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HDR Explained: Why you'll definitely want this for your next TV

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor
HDR Explained: Why you'll definitely want this for your next TV

The first time I saw a baseball game on a high-definition TV it blew my mind. Everything looked so … crisp. Heck, I could make out individual blades of grass on the field. I didn't want to watch anything that wasn't HD after that.

Now a new TV format called HDR (high-dynamic range) is here and it's going to make you feel the like the ballgame is being played in your home.

But before you go and chuck your old TV for a new HDR model, let me explain some of the biggest questions you'll likely have about the technology.

What is HDR?
HDR is a term used to describe a television with a screen that can get far brighter than your normal HDTV. Making the display brighter gives it a greater contrast ratio between the brightest spots and the darkest black spots.

HDR TVs also have a wider color gamut, which means they can display more colors than non-HDR TVs.

Combining a larger contrast ratio with a wider color gamut means on-screen images look more vibrant and life-like than they do on current TVs.

Is this another one of those ridiculous 3D, curved-screen marketing schemes to get me to buy a new TV?

Well, sure TV makers want you to buy HDR TVs, but HDR isn’t some ploy. It actually makes what you’re watching look better. Curved and 3D screens didn’t actually improve image quality. Getting a curved TV that could display 3D movies was mostly a novelty— an expensive novelty, but a novelty nonetheless.

Newer 4K TVs, which offer four times the resolution of standard 1080p HDTVs, help improve image quality, but only if they are large enough (about 50 inches or larger) and you sit a certain distance from them.

See, pixels produce the image you see on your TV, and the more pixels you have, the sharper and clearer your picture will be. But when you're talking about thousands of pixels, you start to hit a point of diminishing returns in terms of clarity, which is why when you look at a 4K TV vs. a 1080p TV, you're not going to be as impressed with the image quality as you were when you first saw a 1080p TV years ago.

So how is an HDR picture better?
HDR allows your screen to display a greater number of colors at a brightness level you’ve never seen on a home TV.

Because HDR can display more colors, you’ll see better color gradients and blending. A lot of people say on-screen images tend to pop more, which means they don’t look as flat as they do on standard TVs.
Cool, how does it work?
Think of it like this: When a studio shoots a TV show or movie, the content they end up capturing has a TON of data. Before Ultra HD Blu-ray and streaming services like Netflix, getting that data to your TV was all but impossible, as there was no way for so much data to travel to your screen.

So studios ended up stripping out some of the information from their films and shows to ensure they could send them to your television. The end result is an image that looks good, but isn’t nearly as vibrant as how it was originally shot.

But with Ultra HD Blu-ray and streaming services like Netflix, consumers finally have a big enough pipeline for that data and with HDR TVs, something they can actually view it on.

I bought a TV last year. Can it display HDR content?
Unfortunately, it can’t. The thing about HDR-capable TVs is that they are specifically built to be brighter than non-HDR TVs. They are also capable of understanding special HDR standards and formats that your average TV can’t.

I know.

Okay, but what happens if I try to watch an HDR movie on my non-HDR TV?
You’ll just see it in normal dynamic range. All of that extra information I talked about before won’t get to your TV, because it won’t understand what to do with it. So it’ll just blow it off and display the information it already knows.

I think I get it now. Where can I watch HDR content?
Well, you’re probably not going to like this, especially if you went out and bought an HDR TV before finishing this article, but finding HDR content is pretty tough.

There are a handful of movies available on Ultra UD Blu-ray, and Netflix is currently streaming season one of its series “Marco Polo.” That said, the Netflix has plans to stream 12 additional series, including all of its Marvel originals in the coming months. A whole host of movie studios are also supporting HDR content.

Do I need anything special to stream HDR content on Netflix?
Yep. In addition to buying an HDR TV, you’ll also need to subscribe to a Premium plan for $11.99 per month rather than the standard $9.99 per month plan.

You’ll also need to make sure that your Internet connection speed is at least 25 megabits per second. If you’ve got a broadband Internet connection, that shouldn’t be much of a problem.

How much does an HDR TV cost?
An HDR set will set you back anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 depending on how large of a screen you want. That said, like HDTVs, you can expect HDR models to drop in price in the next year or so.

One last thing: How do I know the TV I’m buying is HDR?
Good question. TV manufacturers always love to give new technologies unnecessary nicknames to make them seem exclusive to their brands. Samsung, for example, calls its HDR TVs SUHD TVs.

To see if a TV is HDR, either look for a logo indicating that that it has HDR or look for the Ultra HD Premium Alliance Certified sticker.

Just know that the Ultra HD Premium Alliance Certified sticker means that the TV’s manufacturer is a member of the UHD Alliance and that the TV meets the UHD Alliance’s standards for HDR. Not all TV makers are UHD Alliance members, so just because a TV doesn’t have the logo, doesn’t mean it’s not an HDR-capable TV.

Okay, sounds good. Thanks for the help.
My pleasure

Samsung's SUHD TV is one of many new HDR models available now. (image: Samsung)
HDR TVs are still expensive. LG's Signature OLED 4K Smart TV will set you back about $8,000. (image: LG)