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USB vs HDMI: What Are the Key Differences?

USB and HDMI are ubiquitous interfaces for connecting devices, displays and transferring data. But what exactly sets them apart? Let‘s decode their core distinctions.

At the outset, USB and HDMI serve vastly different primary purposes – USB is designed for connecting peripherals and data transfer while HDMI transmits high quality audio/video signals. Their capabilities and limitations stem from this key contrast.

The Purpose Dictates the Design

USB was created to standardize the connection of computer peripherals like keyboards, mice, printers, scanners, storage devices etc. across the industry. It has evolved over time to become the default interface for PC peripherals and mobile device charging.

HDMI on the other hand was specifically designed for uncompressed transmission of high definition video and audio. It aimed to replace analog standards like VGA and analog RCA cables with an all-digital interface optimized for multimedia devices.

A Peek Under the Hood

The underlying technology and signaling methods used by USB and HDMI differ substantially:


  • Uses a token packet flow control protocol to manage data transfer between host and peripheral.
  • Supports half duplex transmission of data packets in both directions.
  • Connectors have 4 shielded signaling lines – 2 for differential data transmission, 1 for power and 1 ground.
  • USB type A hosts/devices feature an asymmetric physical connector while type B peripheral connectors are symmetrical.


  • Employs Transition-Minimized Differential Signaling (TMDS) for high speed serial data transmission.
  • Uses one TMDS data channel per video component for uncompressed media.
  • 19-pin HDMI connectors contain multiple TMDS data channels plus USB, Ethernet and control lines.
  • The Type A connector on HDMI cables is electrically asymmetric matching Type D ports on devices.

This underlying distinction manifests in the performance capabilities and limitations as we will explore next.

Speed and Bandwidth Capabilities

Both USB and HDMI have continued to evolve, pushing the boundaries of speed and bandwidth:

USB Version Max Speed USB 1.0 12 Mbps USB 1.1 12 Mbps USB 2.0 480 Mbps USB 3.0 5 Gbps USB 3.1 Gen 1 5 Gbps USB 3.1 Gen 2 10 Gbps USB 3.2 Gen 1 5 Gbps USB 3.2 Gen 2 10 Gbps USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 20 Gbps
HDMI Version Max Bandwidth HDMI 1.0 4.9 Gbps HDMI 1.3 10.2 Gbps HDMI 1.4 10.2 Gbps HDMI 2.0 18 Gbps HDMI 2.1 48 Gbps

So while USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 touches 20 Gbps, HDMI 2.1 leaps up to a whopping 48 Gbps. This huge bandwidth enables uncompressed 8K video at 60 fps, 4K video at 240 fps and 32 audio channel support. Such extreme performance simply isn‘t possible over USB.

The Power Delivery Difference

USB provides power directly to connected peripherals, a very useful capability. HDMI however does not offer any power transmission.

With USB Power Delivery, compatible devices can draw up to 100W of power for charging or operating peripherals like hard disks, input devices etc. High speed data transmission and power delivery make USB truly universal.

HDMI is designed purely as a compact audio/video signal carrier. It cannot power devices at the far end. Separate power sources are mandatory for HDMI connected equipment. This limits HDMI applications compared to the more flexible USB interface.

Interoperability and Compatibility

USB enjoys wider compatibility across devices and platforms. HDMI requires dedicated HDMI ports and has stricter hardware requirements.

USB works seamlessly across Windows PCs, Macs, smartphones, tablets and more. HDMI requires compatible source devices, displays and cables to work reliably. This gives USB the edge for universal connects.

That said, HDMI is the standard for high definition AV connectivity. For home theaters, gaming centers and commercial AV installations, HDMI is simply unparalleled.

Form Factor – Cables and Connectors

USB connectors are compact and designed for frequent insertion/removal. HDMI connectors are relatively bulky and cables are thick and rigid.

USB vs HDMI cables and connectors

Micro and Mini USB variants add further portability. HDMI does have Mini and Micro connectors too, but standard USB remains the most portable interface.

HDMI cables are challenging to install in narrow spaces. Short USB cables easily stretch between devices in tight confines. This makes USB well suited for impromptu or temporary connections.

Which is Better for You?

So which interface should you choose? Here are some guidelines:

  • For charging mobile devices or connecting data peripherals, USB is the easiest choice.
  • HDMI is required for ultra high definition 4K or 8K video playback on supported televisions and monitors.
  • For advanced commercial or residential audio/video distribution systems, HDMI is the go-to standard.
  • To quickly share documents or pictures between computers and mobile devices, USB is the handy portable option.
  • For demanding tasks like high speed data acquisition, HDMI‘s bandwidth makes it ideal.
  • For connecting a docking station or PC keyboard/mouse, USB provides a simple plug-and-play experience.

So evaluate your requirements to pick the right tool for the job at hand! With their complementary capabilities, USB and HDMI will continue to play critical roles in connecting our digital world.