Up For Debate – Are HDR monitors just a gimmick?

With the race to 4K leaving us dizzy and rather poorer than we’d intended, monitor and TV manufacturers need to dig deeper into the ever-shrinking list of reasons why we should upgrade our displays. You see, once you’ve got a fantastic 4K telly, what the heck are they going to sell you next? 8K’s coming eventually of course, but there’s a dearth of content and we’re truly, deeply into the quandary of diminishing returns. 

So they’ve turned to HDR, or High Dynamic Range. HDR is all about better pixels, rather than more pixels. The actual process is fairly easy to get your head around. HDR offers a greater dynamic range of colours than SDR (Standard Dynamic Range), meaning whiter whites, more vivid colours, great colour bit depth, and a resulting image which should more closely resemble the colour range the human eye sees at. 

Cutting through all the technical doodads, HDR can allow a display to output at a much higher brightness than a standard monitor. Too bright, in fact, but an HDR display will seldom display at the maximum possible brightness. This brightness can be manipulated to deliver more vivid colours, more detailed shadows and highlights, and smoother colour gradations and tonal shifts.

And, I happen to believe it’s really important to the future of high-quality panels, although massively muddled by different standards and implementations which can massively vary the quality of the end product. You have to muddle through HDR10, Dolby Vision, HLG, Technicolor HDR, and all sorts of competing standards. For now, it appears the industry is settling around HDR10. 

But go and take a look at a high-end display (something in the $2000+ range) and the colours are frankly mind-blowing. They are so many leaps behind this bog-standard Samsung 24” monitor I’m using right now it’s unreal. But, unfortunately, it’s both impossible for demonstrate this to anyone using a standard SDR display, and there are a ton of displays with crappy HDR implementation. Some don’t use the full colour range, others lack the correct brightness. This can lead to an image which looks over-saturated; they’re faking HDR rather than delivering the real thing.

There’s an argument to be made that HDR is just as important as the jump to 4K resolution in terms of image quality. A fantastic 1080p HDR display looks better than a cheap 4K monitor to my eyes, although your priorities are obviously going to vary. The good news is you’re not really going to have to choose between the two going forward as any decent 4K display should support HDR these days.

The downside to an HDR display is that support is patchy at best, particularly on PC.  You’ll be needing an HDR-compliant display with an IPS or VA panel (TN doesn’t support HDR). The PS4 Pro and Xbox One X have kind of standardised the HDR procedure to a degree, but because HDR is still only used by a niche of PC gamers it doesn’t necessarily get the same treatment. 

It’s also a fact of life that HDR will introduce input lag. There’s additional computation going on from your display and it will affect response times for both TV or a monitor. The more you pay, the lower the response time. As a result, if you’re the sort of person who dials down all the settings to gain a competitive edge in an online game, HDR will not work in your favour. Response times could be affected and frame rates could also take a hit.

On the content front, this is all wholly dependant on the application too. Red Dead Redemption 2? It doesn’t even user proper HDR, it’s a jury-rigged approximation and it looks better turned off. God of War though? GOD OF PHWOAR MORE LIKE. The bottom line is it’s unpredictable from game to game and it’s finicky messing around with the tuning. But when the stars align and you see HDR in its true form, it’s readily apparent this is the future standard we’re heading toward. It is far more than a gimmick; this is not Nvidia’s 3D Vision all over again. Good HDR makes a game look better, whether that’s in imitating lifelike imagery or displaying fantastical scenes.

For now, I’d say HDR is absolutely worth it for console gamers, where support is now largely standardised. For PC gamers, it’s a trickier proposition. There are a lot of variables to account for depending on your hardware and software configuration which can still make it a pain. When it does work though, there’s little doubt it’s the superior experience.

So what are your thoughts on the matter, do you think HDR is a great advancement for monitor tech, or is it just another gimmick to try and sell you new displays? Have you got an HDR monitor yourself? Let us know below!