If you’ve tried to watch an HDR video on YouTube via your fancy new PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, or Xbox Series S and wondered why it isn’t playing in HDR, the answer is, sadly, that the YouTube apps on the new consoles do not currently support HDR playback.
We tested this by playing a 4K HDR clip from the Will Smith film Gemini Man on both PS5 and Xbox Series X. YouTube makes it easy to verify HDR playback: Just pull up the “Stats for nerds” overlay while watching an HDR video on a device where the YouTube app supports HDR. If the video in question is encoded with HDR color and is playing in HDR, the Color line of the stats window will say “bt2020” rather than “bt709.” (A simplified explanation of those codes is that they refer to international standards for 4K/8K video and HD video, respectively, and in this specific case, to their associated color gamuts — HDR and SDR.)
What’s strange about this is that for PlayStation owners, at least, it represents a step backward: The YouTube app on PlayStation 4 has supported HDR playback since late 2019. (HDR has never been available in the Xbox One app.) Reached for comment, a YouTube spokesperson told Polygon that the company is planning to add HDR support to its apps on PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/Series S. There’s no indication of when that feature might arrive, however.
YouTube has supported HDR uploads for four years now, but the overwhelming majority of videos on the platform are not in HDR. An educated guess at the percentage would be in the low single digits, if that. (We’ve asked YouTube for more details, and we’ll update this article with any information we receive.) And while we’ve gotten to the point with new television sets where 4K is the standard and HDR is becoming an increasingly common feature, there are still plenty of people who don’t yet own devices that can display 4K HDR content.
At the same time, this is undeniably disappointing — and not just for people like me, who care about having access to the latest and greatest technology at their fingertips. It’s another indication of just how fragmented the HDR ecosystem remains even as we approach the end of 2020, and how challenging it can still be to find reliable avenues to access and watch HDR content.
Here’s an example. I bought a Vizio P-Series 4K TV in mid-2016 that supports HDR10 and Dolby Vision. It has Google Chromecast built in, allowing me to cast streaming media apps to it from my phone. However, for some reason, casting YouTube to the TV is limited to 1080p at 60 frames per second in SDR; if I use the YouTube app that’s installed on the TV, playback is further limited to 1080p30 SDR. The YouTube apps on my Xbox One X and PS5 can play videos at 4K, but not in HDR. If I want to watch a 4K HDR video, my options are to plug in my Chromecast Ultra — except that all five of my TV’s HDMI ports are currently in use, so I’d have to disconnect something first — or boot up my PlayStation 4 Pro and use its YouTube app, which is a more annoying (and slower) option because of the way the PS4 interface handles streaming video apps.
Frankly, I expected that both the PS5 and Xbox Series X would tick all of the video and audio boxes, well, out of the box. They’re forward-looking machines designed to deliver gaming experiences that haven’t been possible until now, and each one launched with a wide variety of streaming entertainment apps. The PS5’s entire interface is rendered in native 4K, with HDR enabled throughout by default, which suggests that Sony wanted to raise the bar and accelerate the transition to a glorious 4K HDR future. And both the Xbox Series X and PS5 can capture 4K 60 fps gameplay footage in HDR. But instead of being able to retire my 4-year-old PS4 Pro — since the PS5 can play all my PS4 games — I have to keep it hooked up to my TV.
It’s not just game consoles, either. The Apple TV 4K — a stand-alone streaming media box that, y’know, has “4K” in its name — only got 4K support in its YouTube app last month, more than three years after the device launched. But even then, it’s half-baked: The frame rate is limited to 30 fps, and there’s no HDR support. Now, the holdup with 4K was apparently an issue on Apple’s part rather than Google’s: Apple had long refused to support the VP9 codec, which is the format in which YouTube encodes 4K content. (While Google owns and develops VP9, it’s an open and royalty-free codec.)
Either way, though, the result is the same for consumers: frustratingly spotty support of 4K and HDR. YouTube is the most ubiquitous video platform on the planet, and it’s free, which makes it perhaps the single most reliable and easily accessible source of HDR videos out there. Otherwise, people are limited to options such as video games, 4K Blu-ray Discs, streaming services like Disney Plus and Netflix, and rentals or purchases from digital movie platforms such as Vudu and Google Play.
But even if you’ve found some HDR content, and you have a device that can play HDR videos and a screen that can display them in HDR, you’re still not necessarily guaranteed of getting the full HDR experience. TV manufacturers and others can sing the praises of HDR all they want, but it’s hard for people to know what they’re missing if they can’t see it for themselves.