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Video Cables Explained



HDTVs today have more connections than ever before. Red, white, yellow, funny shapes, and dozens of them! Let’s have a look at what each type of video connection does, and what it offers.

Coaxial Cable
coaxial1

This is the standard, stiff cable that your cable TV provider uses. It’s the one that you have to insert just right and screw until tight. It’s also the cable you’d use with an antenna, but does that mean that it’s old school and of relatively poor quality? Not necessarily. Coaxial cable is actually able to carry different types of signals, like analog video (from an antenna, from the cable TV outlet, from an older VCR or game console), but also digital data. Even modern set-top digital cable boxes and satellite boxes, as well as cable modems use coaxial cable to deliver digital signals that are decoded within the set-top box or modem. Depending on the amount of bandwidth, compression and quality of decoding, the video quality can be excellent. 1080p is possible this way with digital discrete surround sound, but 1080i with 5.1 discrete audio is the best that is currently available over satellite or digital cable. However, if you’re connecting to your TV with coaxial cable, you’re going to get analog video and basic audio, so this represents the lowest quality connection possible. Theoretically, the video signal would be 480 interlaced lines of resolution, but there would be a lot of resolution loss.

Quality: 1/5

Resolution: 480i direct with moderate loss in quality, 1080i through a set top box

Audio & Video: both are carried

Composite
composite

Composite cables are those red, white and yellow cables you see. They were used extensively during the reign of the VCR, and many of the video game consoles of the 90s used them too. In terms of video quality, composite cables are a notch above coaxial cable, but audio is usually stereo, and sounds markedly better than coaxial cable. Older VCRs that weren’t stereo didn’t use three of these cables, but two, a yellow one for video, and a single white one for monaural audio. These are 480i as well, but with less resolution loss than coaxial cable.

Quality: 1 ½ / 5

Resolution: 480i, moderate loss in picture quality

Audio & Video: Yellow carries video, white carries monaural audio, white and red carry stereo audio

S-Video
svideo

During the standard-definition era and before DVD’s time, S-video was once the premium choice in video quality. It was also analog, but it separated elements of the picture so that there would be minimum loss. The connector is a little strange, resembling that of a PS/2 keyboard or mouse, and it needs to be inserted in just the right orientation to go in, otherwise, pins might bend. That aside, it offers excellent standard definition picture quality, and the probably the least loss of resolution amongst standard-definition connections.

Quality: 2 ½ / 5

Resolution: 480i, minimal loss in picture quality

Audio & Video: S-video carries just video. It needs to be supplemented with red and white composite audio cables to be complete (for stereo audio). For digital/surround sound, you’d need to use an optical or coaxial audio cable.

Component Video
component

Component video cables look just like composite video cables, except that the colors are different. There are three of these cables for video alone, red, green and blue. Component video separates the video image by primary color, to try and preserve the image better. Perhaps more significantly, component video cables are able to carry 480p video as well as high-definition video. DVD players and TVs of the late 90s and early 2000s had component connections for 480p DVD playback, meaning progressive scan. In the first few years of HD, component video cables were more common than HDMI, and usually, two or more component video inputs can be found on the even the latest TVs.

Quality: 4/5 Not all that much different from S-video for standard-definition material, but very decent for high-definition material. Component video is a little confusing, because a TV having component video input doesn’t mean it’s capable of HD. Many SDTVs of the late 90s and early 2000s had component inputs for DVD and high-quality SD. HDTVs have component inputs as well, but can accept HD signals over component. Since the video is still analog, there is some loss in picture quality, and there is overscan as well on most TVs (the image is zoomed in by 2-5%).

Resolution: 480i, 480p on standard-definition TVs, and 480i, 480p, 720p and 1080i images on high definition TVs (1080p as well, on TVs that supported this standard over component)

Audio & Video: Component video itself – the three cables, carry only video. For sound, you’ll need to supplement these with either the red and white audio cables for stereo audio, or an optical or coaxial cable for digital sound.

HDMI & DVI
hdmi

HDMI cables are the new top dog in the connection world. They carry a pristine image that encounters no loss at all, and the cable has enough bandwidth to carry video and audio. Never before has there been such a perfect cable! Today, thanks to Blu-Ray, HDTVs and HDMI, we can see a perfect, pristine 1080p picture that is bit- and pixel-perfect, with zero loss in quality, that can also carry an exact digital copy of the studio master audio track in up to eight channels. The only downsides to this cable (come on, there had to be a couple) are that there are sometimes HDMI handshake issues (this is the communication that goes on between HDMI devices when you plug them in, and they recognize each other) and that there is HDCP (high-definition copy protection), something the studios put in so that we can’t make perfect copies. HDCP is often the reason behind these handshake issues, but these issues aside, HDMI is the connection you want to ideally use. Being digital, the quality of the cable doesn’t really matter – you will either see a 100% perfect image, or nothing at all.

Quality: 5/5 The best there is! No loss, bit- and pixel-perfect. Overscan can be turned off on fixed-pixel flat-panel displays (LCD, Plasma) with HDMI.

Resolution: 480i through 1080p.

Audio & Video: HDMI carries video as well as audio. Audio is also digital, and up to eight channels of uncompressed audio can be carried.

DVI, while having a different shape and more commonly being associated with computer monitors, uses exactly the same video signal as HDMI, just without the sound. This is why you can buy HDMI-DVI adapters and cables. You could use one of these to connect a computer to an HDTV for a perfect image, but you’ll have to figure something out for your sound, because DVI carries only video.

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