The latest? HDR. But what is it and why will it make your video pictures look better than ever? Read on for all you need to know about HDR video technology on 4K TVs, the PS4 Pro and Xbox One S, mobiles phones and more...
What does HDR mean?
‘HDR’ stands for High Dynamic Range, and it is the next big thing in the video world, primarily when it comes to the latest TVs. The term originates in photography, and refers to a technique that heightens a picture’s dynamic range – the contrast between the brightest whites and the darkest blacks.
The theory is that the higher the dynamic range, the closer a picture gets to real life. HDR for televisions is basically the same idea.
Look out of the window. Look at the sky. The clouds may be white (or grey, if you’re in the UK) but there should be definite layers, and around the clouds you should be able to pick out varying degrees of brightness.
Now look at clouds in any film on your TV. They tend to look flat in comparison, with white levels crushed and layers that are virtually indistinguishable. There are several reasons for this.
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What's so good about HDR?
The first reason is your TV’s limited dynamic range, its inability to illustrate the finest differences in brightness. That means you miss out on all the nuances that really ought to be there.
After all, your eyes can differentiate a lot more information than your telly feeds you. Then there’s all the processing that takes place along the chain after something is filmed.
It dramatically reduces the amount of information transferred in order to match the technical limits imposed by your TV.
Only now, TVs are much more capable. And by that, we mean bright. A normal TV puts out around 100-300nits of brightness, where one nit (derived from the latin for ‘to shine’) is equivalent to one candle. An HDR TV can in theory get up to 5000nits.
Of course, that sort of light would be blinding at maximum brightness. This isn’t about searing your retinas, however. It’s about widening the range in order to display finer increments of shading.
The idea is to let you see more of what is recorded. You’ll get more details in the shadows and highlights. Sunlight will gleam properly off windows. Colours will be richer and more lifelike, with more delicate gradations and greater shifts in tone. Basically, your picture will look more natural and more real.
Don't believe us? Take it from Hollywood colourist, Dado Valentic, in our video below...
What's the official HDR spec?
Ah. Well, while everyone can agree on wanting brighter whites, darker blacks and a wider colour palette, there is as yet no official agreed technical definition, nor rules denoting what can pass as HDR, or HDR 10 to give it its full name.
There has to be a universal set of parameters such as minimum luminance levels, colour depth, bandwidth requirements, encoding and decoding requirements and power consumption.
Right now, these definitions are being hotly debated by the UHD Alliance, a global coalition of TV manufacturers, film studios and distributors. Its members include Dolby, LG, Netflix, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, Technicolor, Walt Disney Studios, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros.
In the meantime, the UHD Alliance has set out parameters for the Ultra HD Premium standard. Content and devices must meet a certain resolution, support certain colour standards and also support HDR.
More after the break
HDR 10 and Dolby Vision
Meanwhile, just to slightly confuse matters, Dolby has its own version of HDR: Dolby Vision. This was initially an initiative for its Dolby Cinemas, which will combine HDR video with Dolby Atmos sound, in an attempt to take on IMAX cinemas.
But Dolby Vision can also be adapted for the home and some TV manufacturers have already committed to producing Dolby Vision-compatible TVs.
US-based Vizio is the first manufacturer to come up with a Dolby Vision TV. Sharp, TCL and Philips have signed up too. Some major studios - Sony, Fox, Warner and Disney - are also on board. They already have some major films made in Dolby Vision.
As is the case with HDR 10, you'll still need content encoded with Dolby Vision material and a source that's capable of playing it.
Both HDR 10 and Dolby Vision can, and will, appear on the same TVs and discs - the two can happily coexist.
Dolby Vision claims to offer a more advanced version of the improvements delivered by HDR, improving colours and contrast on a scene-by-scene basis, while HDR 10 works its magic film-by-film.
HDR and 4K Ultra HD
LG's 65EF950V OLED TV is fully compatible with HDR content
HDR should not be confused with the other big TV buzzword of the moment: UHD (Ultra High Definition, also known as 4K). Both HDR and UHD are meant to improve your viewing experience, but they are hugely different technologies with almost no overlap.
It’s a matter of quantity and quality: UHD is all about bumping up the pixel count, while HDR wants to make the pixels you have more accurate, regardless of resolution. Whether you’ve got a 32in unit in the bedroom or a 75in monster in the living room, HDR could make a visible difference.
Of course, while UHD and HDR are different technologies, they can still work together. All the early HDR-compatible TVs are also 4K Ultra HD TVs.
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How can you watch HDR?
To benefit from HDR 10 or Dolby Vision, you’re going to need a few things. First of all, you’ll have to get a new display device. Whether you’re after a television, a projector, a mobile phone or tablet, it needs to be HDR-compatible.
LG, Samsung, Sony and Panasonic all have their own take on ‘HDR-compatible’ TVs, many of which are already in your local shop. Recent HDR-compatible 2016 TVs we've reviewed include the Panasonic TX-65DX902B, TX-50DX700B and Sony KD-55XD9305. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is the first HDR-compatible mobile phone.
The next step is to get something to play it on. If your HDR film happens to be on a disc, i.e. an Ultra-HD Bu-ray, you're going to need an Ultra HD Blu-ray player to play it on. Currently, the Panasonic DMP-UB900 and Samsung UBD-K8500 are the only two dedicated players on the market, but Microsoft's recently announced Xbox One S games console also doubles as a 4K Blu-ray player and includes HDR support too.
Alternatively, perhaps you're streaming HDR content via Netflix or Amazon Instant Video. This can be done through a compatible app on your TV or streaming box such as the latest Amazon Fire TV. For that, you’ll also need an Internet connection with the appropriate bandwidth. Both services support HDR 10 and Dolby Vision.
HDR on the Xbox One S and PS4 Pro
The new Xbox One S not only has an Ultra HD Blu-ray player, it also supports HDR video. You'll need a TV that supports HDR 10 to view HDR content from the Xbox One S.
Provided HDR is supported on your TV (and turned on), then your Xbox One S will output HDR video from any compatible source - Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, HDR streaming video and HDR games.
The first Xbox One S HDR games are on the way, with many existing titles set to get software updates adding HDR video, including Battlefield 1. NBA 2K17, Forza Horizon 3 and Gears of War 4 are all set to launch as HDR Xbox games.
Precise details on the PS4 Pro and HDR - and which version it supports - are thin on the ground but we should find out closer to the release date (10th November).
What about mobile HDR?
With the launch of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, we now have HDR smartphones. Will mobile HDR be worth it on a screen the size of the phone? That remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, Samsung and Amazon have announced a partnership to allow HDR video streaming on the Note 7, just download the Amazon Video app to get started.
What HDR content is available?
HDR material means content that is filmed or mastered in HDR – playing ordinary footage on an HDR TV alone won’t cut it. Amazon Prime Instant Video was the first service to stream ‘HDR’ footage, but Netflix has just launched its first HDR series in the shape of Marco Polo and promised more than 150 hours of 4K HDR content by the end of 2016.
On top of that there’s the Ultra HD Blu-ray format, which includes HDR in its base specification. 4K Blu-ray discs have finally gone on sale, with Universal the latest company to announce its first Ultra HD Blu-ray releases for 2016. 20th Century Fox has already committed to releasing all its future home-based media in HDR.
Amazon Video also offers mobile HDR videos for streaming on HDR-compatible phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 7. Mobile HDR content is set to include Amazon Original Series and other "top titles".
The future of HDR
There's no denying HDR is a very attractive idea and when we've seen it in action, the results on the whole have been highly impressive.
HDR content will continue to hit the mainstream via streaming services and the fledgling Ultra HD Blu-ray disc format, which combines Ultra HD with HDR on one disc. For many enthusiasts, this could be the complete AV package. And now it's coming to games consoles and mobile devices too.
Combining 4K and HDR on a TV means a super-sharp, super-dynamic picture – and from our experience it's a clear step-up from the HD that most of us have come to know and love.
2016 looks set to be the year that HDR becomes a reality for more consumers. We finally have the displays, the sources and the content to complete the HDR chain - the future of video looks very bright indeed...
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