HDR in PC Games – Where to Begin?

TECHNOLOGY
HDR in PC Games – Where to Begin?

Graphic cards that support High Dynamic Range (HDR) have been on the market for a while. Now TVs supporting this feature are becoming popular and the library of HDR games is getting wider. HDR monitors are also finally showing up to the partyHowever, to get this technology working on a PC, a few conditions must be met. 

HDR can be activated on a PC in 3 different versions:

  • Dolby Vision HDR – For now, only Battlefield 1 and Mass Effect Andromeda supports Dolby Vision HDR. Unfortunately, there are no PC monitors on the market that support this standard. With Dolby Vision HDR requiring certified displays, only high-end TVs can handle it.
  • FreeSync 2 HDR – at this moment only Far Cry 5 and Strange Brigade support this HDR type, which is more sophisticated than HDR10. You need a FreeSync 2 HDR-certified monitor to enable it.
  • HDR10 – the most popular and open standard. Only a VESA DisplayHDR-compatible display is needed. There are 3 VESA flavors: the DisplayHDR 400, the DisplayHDR 600 and the DisplayHDR 1000. The number defines how bright the brightest point on the display can be. It is represented it nits (cd/m2) that the display can achieve. The higher the value, the more visible the difference between the darkest and the brightest points the display can show at the same time.

In addition to those three types, there’s also the HDR10+, developed as a counterpart to the Dolby Vision HDR. For now, there is support for neither games nor monitors on the horizon. Worse, HLG and Technicolor Advanced HDR are not likely to be implemented in games at all.

Of course, games with Dolby Vision HDR or FreeSync 2 HDR will let you activate HDR10 if you don’t have certified hardware.

Requirements

To activate HDR10 in a PC game, you’ll need the following:

  • a compatible graphics card – AMD Radeon RX 400 series or newer
  • a TV or monitor with HDR support
  • Windows 10 with an 1803 April 2018 (or later) Update* installed
  • a game with HDR support
  • a cable to hook up your monitor to a graphics card – DisplayPort 1.4 or HDMI 2.0
  • the most recent graphics card drivers

*Official support for HDR is featured from the 1709 version of Windows 10, but it is really usable only from the 1803 version.

  1. In Windows Display properties, activate HDR mode.
  2. The game should run in exclusive full screen mode.
  3. HDR mode in game should be activated.

HDR activation will be confirmed by an additional HDR card showing up in the game graphics options. There you can adjust the intensity of the HDR effect.

The HDR menu is visible in the top right corner – in SDR mode, it isn’t there.

Performance

Test setup:

  • Intel Core i7-5960X @ 4 GHz
  • 4 x 16 GB DDR4 @ 2666 MHz CL11
  • SAPPHIRE NITRO+ Radeon RX Vega 64 8 GB Limited Edition
  • Radeon Software Adrenalin Edition 18.7.1
  • Windows 10 x64 1803
  • AOC AG322QC4 @ Quad HD FreeSync 2 HDR

Enabling HDR gives the graphics card a bit more data to chew on than it has in SDR mode. While there is a performance hit, it is small to negligible, depending on the game.

Far Cry 5 FreeSync 2 values are a bonus. Bear in mind that during all other tests, FreeSync was disabled and they shouldn’t be directly compared with results obtained with activated FreeSync.

Image quality

Even with a monitor with a top brightness of 400 nits, there is a noticeable difference between the SDR and HDR10 modes, though the effect intensity varies from game to game. Using a 600- or 1000-nits capable screen will provide more eye-candy. FreeSync 2 HDR mode is more demanding for game developers and monitor producers, but it offers an even better gaming experience.

It is worth noting that screenshots made with HDR turned on doesn’t represent how a game really looks. Nor should the quality of the HDR effect be based on screenshots.

The take away

Activating HDR should not meaningfully impact game performance. At the same time, games using HDR should look noticeably better.

It isn’t only the newest graphics cards that support HDR, so if you’re weighing up your options for a new monitor, do consider models that support this technology.

Grzegorz Iwan
Grzegorz Iwan
Amateur extreme overclocker from Poland, one of two Poles who broke the 8 GHz CPU clock barrier. Hardware enthusiast and collector, envoy of PCMasterRace philosophy; You can find ivanov's fanpage here.

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