Here’s an inexpensive trick to keep all your gear relevant and useful. It can open up space to plug in your new gaming console, run the same signal to multiple TVs and help minimize the number of times you swap HDMI cables. If that sounds handy, you may need a HDMI switch or HDMI splitter, but which one?
HDMI connections are found on every modern TV and pretty much everything you connect to a TV: from PlayStations to streaming devices, AV receivers to cable boxes and soundbars. Most people own TVs that have enough HDMI inputs to handle all of their connected devices. But what if you buy another sweet piece of gear and find that your TV doesn’t have enough slots anymore? And some people have the opposite issue: one source device they want to appear on multiple TVs. In both cases you’ll need either an HDMI switch or an HDMI splitter.
The words “switch” and “splitter” are often used interchangeably, but the devices themselves actually serve opposite purposes. We’ll get into more detail, but the short version is that an HDMI switch takes multiple sources and lets you choose (switch) between them, sending one cable to your TV. As you’ve probably figured out already, a splitter takes one signal and splits it across multiple HDMI cables.
Read more: 7 tips for a better home theater: Mount your TV, hide wires and more
Main difference between an HDMI splitter and an HDMI switch
- HDMI switch takes multiple sources (Xbox, Roku, cable box, etc.) and sends one cable to your TV or other device
- HDMI splitter takes one source and sends it to multiple TVs
For most of you reading, you’ll probably want a switch. While there are many situations that require a splitter, they’re not as common for the average consumer.
HDMI switches: When you don’t have enough inputs
The prime reason to get an HDMI switch is if your TV, AV receiver or soundbar has too few inputs for the number of sources you have.
For instance, your TV has two HDMI inputs and you have a cable box, a Roku, and an Xbox. I’m sure many of you have both an Xbox and a PlayStation and have to swap HDMI cables to play a game on the other. A switch would help there, too. Fortunately, they aren’t that expensive.
A few things to keep in mind when you’re shopping for switches. First: Get more inputs than you need. Sure it’s possible you’ll swap out a streamer or game console for a new model, but equally likely you’ll get something new and need yet another HDMI input. Also, some switches have remotes. Not a huge deal by any stretch, but certainly a convenience.
It’s crucial to make sure whatever switch you’re considering at least matches the resolution and HDMI version of your latest gear. Many inexpensive switches are HDMI 1.4, which is fine for 1080p resolution but not for most 4K. A switch that’s HDMI 2.0 is definitely worth spending a bit more to get. Even if none of your current sources are 4K, your next sources certainly will be. HDMI 2.0 is backward-compatible, but you can’t “upgrade” an HDMI 1.4 switch to 2.0.
If you’re on the fence about needing a switch, consider this: HDMI ports on TVs and other gear were not built for repeated connection and disconnection. Yanking that HDMI cable out every time you want to switch sources is putting wear and tear on your cables and gear. A switch will decrease that wear and tear, extending the life of your gear as well as easing the hassle of using your AV system.
We don’t currently have recommendations for specific HDMI switches, but you can find plenty of options for as little as $10 or less at Amazon.
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HDMI splitters: One source, multiple TVs
If you have one source, and want to send that source’s signal to multiple TVs, you need an HDMI splitter. Maybe that TV is in a different room, or maybe in the same room you have a TV to watch during the day and a projector to watch at night. A splitter will duplicate a signal and send it out through multiple HDMI cables. Some splitters are also switches, with multiple “ins” and multiple “outs.” We’ll talk about those in the next section.
If you want two displays going at the same time, keep in mind the maximum resolution for all is whatever the lowest resolution display is. So if you have a 4K source, a 4K TV and a 1080p TV, the 4K source will only send 1080p. The splitter won’t convert the signal to 1080p just for that TV.
In theory you shouldn’t have copy protection issues… in theory. You should be able to send any content you want through a splitter to multiple TVs. That’s not a guarantee you’ll be without issues, though. HDCP “handshakes” are black magic that sometimes can only be resolved by dancing around an HDMI logo painted on your floor in unicorn tears. This is especially true of older displays and sources. Make sure before you buy it that it passes HDCP. They’ll usually say in the product description.
Though there are some unpowered splitters on the market, you’re probably better off getting a powered one. They’re only slightly more money, and there’s a better chance your setup will work without dropouts or connectivity issues.
As with switches, we don’t currently have recommendations for specific HDMI splitters, but you can find plenty of options for as little as $10 or less at Amazon.
Here’s where I mention that some products at Amazon (and elsewhere) are mislabeled. In the link for splitters above, for example, a few switches showed up, and one (I’m looking at you, Techole) is a switch, not a splitter, even though the words “HDMI splitter” appear in its description. But now that you’ve read this far, you know the difference and can shop with confidence, right?
What does 1×3 mean? Is it the same as 3×1?
Splitters, and many switches, will be labeled in their name with the number of inputs and outputs, respectively, separated by an “x”. So a “1×3” splitter will have one input sent to three outputs.
Meanwhile, unlike the mislabeled devices mentioned above, there are devices that combine a switch and a splitter in the same box. A “4×2” switch is also a splitter, with four inputs and two outputs. It can send any of four sources to two TVs.
Here’s a quick summary:
- Unlike with multiplication, 1×3 is not the same as 3×1
- The first number is inputs
- The second number is outputs
- An HDMI switch would be labeled, for example, 3×1 (3 source inputs, 1 output)
- An HDMI splitter would be labeled, for example, 1×3 (1 source input, 3 outputs)
The number of inputs and outputs scale up considerably on the commercial side, where you could have 16×16 splitters/switches or more. These are usually called matrix switches. CNET’s TV lab uses an 8×8 matrix switch for sending multiple 4K HDR signals to multiple TVs for side-by-side comparison testing.
You won’t need to worry about those, of course. For most of you, a 3×1 or 4×1 switch is all you’ll likely need.
Tips for buying and setting up an HDMI switch or HDMI splitter
Remember that when setting up your new switch or splitter you’ll likely need to buy HDMI cables too. Most people keep their switches, sources and TV near one another, so shorter lengths are both less expensive and more convenient (less slack to deal with). And as we mentioned above, make sure your switch and cables can handle the resolution from your gear.
Read more: Best HDMI cables for 2021
One final thing to keep in mind. Adding any device into the HDMI chain has the potential to cause issues. HDMI is a cranky beast and it’s possible you’ll stumble upon some combination of source, switch/splitter, cables, and display that just don’t work. Or even more frustrating, don’t work reliably, randomly cutting out like the world’s lamest electrical demon. There’s no way to prevent this from happening, and it’s not common, it’s just something to keep in mind. You might need to do some troubleshooting. You might be able to resolve the issue by turning the gear on in a specific order, but that might not work either. There’s no simple workaround for this, just trial and error.
In the majority of situations, a switch will make your life a little easier, and a splitter can allow certain gear setups that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Handy little devices, no?
Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he’s written on topics like why you shouldn’t buy expensive HDMI cables, TV resolutions explained, how HDR works, and more.
Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff, then check out his travel photography on Instagram. He also thinks you should check out his best-selling sci-fi novel and its sequel.
Source from www.cnet.com