During the reveal of Microsoft’s Xbox One S revision, there was quite a song and dance made about its HDR capabilities. Nvidia too, during its own GeForce GTX 1080 and GTX 1070 unveilings, proudly checked off HDR support as a perk of the Pascal GPUs. But what does HDR even mean, and how will it impact us as gamers?
What is HDR?
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, and the crux of it is providing the best possible image quality. The blacks are darker, the whites are lighter, and there is a wider range of colour on display. It looks more natural, more vibrant, and more true to the real life image.
The stark effect is achieved by using three different images, so HDR needs to be specifically made with HDR support in mind. One image is overexposed, another is underexposed, and the final one is the usual balanced shot. These images are merged to form HDR, with eye catching highlights and intense shadowing.
You may remember a decade ago Valve releasing a free Lost Coast level for Half-Life 2. It included new high dynamic range rendering in the Source engine, aimed at making lighting more realistic. This has since become commonplace in gaming, but HDR displays takes this ethos a step further and applies it on a per pixel level to your display.
What do I need for HDR?
Well, it’s not necessarily cheap to go down the path of HDR. For one, you’ll need an HDMI 2.0 compliant monitor with HDR support. Quite a few 4K TVs are HDR compatible, it’s become quite a buzzword these days as the hardware manufacturers look at ways to sell us things beyond 4K. If you’re buying a monitor anytime in the future, it would probably pay to check it has HDR support.
Then of course you also need the correct hardware to power the display. Microsoft’s own Xbox One S retails from $250 this August and will play certain Xbox One games with HDR, such as Gears of War 4. The other option is an HDR-capable graphics card. It looks as if the entire upcoming GPU generations from both Nvidia and AMD will be HDR compatible. The RX 480 has support confirmed, as do the GeForce GTX 1070 and GTX 1080.
Is it worth investing in HDR?
This is going to change from person to person. The race to higher resolutions is nearly over, we’re at diminishing returns. Monitor manufacturers need new tech to keep sales going, and HDR is that tech. The focus is no longer on the number of pixels but on the quality of the pixels.
An HDR monitor will make use of either 10 or 12-bit colour processing, depending on the quality. Standard HD such as that you’d find on a Blu Ray disc is 8-bit. This affects how many different colours the display can produce. A 10-bit monitor provides 1024 different shades of each and every colour, while 8-bit is significantly less at 256 shades. 12-bit goes a step further and offers 4096 shades per colour.
The more colours available, the more true to life the image can be. Pair this with 4K resolution and it allows for a far more intricate level of detail than would be capable on a normal display.
Much like resolutions, actually relaying the benefits of HDR is almost impossible to comprehend without viewing it for yourself on an HDR screen. There are comparison screens like the one above, but they are merely demonstrations rather than an accurate representation. Suffice to say, the quality of the image is better than a like-for-like display without HDR.
What can I play on HDR?
Ummm, right now, nothing. All HDR content as of today is targeted towards video content. Netflix has a little HDR content, there are 4K Blu Rays with HDR, and, well, that’s about it. There are no PC games with HDR support yet.
This is where Microsoft’s E3 console reveal was so interesting though - Microsoft stuck its neck out on the line and confirmed it would be shipping games to both Xbox One and PC with HDR support. Gears of War 4 was cited, but it’s also likely we can expect the majority on in-house titles to back HDR. For now though it is practically useless until the games arrive. Nvidia was keen to espouse the benefits of HDR for its GPU reveals, but in truth it’s only really going to be the introduction of the GTX 1100 series which will see the greatest benefits.
Have a wander down your local TV shop and you’ll see it looks fantastic. For now however, High Dynamic Range is a neat idea but without the content to back it up it isn’t worth going all out and spending the big bucks to enable it.