November 13, 2016
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HDR Gaming: Yay or Nay?

You’ve probably heard or read the acronym HDR getting thrown around a lot when it comes to monitors, TV, and now, game consoles. It’s being touted as a pricey upgrade worth having. Well, is it?

The human eye can adjust very well and very quickly to distinguishing details under bright light or very low light, but most display technology are very limited in this respect. HDR changes all that.

HDR is just a nickname for devices that have high-dynamic-range (HDR) rendering, the rendering of computer graphics by using lighting calculations done in high dynamic range. This type of rendering preserves details that can be lost due to limiting contrast ratios so bright things can be really bright and dark things can be really dark, all without sacrificing details in both. What really happens is HDR increases the contrast between blacks and whites compared to conventional RGB displays. This way, you can see details in extreme light and dark with a wider range of colors, allowing for a richer, more immersive game play and video experience.

If you’ve seen the latest Marvel movies, you’ve already benefited from HDR rendering as it gives you realistic and detailed scenes in various lighting levels. Now, you can see that kind of tech moving over to gaming, meaning wider brightness and color range.

This doesn’t mean that gaming graphics are lacking to begin with. Game graphics have been steadily evolving alongside video so does HDR really make gaming better?

Console

xbox-player

Honestly? It really does. It’s just expensive to support that kind of upgrade. For one thing, an HDR-capable console is a must. The Xbox One S was the first console to support HDR gaming. Then, Sony followed suit by issuing a firmware update for the original PS4 that allowed it to support HDR. The PS4 Slim came next and by the time PS4 Pro comes out, it will be HDR-ready as well.

Processing power

For PC gamers out there, don’t worry: Nvidia’s Maxwell and Pascal families of graphics cards support HDR, as well as AMD/ATI’s Polaris and Radeon R9 300 boards. However, only Polaris can support 4K resolution and 60Hz frame rates with HDR. You may have seen PCs claiming to have HDR in the past decade or so, but this is just emulated HDR, not true HDR, so the next time you’re getting a PC, make sure you check the details.

Display

Philips-65PUS7601

Of course, HDR-supporting processing units won’t be enough so your display should keep up with them, too.

The tough part is that the first true HDR TVs weren’t around until 2015 so if your TV or monitor is older than 2015, you better get a new one. But it gets tougher: HDR TVs aren’t equal. TVs perform differently with standard dynamic range images depending on the price of the set. That means you could have an HDR-ready TV but an underperforming one at that. So if you have a low-end HDR TV, you could be missing out on what HDR technology has to offer.

It’s confusing with the myriad of TV sets of various qualities out there, but if you need to know what to look out for to find the HDR TV set that you need, you can read about their specifications here. Basically, the only true HDR providers in the market are called “Ultra HD Premium”, developed by the Ultra HD Alliance, a group involving the AV world’s biggest brands. The units usually have the Ultra HD Premium badge but they’re really expensive. If you want something reasonable, you can get the Philips 65PUS7601 and Hisense H65M7000. They deliver the HDR without having a price tag that’s through the roof.

Lag

Even if you manage to get a great HDR-capable monitor or TV, there’s still the issue of input lag. HDR is such an intensive process that it doubles the amount of input lag you get while gaming. It’s a good thing that more TV makers are becoming aware of this issue, like Samsung. They’ve issued a firmware update for its 2016 TVs that lets you have a game mode while you play in HDR. Sony also introduced an HDR gaming option for their ZD9, XD83, SD80, XD80, XD75 and XD70 series of TVs. Even Panasonic’s and Philips’ 2016 HDR TVs have low-lag gaming options as well. (LG’s TVs don’t have one so far. If they do, let us know!)

Games

game-covers

Of course, if you’re getting HDR hardware, you might as well get games with HDR support built into their graphics engines. The thing is, HDR gaming is a fairly recent development so the amount of HDR games out there hasn’t reached critical mass for you to merit a gaming system upgrade into HDR mode.

The main issue in this regard isn’t really the amount of games but time. Game developers want to cash in on this gaming experience so expect a lot of HDR game releases in the next few years. We just need a lot of time for the amount of HDR games out in the market to reach that critical mass.

If you want to upgrade anyway, here’s what we got: for Xbox One S, there’s Forza Horizon 3, Gears of War 4, NBA 2K17, and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. In the future, they’ll release Scalebound (2017) and Resident Evil 7 (January 24, 2017).

PS4 and PS4 Pro only has Deus Ex: Mankind Divided right now, but they will also have HDR support for Resident Evil 7 and NBA 2K17 (patch). Don’t worry though, Sony also announced that Horizon Zero Dawn, Days Gone, Detroit, and Spider-Man will have HDR support as well.

For PC, not a lot of confirmed details so far. The only word out is from Nvidia: they intend to have HDR support for The Witness, Lawbreakers, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Paragon, The Talos Principle, and Shadow Warrior 2.

Should you?

If you do decide to overhaul your whole gaming system in both hardware and software, then oh boy the quality is top notch. If you get the Xbox One S, you can toggle between HDR and see the difference for yourself. Better colors, saturation, highly detailed landscapes no matter the lighting, brighter lights and deeper shadows. Of course, these are diminished when one or two elements of the whole system is of low quality—TVs are mostly suspect.

Going back to the question: should you upgrade? The answer is: yes. It’s worth it. This is the obvious next step in quality gaming and all-around visual display.

The follow up question is: should you upgrade now? The honest answer? No. Not yet. There’s just not enough hardware and software to support the whole system. With the way things are being marketed right now, it’s still a very confusing terrain with regards to choosing the right components to assemble the perfect HDR system for you. It will be better to wait another year or two before you make the switch.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

Tags gaming, HDR