Before examining the specifics of the Belkin switcher, it's worth considering why you'd want--or need--an HDMI switcher. Most video devices have been transitioning to HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) over the past couple of years--you'll find it on virtually all new HDTVs, HD cable and satellite boxes, high-def Blu-ray and HD-DVD players, and even most new DVD players and recorders. But many HDTVs offer only a single HDMI input, which poses a problem for anyone who owns--or is planning to buy--more than one of the aforementioned devices: if you want to watch your HD cable box via HDMI, you can't watch your upscaling DVD player, or vice versa. As more HDMI devices appear on the market--such as the much ballyhooed PlayStation 3--the need to switch easily between HDMI sources becomes ever more important. And while a wider selection of affordable HDMI-switching receivers from the likes of Denon, Yamaha, Onkyo, Pioneer, JVC, and Sony are finally making their way to store shelves, all but the most expensive models--such as the $2,000 Denon AVR-4306--feature a mere two HDMI inputs.
It's precisely that void that the Belkin HDMI switcher is designed to fill. The silver box is a mere 7.19 inches wide by 3.13 deep and just an inch high, but the metal (rather than plastic) housing gives the tiny device a solid feel. It might be mistaken for a small networking hub, and, indeed, it's essentially the A/V equivalent of one. Its back side sports three HDMI inputs and one output, while the spartan front panel readout offers four green LEDs, two of which are on at any given time: the power indicator, and one to indicate which of the three inputs is active. There's no power button, so the device is always on, though the 6-volt wall-wart power supply is one of the most diminutive we've seen.
Setup is strictly plug-and-play--plug in as many as three HDMI sources and run a single output cable to your HD monitor. (DVI cables and devices work just as well as HDMI, provided you use the appropriate adapters.) You cycle through the inputs using the included tiny remote control. The best thing about the remote is that it offers discrete input access--individual buttons for each of the three sources. That means you can use any decent universal remote control to "learn" the Belkin's input toggle commands, then program macros that jump directly to any of your three HDMI sources. (If you misplace the remote, you can use the single button on the face of the Belkin switcher to cycle through the inputs instead.)
We connected some of the latest HDMI-capable devices--the Toshiba HD-A1 HD-DVD player, the Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray player, and the Denon DVD-3910 upscaling DVD player--to put the Belkin switcher through its paces. It worked without a hitch, toggling to each of those sources on demand, with each of the several HDTVs to which we attached it: the Sony KDS-60A2000, the Samsung LN-S3252D, and the Vizio L37HDTV. Significantly, each player was able to pass video at all standard resolutions: 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, and from the Samsung Blu-ray player, 60-frame 1080p. Using our Sencore signal generator as the source, the Belkin was also able to handle the 24-frame 1080p video test pattern. That rare resolution isn't something you'll encounter in the real world anytime soon--we viewed it on the Dell W3706MC, which is one of the very few TVs to date that can even accept a 1080p24 signal--but the Belkin's success with it spoke well of its versatility. Moreover, the fact that both the HD-DVD and Blu-ray players worked without a hitch means that the Belkin had no problem passing the HDCP signal, which is critical as more high-def material becomes copy-protected.
We then repeated the same battery of tests with the JVC RX-D702 A/V receiver connected between the Belkin switcher and the TV (HDMI source to Belkin switcher, to JVC receiver, to TV, all connected via HDMI). Once again, we experienced a solid connection between the devices: the multichannel audio (Dolby Digital, DTS, and linear PCM) was correctly recognized and amplified by the JVC receiver, just as if the source device was directly connected. That's significant, because it demonstrates that the Belkin HDMI switcher can be a worthwhile complement to an A/V receiver with one or two HDMI inputs; effectively, the Belkin doubled the number of usable HDMI inputs on the JVC from two to four. (And that's exactly the reason why you might buy--and keep--such a switcher now, rather than put the money towards the purchase of an entry-level HDMI-capable receiver.)
That's not to say things were perfect. We did occasionally experience some issues, such as the Samsung Blu-ray player not recognizing TVs connected via the Belkin as 1080p-capable, even when they were. Our workaround for this problem was to simply cycle through the TV's inputs; when we returned to it, the Samsung reverted to the correct maximum resolution. But we experienced these same problems on other HDMI switchers (the JVC receiver and the Gefen 4x1 switcher mentioned below), so we're inclined to blame the Samsung's too-smart-for-its-own-good autoresolution function more than the Belkin. Likewise, the Toshiba HD-A1 would always flash HDMI error when we toggled away from it, forcing movies to reboot--but that's a known issue that we'd previously experienced with the player. The bottom line is that the HDMI standard overall is extremely touchy and not uniformly implemented across all products. So even with the best switchers, you may encounter problems ranging from small annoyances to major snafus that are a result of the limitations of the HDMI source, such as cable boxes that revert to stereo instead of surround, or the display (TVs that can't accept 480i or 1080p video signals).
General HDMI caveats aside, the only hesitation when recommending the Belkin HDMI switcher is one of value. It works every bit as well as the Gefen 4x1 HDMI Switcher that's been used in the CNET labs for months, and it's less bulky and more affordable to boot. But that model offers an extra HDMI input. Even more enticing for the HDMI-hungry home-theater aficionados is the Display Magic 5-input 1-output HDMI Switcher. It offers five HDMI inputs for $350, and--based on the photo, at least--seems to be otherwise identical to the three-input Belkin PureAV model. Moreover, a quick Web search for HDMI switchers turns up models from Sima (three inputs) and RTcom (four inputs) that sell at or below the Belkin's $200 price. Of course, we can't vouch for these untested models, but we can give a stamp of approval to this one. In the final analysis, the Belkin PureAV HDMI switch delivers an easy and affordable way to add two HDMI inputs to your home theater.