If 4K is the premium label consumers know to look for when buying a new TV, HDR is the upgrade that experts say makes the most difference to television viewing. Ultra HD or 4K TV delivers four times the amount of information in a picture as a high-definition display. But that higher resolution is only detectable to viewers watching on a really big screen. In contrast, high dynamic range (HDR) video, with its greater luminance, makes TV look better no matter what size the television set.
So TV manufacturers should be moving away from 4K technology and focusing instead more on HDR, right? Wrong.
HDR TVs aren't going to sell without 4K because the public is already sold on 4K UHD as the next big thing, explains Research Director Paul Gagnon at analyst firm IHS Markit.
TV manufacturers "have a tiered strategy when they introduce products into the market," noted Gagnon recently during a panel at CES. "And once the industry has, or the consumer has, picked up on the fact that 4K is premium, they've discounted 1080p as not premium anymore. So the willingness to pay any kind of marginal premium for what's seen as yesterday's technology goes away quickly."
The irony of the situation is that content producers and distributors want to deliver more HDR video, both because of the quality of the picture, and because it can be streamed at reasonably low bitrates. According to Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN)'s head of digital video playback and delivery, BA Winston, Amazon started offering early HDR content in June 2015. Today the company boasts more than 175 hours of HDR video in its catalog. Customer viewing of Amazon's HDR video in 2016 alone was up over 1,000%.
Amazon's overall catalog of 4K titles, including those without HDR, has also grown substantially. But the growth rate in customers viewing 4K video by itself is slower than the growth rate around content that is streamed in both 4K and HDR. Winston says that compared to the 1,000+% increase in HDR viewing last year, there was a "roughly 300+% increase in customers viewing 4K content."
Traditional pay-TV providers, meanwhile, have their own reasons for 4K ambivalence. UHD TV adds significantly to the bandwidth load on their networks. (See Hurdles Ahead for 4K, HDR.)
"We're not seeing a lot of commitment to live 4K," confessed Michael Davies, SVP at Fox Sports at CES, "though we want to be ready when it comes."
For pay-TV operators, it would be much more convenient to deliver HDR video without 4K resolution, but communicating HDR's value to subscribers now trained on the 4K label would be difficult. In addition, most older TV sets can't support HDR viewing, which means customers would need to upgrade to get the HDR advantage. In other words, they'd need to buy a new 4K TV, furthering the argument for 4K content.
There is one place where HDR content without 4K resolution could and should gain ground. Users on mobile devices with smaller screens can't benefit from UHD video, but they can enjoy HDR content, even over lower-bandwidth connections. That suggests another ironic outcome in the offing.
Tablets and smartphones may soon be a consistent vehicle for HDR viewing, while TV sets either support the premium experience of 4K plus HDR, or remain stubbornly in the world of HD.
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading