Why HDR on the iOS YouTube App Matters

The next step for mobile video and movies

Key Takeaways

  • HDR stands for High Dynamic Range.
  • Dolby Vision is more or less the same as HDR10, just smarter about what it captures.
  • iPhones, and many Android phones, with OLED screens support HDR playback.
How HDR works on the iOS YouTube app

YouTube’s iPhone app now supports HDR video, so you’ll get darker blacks and brighter whites when watching video on the iPhone 12. But what is HDR exactly? Is it worth knowing about? And what apps support it?

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, but it has nothing to do with those awful fairytale-looking photos of the same name. It’s a way of capturing a wider range of light (and dark), and then playing it back. It’s available on HDR TVs, but is a fairly new technology for mobile devices. Now, it’s available in the iOS YouTube app, but there are other apps that support it, too.

"If you’re a producer, HDR video can elevate your work because it’s simply brighter and more colorful than standard video," writes Engadget's Steve Dent, describing an HDR project. "The benefits are more dramatic than 4K, which only delivers extra resolution that many people can’t even see."

See More With HDR

If your phone or tablet has an OLED screen, then it probably supports HDR video. That’s because OLED has a much better dynamic range than regular LCD screens. LED panels have an always-on panel lit up behind the grid of LCD pixels. The pixels themselves are nothing but color filters. If these pixels are switched off, they block the light, making—supposedly—black. But light always bleeds around the edges, or through the pixels, making it less than total black.

OLED does away with the backlight. Each individual pixel creates its own light, and when it’s switched off, it’s off. This means that black on an OLED screen is not only more black, but also uses less power.

On iOS, you can watch HDR video on the iPhone X and XS, the iPhone 11 Pro, and all the iPhone 12 models. No iPads have OLED screens, and most recent high-end Androids have OLEDs. You should check the manufacturers specs to find out.

HDR Apps

To watch HDR video in the YouTube app, just tap the three vertical dots icon at the top right of the app. This opens the video streaming settings, and you can see if there is an HDR version of the video available. Several resolutions might be listed—1080p60HDR, for example—so pick the one you want.

There are other apps which support HDR playback, too. One is Apple’s video-editing app, Clips, which also records in HDR. Another great option is Infuse, one of the best video-viewing apps on iOS and Apple TV. Infuse automatically supports HDR video as soon as you play it back, as long as your device supports it.

Recording HDR Dolby Vision

Finally, you can also record your own HDR video. The iPhone 12 can capture HDR video with Dolby Vision, meaning its brightness range of the captured video can change.

For instance, if you’re inside during the evening, the range of available light will run from the darkest corners of your room to the still-relatively-dim lit parts of the room. Move outside during the day, and the range changes, it’s much wider. Dolby Vision’s advantage is it can adapt to these changing ranges on a scene-by-scene or frame-by-frame basis, instead of averaging out the entire movie.

And, of course, any HDR video you shoot yourself can be played back (and even edited) inside the Photos app. 

HDR may seem gimmicky now, especially on a phone, but it’s just another example of the constant improvement to photos and videos on our phones. "Recording directly in Dolby Vision is a truly impressive feature that's sure to be improved upon in successive iPhones," writes Joseph Keller at iMore.

When you’re looking back on your home videos years from now, you’ll be happy you captured the best-quality video possible.