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HDR versus 4K: Who will win the big fight on TV?

TV makers are no strangers to throwing us the odd technology hype curve ball. It comes with the territory of having to constantly reinvent a box - although they are not actually box-shaped anymore - to keep sales cycles going. HD-ready TVs were a good example of this (let’s ignore 3D TVs for now). Loads of people bought them, safe in the knowledge they had future-proofed their purchase but how long did it take to get HD content via the broadcasters? And even now you still have to pay extra for the privilege. Are we being led down the garden path again, as we say in England?

The problem with 4K TVs is that, to the untrained eye, the visual difference when compared with 1080p/HD resolution is negligible, even though they have four times the number of pixels at eight million compared to two million.

The real bone of contention though is content. We get the idea that TV scientists can be clever with resolution and lighting technology but what it really comes down to is which content providers are going to produce enough 4K-ready content to make a hardware investment worthwhile.

Most of the major TV makers have a 4K offering now and this year will be about pushing 4K as the must-have resolution. Current pricing for 4K-ready TV might appear a little high, although prices will inevitably drop quickly once the market gets going this year.

But what 4K actually does is highlight the growing importance of so-called over-the-top providers over the more traditional broadcasters, particularly when it comes to adopting higher resolution technologies. Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube all have 4K-ready content as do bespoke services such as Sony’s Video Unlimited and Samsung’s UHD Video Pack. We are not talking lots of content, just some content for these companies that use the internet as merely a transport for their programming.

Quality not just quantity

But, as is typical in this space, just when supporters are pushing to get one technology established, a new technology comes along that could usurp it relatively quickly. A few High Dynamic Range (HDR) TVs were on show at January’s CES event in Las Vegas but they’re still at prototype stage. While 4K TVs were in abundance and look destined to become the new baseline for TV resolution at some point towards the back of this year, HDR TVs are already being touted as the next forward leap. Are they?

Taking a technology which digital photographers will be more aware of than TV viewers, LG, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony were all showing something at CES with HDR capability built in, albeit largely in prototype mode. The significance is that HDR enables TVs to recreate images and videos as they were meant to be seen when first shot. That means all the right colours, tones, shades and so on. Think of it as richness and depth rather than just whacking up the brightness button (as it is with something like 4K for example). Quality of pixels not just quantity.

The upshot is that HDR is a much more exciting technology than 4K, a technology which has even got Hollywood talking and re-grading film in readiness. In contrast 4K has been referred to as having had a “tepid” reception by film makers, a comment attributed to Howard Lukk from Walt Disney Studios by Variety magazine.

So what does this mean? Should we ditch the idea of buying 4K TVs and wait for HDR? Of course, you can always wait for the Next Big Thing but most ordinary people tend to buy TVs because the old one is broken. Few people actually fall into a two-year cycle of TV upgrades.

What we will see from TV makers is a merging of technology, with 4K TVs using HDR tech as the new baseline for picture quality. That’s 12 if not 18 months away. Where it could work is helping mobile and tablet related TV and video content of course and Netflix has admitted it is already working on recalibrating its content to make the most of higher quality in smaller screen sizes.

Holograms

As a footnote, any look at the future of TV will now surely include holographic devices. Microsoft’s prototype headset HoloLens might be the future of TV. The idea that you can project a TV space onto a wall through augmented reality wherever you are is clearly exciting. How long before the content becomes even more immersive, allowing the viewer to sit within the film? Too weird? Yes, probably, and quite unnecessary. 3D TV anyone?

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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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