Technology continues to evolve. The phones we used a decade ago were nowhere as powerful and capable as the mini-computer-like smartphones that we rock as daily drivers today.
Cameras have long passed the golden era of film. Everything that we shoot now is digital.
Not to mention, the modern-day smartphone has rendered the point-and-shoot cameras, which were relevant not long ago, antiquated.
Similarly, the technologies powering or enhancing our visual experiences with TVs, computer screens, and smartphone displays have also come a long way in different ways.
The progression from SDR to HDR is one important advancement made on those lines. (Spoiler: SDR is not better than HDR.)
Keep reading to learn the key differences between SDR and HDR and why the former is a step or two behind the latter.
- What is SDR?
- What is HDR?
- SDR and HDR: A Side-by-Side Comparison
- Does SDR Look Better Than HDR?
- Does HDR Make a Difference in Gaming?
What is SDR?
SDR (standard dynamic range) is the current cinema and video display standard. It has been around since 1935, and the very first color TV introduced in 1954 used SDR.
SDR permits luminance of up to 100 cd/m2 and uses the sRGB/ Rec.709 color gamut. It has a 1,200:1 contrast ratio and an 8-bit color depth. SDR can showcase up to 256 variants of primary colors.
SDR projects visuals using the traditional gamma curve signal based on the boundaries set by CRT (cathode ray tube) televisions.
What is HDR?
HDR (high dynamic range) is an imaging technology that documents, parses, and reproduces visuals with pronounced highlights and shadows.
HDR works by merging multiple images to produce a final picture encompassing various exposures in a single shot. That means whites are whiter or brighter, and blacks are darker than usual.
In real-world use, HDR translates to increased details in images, a broad range of colors, and a contrast range akin to what the human eye can perceive.
Cameras cannot accurately reproduce what humans view, especially when light is in short supply.
However, to view HDR content, you’ll need a display that complies with one of the several HDR standards—including HDR10, Dolby Vision, HDR10+, HLG, etc.
HDR is implemented in both still and moving images, including games.
Metadata is the Secret Ingredient
HDR takes a more accurate and precise approach to exhibiting things or instructing the panel on what and how they must display.
It transmits additional information or metadata along with the regular video signal to get its message across.
For example, if HDR wants certain portions of the screen to be 40% bright and other areas in the same frame to be fully bright, it bundles that information into the metadata.
With SDR, the screen is uniformly bright or dim without considering the scene’s integrity or its variedly lit elements.
SDR and HDR: A Side-by-Side Comparison
|Luminance (max.)||100 cd/m2||1,000 cd/m2||4,000 cd/m2||10,000cd/m2||1,000 cd/m2|
|Color depth (bits)||8||10||10||12||10|
|Color shades (primary colors)||256||1,024||1,024||1,024||1,024|
|Color space standard||Rec.709||Rec.2100||Rec.2020||Rec.2020||Rec.2100|
|Max. resolution supported||4K||4K||8K||8K||4K|
Since we’ve tabulated the key specifications above, we’ll take the SDR vs. HDR battle further, focusing more on the qualitative side of things or what the numbers above translate to.
1. Picture Quality
Generally, HDR looks better than SDR purely from a picture perspective.
Most people with little knowledge about HDR think the display technology produces brighter visuals at all times, which is true but not accurate. Yes, it’s complicated.
HDR is usually paired with panels boasting greater brightness capabilities, but that doesn’t imply HDR always translates to well-lit visuals.
SDR is likely to be brighter than HDR due to how SDR works. Unlike HDR, SDR blows up the entire screen with light.
With HDR, on the other hand, the metadata that we talked about earlier instructs the panel to light up or take it easy based on the content on the screen.
In other words, if a small area of the frame looks dark with HDR, cranking up the brightness will not make it clearer.
And if it does, then that will be at the expense of the contrast ratio.
Since HDR typically gets paired with a 10-bit panel and the color space it uses is a lot more advanced, colors in HDR look vibrant overall.
As mentioned easier, HDR adopts Rec.2020 and DCI-P3 color gamuts, representing more expansive color spaces. In other words, Rec.2020 and DCI-P3 cover around 35% and 50% more color information than the Rec.709 standard SDR employs.
Reds, greens, and blues look more intense and eye-catching in HDR than in an SDR shot. Hues that weren’t correctly visible in SDR become much easier to discern in HDR.
Also, colors in SDR usually do not pop as much due to the 8-bit panel or the smaller color palette they use.
A 10-bit display has a much broader color profile. It is 1.07 billion colors compared to an 8-bit’s 16.77 million colors. That’s quite a difference!
More colors also mean minimal to zero banding and increased accuracy in color reproduction.
With the above said, colors in SDR are not that bad after all. The Rec.709 standard that SDR uses is a capable color space.
It’s just that SDR colors pale in comparison to HDR.
HDR’s claim to fame is its ability to bring to light or preserve the details in both the dark and light parts of a scene.
On the other hand, SDR can do only a tiny percentage of HDR’s dynamic range.
HDR capitalizes on the increased brightness capabilities of a panel to exhibit life-like highlights.
It eliminates the overexposure issues SDR shots are usually plagued with. And in an underexposed picture, the dimmer portions’ details are visible with HDR.
Kindly note that the aforementioned goodnesses of HDR are valid only if the display’s peak brightness is par for the course.
In pretty much all variables that render a visual beautiful or true-to-life, HDR manages to outscore SDR heavily.
However, the biggest gripe with HDR is how dependent it is on the other cogs in the wheel to do their respective jobs or at least be capable. The primary cogs are a:
- compatible HDR display
- video card, and
- native HDR content
If the TV or monitor is not bright enough, HDR may not be able to churn out the colors and shadows it’s usually expected to produce.
On the other hand, SDR is not so dependent on external factors. SDR performance, as a result, is a lot more uniform across the board.
Since HDR is the newer technology, it’s generally pricier than SDR televisions and monitors. But because HDR is a true value-add, the extra money you pay for HDR is usually worth it.
Not to mention, pretty much all high-end 4K TVs with OLED panels come with HDR as a standard feature. The premium hardware components, such as an OLED panel and a 4K display, also contribute to the higher HDR price tag.
SDR is relatively affordable, but you’ll have difficulty finding a premium or good-quality non-HDR 4K or even 1080p television.
Does SDR Look Better Than HDR?
No, it’s usually the other way around. With a lot more colors packed in and a high dynamic range, HDR tends to look better than SDR almost always.
But there are exceptions to that rule.
In gaming, for instance, SDR is usually a better choice than HDR, thanks to how inefficiently the latter gets implemented in interactive video formats and the lackluster hardware and gaming software.
For HDR to do its job, the monitor must be HDR-capable or boast the number of colors HDR needs to truly perform. Then the game must also be optimized for HDR.
A game coded for SDR displays will not automatically upconvert itself to HDR on an HDR-enabled panel. Even if it does, the conversion will be far from perfect.
For instance, if the display isn’t bright enough, the game will appear darker in HDR.
And if you turn on the HDR settings of a game on a non-HDR panel, there’s always the possibility of overblown highlights and muted colors.
Does HDR Make a Difference in Gaming?
Yes, HDR does make a difference in gaming. And you’ll notice the changes more if you’re coming from gaming on an SDR display.
But, as mentioned above, whether those differences are positive or negative depends on the particular game and gaming hardware.
If all pieces (monitor, game, computer, etc.) to the HDR puzzle are in place, the HDR gaming experience will leave you impressed.
For instance, you’ll see details in certain dark portions of a frame that weren’t discernible before. The colors will pop, the shadows will be highlighted, etc.
But if the game is not HDR-friendly or your computer isn’t powerful enough to push those power-hogging HDR frames, there will be glitches.
For example, you’ll experience input lag if the video card is not up to snuff.
Here’s a video showcasing how the GPU determines gaming performance in HDR and SDR settings in some popular titles:
Unfortunately, the HDR gaming experience is far from excellent as of date, particularly if you’re a PC gamer.
HDR gaming on consoles, however, is a breath of fresh air, thanks to how streamlined the console gaming space is.
1. Why does SDR not use a 10-bit panel?
Standard dynamic range content is not made to optimally use 10-bit boards since it’s pretty old technology.
In other words, SDR’s relatively lower brightness range doesn’t merit more bits. Pairing SDR content with a 10-bit display is overkill or will be a waste of space.
That said, some SDR displays could use a 10-bit panel.
2. Do you need HDR?
Although HDR is not as niche as 3D, HDR hasn’t yet entered “need” territory yet. That said, getting a taste of HDR and going back to SDR can feel like a big step backward.
Going back to HDR may not be akin to watching black and white again after having experienced color, but you can compare it to switching from a Ferrari to a Ford.
It’s not that Ford cars are inherently bad, but they usually aren’t as luxurious and powerful as the Ferraris and Lamborghinis of the world.
HDR is luxury, too, but one that’s a lot more affordable.
3. Why does HDR look bad on my computer?
If you turned on HDR on your Windows laptop or desktop computer and it doesn’t live up to your expectations or looks outright poor, you’re possibly not looking at true HDR.
As mentioned multiple times earlier, HDR relies heavily on the display it gets paired with. Your laptop or external monitor’s display is likely not built to the standard of a high-end HDR TV panel.
The feature to turn on HDR comes as standard in the Windows operating system with little to no consideration for the particular device’s display.
The bad HDR could also be because the content is not real HDR.
And because most applications on your computer do not support HDR, they’re bound to look dull, washed out, or oversaturated.
4. Can I play SDR content on an HDR TV?
SDR is designed keeping the limitations and characteristics of a CRT display in mind. But that doesn’t imply SDR content doesn’t render well on an HDR panel.
Like a 4K TV upscales the 1080p content it plays, an HDR TV will adjust not just to accommodate SDR images but also to enhance the picture.
In other words, SDR visuals will typically look better on an HDR panel than on a non-HDR TV set.
4K has almost rendered 1080p obsolete in the TV and computer monitor space.
HDR may have a similar impact on SDR, but it may take some time until we reach that point.
And that’s primarily because of how haphazard and unregulated the current implementation of HDR is—especially the various HDR formats.
Until HDR gets its act together, it will be hard for HDR to become the industry standard, irrespective of how superior it is to SDR, as explained above.
And, to reiterate, HDR is better than SDR and not the other way around.
But because it’s so straightforward to get rolling with SDR, calling it inferior to HDR would be a gross underappreciation of SDR’s sheer reliability.
Catherine Tramell has been covering technology as a freelance writer for over a decade. She has been writing for Pointer Clicker for over a year, further expanding her expertise as a tech columnist. Catherine likes spending time with her family and friends and her pastimes are reading books and news articles.