The screen is the most important part of your smartphone, and serves as both display and interface. Over the past decade or so, we’ve been inundated with selling points like Retina Display, 720p, 1080p, 1440p, and even 4K. The latest buzzword for screens is high dynamic range or HDR, and the latest flagship phones tout it as a must-have spec.

But what is HDR in the first place?

More colors, more brightness

Put simply, HDR lets your display exhibit a far wider range of colors. How? First, whites are whiter, and blacks are blacker. The screen does this by being much brighter than what you’re normally used to, to the tune of 1,000 nits (a unit used for display brightness). By comparison, your old flagship phone probably topped out at around 500 nits. An HDR display can also illuminate or darken specific areas of the screen, whereas a non-HDR display commonly lights the entire screen evenly.

Second is wide color gamut, or WCG. This feature increases both the color palette (the number of colors available and the bit depth (or the number of shades of those colors). Your old phone could display nearly 17 million colors. By contrast, an HDR display can show over a billion, which is much closer to what you can see in real life. When working in tandem, these two processes enable the screen to show a range of colors that are more akin to real life. This is why people who have seen an HDR display liken it to looking out a window.

But there lies the problem. The most difficult issue with conveying what HDR is exactly is that if you don’t actually have access to an HDR-capable display, it’s impossible to show the difference. Conversely, if you have an HDR display and a non-HDR display side by side, the improvements are instantly evident. This technology represents a generational leap, much like the jump from black-and-white to color, or standard definition to high definition.

A feature by any other name

You’ve probably heard the abbreviation “HDR” before as a vaunted feature for smartphones even before it was used for displays. Another source of confusion is that HDR also applies to another selling point for phones: the HDR feature of a camera. In camera HDR, the camera takes many exposures of the same scene and combines them, thereby showing all of the subtle steps in highlights and shadows.

The principle between HDR displays and photography remains roughly the same, with the end result being an image that has higher contrast and more colors. Crushed blacks and blown-out whites are also eliminated as a result. This is where the phrase “high dynamic range” comes in, representing the difference between the darkest parts of an image with the lightest.

Which gadgets have HDR?

All of this year’s important flagship phones have HDR-enabled displays, including the LG G6 and the Sony Xperia XZ Premium. However, these phones appear to be using different standards for what constitutes HDR — the LG G6 uses both the open HDR10 standard and proprietary Dolby Vision, and Sony’s 4K phone appears to be using its own definition of HDR.

Hopefully, HDR specifications normalize in subsequent generations of phones. You wouldn’t want to get a phone with HDR to find out that your HDR content won’t even display properly on it. Thankfully, at this year’s Mobile World Congress, the Ultra HD Alliance announced Mobile HDR Premium, which is an HDR standard specifically developed for smartphones, tablets, and laptops. The Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+, two of the best phones of 2017, were the first pair to adhere to this certification.

Here are the specifics of Mobile HDR Premium for a wide variety of portable devices:

Device Resolution Dynamic Range Color Space Bit Depth
Smartphones (3- to 7-inch screens) 60 pixels/degree .0005-540 nits 90% of P3 Color gamut 10
Tablets (7- to 12.9-inch screens) 60 pixels/degree .0005-540 nits 90% of P3 Color gamut 10
Laptops (9.5- to 18-inch screens) 60 pixels/degree .0005-540 nits or 0.1-600 nits 90% of P3 Color gamut 10

Why do you need HDR?

If you’re after the top-end phones, you’ll find it increasingly difficult to avoid HDR. The benefits that a more accurate display brings is most useful if you’ll be doing image work on your phone, like quickly editing photos on VSCO before sharing it to the ether. But its advantages will also be immediately noticeable if you consume content on your phone (like most people do). More and more media providers are putting out HDR content —YouTube, for one, has had HDR support since last year, and both Netflix and Amazon Video have it as well.

And with diminishing returns in terms of resolution on a five- to six-inch screen (do you really need 4K on a screen as big as your palm?), HDR is one display buzzword that is instantly apparent. Plus, unlike a 4K screen that eats batteries for breakfast, HDR on your phone can actually extend your phone’s longevity; the dynamic and selective adjustment of brightness, depending on what’s shown, should increase your screen-on time by a significant amount.

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