Wireless HDMI: Out of the Ether

Ever notice how many custom installers are losing their hair? That's because they pulled it all out in frustration over HDMI.

HDMI wasn't intended for long cable runs, which makes it tough to use with ceiling-mounted video projectors or in almost any kind of serious home theater installation. Some long HDMI cables that worked fine at 720p suddenly stopped working when the industry moved up to 1080p.

For at least a couple of years, manufacturers have been promising Wireless HDMI, a technology that uses a box in your equipment rack to convert the digital video, audio, and control signals from an HDMI cable into a radio signal, and another box near the video display to convert the radio signal back into HDMI. Wireless HDMI should not only eliminate the worries about whether or not a long HDMI cable run will work, it will also eliminate the cable run entirely.

At the CEDIA Expo in Denver, several companies - most notably Belkin, Gefen, and Philips - are showing new Wireless HDMI products. We haven't had a chance to try any of them yet, but the super-clean demos we saw on the radiowave-saturated show floor looked really good.

The $1,499 FlyWire Wireless HDMI system from Belkin includes a transmitter/switcher and a small receiver that slips behind a flat-panel TV. An included remote control switches the inputs; you can also program the switching commands into your own universal remote control. A tiny IR (infrared) sensor sits atop your TV and plugs into the receiver; it sends its signals back to the transmitter, which blasts them to the components in your rack. Upshot: You can control the gear in your rack by pointing the remote at the TV, even if the TV's in a different room from the rack.

Belkin claims 100-foot range, through typical Sheetrock walls, and about 70 feet if there's a cinder block wall in the path. The 1080p signal looked perfect on the nearby TV even when a Belkin employee practically laid on top of the transmitter. Belkin also claims that because the FlyWire doesn't compress video, it suffers from no latency - so you can even use it for video games.

Gefen, a company devoted to making "solutions" products (read: accessories) for custom installers, has introduced two GefenTV Wireless HDMI products. Blu-ray fans will likely prefer the $799 EXT-WHDMI, which Gefen says delivers a 1080p signal as far as 30 feet. It's basically intended for line-of-sight use (i.e., in the same room), though Gefen says its signal will penetrate one Sheetrock wall. The demo I saw looked flawless, with no transmission glitches and no apparent loss of resolution.

The Gefen GTV-WHDMI (should work better in installations that require more robust transmission; it's designed to deliver a 1080i signal up to 100 feet, through as many as three Sheetrock walls or one or two cinder block walls. According to Gefen, it achieves its long range through a proprietary version of 802.11 WiFi technology that won't interfere with wireless computer networks. Price for the GTV-WHDMI hasn't been determined yet.

Based on the demos we saw, Wireless HDMI looks promising from a technical standpoint. Initial pricing is high, though, so I have to think most people will stick with conventional HDMI cables for now except in situations where there's just no practical way to get an HDMI cable to work - and where the installer has pulled all his hair out already.

Gefen's wireless HDMI transmitters, the $799 EXT-WHDMI, which delivers 1080p.