. A cable designed for HDMI 2.0 will work fine on an HDMI 1.4 connection, and vice versa. That does change with HDMI 2.1, as all the additional bandwidth needs a new generation of high-end cables to best support it. But they aren't mandatory.
If you're wondering, do I need HDMI 2.1 cables, then the answer is yes, but not necessarily straight away. HDMI 2.0 cables will work just fine in an HDMI 2.1 connection on your TV if you aren't trying to take advantage of its high bandwidth. You can enjoy 4K content at 60 Hz just fine on an HDMI 2.0 cable when plugged into your HDMI 2.1 connection.
But you'll want an HDMI 2.1 cable eventually. Is HDMI 2.1 worth it? Yes, when you're ready. Buying a compatible display first can be the most affordable way of gradually upgrading to the new HDMI standard, but once you're ready, make sure to buy high-quality compatible cables from a company like Cable Matters to make sure that your HDMI 2.1 experience is just how you like it. If you find you need to convert the signal into something else, there are high-quality HDMI adapters you can use too.