High dynamic range (HDR) video is a game-changer for movies, TV and video games. Microsoft’s Xbox Series X and S consoles both support a feature called Auto-HDR, which brings HDR visuals to older games that don’t explicitly support it. But is it good and should you use it?
How Auto-HDR works
HDR video is a step forward for display technology. It uses a wider range of colors and light reflections to create a more realistic and natural image. There is a handful of competing HDR formats, but Xbox Series X and S use HDR10 by default. (Support for Dolby Vision will arrive at some point in the future.)
To view HDR video, you also need a TV that supports it. If you’ve bought a TV in the past few years, there’s a good chance Microsoft’s HDR implementation will work just fine. However, if you buy a TV especially for gaming, make sure HDR is on your must-have list.
Auto-HDR is a technology developed by Microsoft for the Xbox Series family of consoles. It uses artificial intelligence to convert a standard dynamic range (SDR) source into an HDR image. This is made possible by the use of machine learning by Microsoft. It trains the Auto-HDR algorithm to have a good understanding of how an image looks.
This function is mainly used to enhance SDR image with HDR reflections. For example, the sun and other sources of direct light will be significantly brighter than the rest of the image, just as they are in real life. Increased brightness can also really bring out colors, creating a more vibrant image.
The feature is available on a number of titles, including the original Xbox and Xbox 360 games, as well as Xbox One games featured in SDR. Games that have already implemented HDR are not affected by Auto-HDR, as they use their own implementation of “real” HDR.
Calibrate your Xbox first
One of the most important aspects of a good HDR presentation is a precisely calibrated screen. This tells the console what your TV is capable of in terms of highlights and black levels. Fortunately, there is an app for that!
First of all, you need to make sure your TV is in Game mode. With your Xbox Series X or S turned on, press the Xbox button on the controller. Then use the buttons on the bumper to select Power & System> Settings> General> TV & Display Settings. From there, select “Calibrate HDR for Games” to begin the process.
Follow the onscreen instructions to adjust the dials until everything is perfect. If you switch to another TV or monitor, be sure to run the HDR calibration again. Additionally, if you adjust any settings on your TV, like brightness or picture mode, you can also run the calibrator again.
Once your TV is calibrated, it’s time to start some games!
How does Auto-HDR work?
In our testing, Auto-HDR performed well overall. Some games performed better than others, but nothing that we encountered made us consider turning the feature off. Your experience may vary, however, depending on the title you play.
In general, the image was more impactful with more contrast. Surprisingly, Auto-HDR doesn’t suffer from too many of the “fake HDR” issues you often see on TVs. You might have a weird in-game character with eyes that glow a little too bright, or a user interface (UI) that is a little too bright.
Jeffrey Grubb by Games Beat (see video below) and Adam Fairclough from the YouTube channel HDTVTest, revealed that most games cap at 1000 nits of maximum brightness. This level of brightness is comparable to what most modern televisions can reproduce. It’s also something Microsoft can always change in the future, as the screens get even brighter.
If your TV fails to achieve 1000 nits of maximum brightness, the image will be mapped to not exceed the capabilities of your display. You won’t miss out on many details if you have an older TV or OLED, as none of these same peak brightness as the latest LED and LCD.
This feature improves the appearance of almost all older games, which is why Microsoft has Auto-HDR enabled by default. However, the company disabled the feature on games that weren’t suitable for the technology. These titles are rare, but they do include some classics, like Fallout: New Vegas.
If you’re having trouble viewing a game, first make system-level changes in the HDR Calibration app to make sure everything is set up correctly. Adjusting the gamma in the game can lead to other issues, so it’s best to ignore this as a last resort.
In some cases, Auto-HDR is really transformative. In combination with the increased resolution and solid frame rate, the added eye-catcher, contrast and peak brightness make for a much more enjoyable experience. It even gives a modern feel to some games released 15 years ago.
It’s not for everyone, however; if you have any difficulty, you can always turn off the feature at the system level.
How to turn off Auto-HDR
If you don’t like the Auto-HDR effect, or if you’re having trouble with a particular game, you can turn it off. Unfortunately, there is no way to do this game by game. So make sure you don’t forget to turn it back on before you start playing anything else.
To turn off Auto-HDR, turn on your console, then press the Xbox button on your controller. Select Power & System> Settings> General> TV & Display Options> Video Modes, then uncheck “Auto HDR”.
You will need to restart all running games for your changes to take effect.
You can also do this if you prefer to play a game in its original, unchanged state. If you find some highlights (like UI elements) that appear more than they should distract, turning off Auto-HDR will also fix that.
Breathe new life into old games
Auto-HDR is a killer feature available at launch to help the X and S series walk on water at a time when new games are thin on the pitch. If you already have an Xbox title library, or are just getting started with Game Pass, Auto-HDR applies a welcome layer of next-gen paint to older titles.
Wondering which Xbox console is right for you? Make sure you check out our comparison.