What is HDR, and why is it important? We’re covering everything you need to know to take advantage of this powerful display technology and get the most out of your gaming monitor.1
With over 150 monitors capable of outputting verifiable HDR (High Dynamic Range) video,2 and many others claiming to offer HDR visual improvements, HDR PC monitors are becoming mainstream. That includes 4K HDR gaming monitors.
ASUS, Acer, MSI, and AOC all have HDR gaming monitors in their product lines, alongside standard-dynamic-range (SDR) monitors that are still widely available. Among current HDR monitors for gaming, some only offer minor improvements over SDR monitors. Others are capable of delivering true HDR experiences. It can be hard to spot the difference between a quality HDR monitor and a substandard one, as they are all advertised as HDR-enabled.
With that in mind, it’s important to know what to look for when making a purchase. To get the most out of HDR, care must be taken to ensure that your monitor contains the right combination of features.
What is HDR, anyway? At a base level, HDR monitors offer improved contrast ratio — that is, the distinction between bright and dark areas of an image. They utilize increased brightness and deeper black levels to help produce the higher contrast images.
In addition to improved brightness and darkness, HDR monitors often include improved color technologies. Monitors with increased bit depth, such as 10-bit color support, can display a higher number of colors for smoother transitions between hues.
Increased bit depth also improves color rendering to more faithfully reproduce the effects of light on colors.
Monitors with a wider color space, or gamut, meanwhile, are capable of producing more vivid and colorful images.
HDR lighting and color technologies simply make games look better. In order to start gaming in HDR, you’ll need three things:
- A game with HDR support
- A computer with a processor and graphics card capable of running HDR content
- An HDR monitor
A game must have native support for HDR to reap the benefits of an HDR gaming monitor. The majority of games released prior to 2017 won’t have HDR support. However, the library has been steadily growing since then. Games that support HDR3 include Far Cry 5, Destiny 2, Battlefield 5, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, and Metro Exodus, to name a few.
Your system should be up to the task. Hardware requirements for HDR video output are relatively modest, and HDR-enabled components are commonly found in recent PCs. A system with the following hardware is capable of supporting a 4K HDR monitor:
- A 7th Generation Intel® Core™ processor or better4
- An Nvidia* GTX 10 series, Nvidia* RTX 20 Series, or an AMD* Radeon 5 series video card, or better
While watching HDR content does not necessarily require a powerful system, gaming in HDR will place more demands on your system. Those demands will be even higher for ultrawides and monitors with higher resolutions such as 1440p or 4K.
First and foremost, an HDR gaming monitor should be able to provide the sort of refresh rate and response time you like for the games you play. (For additional guidance, read more about monitor technology here.) Many HDR monitors on the market use ISP panels with slower response times and lower refresh rates than TN panels traditionally used for gaming monitors, so look for an HDR monitor specifically designed for gaming. HDR monitors with 144Hz refresh rates and 4ms response times are available, but cost more.
An HDR monitor should support an HDR format, which includes HDR10, HDR10+, DolbyVision, and HLG. These are video encoding standards used to compress and decompress the video file, and they offer various advantages over one another.
Keep in mind that encoding standards can be misleading. A monitor that indicates support for HDR10, HDR10+, DV, or HLG input doesn’t by itself indicate the monitor’s level of capability or actual performance, only that it can successfully decode the HDR content into a video signal. A screen actually needs to be capable of displaying the HDR content, which is where many displays advertised as HDR-ready fall short of the mark.
Pro-tip: Since most HDR games support the HDR10 format, look for a monitor that supports HDR10.
In addition to looking for a monitor that can receive an HDR signal, look for one with the appropriate hardware capabilities. For HDR output, a monitor should have the following hardware specs:
- Peak Brightness: 400 cd/m², or preferably higher
- Black levels (pixel pitch): 0.40 mm, or lower
- Color depth: 10-bit (8+2-bit)
- Color space: 90% DCI-P3 coverage, or greater
- Backlight local dimming
VESA Display Standards
The easiest way to determine if a monitor is capable of true HDR output is to look for the VESA* DisplayHDR logo. This logo confirms the monitor’s specs have been tested and verified by the VESA Display HDR program, the only global, open standard for HDR. The program was created to help bring some consistency to the wildly varying specs in HDR monitors appearing on the market.
The program rates HDR monitors in seven tiers. These tiers are largely defined by their peak brightness level, but also have requirements for local dimming, color depth, and color gamut. A monitor in the first tier — DisplayHDR 400 — has met the minimum specifications required to display HDR content, while a monitor with higher tier certification will have better HDR capabilities.
Peak brightness allows for small, highlighted areas of an image to be brightened without affecting the surrounding areas. For instance, individual stars could be brightened while the surrounding night sky remains pitch black.
A monitor with 600 cd/m² peak brightness — a measure of how much light can be emitted by the screen — should be considered a minimum for true HDR output. Most entry-level HDR monitors have a brightness level of 400 cd/m². They are a step up from SDR monitors, which typically have a brightness rating of 250 to 350 cd/m², but lack “local dimming zones,” a key feature of quality HDR monitors.
Local dimming allows the monitor’s backlight to dim the screen at individual zones, thereby improving the contrast between darkness and lightness in an image. It’s not always obvious if a monitor offers local dimming support, but it should be listed in the specifications if it does.
Although misleading, a monitor with 8+2-bit color depth is not a deal breaker. Almost every HDR monitor uses an 8-bit panel with 2 bits worth of dithering to approximate the higher color counts of true 10-bit color depth. These panels are called 8+2-bit panels.
Although 8+2-bit panels are often marketed as 10-bit panels, they are not in the same league with true 10-bit panels, which currently cost double or triple the price. That said, 8+2-bit monitors are a distinct step up from SDR monitors, which typically use 6+2-bit panels. Read more about color depth here.
Outro: A True HDR Gaming Experience
With vivid brightness, inky blacks, and swarms of colors, an HDR gaming monitor can push the visuals of games further that any SDR monitor, but only if it has the right set of features and specifications. Make sure that your HDR monitor can deliver a true HDR experience.
For in-depth information on HDR hardware specifications, including color depth, color space, black levels, and local dimming zones, check out our comprehensive guide to gaming monitors, which covers everything you need to know about gaming monitor technology.