Can superMHL Fly?

Like the crocuses that return each spring and the political biographies that pop up for new presidential candidates, there is a new connectivity standard with every new TV format. When HDTVs first appeared, for instance, those yellow RCA phono or S-Video cables were replaced by component video, which was quickly (and thankfully) replaced by HDMI.

So, it’s no surprise that with 4K UHD may come the next generation in connectivity cable standard, superMHL. Announced without fanfare at CES and released to all adopters at the end of January, superMHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) is actually designed for 8K, if and when, but will likely appear adjacent to HDMI 2.0 jacks on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray decks due later this year.

superMHL offers five major advantages over HDMI 2.0.

  1. It can handle twice the resolution to 8K – 7680 × 4320 pixels, and twice the frame rate – 120p vs. only 60p for HDMI 2.0.
  2. superMHL adds support for high dynamic range (HDR) video, and handles data rates up to 32 Gbit/s, nearly twice as fast as HDMI 2.0 (top speed: 18 Gbit/s) so all the pixels and colors get to where they need to go when they need to get there (sorry for the highly technical explanation).
  3. The superMHL cable is reversible, which makes blind connectivity while reaching behind shelved components or mounted displays much easier. superMHL also will be adapter-able with USB Type-C, microUSB and HDMI.
  4. MHL is already a familiar connecting standard on portable video devices such as smartphones and tablets. With its appearance on living room gear, superMHL could become far more universal than HDMI or previous versions of MHL.
  5. superMHL eliminates one more cable – the power cord. Along with digital multi-channel audio and 8K video, superMHL can power connected devices – no extra AC cord needed – up to 40 watts, which means any set-top box. superMHL also carries data and, when considering its USB Type-C “alt mode” capabilities, could, therefore, also be adopted as a PC connectivity standard, although there don’t seem to be any PC inclusion announcements in the offing.

superMHL also handles the full BT.2020 color gamut, only an option for HDMI 2.0 implementation. Right now, only quantum dot UHDs are capable of even approaching the full BT.2020 specification, somewhere north of 90 percent, depending on who and how (and, according to Display Search’s Paul Gray, “most TVs today don’t have BT.709 compliant colors either”). superMHL also will conform to the CEA’s evolving 861 uncompressed digital video interface specs.

Format seeks supporters

Physically, superMHL is just as imposing as its capabilities. Its weaved cable is as thick as a tube of lip balm, thicker than any consumer cord I’ve run across.

If some or all of these A/V+data+power carrying capabilities sound familiar, you’re right. HDBaseT, which uses standard CAT cables and standard RJ45 connectors, to transmit 4K/60p video and 100 watts of power, is about to get an IEEE imprimatur as a standard. But HDBaseT is seen more of a long-distance connectivity standard – HDBaseT supports cable runs up to 100 meters – while superMHL seems more appropriate for short device interconnections.

superMHL’s advanced A/V capabilities could and likely should induce UHD makers – especially quantum dot makers also in the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray business (i.e. Samsung, an MHL Consortium member, as well are Sony, Toshiba and Nokia) – to include superMHL connectors on their 2016 UHD display and playback wares. How soon other UHD and STB makers will adopt superMHL is, of course, conjectural.

Considering the volume of HDMI devices out there, superMHL is unlikely to be a replacement connection, at least not in the short term. Just like HDTV sets that continue to include component video jacks, superMHL connectors and HDMI 2.0 connections will exist side-by-side for a while.

This co-existence is appropriate since MHL was developed by Silicon Image, HDMI’s progenitor, and the MHL Consortium’s offices are located inside Silicon Image’s Silicon Valley building. It is this familiar and familial relationship, rather than being an outsider upstart clawing for recognition (and despite MHL’s paucity of current supporters), that bodes well for superMHL’s eventual adoption, whether or not 8K ever gets here.