If you snoozed through the past few generations of TV "innovations," you're not alone. 3D was a bust. The "advantages" of 4K are imperceptible even if you squint. Curved TV screens are pretty useless. And smart TV is great, but all those cool streaming services are just a Roku, Chromecast or Fire TV away.
But for 2016 and beyond, there's a new TV technology that's actually worth caring about. It's called HDR -- short for high dynamic range, and it's very different from HDR for your phone camera. When TV HDR is properly implemented, the contrast between the whitest whites and darkest blacks is accentuated, colors are more realistic and the entire image becomes more vibrant. HDR can look spectacular, creating a noticeable difference to the naked eye of everyday viewers -- not just eagle-eyed videophiles.
You need HDR-compatible hardware (new TVs) and HDR content (movies, TV shows) to get this picture quality upgrade. But both of those bridges have been crossed. The mid- to high-end TVs in the 2016 model lines from all the major manufacturers will be HDR-ready. Studios from Fox to Warner to Netflix are prepping HDR versions of their latest movies and TV shows now. You can watch the sumptuous HDR version of Oscar favorite "Mad Max: Fury Road" today. And the big streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Vudu are going all-in on the new tech, too -- with compatible apps built right into those fancy new HDR TVs.
So, what's keeping us from buying a new TV today, settling into the sofa and soaking up the HDR-enhanced version of "Daredevil"? You guessed it: a good old-fashioned format war. Like the bad old days of HD DVD versus Blu-ray, SD versus Memory Stick, DVD versus DIVX or -- for you real old school video fans -- VHS versus Beta, there are actually two flavors of HDR: HDR10 and Dolby Vision.
TV titans Samsung and Sony are backing HDR10, and the format already has a lot momentum from studios, content providers and industry associations. However, it's also a weird alphanumeric "brand" you won't see on any TV boxes or specification sheets. Dolby Vision, meanwhile, is an easy-to-remember brand from one of the biggest names in Hollywood and home audio, and has been around longer than its rival. Guess which one wins Google?
Like any good Hollywood story, this one has a twist. Some content providers -- namely, Netflix and Amazon -- are backing both formats. And more importantly, TV heavyweights LG and Vizio are making their new TVs compatible with both formats, too.
Make no mistake: If you're just looking for a cheap new TV, you don't need to worry about whether it can play back HDR content, or which HDR format it supports. But we can heartily attest that HDR support is a Good Thing To Have.
And support for two HDR formats is better than one.
HDR is a real advancement in picture quality
Prior to HDR, the latest and greatest TV technology was 4K resolution, which delivers four times the pixels of the previous top-end high-def format, 1080p. But in my experience, 4K does very little itself to improve picture quality.
HDR content often looks appreciably better than regular HDTV content. It has brighter highlights and more vivid colors, both of which contribute to a more realistic picture with more depth and pop.
How much better, exactly, depends on the TV and the content itself, and in some cases I've seen it actually looks worse. Don't expect the kind of quantum leap you experienced when you first saw a football game in high-def, but going from standard dynamic range to HDR on a good TV can still be a pretty drastic improvement. HDR done right also comes closer to the intention of content creators, because it more fully utilizes the advanced capabilities of professional-level cameras.
Here's how we put it in our review of the world's first 4K Blu-ray player. "If you want to extract the maximum benefit out of this player, you need a high-end HDR-capable TV. When viewed on standard, non-HDR 4K TVs, the discs we tested don't offer any substantial picture quality improvements over standard 1080p Blu-ray discs."
Every HDR TV announced so far has 4K resolution, but not every 4K TV handles HDR. The good news is that this year, HDR is going to be available in relatively affordable TVs -- the cheapest so far is $1,000 for a 50-inch model -- and even less-expensive HDR TVs will be available soon.
The bad news -- as mentioned above -- is that not every HDR TV supports both formats, so not every TV can actually display all HDR content.
Sony and Samsung chose HDR10 over Dolby Vision
Just about every HDR TV supports the HDR10 format. That means any TV labeled "HDR" will be able to play back TV shows and movies delivered in HDR10. In marketing materials and TV makers' web sites you probably won't even see HDR10 mentioned, just HDR compatability itself.
Vizio is the exception for now, but Vizio executives assure me that its HDR TVs -- namely the 2016 P series and Reference Series -- will add HDR10 support soon via a software update. (I'd be surprised if the M series didn't follow suit.) It's also worth noting that some TV makers added HDR10 support via software to 2015 TVs that couldn't handle HDR when they were first released.
Dolby Vision is a different story.
Unlike new TVs from LG and Vizio, none of the TVs announced in 2016 by Samsung and Sony will support Dolby Vision. In addition -- and this is critical -- there's no way to add Dolby Vision to a TV via a software update. It requires Dolby's chip (or system on a chip), Dolby's certification process and, of course, its licensing fees.
Home Video HDR support
|TV brands||Hisense, LG, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, Vizio||LG, Vizio, TCL|
|Streaming services||Amazon, Netflix, Ultra (Sony TVs)||Amazon, Netflix, Vudu|
|Hollywood studios||Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount, Sony, Lionsgate||MGM, Sony, Warner Bros., Universal|
|External devices||Samsung UBD-K8500||None yet|
|Disc-based media||4K Blu-ray||None yet|
Samsung and Sony are typically at the forefront of TV technology development, and both have been talking about as well as demonstrating HDR to journalists like myself for more than a year. Samsung is the world's number one TV maker, and routinely beats other brands in the Features score I award in CNET's reviews. So why don't Samsung and Sony TVs offer both?
"The vast majority of HDR content being produced is available in HDR10 and Sony 4K HDR TVs are able to provide the best viewing experience for that content," said Sunil Nayyar, Director of Product Marketing for Sony Electronics. I asked whether Sony could add Dolby Vision to a current HDR10-only TV, and whether either of the two formats was better than the other, but Nayyar declined to answer.
Dan Schinasi, Samsung's Director of Home Entertainment Product Planning, responded in a statement. "Samsung supports HDR10 because it is an open platform, is mandated by the Ultra HD Blu Ray Player Specification and is also openly supported by Hollywood studios. Open HDR permits us to optimize the experience to the exact attributes of the panel. HDR10 is a customizable experience."
I also spoke to Hanno Basse, Chief Technology Officer at 20th Century Fox, as well as President and Chairman of the Board of Directors at the UHD Alliance. The Alliance is an industry group that created a certification for premium 4K TVs as well as content. Dolby is itself a member, along with many major Hollywood companies and TV makers, with the notable exception of Vizio.
Basse is as close to a spokesperson for HDR10 as I could find. Although Fox has released films in Dolby Cinema (the theatrical equivalent of Dolby Vision), like "The Revenant" and "The Martian," it hasn't yet created any home video titles in the Dolby Vision format. "We prefer open standards, and HDR10 utilizes open standards," he said. "Just like with software, you typically get much broader adoption with an open standard. We're mastering our content in that format, we like the results and our creatives like it. We frankly don't see the need to augment HDR10 with a proprietary solution at this point."
HDR neutrality: 4K Blu-Ray, Netflix, Amazon, LG and Vizio can do Dolby Vision, too
Sony's Nayaar is right that most current HDR content is in HDR10. Amazon has been streaming a few original series and movies in HDR10 since last summer, and Sony's new Ultra streaming service is HDR10-only -- at least for now.
4K Blu-ray discs, which started going on sale in February, are only available in HDR10 today. Samsung's UHD-K8500, the only 4K Blu-ray player available today, can only play back HDR10. But future discs and players could well add Dolby Vision support too. I asked Dolby's representatives when Dolby Vision discs might hit the market, but they wouldn't provide a time frame. No compatible disc players have yet been announced.
And if Dolby Vision-enabled Blu-ray discs do hit the market, they will also support HDR10. That means they'll play on non-Dolby Vision players like the Samsung K8500, as well as TVs that don't support Dolby Vision (they just won't use Dolby's metadata; see below). That's because the Blu-ray disc Association mandated HDR10 support for 4K Blu-ray players, while Dolby Vision is an optional addition, just like object-based sound formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.
But the future is streaming -- and plenty of Dolby Vision content is coming via streaming video -- with more on deck in the near future. Dolby anticipates more than 100 titles will become available by the end of the year. Walmart's Vudu streaming service offers about 40 films in Dolby Vision today, including new releases like "In the Heart of the Sea" and 2015's "Black Mass" and "The Intern."
Netflix will serve both HDR10 and Dolby Vision content, so an owner of a non-Dolby Vision TV will be able to watch Netflix HDR. But the company has been more vocal so far in its support for Dolby Vision, and has been working with Dolby for longer to develop its HDR library. Netflix is now streaming Season 1 of "Marco Polo" in Dolby Vision, and will add "Daredevil" soon.
Not surprisingly, both formats use many of the same technical underpinnings, including metadata that indicates to the TV how the images should be rendered on the screen. But only Dolby Vision's is dynamic, capable of changing on a scene-by-scene or even frame-by-frame basis. The HDR10 metadata, on the other hand, is static, so it only applies once to each piece of content.
In practice, that means Dolby Vision is more adaptive to lower- and mid-priced TVs. "Between premium high-end TVs, the differences that we're seeing [between Dolby Vision and HDR10] are not huge," a Netflix spokesman told us. "But at the low end we're seeing fairly substantial differences in display performance in Dolby Vision relative to HDR10. Dolby Vision is a technology that does seem to make a genuine difference at price points that are more affordable right now, and that's a real win for consumers." If a TV is capable of receiving both formats, Netflix will serve the Dolby Vision version, he added.
Amazon will also add Dolby Vision titles this year, starting with its original programming. The goal is to make all of those shows, like "Bosch," "The Man in the High Castle" and "Transparent," available in both formats. It already offers a number of movies in HDR10, including Sony Pictures titles "Men in Black 3," "Hancock" and "Elysium." A Sony Pictures representative confirmed to CNET that these and other titles have also been provided to Amazon encoded in Dolby Vision, too.
I asked Jim Freeman, Amazon VP of Digital Video, how Amazon will serve TVs that handle both. "We do testing of all devices to determine which is the best customer experience, and we'll optimize that experience for the customer." In other words, Amazon will determine, based on its own testing, whether a particular TV gets Dolby Vision or HDR10. Freeman also mentioned surveying customers for their preference between the two formats, and even the possibility of allowing a customer to choose one or the other, provided a TV can handle both.
And that's the kicker: Unlike Sony and Samsung, 2016 HDR TVs from LG and Vizio can support both Dolby Vision and HDR10. That means they can play TV shows and movies in either HDR format.
That's important for full access to all available HDR content, because not all studios and content creators are going to be as flexible as Amazon and Netflix. And if any content becomes available exclusively in Dolby Vision, owners of Sony and Samsung TVs would be out of luck, at least until the HDR10 version comes out.
TV buying advice for the HDR future
The bright HDR day is still very much dawning, and it will be years before most movies and TV shows utilize its benefits. We're just now getting live 4K TV broadcasts, so don't expect HDR broadcasts of your favorite baseball game anytime soon. There isn't even a single standard for live HDR yet.
I also can't tell you which HDR format is "better." My only head-to-head experience so far -- watching "Mad Max: Fury Road" on Vudu (Dolby Vision) and on 4K Blu-ray (HDR10) -- was on different TVs, which completely skews the results. Did I prefer the Dolby version in that instance because it was utilizing superior HDR technology, or because the TV was simply better to begin with?
Ultimately, of course, how good a TV looks depends more on its display hardware and implementation than its HDR format support. As Netflix's rep put it, "You shouldn't expect a $400 Dolby Vision TV to be better than a $10,000 HDR10 TV."
Sony and Samsung's best 2016 TVs will likely deliver excellent image quality, both HDR and otherwise, despite lacking Dolby Vision. I won't know how they'll compete against LG and Vizio's best offerings until I can review them.
Any TV you buy today will last a long time. If you're spending a lot on a top-of-the-line model, it should support as many formats as possible, allowing it to play back the widest range of available content now and in the future. And especially if you're buying a less-expensive HDR TV, Dolby Vision's dynamic metadata could mean better picture quality. I'm particularly interested to put mid-range models to the test.
With Dolby's power and industry clout, I'd be surprised if Dolby Vision goes away anytime soon. I'd also be (somewhat less) surprised if Sony and Samsung TVs and other hardware continue to lack Dolby Vision in 2017 and beyond. Either company might even release a TV compatible with both HDR formats later this year. As usual with competing formats, waiting until the dust settles to invest is the wisest course. Just ask anyone who bought an HD-DVD player.
If you want a new TV this year, however, getting one that handles both new HDR formats certainly seems like the safest bet to me.
Updated April 14, 2016 to clarify Dolby Vision 4K Blu-ray disc compatibility.