How to set up HDR on your TV

If you’ve purchased a TV in the last three or four years, there’s a good chance it supports some form of high dynamic range, or HDR. Even if it doesn’t, you’ve probably at least heard about the rapidly spreading display technology, with everything from new streaming boxes to gaming consoles proudly supporting it.

HDR is a powerful tool that can make movies and video games look better than ever, but it might require some fiddling with settings on your part. It can be a delicate dance involving you, your devices, and the content you’re watching or playing. We can’t get into every little technical detail here today, but hopefully we can help clear up some of the basics so you can bask in the most gorgeous picture imaginable on your fancy new TV.

What is HDR, anyway?

'Horizon Zero Dawn' is one of the prettier HDR-compatible games out there.
‘Horizon Zero Dawn’ is one of the prettier HDR-compatible games out there.

IMAGE: PLAYSTATION

HDR uses enhanced hardware to display a bigger range between blacks and whites on your TV screen. The ideal end result is an image where details in dark areas and details in bright areas are easily distinguishable without sacrificing one for the other.

This starts to get confusing once you realize there are a handful of different kinds of HDR. The most common ones you’ll hear about are probably HDR10 and Dolby Vision, but there’s also one called HDR10+ that’s different from regular HDR10.

The fine folks at PCMag have more detailed descriptions of each HDR standard here. The main thing you need to know is that HDR10 takes a one-size-fits-all approach with its light and color values, while Dolby Vision and HDR10+ adjust those things on the fly. HDR10 may seem inferior in that regard, but it doesn’t require a licensing fee like Dolby Vision does, so it’s more common.

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As someone with an HDR10 TV, I can say it’s fully capable of producing beautiful images. You don’t need to feel like a second-class citizen if that’s what you have. Check your TV’s device settings or user manual to figure out what standards it supports.

 

What do you need?

HDR is becoming more and more common, but it’s not so common yet that you can expect everything you watch or play to take advantage of it.

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It’s not enough to have an HDR-compatible TV. If you stream movies and shows from a separate device (and you should), that device needs to support HDR. Just about every major brand like Apple, Roku, and Amazon makes at least one HDR-compatible streaming device, but the cheapest models usually won’t cut it. You’ll need an Apple TV 4K, Google Chromecast Ultra, Roku Ultra, or another similar device from the higher end of each brand’s device lineup.

 

 

If you’ve got the right TV and the right device, great! You’re still not all set. Sorry. Individual streaming services have different rules regarding HDR at the moment, and even then, not every show or movie on every compliant service takes advantage of it. For example, Netflix supports both HDR10 and Dolby Vision, but you need to pay for its more expensive Ultra HD package to use either of them.

 

Even if a service like Prime Video or Disney+ offers HDR at no extra charge, it’s not guaranteed for everything on the service. There is nothing that any of us can do about it but wait for the situation to improve. These things take time. It will be OK.

 

What should HDR look like?

‘The Mandalorian’ isn’t the best example of good HDR, but you want to see details in both dark and bright parts of the image.

 

‘The Mandalorian’ isn’t the best example of good HDR, but you want to see details in both dark and bright parts of the image.

 

This part is tricky. It’s not exactly easy to demonstrate what HDR should look like on a screen that doesn’t support it. That includes most of the displays being used to read this article, unfortunately.

 

In a word, you want HDR to look “lifelike.” The increased range of color will produce more details in both dark and light parts of the screen than an older TV, ideally making the image look closer to what the human eye would see. LG’s website has some sample images from its Dolby Vision-compatible TVs, but they don’t tell the whole story.

 

HDR isn’t always going to produce a glossy, beautiful, glowing image. You might not love how it looks at first, especially if you’re used to the way older TVs look. Producing a wider array of colors won’t necessarily make everything look more conventionally pretty, but when it’s done right, it’ll look much more realistic.

 

Eventually, you grow to appreciate it. Blacks shouldn’t just be black and whites shouldn’t just be white. Learn to love the nuance.

 

How do I make HDR look better?

That said, sometimes HDR looks wrong because it is wrong. This is still an imperfect technology that is often applied in imperfect ways. The good news is tweaking your HDR settings isn’t that different from doing the same on a non-HDR TV.

 

 

The first thing you need to do is make sure the TV is displaying something in HDR before you open the settings menu. Some TVs, like the TCL 4-Series I have at home, won’t even expose HDR settings in the menu until the TV has a reason to show them to you. Identify a video game, movie, or TV show that works, and go from there.

 

Once you’ve got the settings menu open, the available options will frustratingly vary from TV to TV. My TCL has a few HDR-specific picture modes called Dark, Normal, and Bright. If you have a similar selection of modes, find the one that looks best for you. I prefer “Normal” or the closest equivalent in situations like this.

 

After you do that, brightness and contrast are most likely going to be the key to making the HDR look better. Brightness basically controls how dark you’re willing to let black areas of the screen get, while contrast is a similar control for bright areas. The default settings on your TV should be adequate here, but if they aren’t, feel free to nudge them a bit and see what happens.

 

For the gamers out there, HDR-compatible games usually have their own HDR brightness controls in the game’s settings menu. This will probably be more productive than messing with the TV settings, in my experience.

 

Unfortunately, no amount of tweaks can fix everything. HDR is still gaining steam in home televisions, and some prominent movies and shows like The Mandalorian have been criticized for using a sort of “fake HDR” that doesn’t look very good. I had to turn HDR off entirely when I watched The Mandalorian, which made it look much better. Remember, you don’t always need HDR.

 

What TVs have HDR?

 

The good news is it’s getting harder and harder to find TVs that don’t have HDR. Oftentimes, 4K and HDR are a package deal, and it’s a deal worth making. That way, the pixels are both more numerous and better looking, at least when the thing you’re watching or playing actually supports 4K and HDR

 

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