When it comes to the TV resolution wars, nothing can stand in the way of progress. When once the world thought 4K was the be-all, end-all, in came 8K to blow us away yet again. 8K TVs were all the rage at CES 2021 earlier this year, and many of these models already have started arriving in stores and online — so now is the perfect time to start familiarizing yourself with 8K Ultra HD.
In a nutshell, if 4K Ultra HD is four times the resolution of Full HD, then 8K Ultra HD is four times the resolution of 4K Ultra HD and 16 times the resolution of Full HD. But is this a worthwhile addition to your home entertainment setup, and will it replace 4K Ultra HD anytime soon? Let’s dig into 8K TV and find those answers.
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: an 8K resolution screen equates to 7680 x 4320, or 33 million pixels (33,117,600, to be exact), instead of 3840 x 2160 (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 such as 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. However, 8K is absolutely noticeable on larger displays, and the closer you get, the better it looks.
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 the 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.
But is it real 8K TV?
As with any new technology, competing brands are going to do their best to convince buyers that their version of 8K is the best version of 8K. In an effort to bring some consistency to these claims so that we don’t have to wade through endless specs and stare at a bunch of TVs side by side at our local big-box store, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) announced its 8K TV program, complete with an official 8K Ultra HD logo.
Any TV that meets the CTA’s specifications for 8K can voluntarily display the logo on packaging and marketing material, which is intended to give buyers some peace of mind that they’re getting the latest and greatest. To qualify, a TV must have a truly native resolution of 8K (7680 x 4320) and be able to upscale non-8K material to full 8K resolution. It also has to support HDR — though there’s no requirement for which of the many HDR formats it must support. Finally, it needs to have at least one input that’s HDCP 2.2 compliant and be able to handle 10-bit color on a pixel-by-pixel basis.
So that’s it, right? All we need to do is look for that logo and we’re guaranteed that we’re getting a high-quality 8K model? Not so fast.
Independent from the CTA, the 8K Association is a collection of manufacturers and other industry players that have banded together to form their own standard for 8K picture quality along with — as you’ve probably guessed — its own logo.
Curiously, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference between these two certifications — at least as far as we can tell from what each group has published so far. One requirement the 8K Association has that the CTA does not is HDMI 2.1.
Great! So as long as our new 8K TV has one of these two certification logos, we should be good to go … right? Er, hold that thought.
The 8K Association’s membership includes many of the top TV makers such as Samsung, Panasonic, Hisense, and TCL. However, LG is not among the member companies. That’s likely because LG has taken a stand over what it considers “real 8K.”
According to LG, if you really want to understand how well an 8K display performs, you need to look at a measurement that you’d be hard-pressed to find listed anywhere: Contrast modulation (CM). CM is a measurement of how precisely contained each pixel’s color and brightness is from its neighboring pixels. The higher a CM value, the sharper the perceived image. CM is measured as a percentage, from 0 to 100. LG claims that its 8K TVs have the highest CM values in the industry — up to 90% in the case of the 8K OLED TV and NanoCell TVs.
The reason LG is making such a big deal about the CM capabilities of their TVs is that the CTA’s 8K specification insists on a minimum of 50% CM. Not only does LG claim that its screens handily exceed this requirement, it points out that some 8K TVs made by Samsung don’t even meet the CTA’s minimum CM value, and thus cannot be considered “real” 8K TVs.
Contrast modulation is a very real thing, but just how much of a difference does it make when you’re sitting 8 feet from an 88-inch 8K television? As we publish more 8K TV reviews, we’ll attempt to answer that question, but for the moment, we believe that variables such as brightness, contrast, color gamut and accuracy, and viewing angles all play a larger role in how good an 8K screen (or even a 4K screen) looks.
When will 8K TVs become readily available?
Ready or not, 8K TVs are here.
If you want to jump on the 8K bandwagon immediately, Samsung, LG, Sony, and TCL all have 8K models you can buy right now, with sizes that start at 55 inches and prices that begin at around $2,000.
And the field for 8K TVs is finally starting to open up, with many of the 2021 models that debuted at this year’s CES becoming available, offering a greater selection of both sizes and prices.
TCL’s 2021 8K 6-Series mini-LED TVs have just gone on sale, and boy have they made a splash. Starting at just $2,200 for the 65-inch model and only $3,000 for the 75-incher, these new panels from the Chinese multinational are finally bringing 8K TVs within arm’s reach for many more consumers. The game-changer here is TCL adding mini-LED backlight technology to the fold, which gives the 2021 6-Series an edge over older 8K models because of its ability to pack a ton more LEDs into the backlight system, allowing for greater control over the contrast and black levels. Our TCL 8K 6-Series in-depth review looks at all of its features and benefits.
LG has been a leader in the 8K space, with their impressive flagship $30,000 88-inch ZX OLED 8K TV that rolled out in 2019. But the company now has a stellar lineup of affordable 8K sets for 2021, including the latest in their 8K NanoCell 99 TVs: An 86-inch model for $4,999, a 75-inch model for $3,499, and a 65-inch model for $2,999. Alternately, LG has also launched their 2021 line of mini-LED TVs, dubbed QNED MiniLED, with their 99 Series coming this month starting at $3,499 for the 65-inch model, $4,799 for the 75-inch, and $6,499 for the 86-inch.
Samsung’s top-of-the-line Q950TS 8K QLED TVs made us dizzy and dazzled us with their gorgeous $13,000 panels, but for 2021 the company’s range is wider and getting much more affordable with its QN900A and QN800A versions of their 8K Neo QLED TVs. Both models are powered by mini-LED and share several common features, including beautiful edge-to-edge picture, 120Hz viewing in 4K, and support for HDR10+ Adaptive, with the QN900A ranging in price from $5,000 to $9,000 and the cheaper QN800A lineup ranging from $3,500 to $6,500.
You can never count Sony out of the fray when it comes to TVs, and while they may be playing catch-up a bit in the 8K race, they’re gaining some ground with some pretty impressive panels. The company’s legendary picture processing was on display in full force with 2020’s Z8H Ultra 8K HDR LED TV, which you can still get in the 75-inch variety for a reasonable $3,999 or $8,999 for the 85-inch. But looking forward to 2021, Sony is slated to release the Z8H’s replacement, the Sony XR ZJ9, currently on pre-order for $7,999 and $9,999 for the 75- and 85-inch models, respectively. The ZJ9 will use Sony’s contrast boosting tech and will feature audio improvements with their Acoustic Multi-Audio that makes it feel as though the sound is coming right from the screen. The ZJ9 will also be Sony’s first TV to run Google TV, which will be replacing the regular Android TV interface going forward.
With these prices, 8K TVs are still out of reach for those with limited budgets. But assuming they continue their downward trajectory much as 4K did, by 2022, we expect we’ll see lots of great 8K TVs priced well below $2,000.
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 65-inch model costs less than 3% of the price of that early model shows you just how quickly things move in TV land.
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 monitor, but that is slowly changing.
In November 2017, video-streaming site Vimeo added support for 8K, and it now has over 10,500 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 resolution as the maximum resolution. NHK launched a test channel dedicated to showing 8K content in December 2017, and in 2019 made the channel permanent.
Before being rescheduled, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were slated to be a major showcase for 8K broadcast, at least in Japan. Now with the Olympics underway, NHK was finally able to make good on its plans, committing to broadcasting roughly 200 hours of 8K UHD coverage, including the opening and closing ceremonies and seven events, including swimming, athletics, and judo.
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.
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 such as Amazon Prime Video, Fandango, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix, UltraFlix, VUDU, and YouTube offer 4K streaming, and there’s a large and growing collection of 4K UHD Blu-ray discs, but 4K has a long way to go before it reaches anywhere near the ubiquity of HD.
The ATSC 3.0 digital broadcast standard (also known as NextGen TV) 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 video, at least for the time being.
As with so many advances, it could be gaming that ushers us into an 8K world faster than movies or TV shows. Sony’s PlayStation 5 game console will support 8K graphics in future updates, and it looks like the Microsoft Xbox X Series console will, too, at least in theory, although some game experts are saying it’s not worth their time.
Ready to get a new TV? 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.
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