Everyone may be talking about 4K, but HDR is arguably a bigger improvement to picture quality on your TV or computer monitor. HDR means more detailed images, better color, and highlights that really pop—and while your Roku or Apple TV may handle HDR with minimal effort, your Windows PC is a more complex beast.
Microsoft has had some growing pains with HDR over the past few years, and while it still isn’t quite as easy as it should be, the feature is much more usable than it was in the early days of Windows 10. If you have an HDR-capable monitor—or you’ve hooked your PC up to your 4K HDR TV for some living room gaming—here’s how to make sure your games and movies are taking full advantage.
What You’ll Need
Much like with other devices, every link in the chain—from your PC to the display—has to be HDR-capable. That means you need:
An HDR-Capable TV or Monitor
Not all HDR is created equal—cheaper TVs and monitors may not be able to get bright enough, or use local dimming to get dark enough, to really take full advantage of HDR. If your gaming monitor says it’s DisplayHDR 400 or DisplayHDR 600, for example, that means those highlights can only reach 400 or 600 nits, respectively. In actuality, you need something over 1,000 nits, so look for DisplayHDR 1000 or DisplayHDR 1600. If it says “HDR10,” that just means it’s able to accept HDR signals, but it isn’t really producing an HDR image at all. (In which case, you don’t need this guide—just stick to SDR.)
An HDR-Capable Graphics Chip
To communicate with your display, you need a GPU capable of HDR, which means an Nvidia GTX 950 or later, AMD’s Radeon R9 380 or later, or—if you’re running Intel’s integrated graphics—a 7th-generation Kaby Lake CPU or later. Note that these are the bare minimums, and higher-end cards will be able to handle better output settings (more on that later).
A Quality HDMI or DisplayPort Cable
Most modern HDMI cables can carry a 4K signal, but not all will necessarily perform equally well. If you want 4K at 60Hz with HDR, you’re best off with one labeled Premium High Speed or 18Gbps, as described in our HDMI cable guide. For 4K at 120Hz with HDR, you’ll need one labeled Ultra Premium High Speed, or 48Gbps (and a graphics card with the latest HDMI 2.1). DisplayPort is ideal if you’re using a PC monitor, and you can see a list of certified DisplayPort cables here.
An Up-to-Date System
Windows first brought HDR support with the 2017 Fall Creators Update, but things have changed, and this guide relies on the latest version of Windows 10 (20H2) if you want to follow along. I also highly recommend updating your graphics drivers, as that’s helped me fix some HDR problems I’ve run into over the years.
Once you’re sure you have the necessary hardware, it’s time to dig into some settings.
How to Enable HDR in Windows 10
Before you mess with your software, you’ll want to tweak a few things in your TV’s settings. Somewhere, you should find an option to enable HDR color capabilities—LG calls it “Deep Color,” Samsung calls it “Input Signal Plus,” and other manufacturers may have their own names. You may also have to enable this on your receiver, if you have one—mine was hidden under a somewhat secret button combo listed in the manual.
Some TVs may turn this on by default when they detect an HDR signal, some may not—you may need to check your TV’s page on Rtings.com to see what settings you need.
In addition, some TVs treat PCs differently than other inputs when they’re labeled as such—so if your PC is plugged into HDMI2, go into your TV’s input settings and make sure HDMI2 is labeled as “PC” for best results.
Now it’s time to tweak some things in Windows. Open Settings > Apps > Video Playback and click on Windows HD Color Settings. If your display supports HDR, you should see a switch that says Play HDR Games and Apps on this page—flip that on, and you should see the HDR badge pop up in the corner of your screen.
You’ll also want to flip the Stream HDR Video switch on, if it isn’t already. If your desktop appears overly dim or blown out, you can scroll down and move the SDR Content Appearance slider around to alleviate this somewhat.
From here, you may have to do some experimentation. With my HDR PC monitor at home, I found opening the Nvidia settings, going to Change Resolution, and changing the color depth to 10-bit made the picture look much better. Some people recommend opening the Nvidia or AMD display settings and changing the color output to 4:2:2 or 4:2:0 if you’re on a TV, though this can vary from display to display—the default settings looked best when plugged into my HDR TV.
Now that you’ve confirmed HDR is working in Windows, you have two choices: you can either leave HDR on all the time, or you can manually turn it on before you hop into an HDR-capable game or movie. Some people find HDR on the desktop doesn’t look right, even with that slider dialed in to the best setting—you’ll have to decide for your own setup what works best.
Play PC Games in HDR
Next, it’s time to get HDR running in your games. The PC Gaming Wiki has a great list of games that support HDR, so find a game on that list and start it up. Open its graphical settings and ensure HDR is turned on.
Some games, like Shadow of the Tomb Raider, require HDR to be turned on in Windows’ settings before launching the game. Some, like Mass Effect: Andromeda, will automatically switch Windows into HDR mode when you launch the game, which is really nice if you don’t want to keep it on all the time. Other games still may not even show you the HDR option in their own settings until Windows’ switch is flipped on.
When in doubt, most displays should show some sort of HDR badge in the corner or middle of the screen when HDR kicks in—if it’s an auto-switching game, you’ll see it pop up when the game starts. In cases like Shadow of the Tomb Raider, you can switch HDR on and off in the game’s settings to see if it’s working.
Use a scene that has both dark, shadowy areas and bright highlights, like the sun streaming through a window in a dark area. In scenes like that, the difference between HDR and SDR is quite noticeable, and well worth enabling.
Watch Movies and Other Videos in HDR
Streaming HDR video is, sadly, just as clunky as playing HDR games. Not only do you need HDR turned on in Windows, but if you want to stream HDR content from a service like Netflix, you’ll also need to purchase and install Microsoft’s HEVC Video Extension for $0.99 from the Store. (I had to restart my PC after installing it, too.)
Once you have HDR turned on and the HEVC extension installed, you should be able to stream HDR content from services like Netflix—though some may only work through certain browsers, or through the official app from the Microsoft Store. Check your streaming provider’s support pages for more info.
You’ll know HDR is working properly if an HDR badge appears in the movie’s details when you click on it—if you don’t see a badge that says HDR, you need to do some troubleshooting. (Dolby Atmos and Ultra HD 4K don’t count—if you see those badges without an “HDR” badge, HDR isn’t working.)
What to Do If You Run Into Problems
There are many issues you may experience while trying to use HDR in Windows 10. I ran into black screens, purple screens, HDR not wanting to turn on, and other quirks throughout the process. The solution is often dependent on what model TV you have, what settings you’re using, and however the universe is feeling that day. But if you run into trouble, here are a few things worth trying:
Try Another HDMI Cable
As I said earlier, even high-speed cables from good brands may have problems, so it never hurts to try a spare. If you’re on a PC monitor, you may also try switching to DisplayPort instead of HDMI, or HDMI instead of DisplayPort, to help narrow down the source of the problem. (On a TV, you can use a DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter if necessary.)
Try Plugging Into Another Port
Some TVs and monitors may have certain ports for 4K HDR, and if you’re plugged into the wrong one, you won’t get the full bandwidth required. In addition, if you’re using a home theater receiver, it may not be fully capable of 4K HDR at 60Hz. The cable will have to be plugged directly into the TV and the audio sent out to your receiver through a TOSLINK or other cable.
Update Your Drivers
Seriously, did I mention that you should update your graphics drivers, even if they’re recent? Check and make sure you have the latest version installed, or even try a beta version, if any are available.
Check Your TV’s Settings
Your TV may still need another setting tweaked in one way or another for HDR to work properly or look good. Again, search Rtings.com for your TV and see what they recommend doing.
Update Your TV’s firmware
I haven’t run into this issue myself, but I have heard of certain TVs needing firmware updates in order to render HDR properly in PC mode. If you haven’t checked your TV for software updates in a while, it may be worth going into the settings and seeing if there are new firmware versions available.
Hopefully, Microsoft and game developers will improve the experience as time goes on, but for now it’s a bit hit-and-miss, and can require some futzing to get working. But depending on the game, the results can be well worth it, especially if you have a good display capable of those deep blacks and bright highlights.