iPhone XR supports Dolby Vision and HDR10 content even without a true HDR display

Although Apple advertises in support documents and elsewhere on its website that the new iPhone XR series features HDR10 and Dolby Vision support, these colorful smartphones in reality do not have a display compliant with the high dynamic range (HDR) specification.

True or faux HDR?

If you compare technical specifications for iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, iPhone X, iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max and iPhone XR, you’ll see the following models support HDR natively:

  • iPhone X
  • iPhone XS
  • iPhone XS Max

And these iPhones lack HDR displays but “support Dolby Vision and HDR10 content”.

  • iPhone 8
  • iPhone 8 Plus
  • iPhone XR

So why is iPhone XR’s display not shown as being compatible with the HDR requirements? And what exactly does Apple mean by stating that an iPhone “supports” HDR content?

Follow along with iDB for the full reveal…

iPhone XR uses dithering

Curiously, Apple’s technical specifications for 2018 and 2017 models don’t use the same wording to describe HDR capabilities. That’s because some Apple phones simulate HDR. We know that the iPhone 8 series does dithering—Apple lists these phones as “supporting Dolby Vision and HDR10 content” even though they lack true HDR screens with the 10-bit color depth.

We know this for a fact because Apple told Mashable last year that the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus models were designed to use dithering techniques in the absence of native HDR support.

This is supposedly also true for iPhone XR.

TLDR: If you have an iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus or iPhone XR, you will see some visual enhancements to the dynamic range, contrast and wide color gamut when playing Dolby Vision or HDR10 content. Just don’t expect them to deliver the full HDR visual fidelity afforded by the superior OLED display technology in the iPhone X/XS/Max.

PRIMER: What are HDR, Auto HDR & Smart HDR shooting modes?

To get the full benefit of HDR, your phone needs to have a true HDR display so that it can display HDR’s extra improvements in all of their eye-popping glory. In other words, if you’d like to watch HDR the way it’s meant to be watched, you’ll need an iPhone X/XS/Max, period.

HDR requirements

The HDR specification requires a display with certain characteristics, like the near-infinite contrast ratio (for deep blacks) and increased brightness levels (for brighter highlights). OLEDs on the iPhone X/XS/Max models typically boast the contrast ratio of 1,000,000:1 and 625 nits of brightness, meaning these screens comply with strict HDR requirements.

While not intrinsically linked, wide color gamut is mentioned in the same breath as HDR.

Comparison: SDR (standard dynamic range), at left, and true HDR, at right

Wide color support brings a wider range of color values than sRGB or Adobe RGB color spaces: you get greener greens, redder reds and bluer blues, with smoother gradations and no banding which typically occurs with high-contrasting scenes like sunsets.

HDR video in the YouTube app

Wide color displays use the color bit depth of ten or more vs. eight for the sRGB standard. 10-bit displays are capable of rendering up to a billion colors versus “only” 16.7 million colors for 8-bit display. Thanks to all these perks, users enjoy added colors and detail instead of seeing blown-out areas, color banding and clipping artifacts.

Summing up

With dithering, an output device can be technically HDR-capable even if it lacks a native HDR screen. Even though the display on any iPhone from iPhone 7 onward uses a wider color gamut letting it produce vibrant colors, only the OLED technology in iPhone X/XS/Max is true HDR—these devices are guaranteed to deliver the required peak brightness and contrast while being able to reproduce 10 bits of color per each RGB channel without resorting to dithering.

Comparison: wide color gamut (Rec.2020) and sRGB (Rec.709)

Summing up, devices without native HDR screens (iPhone XR, current iPad Pros, etc.) process the HDR signal but use dithering to simulate the visual enhancements to dynamic range, contrast and wide color gamut that are only made possible by HDR.

TUTORIAL: How to watch HDR video on YouTube

You can play HDR video on any iPhone that “supports Dolby Vision and HDR10 content”, but keep in mind that what you’re seeing will be simulated (dithered) color which won’t fool anyone.

Thoughts on iPhone XR’s non-HDR Liquid Retina display?

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