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Game of Thrones upgraded to 4K HDR on HBO Max, not ‘too dark’ anymore

House of the Dragon will stream in 4K HDR, too

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Beric Dondarrion holding a flaming sword during the Battle of Winterfell on Game of Thrones
Beric Dondarrion during “The Long Night,” the episode of Game of Thrones that became infamous for being “too dark” for viewers to see the Battle of Winterfell.
Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Game of Thrones fans had many problems with the show’s final season, and one of their most vehement criticisms involved a technical issue rather than a concern about plot: Viewers complained that they couldn’t see the action unfolding during the Battle of Winterfell because the episode was just “too dark.” Now, more than three years after the episode aired, HBO is offering a new way to stream the show that may help.

HBO Max users worldwide can now stream all eight seasons of Game of Thrones in 4K resolution with HDR color — both Dolby Vision and HDR10 — and Dolby Atmos surround sound, HBO announced Monday. These modern video and audio formats represent the top of the line, as far as the home viewing experience is concerned.

House of the Dragon, the first Game of Thrones spinoff series, will also be available to stream in these formats when it premieres on Aug. 21, HBO said.

This marks a major milestone for the company. Game of Thrones is the first HBO series to support these cutting-edge formats, and House of the Dragon will be the first one to debut with that support. That will bring the nearly 50-year-old cable TV network up to par with competitors like Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon Video, and Hulu, each of which has offered programming in 4K HDR for years. (HBO Max began supporting these formats at the end of 2020 with the premiere of Wonder Woman 1984, but until Monday, the service’s 4K catalog was limited to films, not TV series — and only about 30 of them.)

There are some caveats here. For one thing, only customers who subscribe to the ad-free tier of HBO Max — which costs 50% more than the version of the service with ads — can stream content in 4K. (This kind of feature gating isn’t exclusive to HBO Max; 4K streaming is available only in the most expensive Netflix plan.)

In addition, while HBO Max is accessible on a wide variety of devices, not all of them support 4K. The HBO Max help site lists the Xbox One S, Xbox One X, Xbox Series S, and Xbox Series X as 4K-capable platforms, but it does not mention the PlayStation 4 Pro or PlayStation 5. I loaded up an episode of Game of Thrones on my PS5, and it did not appear to play in 4K or HDR10. (Unlike Xbox devices, PlayStation consoles do not support Dolby Atmos or Dolby Vision.) Despite reports that the HBO Max PS5 app was updated with 4K support earlier this year, an HBO Max representative confirmed to Polygon that the apps on PS4 and PS5 currently do not offer 4K or HDR.

I can’t stress enough how much your ability to watch Game of Thrones in these new formats will depend on the particulars of your setup. The only way I was able to get the show to play in 4K with both Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos sound was by using the HBO Max app on my LG C1 television. When I tried using the app on my Chromecast with Google TV, I got 4K but in HDR10 rather than Dolby Vision, albeit with Atmos. When I cast HBO Max from my phone to the Chromecast, I got 4K and Dolby Vision, but Dolby Digital Plus sound instead of Atmos. And my Xbox One X’s HBO Max app produced 4K video in HDR10, not Dolby Vision, with Dolby Digital Plus audio. (While all of these devices are themselves capable of playback in 4K with Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, HBO Max’s help site says that the service doesn’t currently support Atmos on Chromecast or Xbox.)

Assuming that you can successfully stream Game of Thrones in 4K HDR at home, it might be worth loading up “The Long Night” — the infamous episode that was “too dark” — to see if you have a better viewing experience than you did back in April 2019. Now, watching the show in 4K HDR via HBO Max is still not the absolute best possible experience; to get that, you’d have to pick up a copy of Game of Thrones on 4K Blu-ray, which would provide higher-quality video. But the new streaming option does provide a marked upgrade over the standard HBO Max experience, which is 1080p resolution with Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio.

Days after the Game of Thrones finale aired, Polygon published a lengthy article in which I investigated why “The Long Night” looked so rough. The explanation came down to a confluence of multiple factors, including the filmmakers’ creative vision and how it came up against the limitations of broadcast television and streaming video technology. You can read the story for more — like, a lot more — details, but a key issue was the lack of HDR.

One of the major benefits that HDR offers over standard dynamic range is a wider color gamut, which greatly reduces an issue known as banding, in which smooth gradations of color get broken up into distinct, well, bands. And indeed, I noticed much less banding (and much less pixelation) when I watched “The Long Night” in 4K Dolby Vision. I still felt like I needed to keep the room dark to give myself the best chance at seeing everything, but in this case, I could finally make out the action, unimpeded by video compression issues.

In the aforementioned article, I said that HDR “has the potential to be the most impactful advancement in TV technology since the introduction of HD resolution and digital television in the [2000s],” while lamenting that “it hasn’t yet reached widespread adoption on the content side or the consumer side.” I also said, in a hopeful note in the article’s conclusion, that “a lot can change in a relatively short period.” And I laid out a path forward for HBO:

Now, HBO could start mastering its content in 4K HDR, like Netflix does with its live-action originals. That would allow the company to broadcast the existing 1080i standard-dynamic-range version of Game of Thrones via the linear HBO television channel, and deliver a 4K HDR feed to streaming viewers via HBO Go/Now.

That was the spring of 2019. Now, in the summer of 2022, that’s exactly what HBO will be doing with House of the Dragon. The long-awaited future is here.

Update (Aug. 3): Asked for clarification about HBO Max’s feature set on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5, an HBO Max spokesperson confirmed to Polygon on Wednesday that the service does not currently support 4K or HDR on PlayStation. We’ve edited the story to reflect this.

Correction (Aug. 3): A previous version of this article mischaracterized the information on HBO Max’s help site regarding the streaming service’s support for Dolby Atmos sound. We’ve edited the passage in question to clarify that HBO Max does not currently offer Dolby Atmos on Chromecast or Xbox devices.

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