CES 2017 will be remembered for many things but more so for having introduced the public to the brave new world of HDR monitors. If you know how seriously we take our gaming monitor reviews, you can see why this is such a big deal over here at Armchair Empire. After years of talk, it seems like PC display makers have finally worked out the formula to offering ultra-high dynamism to images for computers.
While the sheer pixel density of 4K might have caught on as a PC display trend, the real dream has always remained HDR quality for enthusiasts, both from the development as well as gaming community.
So, why is HDR such a big deal? Well one needs only look at an HDR TV to understand the technology with its expansive range of color and contrast – vibrant, accurate reproduction of colors that dovetail beautifully with precise and darker blacks of HDR.
Moreover, most if not all upcoming HDR monitors shall have 4K resolutions, thus closing the gap between a TV and monitor, at least in terms of visuals. But before we get to sharing our thoughts on future HDR monitors for PC, lets first try and understand the software side of this HDR technology and how it has finally made its way into the PC world.
Paving The Way For True HDR Monitors
HDR TVs have been around for some time now, which is understandable given that the industry while competitive is also quite closely integrated. However, for the technology to come into the chaotic world of PCs where standardization is a pipe dream; now that required some groundwork.
It started with GPU giants; AMD and NVidia showcasing their latest Radeon 400 series and NVidia GTX 10-series respectively in the summer of 2016. A common takeaway from that exercise – HDR rendering ability of the new line of GFX cards.
Subsequently, the release of Shadow Warrior 2, which apart from showcasing the multi-res technology of NVidia, was the also the first ever HDR PC game. AMD too followed suit when both HDR-10 and Dolby Vision standards got integrated into its Radeon software, Crimson ReLive.
Even though GFX cards were out with HDR support, and a game too that could exploit the feature, there still remained challenges, and none more so than the current HDMI interface standards. While HDMI 2.0a supports HDR, it does so in a somewhat one-size-fits-all manner.
The true essence of HDR is realized when the signal is not boxed into a single grade of output, but rather allows an HDR display to customize scenes and still images according to the capability of the rendering hardware and/or the quality of the movie or game engine.
So, theoretically speaking, playing Shadow Warrior 2 on a PC with GTX-1080 card won’t give that visual oomph over an HDMI interface. However, switching to DisplayPort should let loose all that extra color gamut, brightness, contrast and what have you.
How so?! Well, that’s because DisplayPort1.4 already comes with dynamic HDR support. Thankfully, HDMI Forum’s recent announcement of the new HDMI 2.1 specs should be a welcome gesture for all us vivid image nuts since the new standard, among other things, shall support dynamic HDR.
Even then, complications regarding dynamic HDR for the industry are far from over. As of now, only Dolby Vision supports dynamic HDR, and it’s a proprietary standard whereas the open standard, HDR-10 has yet to integrate dynamic HDR into its framework.
FreeSync 2, slated to come out for multiple monitor manufacturers later this year, is another step in the right direction to realizing vivid HDR. If its predecessor, FreeSync killed stutter and unwanted frame overlays in games on your monitor, AMD’s FreeSync 2 takes it a step further.
Instead of having the GPU churn out gameplay and display data in separate passes, the technology picks up on an HDR monitor’s capabilities beforehand, and accordingly instructs the GFX card to push through all relevant HDR level graphic rendering output for the display in one shot.
Plus, dynamic brightness and color ranges are made mandatory by FreeSync 2. In other words, if the game offers true HDR content and the monitor is equipped to handle it, then there shall be no bottlenecks so long as you’re running the latest AMD graphics card.
HDR Monitors – The Latest
Where there’s FreeSync, G-Sync can’t be far behind. True to its word, NVidia showed off its G-Sync capabilities on two third-party HDR PC displays at CES 2017. The 32-inch models do look the part with their 4K res, G-Sync powered super-fast 144Hz refresh rates, 1000 nits brightness and Quantum dot technology.
The aforementioned HDR G-Sync bearers are Acer’s Predator XB272-HDR and ROG Swift PG27UQ from Asus, both expected to hit the markets sometime in the second quarter of 2017.
LG too has jumped into the HDR waters with its 32UD99. Apart from the expected 4K resolution and HDR support, the monitor’s USP has to be its multitasking capability, in that it can charge a laptop; deliver stunning 4K display and transfer data simultaneously over a single USB-C cable.
Taking cue from the superb display of XPS 13 laptops, Dell’s S2718D takes the same super-thin bezel approach and blows it up in glorious 1440p over a 27-inch screen. Additionally, the 178-degree viewing angle of this HDR-enabled monitor produces a mind-boggling 99% sRGB gamut that’s ably supported by 400-nits of brightness and 1000:1 contrast ratio. Dell’s projected price for the S2718D when it releases in March 2017 is $700.
While most monitor brands haven’t released their price points for HDR models, expect it to be pretty expensive, typically in the $700-$1500 range. So, while early adopters have to be extremely brave (not to mention extremely easy with their wallets), this much is there that the technology shows far more promise than the 3DTV hype could ever muster.
More HDR Games Please!
Now that PCs have all but geared up for HDR and video game consoles too will showcase this capability in times to come (both Xbox One S and PlayStation 4 Pro will offer 4K and HDR support), the only thing missing are game titles with the mind-blowing visual graphics that can exploit the full spectrum of HDR on super high resolution.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is at the forefront of upcoming games that will embrace HDR. According to experts, the game will not only offer off the shelf support for HDR but also inculcate NVidia’s all new Ansel screenshot tool. Moreover, HDR integration into the Bioware game was a seamless process since EA’s in-house engine, Frostbite always left room for the technology.
Other engines such as Unity and Unreal Engine 4 too have put their weight behind HDR, meaning we could see upcoming PC games that shall test the high dynamic range of monitors discussed in the preceding section. The age of HDR gaming is finally upon us!