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What is Apple XDR? Apple’s iPhone, iPad and Pro Display tech explained

Thinking about picking an Apple Pro Display XDR, new iPhone or one of its latest 2021 iPad Pro tablets, but confused what exactly the XDR screen spec means?

Well you’re not alone. Since unveiling the tech on its Pro Display XDR all the way back in 2019 the firm’s used the branding across a number of different products, but never fully explained the difference between the various versions of it.

Here to help you understand what XDR is, we’ve created this handy guide, including our real world experience using it.

XDR is the display tech found in Apple’s Pro Display XDR. Apple describes the feature as “dynamic range to the extreme” – which makes sense considering the acronym actually stands for Extreme Dynamic Range.

You’ve likely already heard of HDR, or High Dynamic Range. The feature is in charge of improving the contrast you see on many displays these days, keeping the whites bright and the blacks dark in a way that SDR TVs had previously been unable to achieve.

While not technically a separate standard of HDR, XDR is HDR pushed further – well at least that seems like how Apple wants it thought of. Apple says it employs a “breakthrough backlighting technology” to increase the brightness, contrast and colour on its Pro Display XDR beyond what you see with HDR.

According to Apple product manager Colleen Novielli, a large number of individually calibrated blue LEDs come together in the Pro Display XDR to form its backlight. Apple then applies a proprietary algorithm to modulate each LED based on the content, using custom lenses and reflectors to control the light.

“Now, a typical thermal system would make this impossible to achieve for more than a few minutes. So we did something amazing”, said Novelli at WWDC 2019.

“We designed the rear lattice pattern to act as a heatsink, and this doubles the surface area, quietly extracting heat from each LED. This display can maintain 1,000 nits of full-screen brightness indefinitely. Forever! And 1,600 nits peak”.

Apple claims that, while a standard desktop display can sustain a brightness of just around 350 nits, its XDR display can sustain 1,000 nits of brightness and 1,600 nits at its peak, offering a 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio (though the latter is currently under independent testing).

The Pro Display XDR also supports 99% of the P3 wide colour gamut and true 10-bit colour for vibrant, accurate colours.

All of the above basically means that professionals are able to achieve more accurate colour grading when creating content on the Pro Display XDR, and that photos and videos viewed on the XDR display appear bright and vibrant.

Of course, this tech doesn’t come cheap. The Pro Display XDR launched in 2019 at the steep price of £4,599 (or £5,499 if you opt for the nano-texture glass).

Apple Liquid Retina XDR is the latest version of Apple’s extreme dynamic range technology. It made its debut on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro 2021 which was unveiled at Apple’s April Spring loaded event in 2021.

The technology offers the same high maximum brightness as other XDR branded screens but has slightly different back end technology. Specifically, it uses an array of over 10000 “mini LEDs” that are 20% smaller than the regular LEDs seen on non XDR iPad screens. These are set up across 25 different dimming zones which can individually adjust their settings. This is a big step up on past iPad Pros which feature screens with 72 LEDs. It’s also a key reason Apple claims the new iPad offers a 100,000:1 contrast ratio.

Tech speak aside, this means the screen should offer significantly better max brightness levels and much better HDR (high dynamic range) performance than past Apple tablets. We haven’t tested the new Liquid Retina XDR screen yet so can’t personally confirm this. But our experience with Apple’s XDR branded iPhones was positive so we have high hopes for the new iPad Pro. We’ll update this page when we get the device in for review.

Apple’s most recent smartphones feature a different form of XDR called Super Retina XDR. This can be found on the iPhone 11 Pro, the iPhone 11 Pro Max, the iPhone 12, the iPhone 12 mini, the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

A step up from the Super Retina display found on the iPhone X, XS and XS Max, Super Retina XDR has a contrast ratio of 2,000,000:1 and supports HDR10, Dolby Vision and variants of HDR. Unlike the Pro Display XDR, the XDR displays used on the phones are OLED panels.

We’ve reviewed all the iPhones that boast this XDR tech and they’re all superb displays that certainly match up with the best we’ve seen from top-end Android devices. They’re all bright displays with strong HDR support and far more neutral colours then you’ll elsewhere. While a Samsung display might be more punchy and saturated, we’d certainly have the iPhone’s panel is more realistic with colour reproduction. Hopefully, Apple brings some of the tech across to the tablet range with the heavily rumoured iPad Pro 2021.

For more on monitors, make sure to check out our guides to the best monitors and the best gaming monitors. Or for smartphones, visit our guides to the best phones and the best iPhones available right now.

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