High Dynamic Range (HDR) is the latest buzzword in the smartphone displays arms race, promising enhanced colors, superior contrast, and an overall better viewing experience than Standard Dynamic Range equivalents. An increasing number of video streaming services support HDR content. Many videos and games seem poised to make a visual leap forward. But should HDR be an important factor in your next smartphone purchase?

Living room vs on-the-go

In the home, audiovisual enthusiasts will happily spend time setting up their perfect watching environment for their new HDR TV— carefully adjusting the room lighting, calibrating their set for the ideal color balance, and making sure they’re sat within the perfect viewing angles.

The typical use case for smartphones falls far from this ideal, with viewers often taking their devices out and about, moving between different lighting environments, or watching at strange angles while lying in bed. If you’re taking your smartphone out and about, contending with screen glare can also be a problem, as can fighting with slower streaming speeds if your connection fluctuates. All of this can detract from the ideal HDR viewing experience for smartphone.

That doesn’t mean HDR is wasted in a mobile form facto. Small screens are welcome in the living room too. High Dynamic Range panels by definition also provide a high contrast ratio, wider color gamut, and greater peak brightness than SDR panels. Even SDR content can look more vivid or be more easily viewed in bright environments with these phones. Samsung’s AMOLED has offered these very characteristics long before the push for High Dynamic Range content. You’ll also receive an extra image boost with 10-bit color content, if you have access to a compatible streaming service and a fast enough internet connection.

The brightness problem

Battery life is a constant concern for smartphone users, yet HDR demands a higher peak brightness than ever before in order to boost the contrast ratio and make the most of the additional color data.

Smartphones are capable of exceeding 540 nits of peak brightness, but only when pushing their panel to the limit and draining more battery.

To quickly recap the Mobile HDR certification from the UHD Alliance, handsets should be able to output 540 nits of peak brightness and a minimum of 0.0005 nits. Testing has revealed that a number of smartphones can meet this criteria, with the Note 8 apparently capable of hitting 1200 nits, pushing it well past this minimum requirement.

However reaching that peak brightness requires turning the panel up near its maximum capabilities, therefore draining much more battery than a conservative user would. For example, watching HDR content on the Samsung Galaxy S8 locks the screen brightness to a higher setting. This makes sense to ensure that the watcher is able to make the most of the HDR content, however it’s going to drain the battery quicker than watching SDR videos.

It’s also worth comparing this mobile HDR certification to the TV equivalent to judge whether mobile customers are really getting the full HDR experience. The UHD Alliance that issues the Mobile HDR certification also oversees the Ultra HD Premium standard. This specification requires that 4K LCD TVs offer over 1000-nit peak brightness and less than 0.05 nits when black, or the same 0.0005 to 540 nits for OLED. The specification also requires the same 90 percent of greater reproduction of the DCI P3 color space.

The UHD Alliance’s Mobile HDR certification is identical to the TV equivalent, just without the requirement for a 4K resolution. So certified smartphones aren’t receiving a paired down experience.

Samsung bumps up the display brightness when viewing HDR content, so you’re going to get less screen on time versus SDR.

HDR services and phones

Even though a certified panel is a good way to know you’re getting a good looking display even for SDR, a subscription to a service offering High Dynamic Range content will really make the display shine.

If you’re already a user of one or more of those services, there’s only a small selection of smartphones to pick from that currently support this content. Samsung and LG’s latest flagships will do the trick, as will Sony’s 4K XZ Premium. Currently the first generation Pixels only support more vibrant playback on YouTube via a software patch issued by Google. Here’s the list:

  • Samsung Galaxy S8, S8 Plus, Note 8
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab S3
  • LG G6, V30
  • Sony Xperia XZ Premium, Xperia ZX1
  • Google Pixel, Pixel XL (YouTube only)

Closing thoughts

The roll out of High Dynamic Range displays and content for smartphones is a welcome one, but it’s not without its compromises. Depending on how you prefer to watch your videos will be the primary factor in determining whether HDR is worth investing in. If you watch a lot of video on the move in bright daylight— maybe during a commute— you might find that slow data and compromised screen brightness lessen the benefits. There’s also the battery issue to consider, and users won’t get many hours of screen-on time if they’re watching HDR content on-the-go.

However, those who want to take their favourite shows from the living room TV to the kitchen, bedroom, or elsewhere, HDR capable smartphones offer real noticeable benefits in terms of visual quality. Even if you’re not quite ready to make the fully transition yet, an HDR-certified display is a good way to know you’re going to get a great looking display for whatever content you’re watching.

Are you sold on the HDR trend? Have you been impressed by its image quality? Sound off in the comments below.

Robert Triggs

Lead Technical Writer covering SoCs, displays, cameras, and everything in between. In his spare moments you’ll find him building audio gadgets.