One of the greatest strengths of Xbox Series S and X is its backwards compatibility. Revisiting old classics, from the original 2001 Xbox, 360 and the Xbox One – Microsoft has maintained a through line across its console legacy. Not only are legacy titles playable, they’re enhanced too with higher resolutions, smoother frame-rates, clearer texture filtering and faster load times. Auto HDR is the latest enhancement, drawing on a machine learning algorithm to add HDR to the majority of its back-compat titles on all Xbox systems. The question is – how good is it? Can it really compare to a native HDR implementation?
When well implemented, high dynamic range can transform the look of a game. Genuine HDR is not a given for new releases, even today. For the likes of Hellblade, Final Fantasy 15 or Sekiro, the effect elevates the image and heightens the realism of their lighting. Supporting displays with a high enough peak brightness – ideally 600 nits or more – bring out details that would normally be hidden in standard dynamic range. The sun’s outline in Sekiro becomes more defined against a cloudy sky; Hellblade’s overcast greys come out clearly with subtler gradients. Meanwhile dark detail pops out in caves or long grass. Fire takes on a more believable peak brightness in Resident Evil 3, while for racing games like Dirt 5, headlamps hit a realistic peak brightness on night-time tracks. Put simply: HDR lets us see a wider contrast of tones in bright and dark detail – plus a wider spectrum of colour in-between.
But what of the games that don’t have HDR support? That’s where Auto HDR steps in and while results vary, it hits more than it misses. Batman: Arkham Knight is an interesting example in that Auto HDR is pretty much the best enhancement back-compat adds to the game. It still renders at the same 1440×1080 resolution as the original Xbox One release and performance improvements can only see it run at a capped 30fps. You get more consistent frame-rates than the original Xbox One release, but One X effectively sorted its overall performance profile. For Series X enhancements, Auto HDR is the biggest boost you’ll get beyond that.