What you need to know about HDCP

What you need to know about HDCP 2.2, HDMI 2.0, HEVC & UHD

Understanding the 4K TV alphabet soup of HDCP, HDMI, HEVC, and VP9

Is it enough to check a TV’s resolution to know if it’s a 4K TV? Not exactly, especially if you want to get the most out of your thousands of dollars worth of investment. A 4K TV you buy now won’t go out of style any time soon, either, as standards and technology are sort of agreed upon and adopted by TV makers and content creators.

Unfortunately, if you purchased a 4K TV or receiver between late 2013 and early 2014, there’s a potential that it won’t be able to play or pass through the 4K material available today.

Understanding technical terms like HDCP 2.2, HDMI 2.0, HEVC, and UHD is essential whether you’re shopping for a 4K TV or just wondering if your current 4K equipment can keep up with the most recent standards. So, let’s get right to it.

HDCP 2.2

High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection, or HDCP, is something that most 4K TVs offer; however, only more current models come with HDCP 2.2, the most recent generation of content protection technology. Simply explained, HDCP aims to protect the connection between the source and display (as well as anything in between, such receivers and gaming consoles), albeit with version 2.2 the security system is significantly more sophisticated and robust. Although HDCP is typically utilized with HDMI connectors, it can also be applied to DisplayPort and DVI connections.

Given that HDCP 2.2 is primarily intended for 4K material, you’re good to go if you believe you’ll only ever watch content in 1080p. To put it another way, you are protected as long as the content is 1080p and there is a mix of HDCP 2.2 and non-2.2 devices in the chain.

However, there will be an issue if you have a 4K source (such as a Blu-ray player) or service that complies with HDCP 2.2 and are attempting to transfer protected 4K signals to a 4K TV that does not. Most likely, there would be a blank screen on the TV. To make matters worse, since special hardware is needed, non-HDCP-2.2 devices cannot simply be upgraded to support HDCP 2.2.

In summary, it’s in your best interest to make sure that a new 4K TV (or home theater projector or receiver) supports HDCP 2.2. Even if the majority of name-brand products currently on the market have it, it’s still a good idea to double-check by consulting the specs sheet or the salesperson. Because they are frequently more reasonable, many customers prefer to purchase from second or third-tier companies. While there is nothing wrong with that, keep in mind that such TVs frequently lack the newest technologies, such as HDCP 2.2.

Keep in mind the aforementioned considerations if you’re an early adopter who purchased a non-HDCP-2.2 4K TV, and don’t be surprised if certain future 4K material doesn’t render correctly on your TV. You would be aware that it is time to purchase a new TV once the issue manifests itself too regularly.

HDMI versions 2.0, 2.0a, 2.0b, and higher

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When purchasing a 4K TV, HDMI 2.0 will unavoidably pop up as another feature or technology. Early and inexpensive 4K TVs frequently ship with HDMI 1.4, which supports 4K but has a framerate cap. More specifically: 24 frames per second for 4,096 x 2,160 and 30 frames per second for 3,840 x 2,160.

Since HDMI 2.0 is intended to provide more bandwidth (up to 18Gbps) than HDMI 1.4, it can handle 4K at framerates as high as 60fps. Additionally available features include Rec. 2020 color space options, 4:2:0 chroma sub-sampling, up to 32 audio channels, a 21:9 aspect ratio, twin video streams, and enhanced 3D and CEC capabilities. Additionally backward compatible with HDMI 1.x is HDMI 2.0.

In conclusion, when more 2160/60p content becomes available, HDMI 2.0 will only become more crucial. If you’re purchasing a 4K TV (or receiver) today, there’s no reason to leave it out for the purpose of future-proofing. It is possible for some early 4K TVs to convert from HDMI 1.4 to 2.0 with a firmware update, however, this is not always the case and truly depends on the TV’s maker and design.

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Additionally, although HDCP and HDMI 2.0 are sometimes used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. As was previously established, while HDCP 2.2 can be upgraded from HDMI 1.4 to 2.0 via a software update, the opposite is not true for HDMI 1.4. Furthermore, just because a 4K TV supports HDMI 2.0 doesn’t necessarily mean it also supports HDCP 2.2.

HDMI 2.0a

For those who are interested, the most recent HDMI version is 2.0a, and the main addition is compatibility for high dynamic range (HDR) video. Only a small number of TVs are HDR-capable in 2015, including a few of Sony’s 2015 Bravia’s high-end models and Samsung’s JS series SUHD products. However, none of them supports HDMI 2.0a, however, it’s conceivable that a firmware upgrade could change that in the future.

Due to the aforementioned, top-end models from reputable manufacturers have included HDR as a key feature since 2016. As a result, these HDR-capable devices should have HDMI 2.0a inputs and support HDCP 2.2.

And while we’re at it, be aware that an HDMI 2.0/2.0a cable does not exist. You’re good to go as long as you have a “High Speed” HDMI cable (which, if you already possess a 1080p TV, you definitely do). The same connection ought to function with sources that support Dolby Vision and HDR10. However, in the future, when HDMI 2.1 AV equipment and high bandwidth content are widely available, an “Ultra High Speed” HDMI connection will be required to fully utilize HDMI 2.1. (more on that below).

HDMI 2.0b

The Hybrid Log-Gamma (HLG) HDR format was added to HDMI 2.0b in December of the same year after its initial March 2016 release. HLG is mostly used for broadcast TV and was developed by the BBC in the UK and the NHK in Japan. The upcoming version of HDMI, 2.1, is anticipated to provide dynamic metadata.

HDMI 2.1

The new HDMI 2.1 specification, which was finalized in November 2017, offers a significant boost in bandwidth support, from 18Gbps (HDMI 2.0) to 48Gbps. This enables HDMI 2.1 to support resolutions of up to 10K and frame rates of 120 fps. Other enhancements include Display Stream Compression 1.2, better VRR (allowing variable refresh rates to go beyond 4K/60fps), and upgraded Audio Return Channel (for Dolby Atmos over ARC). Additionally, HDMI 2.1 will call for a new cable that can accommodate the increased bandwidth for the first time in many years.

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VP9 and HEVC

High-Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC/H.265) is a compression standard that replaces MPEG-4/H.264 AVC. As to be expected, the newer HEVC is significantly more efficient than its predecessor (nearly 200%), and this becomes crucial when dealing with the high-res, high-bandwidth 4K content of today. Because of this, HEVC has emerged as the preferred compression method for 4K streaming services from companies like Netflix, Amazon, and M-Go.

Since HEVC is frequently used by 4K streaming services like Netflix, your TV must have an HEVC decoder in order to correctly display the video. (Netflix provided the photo.)
Since HEVC is frequently used by 4K streaming services like Netflix, your TV must have an HEVC decoder in order to correctly display the video. (Netflix provided the photo.)

The good news is that current 4K TVs from name-brand manufacturers typically come with a built-in HEVC decoder, unlike 4K TVs sold in 2013 and early 2014, therefore they shouldn’t experience any issues while playing HEVC-compressed 4K material. Despite this, it is still possible for a 4K TV with an HEVC decoder to fail to display HEVC material, as was the case with the 2014 Panasonic AX800/802 series. They weren’t able to play Netflix’s 4K streams in this particular scenario (which was fixed in October 2014 through a firmware upgrade) because the TVs’ processor chip didn’t match Netflix’s certification requirements.

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We are not currently aware of any HEVC issues with any of the most recent 4K TVs produced by well-known TV makers. If anything, while purchasing a device from their lower-end series, be sure HEVC is supported. Again, employ extra caution when purchasing 4K televisions from unofficial manufacturers because they are not as likely to be certified.

The Ultra HD Blu-ray spec also accepted the HEVC (H.265) codec, hence UHD Blu-ray discs are encoded using HEVC. The UHD Blu-ray player will scale the video down if your TV doesn’t support HEVC.

Unless you own one of LG’s earliest 4K TVs that have a built-in HEVC decoder or a Samsung 4K TV, like the S9 and F9000, individuals who purchased a 4K TV in 2013 may be out of luck. Although the HEVC format wasn’t initially supported by these Samsung TVs, it can be added using an additional One Connect box. The One Connect box concept from Samsung, which the firm uses for all of its 4K TVs, is actually very good because it enables people to upgrade their TV without having to buy a whole new set. The One Connect box upgrade for the S9 and F9000 also included support for HDCP 2.2 and MHL 3.0.

In conclusion, even though I anticipate that the newest generation of 4K TVs will come complete with an HEVC decoder, it’s still a good idea to double-check.

What you need to know about HDCP 01

What’s the distinction between 4K and UHD?

Did you know that depending on who you ask, the term “4K” can mean different things?

To avoid confusion with the DCI (Digital Cinema Initiatives) standards, which are specifications set forth for digital cinema production and projection systems, strictly speaking, a 4K TV that has a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 pixels (or 2,160p) should really be called a UHD (ultra-high-definition) TV or 4K UHD TV.

A 4K display must have a resolution of 4,096 by 2,160 pixels to be considered 4K. This DCI 4K resolution is supported by a lot of high-end home theater projectors, including the Sony VPL-GTZ1 and VPL-VW1100ES. In actuality, the DCI specification includes additional 4K resolutions, including 3,996 x 2,160 and 4,096 x 1,716 (scope) (flat). Fortunately for most consumers, they don’t need to be aware of all of these details because, in the case of 4K TVs (oops, 4K UHD TVs), just one resolution—3,840 x 2,160—really matters.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) in the United States and Digital Europe in Europe are standards and trade groups that have defined 4K for consumer electronics and released their own standardized logos. Both organizations concur that 4K UHD contains 3,840 horizontal pixels and 2,160 vertical pixels and that there must be 8 million addressable pixels (3,840 x 2,160) with an RGB sub-pixel structure.

HD Ultra Premium

Regarding the definition of 4K, it’s important to remember that the UHD Alliance, which is composed of numerous large TV makers, technology firms, and Hollywood studios, released the specifications that a device must meet in order to be recognized as UHD Alliance Premium during CES 2016. Wide color gamut compatibility with at least 90% coverage of the DCI-P3 color space, more than 1,000 nits peak brightness and less than 0.05 nits black level (for LCD), or more than 540 nits peak brightness and less than 0.0005 nits black level, are among the requirements for 4K TVs (for OLED). You can read the specifications for content and mastering here.

Of course, consumers don’t need to know these specifications. The only thing you need to be aware of is the Ultra HD Premium emblem, which is increasingly being utilized by 4K TVs and 4K Blu-ray players/discs to advertise their products. This symbol is comparable to a badge of honor since it denotes that a product or piece of content has met the exacting standards set out by the UHD Alliance in order to deliver a “premium UHD experience” for the home. Again, don’t expect entry-level 4K TVs to feature this logo because it requires support for cutting-edge technologies. Samsung’s KS series SUHD TVs, LG’s G6, E6, C6, and B6 OLED TVs and Super UHD TVs, Panasonic’s DX900, and Sharp’s N9000 are a few examples of 4K TVs with UHD Premium certification.

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Do you want to know if a certain product is UHD certified? The UHD Alliance keeps the following lists:

  • TVs certified for UHD
  • UHD-approved displays
  • Approved Blu-ray players for UHD
  • Mobile gadgets with UHD certification

Now things start to become interesting (and technical)

This leads us to the controversy over whether a 4K panel with a red-green-blue-white (RGBW) sub-pixel layout can be called a legitimate 4K UHD TV that began a few years ago.

These RGBW-based LED-LCD 4K TVs are frequently seen in China, and they purportedly also feature panels from South Korean powerhouses LG Display and Samsung Display. It is known as the Green Plus or G+ panel in the case of LG and the Green panel in the case of Samsung. In brief, compared to a typical RGB panel, the energy consumption of such green 4K panels can be decreased while maintaining brightness by adding a fourth transparent white sub-pixel. These panels are less expensive to produce as a result of falling component costs, which makes them more cost-effective than TVs based on RGB technology.

The biggest criticism of these panels, however, is that while their resolution is higher than that of 1080p panels due to the pixel layout and the fact that each pixel does not consist of three colored sub-pixels, their resolution and color accuracy fall short of “true” 4K panels that use an RGB matrix.

We have requested comments from LG and Samsung for those who are interested. The Green panels manufactured by Samsung Display are not used in Samsung’s own 4K UHD TVs, a company representative for Samsung stated. In actuality, all of Samsung’s UHD TVs have received certification from Digital Europe, demonstrating that they adhere to the UHD standards established by the European organization.

According to LG, its RGBW UHD TVs meet the requirements of international standard bodies such as Intertek (UK), TUV (Germany), UL (US), CESI (China), and JEITA (Japan). Additionally, thanks to its panel algorithm, which allows neighboring pixels to share a sub-pixel among themselves, its RGBW UHD implementation is able to achieve RGB UHD resolution without any compromise of UHD picture quality. The RGBW UHD panel can now have the same number of pixels as the RGB UHD screen thanks to this. LG claims that their RGBW structure enables the same color reproducibility as an RGB structure, as well as the same picture quality as RGB UHD when upscaling Full HD to 4K, in addition to the energy savings we’ve already highlighted. Last but not least, LG believes that the RGBW structure is the best way to adopt future standards, such as 8K, which cannot be done with the RGB approach currently in use.

It all comes down to whether you can tell the difference, whether it be in the terminologies used or the marketing strategies used. While cheaper 4K TVs with no discernible image quality loss are a wonderful thing, the issue with RGBW 4K LCD panels is not so much the technology as it is the manufacturer. It’s reasonable to think that large panel manufacturers would take steps to maintain a particular degree of quality, either through software or hardware techniques. Because you could never know the ratio between the RGB and white sub-pixels for these panels, the risk is greater when RGBW panels are purchased from unidentified sources. To meet the 4K resolution requirement, dishonest manufacturers might naively utilize significantly fewer RGB sub-pixels and make up the difference with a large number of white sub-pixels. We need to be cautious of these actual fake 4K TVs.

You are aware now.

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Levi Alston is a student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He is currently studying computer science, and he plans to minor in business. Levi enjoys spending his free time on PC and internet forums, where he can talk about anything and everything with friends. He is a witty guy with a friendly demeanor, and he loves making people laugh.