How to Experience HDR on a MacBook

Watching Apple TV+ Foundation series on a 2020 MacBook Air at a standing desk.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Embrace the Brilliance of HDR on Your MacBook

Apple MacBooks offer the incredible feature of playing high dynamic range (HDR) video content, providing brighter whites and darker blacks with nuanced variations in between. This makes compatible MacBooks perfect for enjoying movies, TV shows, and even videos recorded with iPhones capable of capturing HDR content.

Viewing HDR content on a MacBook is usually straightforward at home, where a MacBook with an HDR display effortlessly delivers the best picture quality. However, for more complex scenarios like connecting a MacBook to an external monitor or watching HDR movies on the go, a few additional considerations may be necessary to ensure a seamless experience.

How to Watch HDR Movies on Your MacBook’s Screen

For MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models equipped with HDR-capable built-in screens, connecting the laptop to a power adapter ensures the display presents the full dynamic range. When running on battery power, the MacBook might default to a standard dynamic range (SDR) to conserve energy. However, Apple allows users to override this feature to ensure optimal HDR content quality. Simply visit the Battery or Energy Saver pane in System Preferences and uncheck the “Optimize video streaming while on battery” option.

Use MacOS System Preferences to disable optimized video on battery for MacBook HDR.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Enjoy HDR Video on an External Monitor

A MacBook with HDR capability can also provide HDR video on an external monitor, as long as the display supports HDR10 or Dolby Vision and a compatible cable is connected to the appropriate port. Apple recommends updating macOS to ensure optimal picture quality and support for the latest hardware.

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To enable HDR on an external monitor, head to the Displays pane in System Preferences and ensure that the “High dynamic range” option is checked. If this option is disabled, an HDR10-capable screen will only display videos in lower-quality SDR.

Use MacOS System Preferences to enable HDR on an external monitor.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Unleashing the Full Potential of HDR on Your MacBook

While every 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro released in 2021 boasts a built-in XDR display capable of reaching a peak brightness of 1,600 nits for HDR content, other MacBook models, including the latest M2 MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, offer displays with 500 nits of brightness or lower. Although these displays provide a good dynamic range for HDR videos, they won’t match the brightness levels of recent iPhone models like the iPhone 12 Pro or iPhone 13 Pro.

Troubleshooting Washed-Out HDR on External Monitors

If HDR video appears washed out on an external monitor, it could indicate hardware or software incompatibility. Fortunately, simple solutions might exist within System Preferences. Ensure that the monitor is HDR10 and Dolby Vision compatible, and that the MacBook supports HDR. Additionally, check the connection between the MacBook and the monitor for any issues.

HDR Support for MacBooks

Every MacBook Pro and MacBook Air model introduced since 2018 supports HDR video, both on the built-in display and external monitors compatible with HDR10. While older models can still play HDR videos, they will display them in SDR, lacking the same intensity. Despite this, captivating content remains enjoyable, providing a unique viewing experience.

MacBooks support various HDR formats, including Dolby Vision, HDR10, and HLG. Apple continues to enhance support for the latest HDR technologies, ensuring compatibility with diverse formats. However, HDR10+ is not currently supported by Apple. This format, developed jointly by Samsung and Amazon in 2017, is backward-compatible with HDR10. Hence, HDR10+ content viewed on a compatible display will appear in the more common HDR10 format.

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This is the port diagram of a 2021 Apple MacBook Pro.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Connecting HDR-Compatible Hardware to Your MacBook

To fully experience HDR videos, every component must align perfectly. Ensure your MacBook is compatible, the content is in a supported HDR format, and the screen you’re viewing is capable of displaying a wide dynamic range with HDR10 or Dolby Vision compatibility. Additionally, the method and connection used to connect an external monitor play a crucial role.

DisplayPort monitors should be connected to the Thunderbolt port, while HDMI displays can be connected to either the HDMI port or the Thunderbolt port using a compatible USB-C adapter. If you have Apple’s Pro Display XDR, it should be connected via the Thunderbolt port.

Elevate Your Viewing Experience with HDR on MacBook

Watching HDR movies and videos on a MacBook is truly a visual treat, making scenes come to life with vivid intensity. Most newer MacBook models fully support HDR content, while some even feature super-bright XDR displays built-in. However, even if your MacBook has a display with lower brightness, adding an external monitor can provide a larger and brighter picture, allowing HDR movies and videos to shine brilliantly. Just ensure that your System Preferences are correctly configured and the appropriate cables and ports are used.

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