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HDR is the most used term in consumer tech but you don’t always need it

The technology world is known for containing an alphabet soup of abbreviations. You’re already familiar with terms like USB, Wi-Fi, and HDMI, and you probably have a pretty good idea of what they do. But what about “HDR?” HDR is popping up in reference to everything from Netflix shows to high-end phones. Let’s check out what it means, why you should care, and when it really isn’t such a big deal.

What is HDR?

HDR stands for “high dynamic range.” When it comes to visuals, HDR is basically about the range between light and dark. It promises brighter whites, darker blacks, and a wider gamut of colors. So theoretically, an HDR video played on an HDR-compatible television would look sharper, more detailed, and more life-like than a non-HDR version.

The term “HDR” gets thrown around in a lot of different contexts these days, so we’ll tackle it as it relates to three different types of devices: televisions, smartphones and cameras.

Televisions and HDR

Shopping for a new television means sorting through a lot of technical specifications. We’re already deep into the 4K revolution, and now we can add HDR TVs into the mix. These televisions are able to render HDR videos as they are meant to be seen in all their glory.

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When done right, HDR video on an HDR TV looks noticeably better than previous technologies, but there’s a caveat. The amount of content available in HDR is limited right now, though popular services like Amazon, YouTube and Netflix have some programs available. You can also buy Ultra HD Blu-ray players and discs. HDR won’t make a difference if you mainly watch your old collection of DVDs or over-the-air broadcasts.

If you’re already in the market for a new television and you’re not pinching pennies, then buy one with HDR so you’re ready for a near-future with more HDR movies and shows. There are some competing HDR standards with slightly different names, so look for a TV that says it supports HDR10, Dolby Vision, or High Dynamic Range. If you’re on a budget or you’re happy with the look of last year’s technology, you can find plenty of bargains in non-HDR televisions.

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As with any television, not all sets are created equal. One HDR-capable TV may simply look better than another, so be sure to do your due diligence and check reviews before putting your money down.

HDR for smartphone displays

HDR is just starting to make its way into some select top-end smartphones. Apple’s iPhone X supports HDR video playback on its high-tech screen. This means the iPhone X can faithfully reproduce HDR videos, like a mini version of an HDR television. However, the iPhone 8 does not sport an HDR screen.

Is this a compelling reason to splurge on an iPhone X or another high-end phone? Not really. Don’t buy one for an HDR display alone. Content is still limited and, chances are, you’re not going to get the most out of your HDR video experience on a relatively small phone screen while dealing with glare on the go.

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Cameras with HDR

Let’s clear up a big point of confusion: HDR for televisions and videos is not the same as HDR for smartphone cameras and standalone digital cameras. The desired outcome is still similar. The HDR process for photographs tries to deliver life-like images that are more detailed and better looking than regular photos.

HDR for cameras works by having the camera take multiple exposures of the same scene and then melding them together, combining bright and dark information into a final photo. Many smartphones offer HDR as a setting in the camera menu. Just keep in mind this has nothing to do with whether or not your phone has an HDR display like the iPhone X.

The “look” of HDR photos can be visually stunning, but not everyone is a fan. Sometimes the images appear hyper-realistic. This might not be so great when you’re trying to snap a close-up selfie, but it can work out well if you’re catching a sunset going down over a mountain range. You can play with the HDR setting on your smartphone if you’re curious.

Get used to seeing the “HDR” term appear even more often as the technology spreads across televisions, movies, streaming videos, and smartphones. We’re in for a brighter, darker, and more colorful future for entertainment. Whether or not you hop on the HDR TV bandwagon right now is up to you, your budget, and your desire to have the latest tech.

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