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Friday, August 31, 2007, 10:00 am PT (01:00 pm ET)

Review: XtremeMac's four port HDMI switch for Apple TV

XtremeMac's four port HDMI switcher is designed with the Apple TV in mind, but works with any game consoles, cable and satellite set top boxes, DVD and HD disc players, and other equipment supporting the High Definition Multimedia Interface port. XtremeMac's switch is well built and value priced.

HDMI Roundup

Users integrating the Apple TV (review) into their existing stereo and TV setup might quickly find themselves out of audio and video ports. The ideal way to connect the Apple TV is using its HDMI port, which not only handles high definition video, but also piggybacks audio on the same cable.

The downside to HDMI is that cables are often outrageously expensive. At both CompUSA and RadioShack, all the HDMI cables were priced at $100 and up, just for a simple cable. Even a generic branded DVI to HDMI adapter was $50. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to find the Apple Store carrying a variety of XtremeHD cables by XtremeMac, priced at just under $20.

XtremeMac makes a variety of cables, chargers, cases and other accessories custom designed for Apple's iPods, the iPhone, and the Apple TV, including the HDMI switch box reviewed here.

A look at the XtremeHD HDMI switcher

XtremeMac's switch box matches the styling and dimensions of the Apple TV, making the two an obvious pair. The switch requires an AC adapter as it includes a video amplifier. It accepts four HDMI inputs and provides a single HDMI output.

The unit ships with a thin IR remote control for selecting the input. The front of the unit has four HDMI source LED indicators that are bright enough to see but not too distracting, along with a button for selecting the source without using the remote. Because the button is integrated into the design of the face of the box, it wasn't immediately obvious that the box could be used without its remote; thankfully it can.

Xtreme Mac HDMI switch


For being just $99, the same price of many competing cables, one might worry that XtremeMac's switch takes too many shortcuts. However, the fit and finish of the unit is solid, sharp, and attractive, mirroring the Apple TV with a rubberized bottom, a glossy plastic top, and a metallic finish on the sides (though the color is slightly off by a shade or two).

Audio and Video

Paired with matching XtremeHD cables, the unit's HDMI inputs can be used with devices sporting the compact HDMI port — such as Blu-Ray players, the Sony PlayStation 3, and Microsoft's Elite version of the Xbox 360 — as well as devices or computers with standard DVI outputs. HDMI is equivalent to the digital video portion of a DVI connector along with stereo audio.

Xtreme Mac HDMI switch


The HDMI output can similarly be used with a DVI display, although DVI does not supply audio. When using a DVI display, separate audio cables will be needed for all the devices plugged into the switch, along with multiple audio inputs or a standalone audio receiver to switch between the audio inputs. If the HDTV set used will also be delivering all the audio, it makes sense to get a set with an HDMI input to avoid having to run extra audio cables.

I also tried the HDMI switch box with an 20" Apple Cinema Display, which worked fine. Computers attached as inputs to the switch box could sense the model and resolutions supported by the display, so the switch doesn't interfere with normal signaling. Switching between inputs was rapid, and all of the devices I tested had similarly stellar HD video quality.

HDMI = No Analog

A DVI plug can also be used to carry analog video, which HDMI does not support. For example, some Powerbooks and Mac Books supply a dongle that extracts analog VGA video from the laptop's DVI port. The DVI port on those laptops carries both digital DVI and analog VGA signals over different pins.

Because HDMI lacks any backward support for analog video signals, this switch — like any HDMI switch box — does not support using VGA display; many video projectors only support VGA as their highest quality video input. Any display used with an HDMI switch will need to accept DVI or HDMI input.

HDMI Switching with Apple TV

Any display should work as long as it supports digital DVI or HDMI, although some readers have noted that the Apple TV outputs a signal that does not work with some of the newer, aluminum finished Apple Cinema Displays.

Some Apple TV users also report that certain HDTVs only work when cabled directly to their Apple TV unit, and won't work through a switch box. An Amazon user reported a problem using Apple TV with a Samsung HDTV (HL-R5067W); the two work fine when directly connected, but wouldn't work with a switch in the middle. The Sony and Apple displays I tested did not have any problem with using the HDMI switch.

Xtreme Mac HDMI switch


The XtremeMac switch is designed with the same foot print as the Apple TV so that the two can be stacked. Since the Apple TV radiates its heat out the top of the unit and does not use a fan, it would make sense to stack it on top of the HDMI switch so that it can most effectively dissipate heat.

HDMI is designed for HD sources with 720 or 1080 resolution, including HD-DVD and Blu-Ray players, HD game consoles, and HD content prepared for Apple TV. While Apple doesn't yet sell HD content from iTunes, it makes sense to buy HD-ready cables and prepare gear for it. Apple TV does display photos and HD home movies at 720p, and other sources of HD video for it are likely to be announced soon.

Switch and Cable Alternatives

At XtremeMac's prices, it doesn't cost any more to buy HDMI cables for the Apple TV over using a cheap RCA cable to connect via component video and stereo audio. I tried both XtremeMac's HDMI-HDMI and HDMI-DVI cables; both have a solid, rugged, high quality feel and of course deliver the digital bits just as well as cables that cost four or five times as much.

Xtreme Mac HDMI switch


A review of Amazon's offerings revealed a few 3 port HDMI switches for nearly the same price as XtremeMac's 4 port switch, but they also had low user reviews and much cheaper looking cases and remotes. Even the no-brand four port HDMI switches were commonly more expensive than XtremeMac's, with prices ranging from $150 to $250.

XtremeMac's HDMI switch on Amazon was $81; the retail price is $99. HDMI cables from Belkin and Monster range from $60 to $120 each, compared to XtremeMac's $20 price.

The Wrap Up

That makes XtremeMac's high quality switch and cables a no-brainer for anyone in need of connecting their HDMI gear. Both are available at Apple's online and retail stores, Amazon, and many other outlets.

Rating: 5 of 5
5 Stars


Pros:
  • Budget Priced
  • High Quality, Attractive Design
  • Matches Apple TV footprint
 
Cons:
  • Exterior color not a precise match to Apple TV

Where to buy

Amazon.com: Xtremehd 4-PORT HDmi Switcher: Electronics