TVs

This Galaxy Note 7 feature could be the next big thing for phones

Analysis: High Dynamic Range, currently available in TVs, is coming to smaller phone and laptop screens, too. But whether HDR is a gimmick or not depends on how it's implemented.

Juan Garzón / CNET
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The Galaxy Note 7 screen is a stunner.

Josh Miller/CNET

Forget the questionable iris scanner and finger-twirling stylus. One of the most intriguing new features in Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 smartphone and Notebook 7 Spin laptop is HDR compatibility.

High dynamic range video can look even better than conventional high-def and 4K video, with brighter highlights and more dynamic colors. Up until now, the feature was only found in a few high-end TVs and projectors, but with big streaming players Netflix, Amazon and others pushing HDR TV shows and movies, it's on its way to smaller screens too.

The question is: Does HDR in a phone or laptop really matter, or is it just a gimmick? The answer is: it depends.

HDWhat?

First, a quick word on what we're talking about. High Dynamic Range, or HDR, is the latest improvement in TVs and video content. It is not the same as the HDR mode found on your phone's camera or in Photoshop. Which is to say, the Note 7's camera will have an HDR feature -- just like an iPhone and many other phone cameras have -- but that is different from the screen's HDR feature. Same name, sort of similar, but actually quite different. (Yes, terminology in this industry is crazy.)

On the TV side, HDR means a greater dynamic range, i.e. contrast ratio. Typically this means the TV is capable of brighter highlights than a non-HDR TV. For example, if the sun reflects off a car bumper, instead of just seeing the glare (regular TV) it's actually bright (HDR TV). Also included in most HDR content and TVs is Wide Color Gamut, or WCG. A TV with WCG is capable of deeper colors and a wider range of shades than a non-WCG TV.

For more on each of these, check out What is HDR? and Ultra HD Color, Part II.

Beyond the display itself, the key for making HDR work is the content. TV shows and movies have to be specially made to take advantage of the TV's capabilities. Without this, the TV is just making stuff up, and that's rarely good. With HDR content, either via streaming (Netflix, Amazon and Vudu all offer HDR today) or on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, the TV and content together can create images richer and more vibrant than what's possible on a non-HDR TV.

For more on the content, check out Where can I get 4K Ultra HD TV shows and movies today? and Technicolor punches high-def video into higher dynamic range.

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Not all HDR displays are created equal

HDR for phones and laptop screens will arrive primarily from streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and the rest, although it's easy to imagine a high-end HDR laptop with a built-in 4K Blu-ray player. These smaller screens should deliver the same improvements with HDR video--brighter highlights and better color--as we see with TV screens.

With an optimistic eye, this is a good thing. Improving image quality, especially in the screens we all stare at for hours every day, is great.

We haven't fully tested any smaller screens with HDR yet, but in our tests of TVs, the OLED-based models with HDR have been very impressive. The Note 7 is one of many phones with an OLED screen, and we're starting to see OLED in laptop screens, too, although none of them have HDR yet.

Most phone and laptop screens use LCD technology, however, and from what we've seen, LCD TVs can be less consistent with HDR than OLED TVs.

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Samsung's Notebook 7 Spin has an HDR effect you can turn on and off, and an LCD screen.

Samsung

Yes, LCDs can do HDR, but to really do HDR you need effective local dimming. No laptop or phone screens we've seen have any local dimming, period, let alone the good local dimming that makes a high-end LCD TV like the Samsung JS9500 or Sony XBR-X930D look great with HDR.

That's the problem with a buzzword. "HDR" is not a binary thing. There are displays that are better with HDR than others. Therefore, there will be HDR displays that -- even though they're called HDR -- offer little to no improvement when showing HDR content.

CNET's TV reviewer David Katzmaier got a look at the Samsung Notebook 7 Spin, for example (review coming soon), and its "HDR" mode is simply a video-processing option that appears to offer little to no improvement. Switching it on and off with standard video made the image look a bit different -- shadows appeared darker, as if lowering a gamma control, for example -- but nothing like the kind of difference seen with real HDR content on an HDR TV. That laptop doesn't appear to support real HDR content yet (its Netflix app showed no indication of HDR, for example), but even if it did, Katzmaier would be surprised if the improvement was substantial.

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HDR on the right, is not "brighter" just for the sake of being brighter. Highlights and colors can be brighter thanks to a greater dynamic range. The addition of wide color gamut makes the colors richer and more realistic too. Also consider this is a single image attempting to capture a TV that has much brighter highlights than the other, plus it's a new image technology that you're looking at on current image technology. As in, it's a picture, not the real world.

Geoffrey Morrison

Beware the HDR buzz

This is the main concern. Just including the phrase "HDR" because people are excited about the concept, but not implementing the tech to make it worthwhile, is going to create backlash. Angry commenters on future HDR articles saying things like, "Well, I have the Snozzberry HDRExtreme and I don't see any difference with HDR content, so HDR is stupid."

So, like all things, take this and future marketing claims with a big grain of salt. Just because something says it's HDR, doesn't mean it can fully take advantage of what's possible with HDR. They could offer little to no increase in dynamic range, or lack the color possible with WCG, or both. There is no minimum threshold as to what is and isn't HDR (if only there was some sort of certification...). Right now, just being able to read and display HDR content at all can technically be considered as "HDR Compatible." Done poorly, that's like saying a 720p TV is 4K just because it can accept 4K content -- even though it's dumbing the resolution down from 3,820 x 2,160 to 1,280 x 720.

Some initial testing of the Note 7 has found that it is indeed bright enough and has a wide enough color gamut to accurately be called HDR. (CNET will test the Note 7's HDR capabilities once we get a review sample.)

Will HDR be the new must-have spec-sheet bullet point for phones as we move into 2017? Time will tell, but it seems like a safe bet.

What do you think? HDR in phones and laptops? Gimmick, or next logical (and welcome) advancement in picture quality?


Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics such as why all HDMI cables are the same, LED LCD vs. OLED, why 4K TVs aren't worth it and more. Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff then check out his travel photography on Instagram. He also thinks you should check out his sci-fi novel and its sequel.