HDR Format Wars: What’s the Difference Between HDR10 and Dolby Vision?

Get ready for another format war! The next big thing in TV is HDR. But “HDR” isn’t just one simple feature–there are two different, incompatible HDR standards. That means not all HDR videos and games will work with every TV.

What Is HDR?

HDR stands for “high dynamic range.” When it comes to TVs, HDR indicates the ability to display a much wider range of colors on a TV display. This includes much brighter whites and much darker blacks. It’s an attempt at being more true to life–in the real world, there are a much wider range of colors, deep blacks, and bright whites than we can currently display on a TV.

HDR is an additional feature on many new TVs that already support 4K resolution. It promises to bring a more noticeable improvement to image quality than “quantum dot” and gimmicks like curved displays.

Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as saying a TV supports “HDR”. There are two different standards. Some TVs and streaming services just support one standard or the other, while some support both. When you see that a TV, video, or game supports HDR, you’ll have to check whether it actually supports the HDR standard you want–just like the Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD format wars of yesteryear.

There are two competing formats right now: HDR10 and Dolby Vision.

HDR10, the Open Standard

HDR10 is an open standard in the industry. It has an odd, hard to remember name. That’s why you probably won’t see “HDR10” listed on many specification sheets or boxes. The TV will simply say it supports “HDR” and you’ll have to assume it supports HDR10 content.

This standard is ahead right now. Most of the HDR-enabled content out there now is in HDR10 format, and most TVs support HDR10. This is likely due to its open nature, which means content creators can use it without paying licensing fees.

Dolby Vision, the Proprietary Solution

Dolby Vision is a proprietary HDR standard created by Dolby. It promises to be a step above HDR10 content.

On paper, the advantages are clear. Dolby Vision supports up to 10,000 nits (a unit of brightness), with the current target being 4,000 nits. HDR10 maxes out at 1,000 nits. That sounds nice, but there aren’t any consumer TVs that can achieve much over 1,000 nits at the moment. Dolby’s higher numbers are impressive technically, but they don’t translate to any real difference with current hardware.

Dolby Vision content is mastered with a 12-bit color depth, while HDR10 content is mastered with a 10-bit color depth. Dolby Vision content includes frame-by-frame metadata to tell the display exactly how to display each frame of video, while HDR10 does not.

But Dolby Vision is a proprietary solution. To take advantage of it, you need Dolby Vision-mastered content played through a Dolby Vision-compatible player and outputted to a Dolby Vision-enabled display. This requires Dolby’s system-on-a-chip, certification process, and licensing fees–which is more expensive for manufacturers and for you.

There’s certainly a clear winner here if you just look at the specifications. Dolby Vision is, objectively, better than HDR10. However, the story doesn’t end there. Some manufacturers and content creators are pushing back against Dolby Vision because they don’t want to pay its proprietary fees.

HDR10 Has a Head Start

As of mid-2016, HDR10 has a head start here. Dolby Vision has a long ways to go to make a dent.

Samsung, Sony, Sharp, and Hisense are solidly behind HDR10 and don’t currently plan on shipping any TVs that support Dolby Vision.

LG, Vizio, TCL, and Phillips are shipping TVs that support both HDR10 and Dolby Vision content. Vizio did ship several TVs that only support Dolby Vision, but has committed to adding HDR10 support via firmware updates. (HDR10 support can be added via a software update, but Dolby Vision can not–it requires special hardware.)

When it comes to physical discs, there are few 4K-capable Blu-ray players with support for HDR on the market. Both Samsung’s UBD-K8500 and Panasonic’s DMP-UB900 support HDR, but they can only play HDR10 content. All the HDR-enabled Blu-ray discs out there use HDR10–there are currently none that use Dolby Vision, nor are there any Dolby Vision-compatible Blu-ray players yet.

For streaming, Netflix and Amazon currently support both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. Oddly enough, VUDU only supports Dolby Vision and won’t provide HDR10 content. This is the only service we’re aware of that’s choosing to support only Dolby Vision exclusively.

Movie studios are all over the map, too. 20th Century Fox, for example, doesn’t see the need for Dolby Vision and prefers the open standard of HDR10. Universal, on the other hand, has pledged to offer Dolby Vision content on disc when a compatible player is released.

Microsoft just announced a new “Xbox One S” that will support HDR-enabled games as well. However, the Xbox One S will only work with HDR10, and won’t support Dolby Vision.

Which Should You Buy Into?

As we said above, we already know which is better–Dolby Vision is the clear winner, spec-wise. But that isn’t really the question–the question is which you should buy now.

Dolby Vision, while better, has an uphill battle ahead of it, and the hardware may be significantly more expensive. And, if Dolby Vision doesn’t gain much traction, that extra money spent for a Dolby Vision-compatible TV may be wasted when you can’t get the content. If you do get a Dolby Vision-compatible TV, make sure it also supports HDR10 content, so you’ll be able to watch everything in HDR.

In practice, HDR10 is generally a baseline standard almost everything supports, while Dolby Vision is usually an optional value-add that some hardware and content supports in addition to HDR10. If you get a TV that supports HDR10 but not Dolby Vision, you should still be able to watch almost all HDR content in HDR, even if it isn’t as good as it would be on a Dolby Vision-enabled TV.

That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, VUDU is currently demonstrating that some providers may choose to only support Dolby Vision. Vizio has also demonstrated that some TV manufacturers may choose to ship TVs that only work with Dolby Vision and not HDR10. Format wars aren’t fun, since you never know who’s going to come out on top. But if you’re in the market right now, at least you can get hardware that supports both standards.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.