What is HDR and is it worth it?
What is HDR?
HDR for people unfamiliar is a term that stands for ‘High Dynamic Range’ and has been used within the technology universe for several years now. You’ll probably recognise the abbreviation from your high end HDTV’s which all now support HDR. However, manufacturers have been trying to implement HDR technology into computer hardware for several years and we’re just now starting to see its impact on the computer/gaming world.
In a nutshell, HDR has one sole purpose and that is to create a more realistic image by balancing the contrast between the bright and the dark (the dynamic range) whilst maintaining a wide colour gamut. By doing this it allows the user to perceive colours more vividly helping achieve a more realistic, lifelike image.
The new HDR compressing technology will fully display the bright/dark tone variation within a picture or video to avoid overexposure to bright areas whilst erasing any loss of detail in the dark areas. Further to this, HDR will represent true colour feedback unlike SDR which enhances the scene by using excessive HUE creating a less realistic final product.
Hardware Requirements for HDR
There are a few areas a consumer should concern themselves with when thinking about either purchasing an HDR monitor or upgrading their system to ready it for HDR. Firstly, contrary to many peoples beliefs, you don’t need an all singing, all dancing GPU to accommodate an HDR compatible monitor. The earliest GPU’s to be designed with HDR compatibility in mind were released in 2015, think the Nvidia Geforce GTX 950 or the AMD Radeon r9 380 for example. However if you want a true 4k output which makes use of Nvidia’s G-sync HDR standard you’ll need to look towards the 10 series and above. Alternatively with AMD you will need a GPU that supports freesync 2 which can be anything from the Pro Duo right up to the RX 590 giving you plenty of scope.
Secondly to your terminal hardware you need to be aware that the ports on your hardware have only become compatible with HDR since HDMI 2.0 and Displayport 1.4. However most modern GPU’s support these ports regardless but it’s worth mentioning as people have been caught out in the past.
If you want to check whether or not your current monitor is HDR compatible you can simply go to your display settings and if you have the option to enable HDR then your monitor is compatible. Alternatively if you are a console gamer looking for a HDR monitor you will already be aware that all the latest XBOX and PS range have been equipped with HDR compatibility.
Colour & Contrast
We touched on colour and contrast earlier explaining how HDR makes use of the full range of both colour variations and bright/dark gradation to create a more realistic image. This being said, colour is the second most important feature (second to contrast) of an HDR display and it must meet certain standards to be classed as HDR. Primarily an HDR display must be able to process what is known as 10-bit, or ‘deep’ colour to meet the criteria of the lowest form of HDR, HDR10. This is the equivalence of a signal carrying over 1 billion colours. To put this into perspective, Blu-ray uses 8-bit colour which equates to a signal carrying 16.8 million colours, so you can see the difference immediately. Ultimately this means 10-bit colour monitors will be able to display a far greater field of colour giving the user the experience of complete realism.
More importantly however is the contrast HDR accommodates which is far greater than your SDR displays today. Contrast basically means the difference between the brightest bright and the darkest dark and to put that in a simpler form we must first understand how both light and dark are measured.
The first element of contrast ratio is peak brightness, which refers to the maximum level of brightness your monitor can display. This is measured in ‘nit’s’ and can be thought of as a single torch’s output in an open space, the more torches the brighter the scene. Again with HDR peak brightness must be of a certain standard.
The second element is simply known as black level and, to nobody's surprise, refers to how dark your monitor can be. This again is measured in ‘nit’s’ and the smaller the number of nit’s the darker the display.
So, this being said, if your peak brightness is 500 and your dark level is 1 your contrast ratio therefore would be 500:1. Your HDR monitor’s have a much greater contrast ratio than SDR allowing for a greater dynamic range with more realistic colour outputs.
HDR Supported Content
You’re probably thinking at this stage that HDR sounds pretty neat and are wondering what content is compatible with the latest HDR technology. Well, with HDR being a relatively new concept as far as windows is concerned you’d probably think finding content would be relatively difficult. And you’d be correct in thinking this. However with platforms such as Netflix and youtube becoming ever more versatile and popular HDR content is now available for all consumers but only in small amounts. This being said it isn’t confirmed just yet whether or not what youtube and the likes are displaying is classified as TRUE HDR so we shouldn’t get too carried away just yet.
From a gaming point of view things aren’t moving along quite as quickly as we’d like. There are a number of games that do support HDR compatibility, which is great, but each one has their own independent colourist who will alter the colour and exposure of the scene to suit his idea of complete reality. The downside to this is the consumer ultimately gets an inconsistent experience between one HDR game to another.
Which panel is best for HDR?
You may be wondering, now that HDR has piqued your interest, which panel is best going to suit my needs in regards to HDR? Well, out of the 3 panel types that are utilized in today's market only IPS and VA actually house the ability to achieve HDR. TN does not. Giving consumers a 50/50 decision on which panel to go for.
To try and make that decision easier we’re going to display the difference between the two panel types and how each could potentially affect you as a user.
IPS (In-plane switching) has a number of different Pro’s which range from excellent, vivid colour reproduction to wider viewing angles whereas VA (Vertical alignment) monitors have a better contrast ratio and greater pixel response time. So, how does this impact the consumer?
Well to put it simplest the IPS monitors are designed with quality in mind, however they lack in the performance department where the VA has the advantage. So for gamers we would recommend the VA, for the everyday user we would lean towards the IPS.
HDR & G-Sync
Amongst all the other positives that come with HDR compatible monitors, Nvidia announced last year that they were launching their G-sync HDR program which promises very high G-sync refresh rates up to 240hz and a brightness level of 1,000 nits. What does this all mean for your overall gaming experience?
Well to put it simply if you have a Nvidia G-sync product then you’re now going to be able to have HDR enabled whilst still boasting the smoothest, tear-free immersive gaming experience that Nvidia provides!
Is HDR worth the investment?
One thing worth mentioning before we give our final thoughts is if you are researching whether or not to go HDR ready, just be aware that every HDR vs SDR comparison you see is strictly a simulation of what the differences may look like. The only way you’re going to truly discover the benefits of HDR is to physically go and check out a monitor at your local store. This being said, the only question left to answer is whether or not HDR is deemed worth the investment, especially over the SDR monitors that most of us will be used to today.
Well, my thoughts are initially no, and that's mainly down to the lack of content right now especially in the gaming world. The difference in price between HDR/SDR is fairly sizeable as well and for me I wouldn’t want to be splashing out a substantial amount more for a monitor that could only be fully optimized in a couple of different settings. However, one thing that is worth noting is that manufacturers and designers are forever trying to make games and entertainment more realistic, meaning eventually you will find yourself in a situation where you will ultimately have to upgrade to keep up with the growing demand for HDR.