Buzzwords usually come and go, but some tend to cycle in and out like waves. HDR is one of those buzzwords, and 4K resolution is another. With the relatively recent releases of both the Xbox One S and PS4 Pro, you might be wondering whether these two features are worth it.
Some of you might even be wondering what they are in the first place.
That’s fine. Truth be told, the tech is still new enough that most people aren’t quite up to speed, so don’t feel like you’ve been left behind. Here’s everything you need to know to decide if an HDR 4K TV is right for you.
This article focuses mainly on console gaming, and even though most of the post can also apply to HDR and 4K in PC gaming, not all of it will. We think it’s best that you know this up front.
What Is HDR?
When shopping for any TV, dynamic range is an important spec to keep in mind — it describes the maximum possible difference between the darkest and lightest spot on the screen at any given time. A small dynamic range can make an image feel flat when it should be vibrant.
HDR, or high dynamic range, is a special standard that guarantees a larger dynamic range through higher contrasts and higher color ranges. In other words, darks appear darker and brights appear brighter, leading to more vibrant and dynamic imagery.
We’ve covered this in more detail in our overview to HDR tech in TVs, so check that out if you want to know more. If you don’t care about the nitty-gritty details, then all you need to know is that HDR produces images that feel more true-to-life. The difference between an HDR and a non-HDR image is stark, to say the least.
What Is 4K?
4K resolution is a big trend in gaming right now, but it’s actually been around for a while (it really began picking up steam back in 2013). You know how 720p and 1080p have been the standard for many years? Well, 4K is the next step forward.
And if you hear people talking about Ultra HD, don’t be fooled: 4K and Ultra HD are the same thing. It’s similar to how 720p is called HD and 1080p is called Full HD — just more marketing terms for the same exact things.
Basically, 4K refers to a 3840 x 2160 resolution.
This is four-times bigger than 1080p, which means a LOT more detail on the screen in any given image. Remember when you first jumped from SD to HD? The step up to 4K isn’t that remarkable, but it’s pretty darn close.
A few years ago, we argued that 4K TVs weren’t worth the money because most media didn’t support 4K. These days, however, 4K is becoming more mainstream and thus it’s getting easier to find 4K content — and that’s definitely true for gaming, too.
Which Consoles Support HDR and 4K?
You should only get an HDR 4K TV if you have, or intend to purchase, a gaming console that supports both HDR and 4K. Sounds obvious, I know, but the confusing part is knowing which consoles support these tech. Here’s what you need to know at a glance:
- PlayStation 4 — No 4K. Yes HDR.
- PlayStation 4 Slim — No 4K. Yes HDR.
- PlayStation 4 Pro — Yes 4K. Yes HDR.
- Xbox One — No 4K. No HDR.
- Xbox One S — Yes 4K. Yes HDR.
- Xbox One Project Scorpio — Yes 4K. Yes HDR.
Any console released before the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will not support either 4K or HDR. You can expect every major console from this point on to support both 4K and HDR. (Unfortunately the recently-announced Nintendo Switch does not support either.)
But Is It True 4K Support? Not Quite
To claim that the PlayStation 4 Pro and the Xbox One S both support 4K resolution is a bit deceptive.
It’s true that they can technically display images that contain 3840 x 2160 pixels, but what you may not realize is that these consoles aren’t rendering the game at that resolution. Instead, they’re rendering at a lower resolution and scaling the image up to match 4K resolution.
And this has been happening for years. Prior to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, a lot of games faked 1080p resolution by rendering at 1280 x 720 or 1600 x 900 and upscaling to 1920 x 1080 — which is why the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were so praised when they launched (because consoles finally supported true 1080p).
When an image is upscaled, the system uses an algorithm to smooth out parts of the image (called interpolation). The resulting image can look better than the source image, but usually it doesn’t. Blurring, distortion, and other visual artifacts are more common than they should be.
Truth is, even with the better hardware in the PlayStation 4 Pro and the Xbox One S, these systems aren’t powerful enough to render at true 4K while maintaining crisp performance. Prior to this, even 1080p was a struggle. The hardware bump will allow for smoother native 1080p output, which is nice, but smooth native 4K is still but a fantasy on consoles.
HDR Support Is Lacking in Other Ways
In addition to making games look more lively, HDR is a nifty feature for two reasons. One, it can work on any resolution, and two, it doesn’t have much of a performance overhead — it’s certainly not as hardware-intensive as jumping from 1080p to 4K.
The catch is that HDR has a three-pronged dependency: The console must support it, the TV must be able to display it, and the game must be able to render using HDR.
Just as 4K TVs had to endure several years before 4K media caught up, HDR is experiencing the same thing. Consoles are just now starting to support HDR, which means it will be months or even years before HDR-capable games become mainstream. As of this writing, you can count them on your hands.
Non-Gaming Uses for HDR 4K TVs
By now, you’re probably feeling like an HDR 4K TV isn’t worth it for gaming. That may be true, but there’s something else you ought to consider: HDR 4K TVs are useful for more than just gaming!
Even though the consoles may not be able to render true 4K for games, they can absolutely render Ultra HD Blu-ray media in true 4K. Not to mention the fact that services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have been producing 4K content for a while now.
In that sense, it’s definitely worth grabbing a 4K TV for your home media center — just consider being able to play upscaled 4K games as a bonus.
As for HDR support, you’re going to want it eventually, so it wouldn’t hurt to invest now while you wait for HDR-capable games to be released. Many existing games, like The Witness, are working to patch in HDR support as well, so you probably won’t have to wait too long before you can start making use of it.
Verdict on HDR 4K TVs for Gaming
Get one if you have money to burn, but it isn’t urgent enough that you should feel obligated to jump in right away.
The main points to take away: The latest consoles aren’t powerful enough to render in true 4K with acceptable performance (even with the boosts to hardware) and there aren’t many HDR-capable games on the market right now. But if you watch a lot of 4K-capable shows and movies, getting one now wouldn’t be a mistake.
Are you excited for 4K gaming or are you satisfied with 1080p? How do you feel about HDR graphics? Beautiful or too vibrant? Are you going to buy an HDR 4K TV soon? Let us know in the comments!