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8K TV explained: Everything you need to know about the future of television

While we and plenty of enraptured showgoers at IFA 2018 were mesmerized by the new 8K TVs being shown off by LG and Samsung, 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 isn’t going to go anywhere any time soon.

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 4×4 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?

While 8K TVs have been shown at every CES since 2013, the 2018 show seemed to have a new push behind the higher-resolution behemoths. Major TV players like Samsung, LG, and Sony all had 8K TVs on display at the show, though it will likely be a while before they’re anything resembling common.

Things took a major step forward at IFA 2018. LG unveiled a behemoth 88-inch 8K OLED TV, and while we don’t know anything about pricing, the TV looked absolutely jaw-dropping and could likely launch in 2019. Not to be left out, Samsung debuted its own 8K TV, the 85-inch Q900, a version of which we recently checked out for a hands-on review. The TV is already available for a shock-inducing $15,000, but that’s actually less expensive than we expected to pay for this kind of monstrous, cutting-edge display.

As you may remember from the early days of 4K TVs and HDTVs, initial models are likely to stay on the expensive side for some time. You can still pay plenty of money for a 4K TV these days, but many affordable models are available as well. This wasn’t the case a few short years ago. You can easily find 85-inch 4K TVs for under $5,000 now, but back in 2012, LG’s first 4K TV, the 84-inch 84LM9600, launched for $20,000.

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 model costs nearly a tenth 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?

Simply put, there isn’t much 8K content you could watch at home, even if you had an 8K TV right now. But native 8K content isn’t the only reason to have an 8K TV if you’re looking at a really large screen size. The 8K TVs of the future will upscale 4K content to 8K, and the difference in clarity will be 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 new 8K TV is also said to tout an artificial intelligence system designed to upscale 4K content frame-by-frame in real time.

Still, though, folks want to know when 8K content will actually be a thing. And, in a very limited way, it already is.

In November 2017, video-streaming site Vimeo added support for 8K, along with a handful of videos. NHK launched a test channel dedicated to showing 8K content in December 2017, but like the 2016 Olympics footage, viewers can only watch this channel at specially dedicated viewing stations throughout Japan. 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.

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.

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