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Should you buy a phone for HDR?

HDR smartphones are becoming common, but should you prioritise it as a feature when making your next handset purchase?

Published onAugust 25, 2019

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High Dynamic Range (HDR) is one of the biggest buzzwords in display technology. You’ll find it in most modern TV sets and high-end smartphones released in the past couple of years. Promising enhanced colors, superior contrast, and overall better viewing experience than Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) equivalents, what’s not to like?

A growing number of video streaming services also support HDR content, with videos and games poised to make a visual leap forward. More and more content is beginning to surface, but should HDR be an important factor in your next smartphone purchase?

Living room vs on-the-go

In the home, audio-visual 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 taking their devices out and about, moving between different lighting environments, or watching at strange angles while lying in bed. Combined with hit and miss 4G data speeds, and mobile users aren’t going to get the ideal HDR viewing experience.

Between outdoor screen glare, limited battery life, and so-so data speeds, mobile users aren't always poised for the best HDR experience.

That doesn’t mean HDR is pointless in a mobile form factor. Small screens are welcome in the living room too and can benefit from 10-bit content. High Dynamic Range panels, by definition, provide a high contrast ratio, wider color gamut, and greater peak brightness than SDR panels. Even SDR content can look more vivid and brighter by picking an HDR-ready phone.

AMOLED panels, such as those from Samsung, offered these very characteristics long before the push for High Dynamic Range content. A growing number of phones we test each year strive for the DCI-P3 color space. This is notably wider than the standard SRGB space associated with SDR content and better suited for HDR.

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 10-bit 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. Our testing has revealed that a number of smartphones can meet these criteria. Even the older Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is capable of hitting 1200 nits, pushing well past this minimum requirement.

However, reaching that peak brightness requires turning the panel up near its maximum capabilities. This, unfortunately, reduces panel image quality somewhat. Higher brightness also drains much more battery than usual, reducing the amount of time that users can watch HDR content on-the-go.

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. This is great news, as certified smartphones don’t receive 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. Here are some of the most popular streaming services that offer a selection of HDR content:

If you’re looking for 4K HDR content over traditional broadcast TV, that’s not possible at the moment. The Hybrid Log Gamma (HGL) format is gradually being adopted by some broadcasters, but currently, only BBC iPlayer offers a small amount of content. In addition, smartphones support the HDR10 and Dolby Vision file types used by most streaming services.

If you have a service in mind, there’s a growing number of smartphones that support HDR file types and offer suitable displays. These days, HDR support isn’t just reserved for super-expensive flagship smartphones either. We’ve listed a number of supported devices below.

Should you buy a phone just for HDR?

The roll-out of High Dynamic Range displays and content for smartphones is a welcome one, but it’s not without its compromises. 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 – users won’t see many hours of screen-on time if they’re watching HDR content on-the-go.

How you watch videos is the primary factor in whether HDR is worth investing in.

However, those who want to take their favorite shows from the living room TV to the kitchen, bedroom, or elsewhere, HDR-capable smartphones offer an uplift in visual quality. I probably wouldn’t seek out an HDR streaming subscription just to watch on mobile. But if you already have an HDR TV, an HDR smartphone makes for a nice portable alternative. Even if you’re not quite ready to make the full 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 on-board the HDR trend? Have you been impressed by its image quality? Sound off in the comments below.

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