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Don't be afraid of the HDR format wars

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Chris Welch

This year at CES, HDR support is the buzzword heard from almost every single TV manufacturer, culminating in this frightening-looking slide from LG which proudly promised its set would be compatible with all four major HDR standards.

As a consumer, that many different video standards is a daunting idea that brings to mind the format wars of yore (think VHS vs. Betamax or Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD). Fortunately, while the fact that there are now four standards — HDR10, Dolby Vision, HLG, and Advanced HDR — for companies and consumers to consider when it comes to new televisions, the reality is that things aren't quite as problematic as they seem.

While HDR may come in a lot of forms, the specific requirements for each standard make it much easier for TV manufacturers to support multiple standards despite the variety. Let's break down what the different formats are, who supports them, and why the differences may not be so scary after all.

HDR10

HDR10 is the more open standard for HDR developed by device manufacturers (including Samsung and Sony) to avoid having to submit to Dolby’s own standard and fees. It's the default standard for 4K Ultra-HD Blu-ray disks, and has been embraced by both Sony and Microsoft for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One S.

The downside is that while HDR10 is more open, it holds to a lower standard of video quality than Dolby Vision, mastering content at 1,000 nits of brightness compared to Dolby Vision's theoretical 10,000-nit limit. The former also supports 10-bit color to Dolby Vision's 12-bit, which translates to a smaller color range.

Dolby Vision

Developed by Dolby, Dolby Vision is the other primary competing standard for HDR content. Unlike HDR10, Dolby’s format requires TV sets and media devices that have been specifically designed with a Dolby Vision hardware chip — from which the company receives licensing fees.

It's also the more future-proof of the two formats, with content being mastered for a higher level of brightness and color gamut than what today's top sets can provide. Of the four formats Dolby Vision has the highest barrier to entry since it requires specific hardware to support. But it also offers the best HDR experience of any of the four standards since it can calibrate the picture for the specific TV hardware, in addition to the high mastering requirements.

HLG

HLG, or Hybrid-Log Gamma, is a one of the newer standards on the market, but it's an entirely different beast from Dolby Vision and HDR. HLG was developed by the BBC and NHK broadcasting networks to serve as an HDR format for live video. Unlike other HDR methods, which pre-encode the content with metadata to properly display the HDR effect, the HLG system is designed to work similar to regular broadcast television. It simply includes additional information regarding the HDR effect that compatible sets can implement. The broadcast is also backwards compatible with older standard dynamic range images should the set not offer HLG compatibility.

While HLG is still years away from any mainstream rollout, there’s nothing about the spec that would prevent any HDR set from offering a firmware update to support it later on.

Advanced HDR

Advanced HDR is perhaps the least established of the four major formats, but it's also not cause for concern. Advanced HDR has the smallest amount of information about it online, being the newest, but it's also primarily built for broadcast media and upscaling SDR video to HDR. But it's designed to be cross compatible across different HDR hardware, making it likely that TV manufacturers will be able to support it.

So in actuality, it isn’t four formats vying for supremacy — it’s four different formats that all are trying to accomplish different things and are largely cross compatible. Dolby Vision-mastered videos will still likely work on your HDR10-compatible set. Advanced HDR broadcasts probably won’t require you to buy a new TV set. Instead of pigeonholing content by warring standards like the HD-DVD and Blu-ray battle, HDR is more of a spectrum of quality instead of a group of wholly incompatible mediums.

Additionally, news out of CES 2017 is promising, with several HDR10 or Dolby Vision devotees announcing support for the opposite specification in their new sets. Sony, who had previously been a proponent of HDR10, is now selling Dolby Vision TVs, including the new OLED XBR-A1E Bravia. Hisense’s new 75-inch R8 model offers both HDR10 and Dolby Vision support. And of course LG, who had already been releasing sets with both HDR10 and Dolby Vision, pledging to support all four HDR formats across its entire 2017 OLED lineup.

Meanwhile, Samsung — one of the biggest HDR10 proponents — seems to still be sticking exclusively with that standard even with its newly announced flagship sets, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be missing out on any HDR content.

Of course, all this only is true if manufacturers decide to provide support for the various formats. Crossing wires mean licensing fees or hardware upgrades, so it’s unlikely that cheaper HDR sets will immediately spring for the upgrade. But from a technical perspective, as we head into 2017 with more HDR standards than ever, the option to offer a wide range of HDR standards on a single set is very much within the realm of possibility.