Why HDR Looks Bad in Windows and How To Fix It

HDR in Windows often looks washed out and unpleasant, whether in a game or on the desktop. As a result, most people probably turn HDR on once, avert their eyes in horror, then never touch the feature again. It doesn't have to be this way! There are some things you can do to get a decent HDR picture.

How to Turn on HDR in Windows

It used to be that turning HDR on and off was a bit of a chore in Windows. However, if your copy of Windows is up to date, you can now use a simple keyboard shortcut to toggle HDR.

Press Win + Alt + B at any time, and HDR will obligingly turn on or off. In most cases, the screen will flash as it changes modes and have an OSD (On-screen Display) message letting you know HDR is either on or off.

Windows Hdr Toggle

This keyboard shortcut solves most of the complaints about using HDR on a Windows computer since the main issue is SDR content displaying poorly. That's why no one wants to leave HDR on while working on their desktops or dig through a bunch of menus and settings every time they launch a game.

Just keep in mind that for most games that use HDR, you need to turn it on before you launch the software. This may be true for other types of applications that use HDR as well. Some games automatically turn HDR on when you launch them, but these titles are relatively rare.

Good to know: HDR can be a complicated technology to understand, so it's a good idea to recap what it is and what you should look for in HDR gear.

Adjust SDR Content in HDR Mode

If SDR content looks washed out or too dark with HDR on, you can adjust the relative brightness of that content without affecting the HDR content.

  1. On your PC, go to "Start -> Settings -> System -> Display."
Windows Hdr Displays
  1. Choose the monitor you want to adjust. If you only have one monitor connected, you can skip this step.
Windows Hdr Displays2
  1. If HDR isn't already on, toggle the switch next to "Use HDR;" otherwise, click on the word "HDR" to proceed.
Windows Hdr Options
  1. Under SDR content brightness, drag the slider as shown in the sample window until you're happy with the appearance of both SDR and HDR content.
Windows Hdr Slider
  1. If you're able to get a satisfactory look for SDR content in HDR mode, you can leave HDR on all the time.

Check Your Monitor Settings

If adjusting the look of SDR content while HDR is activated doesn't get your image quality where it needs to be, you may want to adjust your monitor settings in addition to the settings available in Windows.

It may be a good idea to start by resetting your picture settings to default. If it's not apparent from the monitor's OSD menus, consult its manual for instructions.

Windows Hdr Osd

Go back to the SDR/HDR slider in Windows Settings and adjust it as close to your desired level as possible.

Windows Hdr Slider

Following this, adjust the monitor's brightness, contrast, and color settings to take you the rest of the way.

Good to know: HDR isn't the only thing on a Windows 11 PC you can tweak to get a better gaming experience. Have a look at these awesome tips for Windows 11 gamers.

Check In-App HDR Settings

Many games, and some media apps, have their own internal HDR calibration tools. Usually, you'll have a sample image and controls that let you adjust peak brightness, gray levels, etc.

Windows Hdr Hzd

If an HDR-capable game doesn't look right, open its graphics settings and check for HDR adjustment settings, then follow the instructions in that menu to get the image output the creator intended. While you're tweaking your in-game settings, why not learn how to optimize your games?

Use Auto HDR Apps

If you're using Windows 11, you have access to a feature known as "Auto HDR." This is the same feature found in the latest Xbox consoles. Essentially, Windows injects HDR image data into the game's render pipeline, offering a very HDR-like image that could have been what the game looked like had it been designed for HDR natively.

By default, Auto HDR will be activated when you turn on HDR. However, you can manually disable it in the same HDR menu where you adjusted the SDR image slider.

Windows Hdr Autohdr

You don't need to do anything special to take advantage of Auto HDR. As long as HDR is on, Windows 11 will automatically apply Auto HDR to games that support it. As to which games support this feature, that changes over time. PC Gaming Wiki maintains a list of Auto HDR Games, but you can also simply start a non-HDR game with HDR on, and Windows will tell you whether Auto HDR is on via a pop-up.

Don't just assume that since some SDR games look bad with HDR on, all of them will. In most cases, Auto HDR looks pretty great!

Poor HDR Performance in Computer Monitors

If you've played with all the settings mentioned above and HDR still looks awful compared to having HDR off, it's likely that your monitor's HDR capabilities are just not very good.

It can be a hard pill to swallow, especially if you've spent a significant amount for an otherwise excellent gaming or content creation display. Unfortunately, basic HDR standards are so loose that many monitors can technically get away with saying they support HDR when in reality they can't achieve the contrast and brightness needed to qualify as real HDR.

Windows Hdr Screens
Image source: Pixabay

When looking for a monitor that will look great with HDR, you want something with high peak brightness (preferably 1000 Nits or better) and panel technology that can provide sufficient contrast. That means backlight technology with many individual dimming zones or OLED, which can achieve true blacks as emissive display technology.

Monitors that are certified for more advanced HDR standards, such as Dolby Vision or HDR10+, are worth the consideration, as these displays have to pass validation to get those shiny stickers.

Good to know: if your current monitor isn't all that great, you need our definitive monitor buying guide to ensure that your next monitor upgrade doesn't leave you disappointed again.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does HDR benefit me with desktop computing and not watching movies or gaming?

HDR is a technology that allows o display a wider range of colors and higher contrast ratios, resulting in more realistic and lifelike images. It can be especially beneficial for desktop computing when working with high-resolution images or video editing, particularly when creating HDR content.

Can ambient lighting improve HDR on my computer?

Ambient lighting, or the lighting in the room where you are using your computer, can impact how HDR content is perceived on your display. In general, it is best to use your computer in a well-lit room with consistent lighting, as this can help to reduce glare and reflections on the screen and make it easier to see the full range of colors and contrast ratios that HDR content has to offer.

However, if the ambient lighting in the room is too bright or uneven, it can wash out the colors on your display and make it difficult to see the full benefit of HDR. In these cases, it may be helpful to adjust the lighting in the room or use a screen protector or hood to reduce any visible glare.

Does HDR work with Gsync and other similar technologies?

Yes, High Dynamic Range (HDR) content can be displayed using G-Sync displays or similar technologies. G-Sync is a technology developed by NVIDIA that helps synchronize the refresh rate of a display with the frame rate of the content being displayed, reducing screen tearing and improving the overall visual experience.

To use HDR with G-Sync or similar technologies, both the display and the graphics card must support HDR, and the display must be set up to accept HDR input. This typically involves enabling HDR in the display settings and, in some cases, connecting an HDR-compatible cable.

Image credit: Unsplash. All screenshots by Sydney Butler.

Sydney Butler

Sydney Butler is a technology writer with a background in Psychology who has written for a wide variety of technology outlets including How-To-Geek, Online Tech Tips, Helpdesk Geek, 9to5Mac, 9to5Google, and many more. He has 25 years of technology troubleshooting experience as a technician and user-education practitioner.

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