Good news, folks! You will soon be able to connect your phones, tablets, and ultrabooks to an external monitor or TV using nothing more than the USB port. All you’ll need is a simple cable that connects USB-C to HDMI.
HDMI Licensing, the consortium that controls and licenses the HDMI specification, recently announced a new standard called the HDMI Alternate Mode (also known as Alt Mode). This allows any device with a USB Type-C port to output pictures to any HDMI display using the proper cable — no dongles or adapters needed. In other words, USB-C cables will be able to carry HDMI signals.
Why Is This a Big Deal?
“Consumers expect to easily connect devices to displays with a USB Type-C to HDMI cable and utilize the capabilities and features of native HDMI,” said Rob Tobias, president of HDMI Licensing.
As of this writing, you can already connect USB Type-C ports to HDMI TVs but you can only do so with a special adapter or dongle to convert the signals. Not only is it a hassle, it isn’t even a universal standard.
The new Alt Mode requires a cable that has a USB Type-C connector on one end and an HDMI connector on the other. Connect the USB Type-C end to the port on your phone, tablet, or laptop, then connect the HDMI end to your monitor or TV, and just like that you can stream your screen from the phone to the TV.
What Can You Do With Alt Mode?
Alt Mode only supports up to HDMI 1.4b, not the new HDMI 2.0 standard. This means you can get a few of the features of HDMI but will need to sacrifice some of the others. Here’s a quick summary of what you’ll get:
- Resolutions up to 4K Ultra HD (3840 x 2160).
- Audio Return Channel (ARC).
- Support for 3D videos.
- HDMI Ethernet Channel.
- Consumer Electronic Control (CEC).
- Dolby 5.1 surround sound audio.
Apart from streaming simple audio and video, current USB-C-to-HDMI adapters don’t support the other features mentioned above. That’s why the new Alt Mode standard is so nifty — it guarantees that everything will work just as you expect it to.
Meanwhile, the lack of support for HDMI 2.0 will mean that some of the newer features won’t be available. For example, HDMI 2.0 raises the frame rate of 4K videos from 30 FPS to 60 FPS. It also supports High Dynamic Range (HDR) video technology, which is one of the more useful TV features to come out in recent years.
Can You Use Existing Cables, Phones, and TVs?
The only existing technology you definitely can use for this new specification is the TV. Your current flat-screen TV is probably compliant with HDMI 1.x, which is guaranteed to work with the new specification.
But not all phones will work with this new technology. Some mobile devices come with a built-in HDMI chip to allow the outputting of their displays to TVs, but not all phones or tablets have it — and the ones with HDMI usually have a mini-HDMI port that looks like this:
On the other hand, if your device has an HDMI output as well as a USB Type-C port, then you’re in luck. All you’ll have to wait for is the release of the brand new USB-C-to-HDMI cable. (No release date yet since the cables still need to be tested for compliance, but it shouldn’t be too long given USB Type-C’s rapid rate of adoption.)
It shouldn’t be too long before newer phones, tablets, and laptops are designed and released with this new standard in mind. HDMI Licensing says, “There is currently demand for this technology so new products incorporating this may be introduced at CES 2017 and launching early next year.”
Why You Should Buy USB Type-C Devices
For smartphones and tablets, USB Type-C is becoming the new standard. The port is also finding a home on laptops like the new MacBook’s single port and the Asus Vivobook E403SA.
Ideally, you should wait until at least 2017 before getting a device that supports Alt Mode, but waiting that long may not be feasible for you (e.g. holiday shopping season, you’re impatient, etc). In that case, if you’re buying a new Android smartphone or Windows laptop soon, definitely get one with a USB Type-C port.
Having a USB Type-C port won’t guaranteed that it’ll work with Alt Mode, but if the device has both HDMI output and a USB Type-C port, then there’s a good chance it will work. Unfortunately, the number of devices that fit these criteria is low — not even the new Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge or the OnePlus 3.
But you should start using USB Type-C regardless because it comes with many benefits, such as the reversible head. USB Type-C is also compatible with the Thunderbolt 3.0 standard, which means that accessories made for Thunderbolt can be used with USB Type-C ports. For example, external graphics cards over Thunderbolt can improve gaming performance on laptops.
The Bottom Line for HDMI Alt Mode
So what does all this mean for casual, regular users like you and me?
- The new USB-C-to-HDMI cable will let you stream both audio and video from devices like your phone, tablet, and laptop directly to your TV.
- Current TVs, at least those released after 2011, should be compatible with Alt Mode. Current phones and tablets with USB-Type-C will most likely need an HDMI chip inside them to be compatible.
- Phones, tablets, and laptops supporting Alt Mode are expected to be showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2017.
- If you can wait to buy electronics, then wait for this new standard to be released before buying any new devices.
- If you can’t wait, make sure any new devices you buy have at least one USB Type-C port and try to check that they have HDMI chips too.
To know more about the latest standards in device connectivity, read our introduction to the different types of computer cables available in the market. And if you’re curious about whether gold HDMI cables produce better picture quality, we’ve got you covered there too.