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HDR Technology: A Simple Guide to the Next Revolution in Television

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It’s late 2016 already, and 4K continues to gain popularity like wildfire. So, what is the next big thing in television then? 8K? Augmented Reality? Well, actually the answer is HDR or High Dynamic Range.

If you have been shopping for a television lately, or have been following tech news related to the television industry, then it’s impossible that you’ve missed HDR. Frankly, HDR has been the talk of the town for all of 2016.

You might have heard from TV manufacturers that there are many kinds of HDR: advertisers will always be advertisers, and in their hunger to differentiate their products, they will mislead the consumers. Take their words with a grain of salt. There actually aren’t that many HDR technologies floating around the electronics industry. In fact, there are only two approaches to HDR as far as televisions are concerned. But before we get into all the nitty-gritty details, let us first understand what HDR is.

What is High Dynamic Range?

If you own any of the fairly recent smartphones, then you’ve probably come across the HDR option in the camera. When you click a picture in HDR mode, a camera will take a range of photos at multiple exposures simultaneously, and then combine them together to produce a final picture that is more dynamic. This way, the bright regions are brighter, and the dark regions are darker than a regular picture. However, this is only HDR with respect to photography.

When it comes to television, the High Dynamic Range works slightly differently. HDR video recordings retain a much larger brightness range. They contain a much wider breadth of the visible light spectrum, which makes television picture quality much sharper and crisp. It’s the closest to what your naked eye sees in the real world. You may have noticed that many of the low-end to mid-price segment cameras tend to miss out on the small details in low light conditions. Cameras equipped with HDR can capture images just like our eyes see in low light conditions.

The great thing about HDR is that you don’t have to invest in a TV the size of your wall to actually notice it. Even small and medium size televisions can come equipped with this technology. And the result? The quality of pictures on your HDR TV will be as brilliant as those on high-end cinema screens, which is why HDR will revolutionize the television industry.

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So, when can I start watching HDR content?

Well, there is a catch. The catch is what it typically is in the industry – format war. Remember HD DVD vs Blu-Ray, DVD vs DIVX, etc? Now similar battles are happening in HDR, but this time, the format war is between the two approaches to HDR itself.

One approach to HDR is developed by the manufacturing giants Sony and Samsung: HDR10. This format has already gained widespread traction in the entertainment industry. A number of movie studios, industry associations, and content providers are already backing this technology.

The other format is developed by one of the biggest names in audio technology – Dolby. Dolby’s homegrown HDR format – Dolby Vision – is at least easy to remember.

HDR10 is topping the Google Trends charts, in comparison to Dolby Vision, but that doesn’t mean Dolby Vision is taking a nose-dive. It’s gaining popularity, but not as much as HDR10. In fact, those who matter in the industry have been happy to accommodate both the formats. Television manufacturers, especially LG and Vizio, have developed their TVs to support both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. Likewise, content producers and providers like Netflix and Amazon have already backed both the technologies.

At present, it appears that the industry will continue to support both the standards, and this is good news for TV viewers. Now that most of the wrinkles have been straightened out, customers will soon be able to enjoy HDR-compatible content on their televisions.

How do I check whether my TV supports HDR?

It’s quite simple. Manufacturers are happy to announce to the customers that the television they are buying is HDR compatible. So, you can see the same mentioned in the list of specifications on the box in which the TV ships, as well in the manuals that are shipped with it. If you want to buy television sets that support both formats of HDR, then great. Alternatively, if you want an inexpensive TV, then you can buy one that supports at least one of the HDR formats. As the content will be produced to support both formats, you will still be able to enjoy content in HDR.

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Which HDR format is the future?

The main reason why HDR10 is more popular than Dolby Vision is that HDR10 technology is a standard developed by a group of industry members. Hence, the technology is open for adoption by everyone. On the other hand, anyone who wants their hardware to support Dolby Vision has to buy a license from Dolby. Plus they need dedicated Dolby Vision decoder chip in their hardware. There are other differences between the two technologies, but the license fee is the most important one. This is the primary reason why Dolby Vision-compatible TVs are only handful in number.

Most HDR TVs support HDR10, irrespective of whether they support Dolby Vision or not. but it’s too early to say which one will triumph over the other in the future. As far as the consumer is concerned, there is no need to worry about this war. Most TVs are indeed compatible with both formats, making their televisions future-proof.

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What do I need to enjoy HDR-compatible programs, and how can I do it now?

The first thing you have to understand about HDR is that it’s an end-to-end technology. To enjoy HDR content, it has to be supported all the way through. What this means is that the content must first be produced in HDR quality; it must be broadcasted on HDR-compatible systems; then, it has to be viewed on HDR compatible televisions.

As you can see, you might have an HDR compatible TV in your living room., but unless you have a source that brings HDR compatible content to you, you cannot enjoy content in HDR on your television. As of now, very few services offer HDR-compatible content, the likes of which include Amazon, Netflix, VUDU, FandangoNow, and some others. These services are pioneering the adoption of HDR. As they manage to get more HDR content into the mainstream, cable channels and other streaming services will be under pressure to match them as well. Considering the way things are going now, you can expect to enjoy a lot of HDR compatible content by early 2017.

For now though, you can stick with the ones mentioned above that support HDR content.

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Do all HDR TVs produce the same type of images?

It is perfectly logical to think that two TVs manufactured by two manufacturers that use same technology (in this case, HDR), should produce similar quality images. But in reality, there can be significant differences. Apart from the HDR technology, there are a lot of other technologies that a particular TV can support, and each manufacturer uses a lot of different technologies in their televisions: so, the combined effect of these technologies is a unique final image for different televisions.

Each TV comes with its own range of brightness, contrast, resolution, color gradient, and other specifications that have their own effect on the HDR picture quality.

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What televisions are the best for enjoying HDR programs?

There is no universally accepted “best HDR TV,” or specifications. To their credit, the Ultra HD Alliance has come up with a set of specifications for color, brightness, and resolution for HDR compatible TVs. The televisions that qualify for these factors are awarded the badge of Ultra HD Premium by the Alliance. However, not all TV manufactures are enamored by this badge, so they ignore it completely and simply promote their products as HDR compatible.

Despite this, there are ways in which you can differentiate between different HDR compatible televisions. LCD TVs use external light sources, which can cause light-related issues like brightness problems. The answer to this is OLED TVs: in OLED TVs, each pixel produces its own light, eliminating the light-induced problems of LCD TVs. However, OLED TVs are not capable of achieving the same peak brightness levels as that of LCD TVs. Nevertheless, the picture quality on OLED TVs is significantly better than LCD TVs due to the improved contrast, but consequently, OLED TVs are much more expensive than LCD TVs. So, even two HDR-compatible TVs that work on different technology can produce different image qualities.

It’s ultimately up to you to decide what type of TV you like. More peak brightness or better contrast?

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Conclusion

Since this is actually a point of concern, you can soon expect there to be another war on these aspects of HDR as well. There could be competition between HDR TV manufacturers to produce higher peak brightness, better contrasts, and so on.

HDR is the technology that is going to drive the next big wave in the television market, and it will be interesting to see where it will take the industry. All Aboard!

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