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 any good, and do you have to use it?
How Auto-HDR Works
HDR video is a step forward for display technology. It uses a wider range of colors and bright highlights to create a more realistic, natural-looking image. There are a handful of competing HDR formats, but the Xbox Series X and S use HDR10 by default. (Dolby Vision support will arrive at some point in the future.)
To display HDR video, you also need a TV that supports it. If you’ve bought a TV in the last few years, there’s a good chance Microsoft’s HDR implementation will work just fine. However, if you’re buying a TV specifically for gaming, make sure HDR is on your list of must-have features.
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 to an HDR image. This is made possible by Microsoft’s use of machine learning. It trains the Auto-HDR algorithm to have a good understanding of how an image should look.
This feature is primarily used to augment an SDR picture with HDR highlights. For example, the sun and other direct-light sources will be noticeably brighter than the rest of the image, just as they are in real life. Increased luminosity can also really make colors pop, creating a more vibrant image.
The feature is available on a huge number of titles, including original Xbox and Xbox 360 games, as well as Xbox One games presented in SDR. Games that have already implemented HDR are unaffected by Auto-HDR, as they use their own implementation of “true” HDR.
Calibrate Your Xbox First
One of the most important aspects of good HDR presentation is an accurately calibrated display. This tells the console what your TV is capable of in terms of highlights and black levels. Fortunately, there’s an app for that!
First, you have to make sure your TV is in Game mode. With your Xbox Series X or S turned on, tap the Xbox button on the controller. Then, use the bumper buttons to select Power & System > Settings > General > TV & Display Settings. From there, select “Calibrate HDR for Games” to begin the process.
Follow the on-screen directions to adjust the dials until everything looks just right. If you ever switch to a different TV or monitor, make sure you run the HDR calibration again. Also, if you adjust any settings on your TV, like the brightness or picture mode, you might also want to run the calibrator again.
Once your TV is calibrated, it’s time to boot up some games!
How Does Auto-HDR Perform?
During our testing, Auto-HDR worked well, overall. Some games worked better than others, but nothing we encountered made us consider turning off the feature. Your experience could vary, though, depending on which title you’re playing.
Generally, the picture was punchier with more contrast. Surprisingly, Auto-HDR doesn’t suffer from too many of the “fake HDR” issues you often see in TVs. You might get the odd in-game character with eyes that glow a bit too much, or a user interface (UI) element that’s a bit too bright.
Jeffrey Grubb from Games Beat (see video below) and Adam Fairclough from the YouTube channel HDTVTest, revealed that most games cap out at 1,000 nits of peak brightness. This level of luminosity is on par with what most modern televisions can reproduce. It’s also something Microsoft can always tweak in the future as displays get even brighter.
If your TV can’t hit 1,000 nits of peak brightness, the image will be tone-mapped so it doesn’t exceed the capabilities of your display. You won’t miss out on much detail if you own an older TV or OLED, though, as neither of those hit the same peak brightness as the latest LEDs and LCDs.
This feature makes almost all older games look better, which is why Microsoft has enabled Auto-HDR by default. However, the company has disabled the feature on games that weren’t a good fit for the technology. These titles are few and far between, but they do include some classics, like Fallout: New Vegas.
If you’re having trouble with how a game is displayed, make changes at the system level first in the HDR calibration app to ensure everything is set up correctly. Adjusting the in-game gamma might introduce further issues, so it’s best to leave that as a last resort.
In some cases, Auto-HDR is truly transformative. In combination with resolution upscaling and a solid frame rate, the added eye candy, contrast, and peak brightness make for a much more pleasant experience. It even makes some games that were released 15 years ago look modern.
It’s not for everyone, though; if you’re having a hard time with it, you can always disable the feature at the system level.
How to Disable Auto-HDR
If you don’t like the Auto-HDR effect, or you’re having issues with a particular game, you can disable it. Unfortunately, there’s no way to do this on a game-by-game basis, so make sure you remember to turn it on again before you start playing something else.
To disable Auto-HDR, turn on your console, and then press the Xbox button on your controller. Select Power & System > Settings > General > TV & Display Options > Video Modes, and then uncheck “Auto HDR.”
You’ll have to restart any games that are currently running for your changes to take effect.
You might also want to do this if you prefer playing a game in its original, unaltered state. If you find certain highlights (like UI elements) that pop more than they should distracting, turning off Auto-HDR will fix that, as well.
Breathing New Life Into Old Games
Auto-HDR is a killer feature available at launch to help the Series X and S tread water at a time when new games are thin on the ground. If you already have a library of Xbox titles, or you’re just jumping in with Game Pass, Auto-HDR applies a welcome layer of next-gen paint to older titles.
Wondering which Xbox console is right for you? Be sure to check out our comparison.