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What is HDR gaming? All you need to know

High Dynamic Range (HDR) is the latest and best thing in video right now. It started out as a niche feature, but now it’s an essential feature of the best TVs. You can watch films and TV shows in HDR – and now it’s come to games too.

In theory, HDR gaming is very similar to HDR video. The idea is that you get better contrast and a wider range of colour and brightness, which should make the picture more realistic and immersive.

In practice, it’s a little trickier than that, because there are more elements to consider once you factor in the type of gaming machine you use, as well as types of display and even individual game performance.

To help clear things up, here is everything you need to know about HDR gaming – what you need to get it working and whether it’s worth all the effort.

(Spoiler: it totally is.)

Related: What is HDR?

Watch: Trusted Explains: All you need to know about TVs

The Gaming Kit

The biggest barrier to entry for HDR gaming is the amount of wallet-draining kit you’ll need to make it happen.

First up, you’ll need an HDR-capable machine. The first console to deliver support for HDR gaming was the Xbox One S. The original Xbox One isn’t compatible with HDR, and Microsoft has so far said nothing to suggest that it ever will.

Sony countered this move by releasing the PS4 Pro, a 4K and HDR-friendly version of the PS4. In a surprising (but very welcome) move, Sony then issued a firmware update to bring HDR to the original PS4 (and the more recent PS4 Slim), so existing owners can benefit without upgrading.

Xbox One S
Xbox One S

None of the older generation of consoles (Xbox 360, PS3, Nintendo Wii U) offer any HDR support. As for the the new Nintendo Switch, there’s been no word on HDR at all – Nintendo’s priority has never been to chase graphics.

If you’re a PC gamer, Nvidia’s Maxwell and Pascal families of graphics cards support HDR, as do AMD/ATI’s Polaris and Radeon R9 300 boards – but only the Polaris boards support full 4K resolution and 60Hz frame rates with HDR.

PCs have actually been claiming to deliver HDR gaming for the best part of 12 years. But this was only emulated HDR, not the true HDR we’re seeing today that delivers genuinely expanded brightness and colour performance.
PS4 Pro
Sony PlayStation 4 Pro

The Display Kit

It’s not enough for your gaming device to support HDR – your display has to be able to show it too. And here we get into a whole new world of financial pain and potential confusion.

The first HDR TVs only appeared in 2015: if your current TV or monitor is older than that, or it’s not a high-end 2015 model, you’ll need a new one.

That leads to the next issue: HDR TVs are very much unequal. There’s more detail in our explainer –  There’s a major problem with 4K HDR TVs – but essentially there’s no industry standard for HDR gaming, as there is in the video world.

Different TVs perform differently with standard dynamic range images too, with price often a key factor to performance differences. HDR places extreme demands on a TV’s specifications – the performance gap between different HDR displays is unprecedentedly vast.

Samsung UE65KS9500
Samsung UE65KS9500

The only real attempt to define HDR displays is called Ultra HD Premium. It’s a sticker, essentially, developed by a loose federation of tech companies and film studios such as Samsung and Netflix. You need a number of key specifications to qualify for one: read our guide, What Is Ultra HD Premium?

It’s not a perfect system, but displays with the Ultra HD Premium badge generally deliver a more spectacular HDR performance than those that don’t. So it’s a shame that the majority of so-called HDR TVs don’t even get close to hitting the fairly extreme Ultra HD Premium recommendations. Also, the majority of screens that do hit Ultra HD Premium’s targets are eye-wateringly expensive.

Fortunately, it is possible to still get an enjoyably a good HDR experience with some relatively affordable TVs and monitors. The recently tested Philips 65PUS7601 and Hisense H65M7000 are good examples of how a gentler approach to HDR can still deliver a genuine HDR “lift” without having to cost the earth.

With all this TV confusion in mind, probably the most useful advice I can give is that you check out our Best 4K TV round up, which lists the best HDR TVs.

HDR PC gaming is also slowly gaining momentum. HDR monitors are very slowly making their way onto the market but are still very hard to come by. HDR monitors right now are branded as either AMD FreeSync 2 or Nvidia G-Sync HDR, and will only produce proper HDR images when connected to either an AMD or Nvidia graphics card.

The standard for brightness and colour is the same as on HDR TVs, but how it works is actually quite different. Both AMD and Nvidia have been tight-lipped as to whether non-PCs – such as games consoles – will work with HDR monitors.

Ultra HD Premium

The Input Lag Issue

Input lag – the time a display takes to render image data received at its inputs – is hugely important to the gaming experience. It’s a shame some HDR TV manufacturers don’t currently allow you to switch to a low-input-lag Game mode when showing HDR content. When gaming in HDR, you can suffer as much as double the amount of input lag you get on the same TV in SDR mode.

Fortunately, the TV makers are waking up to this situation. Samsung has issued a firmware update for its 2016 TVs, so you can now choose the Game mode while playing in HDR. Sony’s second round of TVs for 2016 – specifically the ZD9, XD83, SD80, XD80, XD75 and XD70 series – have also introduced a Game HDR option. All of Panasonic and Philips’ 2016 HDR TVs let you activate a low-lag gaming mode during HDR play too. LG recently added a similar feature to its C6, E6 and G6 OLED TVs.

What is HDR gaming?
Forza Horizon 3

The HDR Games

Although some TVs can convert standard dynamic range sources into HDR-looking ones, a true HDR experience needs a game to actively support HDR. Not every game out there supports HDR, but the list is growing.

Exclusive Xbox One S titles include Forza Horizon 3, Gears Of War 4. The PS4 and PS4 Pro has Horizon Zero Dawn, Uncharted 4, The Last of Us: Remastered, Gran Turismo Sport. Then there is a solid number of cross-platform titles with HDR: Hitman, NBA 2K17, Final Fantasy XV, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and World of Tanks.

The number of PC HDR ready games has also increased. These include older titles, such as Shadow Warrior 2, plus newer AAA games, like Mass Effect Andromeda, though the number of HDR PC games is still very limited.

What is HDR gaming?
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

The HDR PC game situation is even harder to pin down at the moment. Obduction from Myst-creator Cyan is supposed to support HDR via Nvidia’s Ansel system, but I’ve yet to hear a report from anyone who’s played it in HDR.

US tech site WCCFtech has reported that Nvidia is working on bringing HDR support to six other titles: The Witness, Lawbreakers, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Paragon, The Talos Principle and Shadow Warrior 2.

It all seems pretty vague at the moment, and perhaps tellingly the recent Deus Ex update for consoles wasn’t accompanied by an HDR update for the PC version. Also, the makers of Gears of War 4 have said the PC version won’t support HDR at launch, and it will only potentially be added if HDR PC monitors start to shift in high enough numbers.

What is HDR gaming?
Forza Horizon 3

So how does it look?

With so many hurdles to overcome before you can experience true HDR gaming, you’ll likely be wondering if the results actually justify the effort. The short answer is that, unfortunately for your bank balance, they most certainly do.

(Editor’s Note: The comparison shots are for illustration purposes only – it’s near impossible to show off the HDR difference with standard photos displayed on a standard monitor.)

Focusing on Forza Horizon 3 played via Xbox One S on a Samsung UE65KS9500 TV, the impact HDR has is astounding. Toggling the Xbox’s HDR mode on and off reveals two key areas of difference.

Colour performance, in particular, is in a different league. This is partly through the gorgeous saturation of your beloved car collection, but also in the subtle shading of the landscape. Bright skies, in particular, exhibit a far wider spectrum of colours that make them look both more realistic and more beautiful.

The HDR version of Forza Horizon 3 also enjoys a significantly better sense of contrast than the SDR version, as punchier brightness highlights share screen space with deeper shadows and silhouettes.

Put these colour and contrast benefits together and you’ve got a visual experience far better than you’d imagine possible from a technology which, at the content-creation level at least, appears to be relatively straightforward to implement.

The impact of HDR was reduced when I tried the same FH3 HDR toggling test on two less bright, less colour-rich and less contrasty HDR TVs: the LG 55UH770 and a Hisense 75M7900.

The LG didn’t add as much brightness and colour volume in its peaks and looked much greyer in dark areas, though there were still clear HDR advantages overall. With the Hisense – which only delivers around 400 nits of brightness – HDR Forza actually looked worse than the SDR version. Colours looked peaky, details were lost in dark areas, and the overall image tone looked darker than it did in SDR. Pick your screen with care if you don’t want your HDR gaming experience to fall flat.

On PC, the performance upgrades look excellent and Mass Effect Andromeda is a prime example how good HDR games can look in 4K. Gameplay can be an issue, however, as current generation graphics cards still struggle to fully render games in HDR at 4K.

Even Nvidia’s latest GTX 1080 Ti graphics card, which can offer Titan X level performance, runs Mass Effect Andromeda at its 30fps cap at 4K in HDR in the game’s ultra settings. Input lag is also an issue when you play PC titles on HDR ready TVs.

Is it worth it?

HDR gaming is great, but there’s no getting away from the need to invest heavily in swanky new kit to make the most of this development.

Take the console path and things are simpler, as there are fewer variables. You could have a decent HDR console setup for around £1000, and you’d have a number of games to play as well. The PC HDR path is more rocky, so it’s worth holding out until standards are more stable.

But, however you look at it, it’s clear that HDR gaming isn’t just another graphics gimmick. Games can and do look significantly better than we’re used to, and it means you can have a nice jump in visuals without necessarily waiting for the next generation upgrade.

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