Review: HDMI Switches
At one time, you might have wondered how you might fill the one or two HDMI ports—which handle high-resolution digital video and audio signals—on the back of your HDTV. Once you’d plugged in your cable box and HD home-theater receiver, you were pretty much done.
That’s changing as a greater number of devices move audio and video through HDMI cables. These days, there’s a good chance you’ve already filled those one or two ports, and you’re eyeing this year’s crop of HDTVs and digital receivers that sport three or four of the little suckers.
Fortunately, you can lessen that HDMI envy with the addition of an HDMI switch, a small box that allows you to connect multiple HDMI devices and then choose which of those signals to send to your TV through the switch’s single HDMI output.
I had the opportunity to examine two of these switches: Iogear’s $190 GHDMIAS4 4 Port Automatic HDMI Switch with Remote and XtremeMac’s $100 four-port Xtreme HD. Each includes as many HDMI inputs as its name implies and offers a single HDMI output.
Both products work similarly, and perform a simple function. The Iogear 4 Port Switch includes a single button on the front for cycling through input sources. You can also change ports with the included remote control; it allows you to choose inputs directly (by pressing the input number) or by using Up and Down buttons. Blue lights across the face of the box indicate which port is currently active. It’s not easy to distinguish, say, light 2 from light 3 at a glance in a dark room, but at least your TV’s picture provides a hint.
XtremeMac’s Xtreme HD is unique in that it’s the same size, shape, and overall design as an Apple TV, so you can stack the latter on top of the former for a neater AV cabinet. Easy-to-read lighted numbers on the front of the box indicate the active input. Like the Iogear switch, the Xtreme HD includes a remote control with numbered buttons for each port; on the other hand, it doesn’t provide Up/Down buttons. It too includes a button on the front (labeled "Source") for switching input sources.
For both switches, if only one connected HDMI device is active—for example, your AppleTV—the switch will automatically select the input to which that device is connected rather than remaining glued to the last-selected input.
The Iogear switch includes a 6-foot HDMI (male-to-male) cable. XtremeMac includes no cables in the box.
Perhaps the biggest question some readers may have relates to AV performance. On that count, to my eyes and ears, the quality of the video and audio passed through each switch was indistinguishable, and video looked as good routed through either switch as it did via a direct connection from the source device to my TV.
Note, however, that the Iogear switch is more “future-friendly” than the XtremeMac box because it supports the high definition standards found in such technologies as Dolby TrueHD. Although both switches are compatible with HDCP (High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection—a standard for protecting the integrity, and preventing the copying, of a high-bandwidth signal)—only the Iogear switch is HDMI 1.3v-compliant, which means it supports 1080p video up to 2.25Gbps bandwidth. The XtremeMac switch also supports 1080p video, but only up to 1.65Gbps.
Macworld’s buying advice
Glance at the list price of each switch and it may be hard to swallow the $90 price difference between the Iogear switch and the XtremeMac model. Lessening the sting somewhat is the fact that the Iogear box can be had for as little as $110 if you shop around. Plus, thanks to the included cable, you needn’t pungle up additional money to purchase one. While the two boxes behaved nearly identically with the gear I own, if you’re looking toward the future and desire an HDMI 1.3v-compliant switcher and its accompanying bigger pipe, the Iogear switch is the better choice.Story updated to correct information about the existence of the Xtreme HD's Source switch.