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HDR Brightness Investigation and How to Get a Brighter HDR Experience on the Dell Alienware AW3225QF

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Introduction

We reviewed the Dell Alienware AW3225QF back in February of this year, and since then we’ve been investigating the HDR performance across a number of QD-OLED monitors based on various bits of user feedback. We found that despite logic suggesting that the ‘peak 1000’ (herein referred to as ‘P1000’) HDR mode should be brighter than the ‘True Black 400’ (TB400) mode based on their naming convention, and despite industry-standard white luminance measurements supporting that expectation; actually in real-world situations the TB400 mode seemed to be brighter for some reason.

We explored this situation in depth in our article here, explained why it’s happening, and introduced extended testing for our reviews to more accurately and thoroughly test HDR brightness performance. We thought it would be interesting to re-visit the Dell AW3225QF a bit more since we had not included it at the time, and this is a fairly special case as there’s some additional HDR viewing options you may want to consider if you’re after a brighter experience.

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Peak 1000 mode

Let’s start by measuring the Peak 1000 mode using our new testing approach:

The table above is a simple approach which tracks the HDR luminance error. Each grey shade being measured is shown across the top of the table starting from 0 for black, and going through the grey shades until you reach 100 for white. These grey shades are also relevant for mid-tone colours which are basically produced using a greyscale input and a colour filter. So measuring greyscale in this way can provide us a more complete data set, certainly far more than only measuring white luminance as has been the industry norm for a long time. Measurements are taken at a range of different APLs shown down the left hand side, from 1% up to 100% and the measured luminance of each grey shade is compared with the target it should be reaching.

The difference in luminance, whether that’s a positive number where it’s brighter than intended, or a negative number where it’s darker than intended is then captured in the table and colour coordinated. The blue areas are where the luminance is higher, and the pink areas are where it is lower. Ideally for a fully accurate greyscale performance all these squares would be white, which would reflect the ability to achieve the intended luminance for all the different grey shades, and at all the different APL areas. Having said that, as we said earlier it is quite common to have a gentler roll-off for luminance on the higher APL situations, as the absolute peak luminance that can be reached is much lower than at small APL levels, and rolling off a bit earlier helps preserve some light grey details. As a result, some pink-coloured error for larger APL’s in the mid to light grey shades is perfectly acceptable.

In the Peak 1000 mode you can see that as the APL increases, the luminance for mid-grey shades between around 45 and 75 is lower than it should be, and the accuracy of luminance gets progressively worse.

This is further evident from a few sample EOTF graphs at different APL %, where you can see that the roll-off becomes more drastic for these shades as APL increases. The grey line tracking the measured performance is quite a long way off the target yellow line and this again demonstrates that these mid grey shades are darker than intended.

Another good way to represent this data, and also present the measured luminance of the greyscale at the same time, is using this graph above. To do this we have considered an average of the measurements across the mid to light grey shades between values of 45 and 75 and you can see a visual representation of which shades that covers with the gradient bar under the table on the left. This excludes the much darker shades which should be considered separately as those parts of the image will relate to darker scenes and shadow detail, and are less relevant when considering the overall appearance of brightness in an image. We also exclude those that are near white (from 80 and above), as that’s commonly where clipping occurs on OLED screens since they can’t get anywhere near the 10,000 nits upper limited defined for the PQ EOTF.

On the graph itself the dotted grey line shows the average target luminance that should be reached for those grey shades, while the pale blue line tracks the average measured luminance for those shades. Ideally the two lines would match if there was no error in the luminance and it was completely accurate.

You can see here for Peak 1000 mode that for the smallest APL’s the lines meet closely and the achieved luminance is as intended for the different grey shades. However, as the APL increases the lines stray further apart from one another, again showing that the screen is darker than intended. This reaffirms what is shown in the pink/blue table earlier and the EOTF graphs.

True Black 400 mode

If we now look at the same data for the True Black 400 mode:

The results from this mode surprised us actually, as we are used to seeing more accurate luminance performance very close to the PQ curve in these TB400 modes on other QD-OLED monitors. You can see from the data and the EOTF graphs that actually roughly the same roll-off happens for all APL sizes and so in those mid-grey shades the luminance is lower than the yellow target line suggests.

This is probably deliberate on Dell’s part, as rolling off more gradually can help preserve tonal values in lighter grey shades, especially where absolute maximum luminance is lower (as it is in this mode). The luminance is further away from the “target” though on this screen’s TB400 mode than we’d seen on some other recent QD-OLED monitors covered in our main article. It also means that the TB400 mode is a bit darker on this screen than other TB400 modes on other models.

As an example, here’s the average greyscale brightness for those mid-light grey shades of the Dell’s TB400 mode, compared with the TB400 mode of an example MSI screen. The MSI data is actually taken from our recent review of the MAG 341CQP, but all of MSI’s screens have behaved basically the same in HDR, and so we can use this as a proxy for the MSI MPG 321URX 32″ model as well, a direct competitor to the AW3225QF. This data demonstrates that the Dell’s TB400 mode will appear a bit darker than MSI’s TB400 mode.

Comparing the brightness of both modes on the Dell

But what does this mean in terms of actual real-world brightness of each mode? Which mode on the Dell is actually brighter in real-world content? Peak 1000 or True Black 400?

We know we can’t rely only on the industry-standard, and now rather limited white luminance measurements only that are shown above. These alone would suggest both modes offer basically the same luminance for all APL until you get below 10%, at which point the P1000 mode is much brighter.

Instead we need to compare the greyscale luminance between the two modes:

We’ve plotted the graphs from earlier which showed the average greyscale luminance, with both modes now on the same graph. You can see that for smaller APL below ~20% the peak 1000 mode is brighter. That means for generally darker scenes (a low APL), with bright highlights, that mode would have the msot impact, with the hightlights reaching up to higher brightness and taking full advantage of the panel’s ~1000 nits peak luminance.

For larger APL above ~25% the TB400 mode is marginally brighter. It’s not as significant as we’ve seen on some other QD-OLED monitors though, like for instance the example MSI screen’s we covered in our main article and compared above. There is still a small difference though and in practice you may find that the TB400 mode can look a bit brighter in real-world HDR use on the Dell AW3225QF. This would be most noticeable for overall brighter scenes (higher APL), but actually on the Dell model it’s not a drastic difference.

How to get a brighter HDR experience on the Dell Alienware AW3225QF

The Dell AW3225QF is a bit different to all the other currently available QD-OLED monitors and there’s a “trick” you might want to use if you want to force a brighter HDR experience. This screen can support Dolby Vision HDR content, and because of the oddities of how Windows and PC’s handle these signals at the moment, there’s actually a “hack” that would allow you to make use of this mode, but for normal HDR content.

At the moment if you have Dolby Vision (DV) enabled on the monitor in the OSD menu, when you input any HDR content from a PC, the screen thinks it’s DV and switches to its DV mode. You can see this from the OSD menu on the monitor where a DV label appears. Dell actually added an on/off control for the DV setting in a firmware update after the product was launched (shown in the above photo), allowing you to disable this to instead force the screen to correctly operate in the HDR10 modes – i.e. the TB400 and P1000 options.

Actually you can make use of this mis-alignment “bug” to force a brighter HDR experience if you want to! This seems to happen with a lot of HDR10 content as far as we can tell, although it’s possible results will vary between different systems and games. Dell added the Dolby Vision ‘off’ option in a firmware update after the screen was released specifically because the screen was always/often switching in the DV mode when it shouldn’t, so we would assume it’s going to be a common situation. Experiment with your content, and let us know if it works for you or not.

Here’s the same measurements but with the screen showing HDR content within the Dolby Vision mode:

Dolby Vision Bright mode

With DV left enabled and selected on the Dolby Vision Bright mode, any HDR input signal from a PC (i.e. normal HDR10 content) will operate within the monitors DV mode instead, and actually this has different EOTF tracking and results in a brighter overall image.

You can see from the table and graphs above that for smaller APL especially, the luminance of mid to light grey shades is now higher than intended, and the rolling off on the EOTF graphs now happens much later on for higher APL only.

This is fairly similar to the behaviour we’d seen when we reviewed the Gigabyte AORUS FO32U2P recently, which doesn’t have a DV mode but which was the only QD-OLED screen we’d seen where the brightest HDR mode actually went in the other direction and ended up being brighter than intended, rather than darker. The over-brightening is not quite as drastic here when using the DV mode on the AW3225QF, especially for the darker shades where the EOTF tracking is better on the Dell, but it shows fairly similar levels of over-brightening in the mid to light grey shades.

You can see the table for the Gigabyte HDR brightness here, and accompanying EOTF graphs here.

If we plot the average greyscale luminance again you can also see here that it’s brighter than intended for smaller APL, and then very close to the target luminance for mid and large APL.

We had commented at the time in the Gigabyte review that when considering these results and measurements we should also consider that the PQ standard, and what is deemed “accurate”, is built on an assumption that the content will be mastered AND viewed in a dark room environment. That will not however be a relevant usage scenario for many users. It might be a little more relevant in the TV space where you might use the TV more in the evening and in a dimly lit lounge. But for desktop monitors, what is “accurate” for brightness may not actually be what the user really wants for their optimal enjoyment of HDR content. You will often hear complaints about HDR content being too dim, affecting not only shadow detail (often hard to make out) but also lighter content. This is very often related to the viewing environment and ambient lighting.

This brighter image setup that is accessible here using the DV mode trick, although not “accurate”, may help some users though when they’re using the screen in ambient lighting conditions other than a dark room, like during the day time for instance. The Peak 1000 mode isn’t accurate either, that’s darker than intended, but this brighter configuration in the DV Bright mode is more useful we think for more typical, everyday users. It makes the overall HDR image brighter in the mid to lighter shades especially and in real-world content the image popped more and looks nice and bright. It does not appear overly brighter or washed out thankfully and we expect many people will prefer this configuration.

We can also compare the greyscale luminance between the P1000 and TB400 HDR10 modes, and the forced Dolby Vision Bright mode. You can see the difference here more clearly, with the DV Bright mode clearly delivering a brighter overall HDR experience regardless of the APL and scene.

We have also provided a direct comparison of the brightness between the Dell’s ‘Dolby Vision Bright’ mode, and the Gigabyte AORUS FO32U2P’s default ‘HDR Game’ mode which also shows this over-brightening of the image. You can see that the Gigabyte remains brighter still than the Dell, more inaccurate as it were relative to the EOTF, but brighter if that is what you’re after from your HDR experience.

We are not saying by the way that this mode is accurate, as it’s not. It’s just inaccurate in the direction of being brighter, instead of in the direction of being darker like the P1000 mode is. As always, experiment and see what you prefer for your room conditions, gaming, user preferences etc.

‘Dolby Vision Game’ mode

For completeness we also tested the two other available Dolby Vision modes.

Dolby Vision Game seemed to be basically identical to the ‘Bright’ mode, so is another viable option if you want to force a brighter HDR experience.

‘Dolby Vision Dark’ mode

The DV Dark mode behaves differently and caps the maximum luminance of the display like the TB400 HDR10 mode does. This appeared to behave a bit like TB400 mode, although with a less drastic roll-off than the actual TB400 mode has. This actually means that the DV Dark mode behaves a bit more like TB400 modes on other QD-OLED monitors, with a closer tracking of the PQ EOTF.

To make that a bit easier to compare, here’s the sample EOTF graphs for the DV Dark mode, and the TB400 mode side by side:

This might be another useful mode to use, although it’s of a similar brightness to the DV Bright mode for the larger APL, and lacks the ability to reach the higher peak brightness for smaller APL. If you’re after a brighter HDR experience, the Dolby Vision Bright mode would be your better option.

Why don’t Dell just fix the EOTF tracking in the Peak 1000 mode?

Good question, and we reached out to Dell about this and got the same response that their support teams have been posting on Reddit in answer to this question from users. They acknowledged that Peak 1000 mode is dimmer than HDR400 but told us that “this is by design. Our HDR1000 mode on AW2725DF and AW3225QF meet Samsung Displays’ NPC (Net Power Control) expectations and design.” So for the moment this isn’t something Dell will be changing through any firmware update.

This could well be related to guidelines from the panel manufacturer as Dell say, although we know that MSI and Asus are both looking in to the issue with plans to improve performance through a future firmware update. Whether or not they can change anything, or are “allowed” to change anything remains to be seen. Although it is odd that Gigabyte, who are using the same QD-OLED panel as MSI and Asus (and the flat equivalent of the panel used by Dell) don’t have the HDR brightness configured in the same way. More info on all this when we get it of course.

This trick won’t work for consoles and other inputs

One note about this trick is that it will only really work from a PC input, where the current “bug” with the way HDR content is detected is still present. In a way, this is a useful bug right now if you want to have a brighter HDR experience for HDR10 content on this screen.

From modern games consoles like the Xbox Series X and PS5, and from external input devices like Amazon Fire stick etc, the handling of HDR10 and Dolby Vision content works correctly from our testing. If you input a DV source (as supported in some Xbox games for instance, and streaming apps like Netflix), the Dell AW3225QF will switch to DV mode. If you input an HDR10 signal (other games and streaming services like Amazon Prime for instance) the screen will instead switch to HDR10 mode. It behaves as it should for these devices, it is only really PC’s where it detects all HDR signals the same and switches to DV mode for most content it seems. Unfortunately that means you can’t use this trick even if you wanted to from those devices.

As we said earlier, it might not always work this way from a PC either, but Dell did specifically add the DV ‘off’ option in a firmware update because it was happening widely. Experiment and let us know how you get on.

Additional Reading

Where to Buy

We may earn a commission if you purchase from our affiliate links in this article- TFTCentral is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.ca and other Amazon stores worldwide. We also participate in a similar scheme for Overclockers.co.uk, Newegg, Bestbuy and some manufacturers.

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