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The Xbox One S heats up the HDR format war

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Get ready for the next big thing in TV technology

The newly revised Xbox One S launched today and offers HDR video support as one of the primary distinctions from the original model. More specifically, the Xbox One S uses the HDR10 standard to allow your Xbox to output HDR video (assuming you've got one of the few compatible HDR TV sets) to offer better picture quality for supported games and videos than regular HD content.

Wondering what HDR video is? What the differences between HDR10 and the competing standard, Dolby Vision are? Which TV sets support it? Read on.

What is HDR?

HDR (high dynamic range) refers to a type of imagery in which the dynamic range — the difference between the darkest and lightest part of the image — is high. For photography, where it’s difficult to capture a quality image that contains both very dark and very light aspects, HDR images traditionally consist of multiple images shot at different exposure levels, which are then merged together to achieve an effect that ideally is closer to what you see in the real world with your naked eye.

This results in a brighter overall video, with colors that are more vivid

HDR video works in a related, but slightly different fashion, combining display technology that creates brighter televisions than we’ve seen before — allowing them to actually display a greater range in brightness from dark to light — along with specialized video content that can take advantage of it. The ability to recreate and display more colors than modern televisions is also baked into the standards. Practically speaking, this results in a brighter overall video, with colors that are more vivid and better details than regular HD content. But like high-definition video, you’ll need an HDR-compatible TV set, a set-top box that supports it, and of course, HDR content to actually watch.

Complicating things further is that there are two competing standards in the industry for HDR video: the proprietary Dolby Vision format and HDR10.

What’s the difference between the formats?

The good news is, unlike some of the great technological AV format wars of eras past like VHS vs. Betamax or Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD, device and content producers can support both formats.

Device and content producers can support both formats

The biggest difference between the two formats from a practical level is that Dolby Vision also theoretically will master content at 10,000 nits of brightness to HDR10’s 1,000. While even top-of-the-line sets on the market today aren’t capable of that, Dolby Vision tends toward around 4,000 nits for now, but the standard ensures that Dolby Vision content will be better future-proofed as TV set technology improves. The other advantage that Dolby Vision has is support for up to 12-bit color compared to HDR10’s 10-bit, which translates to a wider color range. However, Dolby’s format requires a set specifically designed with a Dolby Vision hardware chip (and of course, Dolby’s licensing fees) built in, which the format uses to optimize content to that particular display in conjunction with the video source. Right now, HDR sets from LG, VizioTCL, and Philips have embraced Dolby Vision as a standard.

Samsung, Sony, and Sharp are all supporters of HDR10

HDR10, on the other hand, is the more open standard developed by device manufactures including Samsung and Sony, to avoid having to submit to Dolby’s own standard and fees. It also has the bonus of being the required HDR standard for any Ultra-HD Blu-ray disks (Dolby Vision can support UHD Blu-ray, but isn’t mandatory). An added advantage to HDR10 is that it can be added to some Dolby Vision-compatible TVs via a later software update (as Vizio is currently rolling out for some of its sets), unlike Dolby Vision’s chip-bound requirements. But HDR10 also has lower specifications when it comes to color and brightness than what's possible with Dolby Vision, along with none of the set-specific optimization that Dolby's hardware requirements provide. SamsungSony, and Sharp are all supporters of HDR10, with Microsoft now following suit with the Xbox One S. But due to the open nature of the standard, Vizio, LG, and Philips have been able to release sets that support both HDR10 and Dolby Vision.

What about content?

Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are hedging their bets, offering HDR content in both formats for now. Hollywood studios are more split, with Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures pledging to produce content in both formats. Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate, and Paramount have committed to HDR10 for now, and MGM and Universal to Dolby Vision. Ultimately, though, the two formats both use the same method of electro-optical transfer function to encode the video, so content producers should in theory be able to support both formats

So, what do I buy for now?

things are still very much up in the air as to whether either format will win out entirely

It’s still early days for HDR video as a format, and things are still very much up in the air as to whether either format will win out entirely, or if the two standards will manage to happily coexist. On paper, Dolby Vision has room for higher specifications and the prospect of a longer product lifespan than HDR10, but comes with the extra baggage of Dolby’s fees — which will likely trickle down to consumers. Additionally, there's the downside of not being the mandatory standard for UHD Blu-ray: so while UHD disc that offers support for Dolby Vision will be compatible with HDR10 by default, not all HDR10 discs will work with Dolby Vision.

Ultimately, if you’re truly committed to living on the cutting edge of home theater tech and have absolutely have to buy a set today that you want to make sure is covered for the future, one of Vizio, LG, or Philip’s combo displays may be your best bet.