Size isn't everything: The latest phones keep you watching by using big-screen TV tech

The technology and innovation that makes the latest televisions produce such beautiful images is coming to our smartphones. TV tech has actually been seeping down to phones for a while, as displays that use similar panel technology get bigger, boast higher resolutions, and have lower power consumption. It hasn’t always been easy to immediately see the benefits of these features, but that’s not the case with the latest TV-influenced features now hitting the newest smartphones.

Treating the screen this way makes a lot of sense. It may not always be that big, but it’s probably the one you look at the most, and if it doesn’t look good or show much detail, it ruins the joy of owning and using a phone. At Mobile World Congress 2017, LG and Sony both brought the tech used to make their TV’s so good across to smartphones, and the good news is, you’re definitely going to see a difference.

HDR: Not just for cameras anymore

Until recently, High Dynamic Range (HDR) technology was something you probably associated with the camera on a smartphone; but the latest 4K Ultra HD TVs now support HDR mode — a move we feel has made the biggest difference in picture quality since the the advent of high-definition resolution. Now, HDR is being implemented in smartphone screens, starting with a new wave of devices emphasizing video performance announced at Mobile World Congress.

Both Sony and LG have integrated HDR into their new phones: The G6 and the Xperia XZ Premium; but confusingly there are three different versions of HDR tech, with even more on the way. Just as it does with its televisions, LG supports both DolbyVision and HDR10 on the G6, while Sony appears to support HDR10 only at this time. Like varying and competing audio file formats, all the HDR formats ultimately have the same intent: To boost colors, increase detail, and improve contrast levels. How they go about accomplishing those tasks varies a great deal, but that’s a discussion for another article.

Smartphone owners are used to screens increasing in resolution, but improvements are sometimes hard to pinpoint. Not so with HDR. We visited Dolby at MWC to see how the G6 implemented DolbyVision, and compared it to both an LG OLED TV with DolbyVision, and with another G6 playing non-HDR content. The difference between the two phones was striking, with DolbyVision adding realism and verve not seen in the un-enhanced footage, which looked darker and muddier. What really surprised was how close the G6’s DolbyVision video looked to the same movie being played on the full-size LG OLED TV.

Growing library

However, DolbyVision and HDR isn’t applied to the Android interface or any old video you play. In the same way that a movie needs to have a surround sound audio track in order for you to hear real surround sound, a video needs to be encoded with DolbyVision or HDR10 in order for it to take advantage of an HDR screen. Dolby’s Torsten Fink told Digital Trends that currently, “There are 90 full-length movies available, and we are working with Amazon and Netflix to deliver the content to mobile devices. There is also more than 100 hours of original content from Netflix, such as Marco Polo, in DolbyVision.” This number will only grow over time, and Fink revealed that all the movies nominated for an Oscar at the 2017 Academy Awards were filmed in DolbyVision, proving the movie industry’s support for the technology.

The G6 has both DolbyVision and HDR10 onboard. We asked for an explanation of the differences, without getting caught up in the technical aspects, between the two. “From a consumer perspective, it’s not a consistent experience between devices with HDR10,” Fink told us. “When you have five different HDR10 devices next to each other, all the video will look different.” We should think of DolbyVision as a more feature rich version of the open-source HDR10 platform. “The underlying video format is the same and was developed by Dolby, but with lots of goodness added into DolbyVision.”

This brings a few interesting benefits, Fink explained: “Because we control the whole process from camera to display, we can insert information into the video that allows us to control the playback, so you get consistent colors and skin tones, plus we can control the backlight. By adaptively adjusting it throughout playback on the G6, DolbyVision content consumes 15 percent less power than standard dynamic range video.”

DolbyVision is also 10 percent more efficient when it comes to bandwidth, which means the buffer time will be lower when streaming a compatible video to your phone. While these streaming files aren’t small, there’s no need to wait for mega-fast gigabit mobile internet connections to come along before enjoying them. “The top tier of the bitrate is 6Mbps,” Fink informed us, adding that Amazon and Netflix dynamically stream the file and adapt it based on network speed. If your connection is poor, the quality is reduced.

More phones to come

Watching DolbyVision back-to-back with the Full HD video on the G6, it’s impossible not to fall in love with the HDR effect. Isolate the DolbyVision video and it still shone. You certainly won’t watch an HDR video and wonder where the benefits are. The G6 is the first mobile device in the world to feature  both DolbyVision and HDR10 (the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was the first to have just HDR10 support), but will it come to other phones? We put the question to Fink, who told us: “There are no specific hardware requirements, it’s all done in software. Fundamentally the technology can be deployed in a lot of different mobile devices, and we expect we will be in a position to do this pretty soon.”

Trickle-down Tech for Phones
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

We also checked out Sony’s XZ Premium running alongside last year’s Xperia Z5 Premium. Both have the ability to play 4K resolution video files, but only the new XZ Premium has 4K HDR support. Sony backs the open-source HDR10 format. Like the G6, the improvement in the HDR image was obvious. It was brighter, more colorful, and had a wider viewing angle. How bright? We couldn’t take an effective still DSLR picture to illustrate the difference, as it upset the camera’s sensor. Samsung wasn’t going to be left out of the HDR fun either, and the new Galaxy Tab S3 and Galaxy Book both support HDR video. This means there’s a strong chance the Galaxy S8 will do the same.

Even though the screens on both these phones are smaller than your TV, the benefits of HDR video are considerable, and immediately recognisable.

Rational ratios

Introducing HDR technology wasn’t the only evidence manufacturers have noticed how popular using a mobile device for consuming video has become. LG is the first to use an 18:9 (or 2:1, depending on your preference) aspect ratio screen. This means it looks longer and thinner than most other screens. LG may be the first, but Samsung is also expected to follow with an 18:9 screen on the Galaxy S8.

Mobile devices are rapidly becoming our primary screen, rather than the second screen many consider them at the moment.

Why? Leaving aside the user interface advantages — the screen can be split into to squares, making it more suited to running two apps at the same time, for example — it’s a happy medium between the two most used modern video aspect ratios, 16:9 and 2.20:1. It’s not LG that says this, it’s cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, the man pushing for industry adoption of 18:9, which he calls Univisium. If you’ve watched Netflix’s Stranger Things, then you’ve already seen an 18:9 aspect ratio presentation.

Storaro talked about 18:9 during LG’s announcement of the G6. When asked how it will benefit anyone watching video on a smartphone, he said that, because the ratio is longer and narrower than more usual 16:9 or 21:9 screens, “watching a movie will be more immersive while holding the device. It eliminates the need for cropping, and lets audiences see films exactly as the filmmaker intended.” The longer term idea is to have all screens show the same content across all screens, without alterations.

Bring the noise

Perhaps surprisingly, neither Sony nor LG made much noise about the audio ability of their new phones. The G6 has Dolby Audio inside, but not Dolby Atmos, which has been used on several phones since 2015, but sound is only pushed out through a single speaker. Sony’s XZ Premium has stereo front speakers. Neither have the sonic capabilities to match their visual prowess, which is a shame. This is especially true for the G6, as LG has removed the new Quad DAC destined for South Korean G6 phones on versions set for release in the U.S. market.

The top tech trends from MWC 2017

Mobile devices are rapidly becoming our primary screen, rather than the second screen many consider them at the moment. By 2021, nearly 80 percent of mobile data traffic is expected to be video, so smartphone manufacturers want to be prepared for the growth.

Excitingly, 2017 looks set to be the year in which we can buy the first mobile devices that truly exploit the same visual tech treats that make us all want to splash out on a new big-screen TV.

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