Video out for Samsung Galaxy phones - using the USB/MHL port to connect HDMI displays

The Galaxy phones support video output via a dual-purpose connector that can be used with either a micro-USB cable or charger, or with an MHL adapter.  A typical MHL adapter has an MHL connector on one end (for plugging into the phone), an HDMI port on the other (for connecting the phone to any HDMI display), and a micro-USB port on its side since the phone's own micro-USB is blocked when this adapter is used.

That micro-USB port on the side of the MHL adapter allows you to charge the phone while playing video to your HDMI display.

As of 2013, there are 4 types of MHL adapters
  • The Galaxy SII, Note 1, and Galaxy Nexus (and more then 50 smartphones by other vendors) support MHL 1 with a 5-pin connector,
  • The Galaxy SIII and Note 2 support a 11-pin version of the MHL 1,
  • The HTC One is the first phone to support MHL 2 with the standard 5-pin connector.  It is backward compatible with MHL 1  5-pin adapters.
  • The Galaxy S4 is the first phone to support MHL 2 with the Samsung 11-pin connector.  It is backward compatible with the GSIII/Note 2 adapters. 
Version 2 of the MHL standard increases the maximum supported refresh rate from 30 to 60fps (at 1080p), and it also doubles the rate at which the MHL cable can charge the phone (when used in conjunction with a micro-USB cable).

The 11-pin connector allows the phone to power the MHL adapter itself, so using the micro-USB port on the side of the MHL adapter becomes optional.  As well, it extends the functionality of that micro-USB port beyond just charging - allowing it to be used as a USB-OTG port so you could connect e.g. a keyboard and a mouse.

Please note that all of these are considered standards conformant products in spite of the different connectors - the MHL standard does not specify a connector.  I have referred to 5-pin as 'standard' because it is what everyone used initially and everyone but Samsung still uses.  I consider it unfortunate that they did not standardize the connectors, or at least use a different name for the different connectors the way the USB and HDMI standards did (e.g. micro-USB, and mini-HDMI).

This page was created when Samsung released the Galaxy S3 with a mysterious new (11-pin) MHL port.  The new port was incompatible with existing MHL equipment and, with no explanation or warning provided there was a fair bit of confusion - this page was meant to warn people about the issue, provide some answers, and put a little bit of pressure on Samsung and the MHL consortium to provide some information and avoid a repeat.  The details are below...  

Samsung has advertised that the Galaxy S III comes with an MHL port for video output, but the port doesn't work with any existing MHL accessories or displays.

So far, Samsung's decision to use a non-standard port, but advertise it to consumers as a being MHL compatible (without providing any warning or explanation), has caused confusion and controversy, wasted the time and money of their users, and undermined an emerging standard.

Final Update for the GS3 & Note 2

I have received an explanation from the MHL Consortium (on 2011-07-11).  Elements of this explanation have been dribbling out for a couple of weeks now (so some of this is not new), but I will try to summarize the whole thing:

The Galaxy S3 and Note 2 have 11-pin connectors for their MHL support, where all previous MHL compatible devices used a 5-pin connector.  As a result, previous MHL accessories and devices are not directly compatible with these phones.  Samsung has provided a new MHL to HDMI adapter, and a cheaper 'adapter tip' for adapting existing MHL accessories for use with the SGS3 or Note 2.
The 11-pin connector and the MHL standard:
1.  The SGSIII is MHL compliant in spite of using a different connector then other MHL products - this is because the connector is not part of the standard.  The other vendors all adopted the same 5-pin connector as a convention and to ensure interoperability, but this was not necessary for MHL compliance.
2.  The 11-pin connector has nothing to do with MHL 2.0.  This change to the connector is independent of the core MHL functionality - we could well have both 5-pin and 11-pin MHL products.
3.  The ability of companies (besides Samsung) to make use of this new 11-pin connector design is not known.

Reasons for using an 11-pin connector:
4.  The 11-pin connector design supports the use of USB and MHL simultaneously - note that the new Samsung 11-pin MHL-HDMI adapter also has a USB-OTG port.  The 5-pin MHL connector design uses the same wires for both MHL and USB so it is unable to support their simultaneous use.
5.  Samsung’s Galaxy S III (or Note 2) can power the MHL-HDMI adapter.  Although this can theoretically also be done with the standard 5-pin micro-USB connector, the Galaxy S III is believed to be the first smartphone that supports this functionality.  
(Some of the above text was provided by an MHL spokesperson.)

Clearly, there are significant advantages to this new connector.  In my opinion these do justify a change in the connector, even a non-backward compatible change, if necessary.

If Samsung makes the 11-pin design available to other vendors under terms that befit a multi-vendor standard then I think it would be fair to consider this connector to be version 2 of the combined USB+MHL connector.

It is still, however, quite unfortunate the way this played out: so much confusion could have been avoided if Samsung had:
- Given their new connector a distinct name, the same way that similar standards such as USB and HDMI use a different name (e.g micro-USB, USB-OTG, mini-HDMI) for new, incompatible connectors.
- Given an explanation, such as the above, when the phone was released.  They could even have done this informally, e.g. by putting it in a relevant Wikipedia article.

Vendor's have opted for proprietary ports against the interests of their users before, but Samsung has gone further this time and this has become an important test: if a vendor is prepared to harm an emerging standard1 and confuse their users2, in order to increase accessory sales, will it succeed?  Will Android users' roll-over?  We think not - as attested by the hundreds of disappointed and angry articles in the tech press3 warning users of this issue.

The purpose of this site is to contribute another voice warning users about the reasons to avoid Samsung branded accessories and calling on Samsung for an explanation that will reduce the confusion about this port.  This site is not intended to dissuade consumers from buying the Galaxy SIII or other Samsung products - actually most users don't need the video output capability anyway - we are just warning users of the dangers of Samsung branded mobile accessories.  

(This website was created by a consumer who likes Android, Samsung, and Standards.  I have no financial or professional interest in this issue.)

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The F.A.Q's

(After all, don't the other manufacturers do this sort of thing all the time?)

The Story

MHL is an emerging standard for connecting mobile devices to HD displays - it is supported by more then 50 smartphones, and even more high def TV's, from all the major consumer electronics companies.  More then 50 million MHL enabled products shipped in 2011 (see the MHL website for details).

Smartphones typically support MHL via a dual-purpose connector that supports both micro-USB cables and MHL.  The MHL connection has a variety of useful features including the ability for the display to charge the phone while they are connected.

Samsung advertises the Galaxy S3 as having one of these micro-USB / MHL connectors. The micro-USB works great, but frustrated users have discovered that the MHL port is not compatible with their MHL adapters or MHL displays.

Hey, this MHL port is not an MHL port!

Samsung has changed the "pin layout" on this port so that it is not compatible with standard MHL accessories and MHL displays - even ones made by Samsung.

This means that your only options for video out on the Galaxy S3 is to buy a  Samsung MHL to HDMI adapter that is made specifically for this phone model, or to buy an adapter that Samsung is selling to adapt the Galaxy S3's MHL to work with standard MHL accessories - an adapter for an adapter, if you will.  Samsung has not given any indication of whether either of these will work with any future Samsung products.

The MHL standard has the potential to be very valuable to end users - using a high def display with your smartphone is likely to become increasingly useful - but a successful standard requires discipline on the part of the manufacturers.  In this case, the other manufacturers (there are more then 100 vendors now) have voluntarily conformed to the MHL standard, strengthening it as a standard and benefiting their users.  The Galaxy S3 is the first device to break from the standard.

What's so bad about this?

For starters, proprietary connectors and accessories are bad.  There isn't much debate about this so instead of rehashing well worn arguments it is probably more useful to (by way of comparison) consider the great utility and value of the USB standard, as implemented on Galaxy S3.  This is wonderfully illustrated by in this video - you will be surprised at how much the USB port can do, and reminded of how useful standards can be for consumers.

However, the preference of vendor's for proprietary connectors is nothing new.

What's makes this case unusually nasty is that Samsung advertised their product as having MHL capability.  MHL is sufficiently recognized in the tech community that this was an easy way to communicate the video output capabilities to consumers, but obviously having an MHL branded product that is incompatible with all the other products is going to confuse consumers and undermine the MHL branding.  After all, what does a standard mean to consumer if not some form of compatibility?

Worse, though, neither Samsung nor the MHL consortium provided any warning or clarification, so consumers started buying MHL accessories for their new Samsung phone, and vendors labelled their accessories as being MHL compliant.  More then a month after the phone was released Samsung provided indirect clarification by releasing a new accessory to adapt their old accessories to the Galaxy S3.  The text describing this product alluded to new capabilities made possible by their variation on the MHL port, but these capabilities are not supported by any of their accessories so the confusion remained as bad as before.

So then Samsung is evil?

No, I did not create this site to denigrate Samsung in general - just to deal with this one issue.  Aside from the fake-MHL port, I think Samsung has shown considerable integrity and respect for their customers and the Android community.  Keeping the carriers away from your phone is tough in the Android world where there is always another Android vendor ready to take your place - releasing the Galaxy S3 across all carriers with minimal variation is quite impressive.

As well, though preventing users from re-using their existing accessories is bad for the environment, Samsung's overall environmental record is not at all bad.

As well, much of the blame must rest with the MHL consortium who appear powerless to do anything (e.g. ask Samsung to stop using the MHL branding) as the value and meaning of their brand is destroyed.  It is possible that what Samsung has done is a legitimate use of the MHL standard and branding, but then MHL never really had any meaning in the first place and shouldn't have been advertised to consumers - compatibility is what a standard is about for consumers.  (VESA recently introduced an alternative to MHL called MyDP, and VESA is a real standards body so hopefully they do a better job of managing their standard then the MHL consortium has.)

So, no Samsung is not evil, and it is not the intention of this site to dissuade consumers from buying the SGS3.

What's the solution?

Some Alternatives

If you want a smartphone with video output then you should consider one that has a real MHL port such as the HTC One X, or the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.

A mini HDMI port would be even better but those are rare on smartphones.

You could also consider whether DLNA might satisfy your requirements - it allows you to play content from your phone on any smart TV.

Finally, there is a thread at XDA disccussing the alternatives.
The solution is simple: don't buy Samsung accessories for the SGS3.

Samsung appears to be doing this to increase the revenue they get from accessories.  If that doesn't happen then they are unlikely to do anything similar again.  The Android ecosystem is what Android users make it - if we don't buy proprietary accessories then the vendors will return to standards.

The worst scenario, if Samsung makes lots of money from proprietary accessories such as this, is that they move further, modifying the micro-USB ports on their devices such that they only work with Samsung accessories, and perhaps even create new, incompatible accessories for each generation of their phones.  Such scenarios might sound far fetched, but then again, what they have done here to the MHL standard would have seemed improbable too.

What's the official response from Samsung?

Most of the articles and reviews that discuss the problem end with uncertainty - preferring not to conclude that Samsung would done something so slimy, they hold out hope that there is a reasonable explanation.  Unfortunately, Samsung has declined to clarify so the confusion remained unresolved.

One of the explanations considered was that this is a newer version of MHL, and indeed there is now a version 2.0 of MHL (see here) but this is not it.  One of the ways to put that speculation to rest is to point out that MHL 2.0 is supposed to be backward compatible - the MHL implementation on the SGS3 and its adapter are not compatible with anything.

The other potential source of clarification is the MHL Consortium, but they too have declined to clarify (I personally tried multiple times to get them to comment).  This being a consortium, and not a standard body, they represent the manufacturers and are in a very tricky position when one breaks ranks and sabotages their work.

It is still remotely possible that there is an explanation (other then this being a misguided effort to increase revenue at the expense of their users and landfills), but the time has come and gone for that.  The phone and adapter are for sale all over the world, confusion reigns, and neither Samsung nor the MHL consortium are willing to comment - an explanation should have been provided long ago.