The term ‘HDR’ has been quite the buzzword when it comes to high-end TVs, but now this standard is becoming more and more popular among new monitors as well.
So, should you care or is it just another passing fad? Well, the answer lies somewhere in between, at least for now.
What Does HDR Do?
Having a high-resolution PC monitor with a first-class panel quality boasting excellent contrast ratio and color reproduction does not mean that all of your games and other software will be able to take full advantage of it.
In fact, apart from professional applications for color-critical work, most regular software cannot fully utilize the extended color gamut that the display boasts unless the hardware somehow emulates that limited color space.
This is where HDR kicks in and implements its metadata to ensure the correct reproduction of all the colors, among other things. HDR monitors and TVs recognize the HDR signal and allow for the image to be displayed the way the creator of the content had intended it.
HDR Formats: HDR10 vs Dolby Vision
There are many different formats of HDR, so just getting any display labeled as HDR won’t give you the same viewing experience.
Dolby Vision is a more expensive and demanding form of HDR. It requires that the display is capable of at least 4,000-nit peak brightness and 12-bit color depth.
Additionally, Dolby Vision requires a license fee, whereas HDR10 does not – which is one of the reasons why PC and console content creators, as well as display manufacturers opted for the HDR10 free and open standard.
Unlike HDR10 with static metadata, Dolby Vision offers dynamic metadata implementation, which makes for scene-by-scene brightness regulation and overall more engaging viewing experience.
Samsung and Amazon Video plan to address this via their HDR+ format, which is both dynamic and royalty-free, and slowly beginning to spread among content and displays.
Other HDR formats include Advanced HDR by Technicolor and HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma) by BBC and YouTube. However, here we’ll focus on the open HDR10 standard.
Ultra HD Premium Standard
According to Ultra HD Alliance, a display needs to uphold the following display specifications for the best HDR viewing experience:
- At least a 1,000-nit peak brightness and 0.05-nit or less black level – or at least 20,000:1 Contrast Ratio (For LCD)
- At least a 540-nit peak brightness and 0.0005-nit or less black level – or at least 1,080,000:1 Contrast Ratio (For OLED)
- 4K Ultra HD Resolution: 3840×2160
- 10-bit color support covering at least 90% DCI-P3 color space (125% sRGB)
- HDMI version 2.0
Most displays, whether TVs or monitors, don’t meet all the requirements but rather offer only limited HDR support.
To ensure you’re getting a good HDR display, look for the Ultra HD Premium logo (picture below), which guarantees that the screen is approved by UltraHD Alliance.
DisplayHDR Standards by VESA
In December 2017, VESA (Video Electronics Standards Association) defined new HDR standards. The DisplayHDR certifications are divided into five groups (DisplayHDR) for LED monitors plus two groups (DisplayHDR True Black) for OLED displays depending on the level of quality.
This way, you will know precisely what the HDR specification includes in terms of performance quality instead of relying on the ‘HDR-capable/compatible’ and similar labels by certain monitor manufacturers.
Moreover, you can download the exclusive DisplayHDR software and perform tests for the specified color gamut, peak brightness, and contrast yourself.
Note that the monitors that don’t have any of the below-mentioned certifications, but are labeled as ‘HDR-ready’ can just accept the HDR10 signal and essentially ’emulate’ the HDR picture quality via software manipulation. This is referred to as pseudo or ‘fake’ HDR, and it can basically be ignored most of the time.
As you can see in the image below, the entry-level DisplayHDR 400 certification is the only one that doesn’t require from the display to have a wide color gamut or local dimming, which is why it doesn’t really bear much meaning.
In comparison to a regular non-HDR monitor, an HDR400-certified monitor only has a higher peak brightness and the ability to accept the HDR signal. So, the HDR picture won’t have improved colors or contrast, just a higher peak luminance, which in most cases results in just a washed-out image.
Some HDR400 monitors do have a fuller color gamut, so they will offer at least a slightly better HDR image quality. Basically, seeing that an HDR monitor has DisplayHDR 400 certification isn’t enough, you will have to look at its color gamut as well.
We have a list of all HDR monitors where we’ve divided the displays into three groups: those with true HDR, limited HDR, and just software-emulated HDR.
For notable HDR picture quality, a LED-backlit monitor will need some sort of local dimming, which is necessary for the DisplayHDR 500 certification and onward.
A standard LED monitor uses global dimming (no local dimming), meaning that when the picture needs to be darker, the entire screen will get dimmed.
Monitors with localized dimming can just dim the parts of the screen that need to be dark without affecting the bright parts, thus effectively increasing the contrast ratio of the display.
There are two types of local dimming displays: edge-lit and direct-lit with full-array local dimming (FALD).
FALD displays have numerous individually controllable dimming zones spread across the entire backlight, which can significantly improve the picture quality.
Although full-array local dimming isn’t required on paper for the ‘true’ HDR viewing experience (according to UHD Alliance and VESA), it is crucial for the HDR picture quality to really stand out.
Edge-lit displays with local dimming have fewer dimming zones at either left/right or top/bottom of the screen, but they can still provide a better contrast ratio in comparison to the standard displays with global dimming. These displays are also a lot cheaper to make than the FALD ones.
Both console and PC games offer many HDR-compatible titles.
However, when it comes to HDR PC gaming, there are still many difficulties, as most of the software isn’t quite HDR-ready.
For instance, Windows 10 forces HDR on everything once it’s enabled, making non-HDR content unpleasant to look at, to say the least. So, you’d need to manually enable and disable HDR every time, depending on what you’re watching.
FreeSync Premium Pro & G-SYNC Ultimate
When buying a new gaming monitor, most people will opt for a display with a variable refresh rate (VRR) technology, which is branded as ‘FreeSync’ and ‘FreeSync Premium’ by AMD or ‘G-SYNC Compatible’ and ‘G-SYNC’ by NVIDIA.
Not all FreeSync/G-SYNC monitors with HDR can simultaneously run both VRR and HDR, though.
For the best HDR gaming experience, look for gaming monitors with AMD FreeSync Premium Pro or NVIDIA G-SYNC Ultimate, which allow for HDR and VRR to run at the same time without any perceptible input lag added.
FreeSync Premium Pro, however, also allows you to advantage of compatible games by ensuring optimal color gamut and tone mapping between the display and the game.
As you can see, there are plenty of things that have an impact on whether an HDR monitor is worth it.
There are some HDR monitors that offer awful HDR picture quality but are worth the money despite that since they offer good other specifications.
In contrast, other HDR monitors might offer a brilliant HDR picture quality but have other panel-related flaws.
So, always check for monitor reviews of the displays you’re interested in to get the information you need.