Enraptured showgoers at CES 2019 were mesmerized by the new 8K TVs being shown off by LG and Samsung, but we could still hear the collective sigh from tech fans the world over. Why? Why in the world do we need 8K when it feels like 4K just became a thing? Is this a “planned obsolescence” scenario for TV? An attempt to force an upgrade before its time? And what about content? Is there any hope for 8K when we can barely get 4K?
Those are all fair questions, and we have the answers. Here’s everything you need to know about 8K — and why your 4K TV will be just fine for the foreseeable future.
What is 8K?
If you use basic math, it may seem like 8K would provide double the resolution of 4K, but that isn’t the case. Since we’re talking two dimensions here — horizontal lines and vertical lines — it’s actually a whopping 16 times the pixels of HD and four times the pixels of 4K: 8K resolution equates to 7,680 × 4,320, or 33 million pixels (33,117,600, to be exact), instead of 3,840 × 2,160 (8,294,400 pixels). To more easily visualize it, imagine four 4K TVs placed in a four-by-four grid. That is a lot of pixels.
Other technologies like high dynamic range (HDR) can and do sometimes make a more visible difference, especially from a distance, since TVs show a brighter and more colorful picture with HDR. That said, 8K is absolutely noticeable on larger displays, especially up close.
A brief history of 8K TV (so far)
Just as 4K TVs were beginning to take off, 8K started appearing. While display panels had been shown earlier, Sharp showed off the first actual 8K TV at CES 2013, with an impressive 85-inch model. Of course, this TV wouldn’t be available for purchase that year (or years later), which is often par for the course at CES, especially with cutting-edge technology.
In following years, other companies began to show their own 8K TV prototypes, even as content providers were struggling to keep up with 4K. This too eventually changed, with Japanese broadcaster NHK kicking off the first 8K satellite broadcasts in 2016. Later that year, part of the 2016 Rio Olympics were shot and broadcast in 8K by NHK, though viewers could only watch them in that resolution at special theaters.
When will 8K TVs become readily available?
Ready or not, 8K TVs are now here. Fresh from their debuts at CES 2019, manufacturers are starting to announce the availability of their 8K models. Samsung, which already had an 8K model in 2018, has announced the availability of its 2019 QLED TVs, which include the Q900, an 8K model that’s available in sizes ranging from 65 to 98 inches, with prices that start at just $5,000. LG, for its part, has announced it will soon start selling OLED and LED TVs with 8K resolution, though prices have yet to be announced. Sony’s 8K Z9G series will be available in 85- and 98-inch sizes, and TCL showed off an 8K Roku TV at CES that is widely expected to be available this year — likely at a price that will make it the most affordable 8K TV on the market.
8K TVs will likely remain out of reach for most consumers this year, but you can expect prices to start falling quickly now that most major manufacturers are producing them. In the same way that 4K prices dropped sharply over just a couple of years, 8K pricing will follow suit — possibly even faster.
To give an idea of how far things have come, Sharp’s first 8K TV went on sale for “professional use” in Japan in 2015 for $133,000. The fact that Samsung’s new 65-inch model costs just three percent of the price of that early model shows you just how quickly things move in TV land — and how competitive Samsung’s Q900 really is for first adopters.
What about 8K content?
Even a year ago, there wasn’t much 8K content you could watch at home, even if you had an 8K TV, but that is slowly changing.
In November 2017, video-streaming site Vimeo added support for 8K, and it now has over 6,000 videos tagged as 8K. YouTube got on the 8K bandwagon even earlier, and it too boasts thousands of 8K videos — though strangely its search filters only let you look for 4K as a maximum resolution. NHK launched a test channel dedicated to showing 8K content in December 2017, and last year made the channel permanent. With the right equipment, Japanese consumers can enjoy this (limited) 8K content in their homes right now. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be a major showcase for 8K broadcast, at least in Japan, but how much of the games will be broadcast in that resolution in the United States or Europe remains to be seen.
But native 8K content isn’t the only reason to have an 8K TV if you’re looking at a large screen size. 8K TVs can upscale 4K content to 8K, and the difference in clarity is stark. To prove this point, Samsung put two 85-inch TVs side by side, one playing 4K content in 4K, the other upscaling 4K content to 8K. The difference was apparent, with the upscaled 4K video playing on the 8K TV looking visibly superior. Samsung’s latest 8K TVs are equipped with a dedicated 8K processor with an artificial intelligence system designed to upscale 4K content frame by frame in real time.
There are also 8K cameras available, and you can be sure that companies are preparing to offer 8K content at some point, but for a clue as to how long you’ll need to wait, simply take a look at where 4K content is right now. Streaming services like Amazon, Netflix, Vudu, and others offer 4K streaming, and there’s a large and growing collection of 4K UHD Blu-ray discs, but it has a long way to go before 4K reaches anywhere near the ubiquity of HD.
The ATSC 3.0 digital broadcast standard will eventually lead to 4K broadcasting over the air and through cable and satellite providers, but the standard was only finally approved by the FCC in November 2017. Technically, 8K is compatible with ATSC 3.0, but right now, it’s an easy bet that most cable, satellite, and other content providers are focused on rolling out programming for viewers eager to make the most out of their 4K TVs.
Thanks to the popularity of HDR, content providers are also focused on increasing their HDR offerings, yet another thing that may stand in the way of a widespread focus on 8K, at least for the time being.
While you can already get your hands on an 8K TV, like the early days of both HD and 4K, it will be a lot longer before they’re practical for most people. For most of us, 4K TVs have plenty of life left in them.