Forget 4K: HDR will make games look far better

Whiter whites, deeper blacks

Back in March, several days after announcing a $30-per-movie 4K HDR streaming service, Sony unveiled a new generation of expensive TV sets in the Philippines that not only promise ultra-sharp visuals, but HDR or high-dynamic-range lighting as well.

I attended the media event, saw the new screens up close and thought to myself, “Now this is the future of gaming.”

To be clear, I wasn’t talking about 4K technology, which has been around for quite a while, and hasn’t taken off the way it once seemed destined to.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, but I always thought the market wasn’t ready to spend a fortune upgrading to a new TV that, given the right circumstances, could make things look sharper than they already were. If you were sitting a few feet away, you probably couldn’t tell where those extra hundreds of dollars went, anyway.

Plus: TVs are like cars; once you get one, you stick with it for as long as you can until it breaks down or slowly crumbles away. But I digress.

I was referring to high-dynamic range, the latest advancement in picture quality buzzword in the industry. Only it’s less marketing gimmick to sell TVs and related hardware and more pushing the needle forward in a way that most consumers will notice, in a way that one can see from across the room.


Rise of the Tomb Raider in non-HDR (SDR) and HDR. Image credit: NX Gamer

Remember what it felt like, the butterflies in your stomach, when you first laid eyes on a high-def screen? My initial, if limited, experiences with HDR had that effect on me.

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What does high-dynamic range mean for picture quality? Let me get technical here for a second. The technology improves visibility in areas of peak brightness and peak darkness, thus allowing you to see a more nuanced range of whites and blacks. Content can look far more realistic than what’s possible with a non-HDR TV, with colors that seem to jump off the screen. So yeah — better picture quality.

If you ask me, out of all the good reasons to upgrade your existing HDTV, HDR is about as good as it gets, because better — not sharper — images is the sort of technical improvement we can all raise our glasses to. Trust me when I say you’re gonna want to own an HDR TV when you see one.


Rise of the Tomb Raider in non-HDR (left) and HDR (right)

It gets better still: More HDR (and 4K) content is expected to arrive soon. Not just movies and TV shows, not just offline but online, too.

But I’m more excited about what the technology could do for gaming at large. Luckily, we don’t have to wait too long to find out.

Sony has already released a software update that allows all PlayStation 4 models to support high-dynamic-range color in games, though there are none available at the moment; Microsoft’s Xbox One S has the same feature and one game — NBA 2K17 — that’s encoded in HDR format. A post-launch patch for NBA 2K17 will bring HDR compatibility to the PS4.

Yes, a patch. It turns out adding HDR lighting to games doesn’t require much effort, as some game developers have told Polygon. One developer even said it “had an extremely small impact on development,” which is very encouraging to hear.

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Optimizing video games to run at 4K? That’s for another discussion. One that may not be necessary when HDR adoption starts to pick up.



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