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Xbox Series X finally makes HDR simple and awesome

The next-gen Xbox’s HDR calibration app and Auto-HDR features make a big difference

The author trying to spot the difference between HDR and non-HDR.
Image: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio/Sega via Polygon
Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 as editor-at-large and is now editor-in-chief. He also created and occasionally teaches NYU’s Introduction to Games Journalism course.

Until this month, I had lost faith in the value of HDR in video games. It felt like when I look at a Magic Eye, and everybody else sees a beautiful picture of a boat and I just see a bunch of fuzz. Was HDR a practical joke against me?

Here’s a quick refresher on how HDR works, because surely I’m not alone in doubting its benefit. HDR stands for high dynamic range. Basically, HDR increases the range of contrast and color on compatible televisions and monitors. The brights are brighter. The colors, more colorful. It’s a hard thing to describe, honestly, but supposedly it’s an easy thing to see if you have the right TV. Since HDR has become more common in mid- and even low-end HDTVs, more folks will be able to make use of the feature this console generation.

It sounds simple enough, except not all HDR displays are created equal. Some are significantly brighter than others and have dramatically superior color replication. There are different HDR standards, like HDR10+ and Dolby Vision HDR. And in the past, each video game had its own HDR settings, which if I’m being real, I fiddled with endlessly, only to find the image somehow looked worse.

Was it my TV? Or my HDMI cable? Was the game or the console incompatible with the HDR standard? Was the HDR on my TV even on? Eventually, I’d turn HDR off, sparing myself the headache. I understand that I will sound like a neophyte for admitting this, but I think something as supposedly fantastic as HDR should just work.

Now it does. On Xbox Series X, HDR is finally as simple as it always should have been, thanks to two big improvements: an HDR calibration app and “Auto-HDR.”

An explosion in Crackdown, running on the Xbox Series X. Image: Realtime Worlds/Microsoft Game Studios via Polygon

The first thing to do when you boot the Xbox Series X

The HDR calibration app comes pre-installed on Xbox Series X, and was recently made available on the Xbox One. Its logo resembles a dotted sun. Using the app is quick and painless. The app only works if your console is plugged into a compatible TV, and since the Series X comes with a proper HDMI 2.1 cable, you don’t need to worry about the connection.

Here’s how to find the Xbox HDR calibration app. (This is the most challenging bit, I swear.) Tap the Xbox button. Select Power & System. Then Settings. Then General. Then TV & display options. Then Calibrate HDR for games.

The app itself works similarly to adjusting brightness settings in video games. You adjust the dials until you see the full spectrum of an image, from white to black. On the back end, the app is optimizing the console’s HDR features to align with the capabilities of your display.

After a few seconds, the process is complete. And that’s it. It’s done. Immediately, the brights are brighter; the colors, they’re more colorful. In the two Xbox Series X games that I played — Dirt 5 and Yakuza: Like a Dragon — I didn’t have to mess with HDR adjustments in the games’ settings. I was all set from the menu screen.

Surprisingly, the Xbox Series X’s Auto-HDR actually works

In May, Microsoft announced that Xbox Series X would automatically add HDR to backward-compatible games that didn’t already include HDR features. I assumed this feature would be garbage. I’ve worked in games media long enough to remember, for example, the rise and fall of “3D gaming.” You could buy TVs that “automatically” added 3D effects to video games. All they added was Aspirin to my grocery list.

For Auto-HDR, I assumed games would be generally brighter. That we would get the poor HDR that has been applied to a number of classic films, adding little to the image. But as Jeff Grubb has documented at GamesBeat (with the help of HDR expert Adam Fairclough, aka EvilBoris) the Auto-HDR delivers genuine improvements to the visuals of many Xbox 360 and original Xbox games.

Here’s a video from Grubb and Fairclough that visualizes the improvements using a sort of heat map technique.

Grubb does a great job explaining the complexities of what’s happening, like how the games max out at 1,000 Nits (that’s good). I’ll offer my two cents from a layperson’s perspective: Classic games look like they got a fresh paint job. Fusion Frenzy, with its abundance of neon lights, almost looks irradiated. In a good way! The original Crackdown is stunning, its futuristic city glowing against the night sky.

In the past, I struggled with HDR because I wasn’t seeing the improvements. The Xbox Series X has remedied that problem. The calibration app makes optimization a smooth and clear-to-see process. And Auto-HDR has used Microsoft’s magic (read: machine learning) to immediately show off the feature on some of my favorite games, like a pair of rose-colored glasses.

I suppose I don’t hate HDR after all.

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