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More Pixels or Better Pixels? The Case for 1080p HDR

Is 4K resolution really needed when 1080p HDR looks just as good and downloads 2 times faster? The truth may surprise you.

Must have more pixels! Must Have more pixels!

Geoffrey Morrison over at CNET has an interesting article out titled Why 4K isn’t enough: The case for higher resolutions:

But already there are prototypes and rumors of 8K televisions. The new HDMI 2.1 specification supports 10K. And while these resolutions are overkill in actual TVs – even 4K resolution is basically at the limit of human visual acuity at normal screen sizes and seating distances – we do need higher resolutions in other kinds of gear. – Geoffrey Morrison, CNET

Despite the “other kinds of gear” qualifier, there is still considerable misinformation aimed at consumers with respect to the “more resolution = better” argument. With talk of 8K and even 10K on the horizon, perhaps it’s time to take a step back and do a quick reality check.

Until a human is born with greater visual acuity than we currently possess, a pristine 1080p HDR (whether plain HDR, Dolby Vision or HDR10+) source meets or exceeds the limits of the human eye’s ability to perceive color and resolution for all practical purposes for both live and on-demand streaming.

For example, at normal viewing distances, such as the 10-12 feet that separates you on your living room couch from the 55-70 inch LCD television hanging on your wall, the human eye CANNOT perceive the difference between a 4K and 1080p picture.

An interesting thing happens though, when you add HDR to the mix. If the 1080p signal is enhanced with HDR of any flavor, the human eye CAN discern the superiority of the 1080p picture over the 4K non HDR option. What’s more, the 1080p HDR signal is considerably more efficient and less demanding, from a bandwidth and infrastructure perspective, when compared to 4K, 8K or 10K alternatives.

TV companies are in the business of selling you new TVs every few years, and to do that, they have to convince you that the latest gizmo is even better than your current gizmo. Resolution has proved to be one of the easiest ways to convince the average person that the new thing is better. 4K was a brilliant marketing move. More is better, right? Well 8K is an even easier sell. 8 is more than 4, done and done! – Geoffrey Morrison, CNET

There is a technology that lives up to the hype. Its called HDR.

HDR, or “High Dynamic Range” is the most disruptive technology to come around since HD itself. HDR allows for much wider color palettes and frame by frame adjustments for highlights, shadow and overall contrast. Specifically, the advanced HDR implementations, namely Dolby Vision and HDR10+ deliver obvious and often stunning picture quality enhancements beyond mere resolution.

This technology paves the way to go beyond more pixels and get better pixels. And it can be achieved in 1080p just as well as 4K. Still, Sony is the only company that is currently marketing 1080p TVs with HDR. So, if you want HDR, and trust me, you do, you’ll likely need to buy a 4K set in order to get it.

But that doesn’t mean 1080p HDR will not be the ultimate winner – there is growing interest from content producers for 1080p HDR, especially for live sports programming:

After 4K dominated the “next-gen” discussion throughout much of 2016, largely because of a marketing push by consumer-electronics manufacturers to sell 4K TV sets, the pendulum seems to have swung towards 1080p in 2017. As broadcasters look to enhance the viewing experience without major upgrades to their broadcast facilities, 1080p HDR has promised an enticing option that allows significant improvement in the viewer experience without the need for a wholesale facility makeover.sportsvideo.org

And if you have a 4K HDR capable TV, you probably are already benefitting from 1080p HDR. Chances are that much of the streamed 4K HDR content that you are currently viewing on your 4K HDR enabled TV is already being downsampled to 1080p or even less depending on bandwidth availability – and you probably were never even aware of it.

Netflix, as one example, downsamples 4K HDR streams when your network connection is not sufficient to support the requirements for 4K streaming:

This separation of resolution and HDR isn’t just theory. Netflix and other services will stream non-4K HDR under certain circumstances. When you first start streaming an HDR show, often the video quality will start out lower and ramp up to 4K resolution — but it’s HDR the whole time. If your Internet bandwidth can’t sustain 4K video, they’ll send a lower resolution like 1080p or 720p — but it stays in HDR. If your Internet is really bad, you might even get standard-definition HDR(!)– Geoffrey Morrison, CNET

It takes a lot more bandwidth to deliver the extra 2K per frame than it does to serve the HDR enhancements – resolution is downsampled from 4K to 1080p (and sometimes 720p) when bandwidth dictates in order to prevent buffering and maintain adequate frame rates. So, you still get the benefits of HDR, but the resolution of the picture is frequently downsampled to provide the best performance vs quality.

As service providers continue to limit data allowances and more and more content is consumed over cellular connections, the issue of efficiently balancing resolution to match capacity become paramount. It just so happens that much of what is delivered is overkill, beyond the capabilities of human visual acuity.

4K is here to stay, so we are not likely to see that change anytime soon, but ultimately, HDR is by far, the more impactful technology that consumers need to be aware of.

Do you think 1080p HDR will continue to gain traction and ‘become a thing’ in 2018 – especially for mobile distribution of Next Gen TV? Will other manufacturers join Sony in marketing 1080p HDR TVs? Share your comments below: