S-video (or S-Video) isn’t really comparable to HDMI simply because S-video is no match against the current A/V (audio/video) connection standard of the High Definition Era of Television, Movies, and Video Games. With that said, it pays to know the difference between this analog and digital A/V protocols for posterity’s sake and to know the pros and cons of going for either, especially if you have no choice in the matter.
Simply put, S-video is analog and for SD video while HDMI is digital and for HD video, meaning the latter offers the highest quality image currently possible in today’s technology until a new format emerges in the future.
What Is S-Video?
S-video, S-Video, S video, or separate video (or Y/C) is an analog video signaling protocol for standard definition (or SD) video. It’s the de-facto format for the era of magnetic videotapes for VHS and Betamax as well as the NES and Genesis game consoles. It only covers video and has separate cable connectors for sound. Standard definition video refers to the resolutions used by the National Television Standards Committee (NTSC) and Phase Alternating Line (PAL) broadcast standards. For NTSC, it’s 720 x 480 or 480i (interlaced, as opposed to 480p for the progressive scan). For PAL, it’s 720 x 578 or 578i.
NTSC is the TV broadcast standard for the United States while PAL is the TV broadcast standard for Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia. S-video supports both types, offering A/V connections for VCRs and DVD players. Compared to composite video, it’s superior because it separates black-&-white and color signals to achieve high-fidelity images for its time. However, it offers lower color resolution than component video and is outmatched in almost every way by HDMI video, from its ability to combine video and audio signals in one cable connection to its HD uncompressed video quality.
What Is HDMI?
As for High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), thanks to the proliferation of HDTVs and the dawn of HD entertainment, it has become the current A/V standard for most of the 2010s all the way to the 2020s. Its contemporaries and rivals include the Digital Video Interface (DVI) standard in 1999 and DisplayPort (DP) standard in 2006. HDMI itself came to be around 2002. DVI is mostly a video only standard until its upgrade, but in 2020 it’s practically obsolete. Meanwhile, DP is hanging in there with its use in Apple products, but HDMI mostly remains king.
The reason why HDMI is more ubiquitous than its peers is because of the widespread usage of HDTVs, where it’s the standard of choice instead of DVI and DP. It also helps that it streams both audio and video, which DVI doesn’t do. HDMI offers HD or uncompressed video streams atop compressed or uncompressed audio data on any HDMI-compliant device. Additionally, it offers High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) to safeguard against digital piracy and HDMI Consumer Electronics Control (CEC) that allows all HDMI connected devices to be controlled by a single remote control.
Stark Differences Between Analog and Digital Formats
Comparing HDMI to S-video isn’t so much a comparison between apples and oranges as it is a comparison between day and night. S-video is also objectively inferior to HDMI in more ways than one.
- What’s The Deal with HDMI? HDMI carries both video and audio while S-video doesn’t carry audio, only video. It’ a format that uses the EIA/CEA-861 standards, which transmits VESA EDID implementations as well as compressed or uncompressed LPCM audio on top of auxiliary data as well as the definition of video formats and waveforms. CEA-861 signals carried by HDMI are compatible in an electric sort of way with the DVI format’s CEA-861 signals, but with the caveat that uncompressed/compressed audio signals travel alongside them in one HDMI cable for convenience’s sake.
- How About S-Video? How Does That Work? As for S-video, it’s an analog baseband video system. When compared to digital HDMI formats, analog requires more compressed and has more attenuation (signal loss). Its resolution is also much smaller at 480i or 576i. The picture clarity isn’t as clear overall. S-video, in fairness, is superior to the previous phono composite baseband connection standard. This is due to its modus operandi of delivering luminance and chromo signals on different pins of its connector. It’s the excellent A/V output of choice for VCRs and Betamax as well as LaserDiscs. DVDs use component video instead of S-video for the highest quality possible for analog connections.
- Technology Marches On: S-video is an older A/V standard that’s already obsolete unless you still own a CRT and a VCR that accepts such a connection. Technology marches on and S-video was supposed to be an improved version of the composite baseband connector. The component video came along and ended up becoming the highest-grade analog connector as well as the last of its kind, delivering a full 480p DVD video resolution at a much clearer quality. With component, you can even go as high as 1080i/p by availing of digital component video. S-video still suffers from analog connection issues like snow, noise, washed-out colors, and ghosts.
- Trying Out HD on S-Video: Trying out HD broadcasts on S-video is like an exercise in futility or forcing a square peg into a round hole. There are ways to do it, but it usually means converting either the hole or the peg. In S-video’s case, turning an HD source into a 480i or 576i video for a CRT TV requires a good converter that crops and downscales the square peg of the higher-quality visuals to something that will fit into the round hole. Component video connections have a better time converting HD to something workable on a component video TV, monitor, or projector. With S-video, the picture has to be compressed and shrunk down to size and even cropped, depending on the display size.
- HDMI’s Rise to Fame: 1999 was around the time DVI came, allowing for HD signals to be processed for the first time, but it didn’t set the world on fire because it wasn’t as advanced as HDMI and it only works as a video connector. Rather, the electronics manufacturers instead focused their attention on the superior HDMI in 2002-2003 partly because they all have stakes in its creation. Furthermore, content creators and providers, in particular, wanted to avail of the anti-piracy features of HDMI that DVI lacked, especially with the rise of the Internet and digital piracy. Appliance makers were quicker in using HDMI for their HDTVs while DVI went the way of the HD-DVD to HDMI’s Blu-Ray.
- HDMI Has More Going for It: While S-video serves more as a stop-gap innovation in between composite A/V connections and the more widespread component video, HDMI has practically conquered the HD scene, with a few exceptions from the now obsolete DVI and the HD alternative DisplayPort or DP. With HDMI, consumers got features and services they used to not expect from a simple cable and port to connect their VCRs and NES to their big-box TVs, such as the ability to multiplex video and audio bitstreams as long as they can support the format’s clocking rate.
- More Potential to Unleash: Another thing that’s appealing about HDMI is that it keeps releasing new specifications over the years, from 1.x all the way to 2.x and beyond. With every specification, a new feature is introduced such as higher resolutions, digital copy protection using electronic handshake and encryption technology, the ability to control multiple pieces of electronics using one remote, and so forth. It’s not just about fitting millions of pixels to make resolutions bigger and better. HDMI’s appeal is also about evolving the capabilities of A/V with faster connections and more abilities than you can shake a USB stick at.
- Why Even Use S-Videos in The First Place? Analog systems still exist in the world even as they were phased out from the worldwide assembly and manufacturing line. There are no more S-video CRT TVs being made and everyone is switching to digital or smart HDTVs. However, S-video appliances are still being used or sold in the aftermarket as well as serviced by a cottage industry of TV and video repairmen. The S-video format endured from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. The Nintendo Wii uses both RCA composite and component video cables as well to connect to standard TVs. Also, legacy inputs work best with the cables that were made for them.
HDMI is a huge leap and bound when it comes to A/V standards. Digital is also vastly superior and infinitely more scalable than the limits that S-video and SD video offers. HDMI is also capable of much more than A/V connections, such as HDCP (anti-piracy or copyrighted footage protection), and HDMI-CEC (one remote can be used on all interconnected HDMI devices).
When shown on modern computers, an SD video is the size of a postage stamp while in many cases 4K HD video has to be scaled down unless you’ve bought a particularly large monitor or you’re using a 4K projector to showcase its full resolution size, pixel per pixel. S-video can’t even compete against 720p either, much less 1080p (1K) or 2K (and above) videos. It’s an older analog format reserved for older CRTs and VCRs in lieu of a converter. It’s not for HDTVs or BDs (Blu-Rays) since it’s a phased-out older analog format when push comes to shove.
- “HDMI“, Wikipedia, Retrieved August 13, 2020
- “S-Video“, Wikipedia, Retrieved August 13, 2020
- “The Difference Between NTSC and PAL“, Steve’s Digicams, Retrieved August 13, 2020
- “S-video vs. Component Video Which is Better?“, Blue Jeans Cable, Retrieved August 13, 2020
- “What is the difference between HDMI and S-video?“, Quora, March 3, 2016