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The Xbox Series X will be the go-to console for HDR gaming - here’s why

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(Image credit: Microsoft)

If you’re a fan of HDR gaming (and why wouldn’t you be?), the Xbox Series X is shaping up to be the console of choice for those who love the beauty of high dynamic range.

Microsoft’s diminutive tower of power already has gamers salivating over its impressive technical specifications, but the company is ensuring that when you hook an Xbox Series X up to a HDR-compatible display, you’ll be in for a visual (and nostalgic) treat. 

Unlike PlayStation 4, the Xbox One X already supports both HDR10 and Dolby Vision, which is noticeably missing from Sony’s platform. Dolby Vision is Netflix’s HDR standard of choice and has also been adopted by a growing library of 4K UHD Blu-Ray. It’s safe to assume, then, that Xbox Series X will retain these features.

What’s more, Sony is doubling down on priority tech for PS5, like its Tempest 3D audio instead of Dolby Atmos. Microsoft, meanwhile, created their own spatial audio tech for Xbox One - Windows Sonic - but also lets users choose Dolby Atmos, if they prefer. 

While we can confidently predict Sony won’t be introducing a new display technology anytime soon (fingers crossed), it’s refreshing to see that Microsoft is continuing to invest in more widely available standards, such as HDR.

But what about the Xbox's wide, catalogue of backwards-compatibility treats? No one could have guessed that Microsoft would figure out a way to retroactively add HDR to older games, though. But that’s exactly what it’s managed to do, so now your classics will be HDR too. 

What’s HDR to me? 

(Image credit: Samsung)

HDR, or High Dynamic Range, is a relatively new TV standard that lets you experience accurate colors, greatly improved contrast and more vivid pictures than what was previously possible with standard dynamic range televisions (SDR). That means you’ll see brighter whites when viewing a snowy mountain top, deeper blacks during darker scenes and a greater spectrum of colors overall. Colors won’t appear crushed or oversaturated, either, meaning you’ll often be able to see more nuanced details that were previously hidden.

HDR is a huge boon for video games in particular, as they often use exaggerated color palettes and feature explosive set pieces that take full advantage of HDR’s capabilities. SDR content can look rather muted and flat in comparison, lacking the vibrancy and clarity that only HDR can provide. 

Imagine, then, if the Xbox Series X could inject a fresh lick of HDR paint to all the games you played years ago. But how would that work exactly?

Old dog, new HDR tricks

During Digital Foundry’s visit to Microsoft’s HQ in Redmond, Washington, the team was shown the Xbox One X enhanced version of Halo 5: Guardians, running with a very convincing HDR implementation. Even though developer 343 Industries never shipped the game to include HDR support originally, Microsoft has found an ingenious way to add HDR into the game – developed from the state-of-the-art HDR implementation used in Gears 5.

Microsoft ATG principal software engineer Claude Marais revealed that, by using a machine learning algorithm, the team was able to generate a full HDR image from SDR content – on any backwards compatible title.

And when Microsoft says any backwards compatible title can receive the HDR treatment – it means any title. The Digital Foundry team was stunned to see Fusion Frenzy – an original Xbox game that was released almost 20 years ago – running with real HDR. 

Microsoft’s new HDR-mapping tech will extend across the entire Xbox library on Xbox Series X, and apply to the hundreds of compatible games that don’t have their own bespoke HDR modes already.

Some TV displays will ship with baked-in HDR-effect or HDR boost options – which aren’t actually HDR proper. But Microsoft’s technology creates exact heatmaps (instructions for the brightness settings) for the auto HDR tech to work from, ensuring the picture looks just as it should.

A heatmap showing luminance data in Halo 5, created by the auto HDR tech.  (Image credit: Digital Foundry)

Retro makeover

Seeing classic Xbox titles get the HDR treatment for Xbox Series X is an enticing prospect, then, but Microsoft also has some other interesting ideas where its machine learning algorithm can be used, particularly when it comes to accessibility. 

“If you have people that cannot read well or see well, you probably want to enhance contrast when there's a lot of text on-screen. We can easily do that,” Marias explained to Digital Foundry. “We talked to someone that's colorblind this morning and that's a great example. We just switch on the LUT and we can change colours for them to more easily experience the announcement there."

There’s no denying that Xbox Series X is a technically accomplished piece of technology, but Microsoft has ensured that its new console will make the most of the innovations available today, to help bring new life to the treasured games of the past.