If you want to project (or “cast”) your computer screen onto a TV, a second monitor, or a projector, then an HDMI cable has been the go-to choice for the past decade. Now times are changing.
HDMI technology was designed in 2002 and quickly grew in popularity with five million compliant devices sold in 2004, 17.4 million in 2005, and 63 million in 2006. There are now estimated to be more than 3.5 billion HDMI devices in the world. Yes, billion!
But now we have Miracast technology, which blows HDMI away in terms of usability and convenience — at least on paper. But is it enough to dethrone HDMI’s reign? Could Miracast usurp it as the king of display casting? The odds of that are pretty darn good.
What Is Miracast?
Miracast is the new kid on the block. The Wi-Fi Alliance launched the technology in 2012 and it has since been dubbed as “HDMI over Wi-Fi” — which isn’t technically true, but it definitely gets the idea across in a clear and succinct way.
At its core, it removes the need for ugly and cumbersome HDMI cables by letting compatible devices find each other, connect to each other, and mirror their respective screens wirelessly. It’s become an industry-wide standard that has been adopted by Microsoft, Android, Roku, Amazon, and a host of other tech media giants.
It is NOT the same technology which is employed by Google’s Chromecast or Apple’s AirPlay. In fact, many observers consider Miracast to be a direct response to the Cupertino-based company’s proprietary system.
How Does Miracast Work?
It’s built on Wi-Fi Direct, a protocol standard that enables two devices to form a direct, peer-to-peer Wi-Fi connection. This connection allows them to connect to each other without the need for a wireless router as middleman.
In practice, this means that it doesn’t rely on your home network. Think of it like Bluetooth, another kind of device-to-device wireless connection that doesn’t need Wi-Fi. Miracast devices create their own “network” and freely pass data back and forth. The connection itself is created via WPS and is secured with WPA2.
Media-wise, Miracast makes use of the H.264 codec and can display 1080p video resolution and produce 5.1 surround sound audio. It also benefits from a DRM layer, meaning any Miracast device can mirror copyright-protected content — e.g. DVDs and music — without any hassle.
Why Should I Use Miracast?
The most significant benefit to Miracast is its widespread adoption across lots of different types of devices. Yes, even though most people have never even heard of Miracast, the good news is that it’s actually quite common!
As long ago as October 2012, Google announced that Android version 4.2+ would support the Miracast protocol. Windows added Miracast functionality with the release of Windows 8.1 in 2013, and Blackberry, Roku, Amazon Fire, and the newest Linux distros quickly followed suit. The notable exception is Apple.
Most new smart TVs also have Miracast built in. Even if yours doesn’t, don’t worry, you can easily buy a Microsoft Miracast Receiver for less than $50 on Amazon, or you can search third-party alternatives that sell for as little as $20.
If you want to check whether your device is Miracast compatible, you can check the Wi-Fi Alliance’s website. They keep an updated list of all Miracast-enabled devices, with the total number about to cross the 5,000 milestone.
It is important to be aware that not all Miracast devices carry the “Miracast” brand name! For example, if you’ve ever used LG’s “SmartShare”, Samsung’s “AllShare Cast”, Sony’s “Screen Mirroring”, or Panasonic’s “Display Mirroring”, then you’ve used Miracast.
Other major benefits of Miracast include:
- No Wi-Fi Needed: You could stream to another device even if you’re miles away from a router (e.g. when you’re traveling or working in the field).
- No Cables: No more rooting around behind a dusty TV to try and find ports.
- Ease of Use: The two devices will automatically find each other with hardly any user input. Imagine being able to walk into a hotel and cast Netflix from your tablet onto your room’s TV immediately!
Can Miracast Really Replace HDMI?
What makes HDMI vulnerable to being usurped? As it turns out, HDMI has a handful of disadvantages that make it somewhat inconvenient at times.
Distance: Your computer can only be as far away from a TV or a second monitor as the HDMI cable allows. This isn’t much of a problem for home users, but if you’re in the office and want to connect to a screen for a conference or presentation, it can be annoying.
Sure, longer cables are available but they are harder to keep neat, require more storage space, and tend to cost more.
On-Screen Issues: It’s not uncommon for the HDMI output to be blank, which is a problem caused by authentication errors. The same authentication issues can lead to screen flickering and lag, all of which can be frustrating if you’re watching a movie or doing a presentation.
Compatibility: Tablets, smartphones, and some smaller laptops do not have HDMI ports. It means that if your content is locally saved on one of those devices, you won’t be able to mirror it on a larger screen. HDMI worked well in the era before we became hyper-mobile, but it’s starting to look dated.
What Are Miracast’s Downsides?
Despite the growth and flexibility of Miracast, it would be foolish to pretend that it’s perfect. It too has some limitations and drawbacks.
Chief among them is the level of competition. As we discussed earlier, Apple uses their own version of Miracast called AirPlay, while Google’s Chromecast dongles do not support the technology either. In fact, many critics believe that both AirPlay and Chromecast are “smarter” thanks to their ability to multi-task.
Whereas Miracast will display what’s on your screen and nothing else, both AirPlay and Chromecast allow users to cast a video in the background while still performing other tasks in the foreground.
Secondly, Miracast still significantly trails HDMI in terms of public uptake. Even though 5,000 supported devices sounds like a lot, it’s way behind the 3.5 billion HDMI devices in use.
At this stage, you couldn’t feasibly go to a meeting or a conference and expect the equipment you’d be using to be Miracast compatible. You’d still have to take an HDMI cable with you. Ultimately, HDMI is so ubiquitous that it will take a long time to phase out completely.
Lastly, it is important to remember that this is still a new and developing technology and can therefore be buggy on occasion. I can speak from experience here. My Windows 10 computer will only pair with my Roku stick about 75 percent of the time — the other 25 percent I find myself reaching for the HDMI cable.
Miracast’s Future Is Looking Good
On the one hand, Miracast is probably not ready to displace HDMI right at this very moment. The lower number of supported devices, the buggy connections, and the lack of universal compatibility make it too unreliable for consistent use in the wider world until adoption rates improve.
However, can it eventually replace HDMI in the future? Absolutely. The bugs will be ironed out, more devices will come online, and more users will demand a mobile friendly solution (hopefully forcing the likes of Apple and Google to bite the bullet).
So if you can, give Miracast a try. You might just find that it beats out HDMI in your own heart.
What do you think the future holds for HDMI? Is it coming to the end of its lifespan, or does it still have some gas left in the tank? Let us know your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below.
Image Credit: tearing electricity cable by Sergey Nivens via Shutterstock