High dynamic range video, or HDR for short, is all the rage at the moment and many of the latest Mac models and displays support it. Unfortunately, getting HDR video to play back correctly on your MacBook or Apple display isn’t quite as straightforward as it could be.
Which Mac Models Support HDR?
The following Mac models support HDR video playback:
- MacBook Pro 2018 and later
- MacBook Air 2018 or later (external HDR playback requires M1 chip or better)
- iMac 2020 or later
- iMac Pro
- Mac mini 2018 or later
- Mac Pro 2019 or later
- Mac Studio
Not all of these models have built-in displays, and some of those that do won’t display a particularly impressive HDR image.
HDR video doesn’t look great without adequate peak brightness (measured in nits) to make the image pop. The 2021 MacBook Pro models can reach 1600 nits peak brightness for impressive HDR output, while the 2018 MacBook Air with its 300 nits peak brightness is going to disappoint.
Keep this in mind when it comes to external displays too. The Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA) tests and certifies monitors so you know what to expect from HDR performance. Shoot for the VESA DisplayHDR 600 standard or better, since DisplayHDR 400 will disappoint if HDR is a priority for you.
Don’t get us wrong: there are plenty of decent monitors that are certified with the DisplayHDR 400 standard. These may be ideal for SDR content, with high refresh rates, good pixel density, and excellent color reproduction. Poor HDR performance doesn’t mean a monitor is bad for general use, so don’t be put off if it’s not a priority for you.
Getting External HDR Displays Working
You can connect an HDR display using DisplayPort (via your Mac’s Thunderbolt port), using an HDMI output or USB-C hub with an HDMI port, or using a Thunderbolt connection on a supported display like the Pro Display XDR.
Once you’ve connected your HDR display, you’ll need to enable HDR mode from your Mac’s display preferences. To do this, connect your monitor then head to System Preferences (System Settings) > Displays.
You’ll see all currently-connected displays shown in the sidebar (or just one display, if you’re using a single external monitor setup). If you’re using a MacBook, your internal display will be listed also. Select the external display and check the “HDR Mode” checkbox. You should see the display flicker and reappear.
You don’t need to do anything to enable HDR on your MacBook’s built-in display, HDR should “just work” whenever the content is detected.
Playing HDR Video Files
With everything ready to go, you’ll need to find a suitable media player to play whatever it is you want to watch. Your Mac can play back HDR10, Dolby Vision, and HLG formats on built-in displays (and the Pro Display XDR). For external displays, macOS uses HDR10. Dolby Vision and HLG content will be converted to HDR10 for displaying on HDR-capable monitors.
QuickTime Player is a good choice, especially for HDR video that has been shot on an iPhone or camera. It comes with your Mac and will open MP4 HEVC (h.265) files and display them correctly. macOS Photos app will also natively play your iPhone (and similar) HDR videos.
Unfortunately, QuickTime Player has its limitations especially when it comes to HDR video files within an MKV container. We had issues with other players like VLC and Elmedia Player displaying these videos correctly too. In the end, we used a premium app called Movist ($4.99) to play back these files correctly on both the internal MacBook Pro display and an external LG C2 OLED television.
Other HDR Sources You Can Use
The most readily-available HDR content is on the web, with YouTube leading the charge. You can play back this content in most major browsers, including Safari, Chrome, Firefox, and Edge. Vimeo also supports 4K content in HDR.
When it comes to streaming HDR content in 4K quality from Netflix, Safari is one of the best choices as long as your internet connection is up to it. This is thanks to Safari’s support for HDCP 2.2. Apple TV+ also supports HDR content in the Apple TV app (naturally) which runs natively on macOS.
Unfortunately, browser support for 4K HDR content from other streaming services (like Paramount+ and Disney+) is still not well supported.
Unlock Your HDR Display’s Brightness in SDR Mode
If you have a 2021 MacBook Pro or a Mac that’s connected to Apple’s Pro Display XDR, you can unlock the brightness normally reserved for HDR content using an app called Vivid. The app costs €20 (around $20) and has a free “split screen mode” so you can see the difference before you buy.
This could be a useful tool if you have trouble using your MacBook or Pro Display XDR in bright sunny conditions. In normal operation, these displays hover around 500 nits max brightness, but Vivid will push beyond this while only causing a small increase in operating temperature.
Developers claim that “Vivid does not use low-level display hacks to push your display to levels it shouldn’t go. The temperature of your displays will increase by between 5-10%, but macOS will limit the max brightness if necessary.” Of course, Vivid takes no responsibility for any damage caused, so take great caution before investing in and using the app.
Great for Movies and Some Games
HDR display mode is great for watching movies and playing some games, but it’s not strictly necessary for daily use. YouTube, Netflix, and other streaming websites will deliver an SDR version if you don’t have (or choose not to use) HDR mode.
To understand the benefits of HDR, you need to understand dynamic range. One of the ways you can do this is by editing your photos to squeeze more detail out of the shadows and highlights.
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