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8K TV: What you need to know

Actual TVs with real 8K resolution are on sale now, but they're still really expensive. Are they worth it?

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002-samsung-oled-8k-98-inch-tv

Samsung's 98-inch 8K TV.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Just when you were getting used to the idea of TVs with 4K resolution, here comes 8K. In 2019 the first 8K TVs went on sale, and right now in 2020 you can choose from multiple 8K TVs, with more on the way later this year. Manufacturers like Samsung, Sony, LG and TCL are doing their best to convince you that an 8K TV is worth the investment. And it's quite an investment, currently more than $2,700 for a 65-inch 2020 Samsung

Price is one reason why we're still years away from 8K TVs being commonplace. "On a unit basis we don't expect 8K to exceed 1% of volume until 2022," said Stephen Baker, vice president of Industry Analysis at NPD Group, in December 2019. "8K will migrate down in price but it will face a stiffer challenge than 4K, for example, as the price points and the market for very large TVs are now highly established and very price competitive." The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic could push the adoption of 8K TVs even further into the future.

But the day will come when 4K and 8k go the way of all those lower resolutions and are replaced by a bigger number. Does this mean 4K TV is already obsolete? Do you need to rush out and buy an 8K TV or risk being unable to watch your favorite shows? Do you need an 8K TV for the PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X

The answer to all of these questions is "no." Here's why.

Read more: PS5 and Xbox Series X can game in 8K resolution. Should you care?

8K TV buying advice: Don't

Before we get into the nitty gritty, here's a quick summary of our current thinking regarding 8K TVs.

  • Unless you have money to burn, don't even consider buying one right now.
  • From what we've seen, there's very little image quality improvement over 4K TVs.
  • Any image quality improvement we've seen required sitting very close to a very large screen.
  • To get the most out of any 8K TV, you need actual 8K content.
  • There's basically no 8K content (movies and TV shows) available right now and little prospect of any in the next year.
  • Both new consoles promise 8K resolution, but that's potentially very misleading.
  • In the next few years 8K TVs will get cheaper and perhaps actually be worth considering.

Now that you've slid your wallet back into your pocket, sit back and soak in everything there is to know about 8K TVs today. 

Read more: Remember when TVs weighed 200 pounds? A look back at TV trends over the years

What is 8K?

A traditional HDTV from a few years ago is 1080p, which means it has 1,920 pixels horizontally, and 1,080 vertically. Many digital cinema projectors -- the ones in movie theaters -- have a resolution of 2,048x1,080. Because it's common in Hollywood-speak to only refer to the horizontal resolution, they call that "2K," but it's basically the same as the HDTV 1080p you have at home.

1080-4k-8k-comparison
Mathias Appel/HDMI Licensing

The term "4K" comes from the digital cinema side, too, with a horizontal resolution of 4,096, hence "4K." However, on the TV side, manufacturing efficiencies meant we got double the horizontal and vertical resolutions of 1080p HDTV, so 3,840x2,160 pixels. Everyone colloquially calls this "4K," though the technical term is Ultra HD. This has four times as many pixels as 1080p HD.

Which brings us to 8K. You guessed it: twice the horizontal and vertical resolution of 4K, for a whopping 7,680x4,320 and 33,177,600 total pixels. Not only is that four times the resolution of 4K, that's an incredible 16 times more pixels than 1080p. Or to put that differently, you could put 16 full-resolution 1080p videos on an 8K screen at the same time with no loss of quality. I'm not sure why you'd want to do this, but hey, why not?

TV resolutions

Resolution name Horizontal x vertical pixels Total pixels Other names Found on
8K 7,680x4,320 33,177,600 8K Ultra HD, Ultra High-Definition (UHD), Super Hi-Vision, UHD-2 High-end TVs
4K 3,840x2,160 8,294,400 Ultra High-Definition (UHD) Most modern TVs
1080p 1,920x1,080 2,073,600 High-Definition (HD) Smaller, less-expensive, and older TVs
720p 1,280x720 921,600 High-Definition (HD) Even smaller, and older, TVs
8k-ultra-hd-logo

Consumer Technology Association's 8K Ultra HD logo

CTA

One thing to look for in new 8K TVs: there will be an official logo and "spec" on new 8K TVs. This goes beyond raw pixel count to help consumers find TVs that perform to at least a certain standard. This is partly to avoid the mess from the early days of HD and 4K, where some of the first TVs couldn't accept a full HD or later, a 4K signal. The Consumer Technology Association lays out the following minimums a TV is required to have to wear the 8K Ultra HD logo (seen to the right):

  • At least 7,680 pixels horizontally and 4,320 vertically. 
  • At least one HDMI input capable of accepting that resolution, at 50 or 60 fps (depending on region), with HDR. 
  • The ability to upconvert lower resolution signals to 8K.
  • The ability to receive, and display, 10-bit content.

Do you need 8K?

Not even a little. 

As we've explained many times with 4K TVs, there's a point of diminishing returns when it comes to resolution. The human eye can only see so much detail, and extra pixels beyond what you can discern are basically wasted. To get anything out of higher resolutions and their proportionally tinier pixels, you need to sit closer, get a bigger TV, or both.

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It's rare that anyone gets a large enough TV -- or sits close enough to one -- to justify the need for 4K resolutions. 8K is excessive overkill… at least for a TV. If you're talking about massive theater-size screens like Samsung's Wall or Sony's Cledis, 8K would be amazing. But since 4K is hard to discern when comparing to a 1080p TV, 4K to 8K from 10 feet away will be pretty much impossible.

That said, because 8K TVs are currently at most expensive offerings from a company, they often also have features that help it produce some stunning images that have nothing to do with resolution. So 8K TVs likely look great, regardless of their pixel count.

Read more: Samsung's 2020 TVs go on sale, focus on 8K, cost a bundle

What about content? 

Without 8K content, an 8K TV is just a 4K TV with a few thousand dollars stuck to it with duct tape. Samsung talks up fancy "AI" upscaling technology on its TVs, designed to improve the look of mere 4K and 1080p sources on an 8K screen. And other TV makers like Sony and LG have touted their own 8K special sauces. But to get the most out of all those 33 million-plus pixels, the incoming source needs to be 8K too.

There are three main aspects to getting any new format viewable in your home: the content itself, transmission and playback. The Samsung 8K TV, and others that will surely follow, represent the playback side. As in the TV or projector in your home. That's the easy part.

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6:07

Content is tougher. First off, there are only a few cinema cameras capable of capturing 8K. Japan's NHK has been dabbling, and will likely transmit a significant portion of the Tokyo Olympics, whenever it finally happens, in 8K. There has been some 8K content shot at the last several Olympics, so expect even more. There are a handful of channels on YouTube that showcase 8K content, mostly nature documentaries and the like.

Red, one of the main camera companies used for Hollywood movies, has several models that can record in this resolution, as do a few others. Interestingly, there have already been feature films shot in 8K. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was the first, followed by Mortal Engines, The New Mutants and a few others that are upcoming. Creating 8K content is more challenging, as the cost for these cameras, plus the computers and storage capable of dealing with hundreds of terabytes, if not multiple petabytes of information, do not come cheap.

There are also a growing number of consumer cameras that can record 8K, like Canon's EOS R5, and even some smartphones, like Samsung Galaxy S20.

Read more: Samsung Galaxy S20 8K resolution video capture: Should you care?

red-monstro-vv-8k-camera-body

The Red Monstro 8K VV "Brain" has a 35.4-megapixel CMOS sensor, can record 8K video at 60 fps, has over 17 stops of dynamic range, and costs -- brace yourself -- $54,500. 

Red

So when I say there's "no" content, that's a bit of hyperbole. There are some videos showing up online, as more and more content producers are experimenting with the format. However, it's going to be a long time before you start seeing your favorite shows or movies in 8K. That said, there are benefits to 8K video even if your end result is playback on 4K or 1080p displays.

What about the new Xbox and PlayStation?

Both Sony and Microsoft have announced that their next-generation gaming consoles, the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X, will both be capable of outputting 8K resolution. Sounds like a great excuse to buy an 8K TV, right? Not so fast.

First, and most important, you will not need an 8K TV to play games on these consoles. They will work just fine on most 1080p and nearly all 4K TVs. If you can connect a PS4 or Xbox One to your current TV, it will work with a PS5 or Xbox Series X. 

Secondly, games will need to be specifically written to take advantage of 8K, something that isn't going to be particularly common. The PS4 Pro, for example, has been out for nearly four years and there still are only a few dozen games that actually render in 4K. That's a piece of fine print that's a little hard to understand. The resolution you see on screen might not be what resolution the console is rendering the game. It's far more common for the console to build the game's visuals at a lower resolution, 1440p perhaps, and then a separate chip will upconvert that to 4K to send your TV. This is the same thing your TV does automatically if you play a DVD.

Read more: Sony PS5 vs. Microsoft Xbox Series X: Game on for holiday 2020

Long story short, few games will look much different on an 8K TV than they will on a 4K TV. There is limited time and money when you develop a game (well, most games), and few developers will want to invest those limited resources on something only a handful of people will be able to enjoy. Far more likely are games rendered in 4K with higher frame rates, something else made possible by the latest version of HDMI and available on the new consoles.

Lots of megabits = new HDMI cables

Getting the 8K onto your new 8K TV is also a bit of a challenge. Ideally, the TV's internal apps will be 8K compatible. You'd think that'd be a given, but it wasn't in the early days of 4K. Further, there's no 8K content from the likes of Netflix, Amazon or Vudu. YouTube, as you see in the video above, is one option, as is Vimeo. Eventually, ATSC 3.0, also known as Next Gen TV, might allow 8K to be broadcast over the air, but we're a long way from that.

8K also presents another issue for the early adopter: The bandwidth required is going to be ridiculous. Most 4K content streaming companies recommend you have an internet connection in the 20Mbps range. 8K, even with everything else the same, has four times as many pixels. That doesn't equate exactly to a 4x increase in data or bandwidth, but, and this is just a ballpark guess, a connection requirement in the 40 to 50Mbps range wouldn't be unexpected. Maybe you, dear CNET reader, have that kind of speed, but the vast majority of people do not.

hdmi-bandwidthcomparison.jpg

A visual representation of how much more bandwidth the upcoming Ultra High Speed cables can handle.

HDMI Forum

Interestingly, we've already got the physical connection thing sorted in case any 8K media streamers hit the market or they're needed for the PS5 and Xbox SX. HDMI 2.1 is capable of 8K resolutions and more. But before you rush out and stock up on HDMI 2.1-compatible cables, keep in mind there will almost certainly be a new standard between now and wide adoption of 8K. So those cables might be obsolete, despite their current forward-looking appearance.

All of the major 8K TV makers say that their sets have HDMI 2.1 inputs capable of handling the 48Mbps bandwidth required for the highest resolution and frame-rate combinations (8K and 60 frames per second and 4K at 120 fps). We also got a look at some new, higher-bandwidth HDMI cables. 

To take advantage of higher 4K frame rates on the new consoles, presuming your TV can handle them, you might need new cables.

Why, CNET, whyyyyy???

To put on my cynic hat, increasing resolution is one of the easiest ways to offer the appearance of higher performance. This is likely what TV makers are smoking, coming out with 8K TVs when there's essentially no content and no 8K infrastructure. 

Given how easy it was to market 4K as "better looking than 1080p," TV makers are claiming the same thing with 8K. But resolution is just one aspect of overall picture quality, and not one of the most important ones. Improving other aspects, like contrast ratios, overall brightness for HDR, more lifelike colors and so on, offer better image improvements but are significantly greater technical challenges. This is especially true for LCD technology, something Samsung is still strongly flogging -- all of its QLED TVs are just LCD TVs with quantum dots

It's relatively easy to create a higher-resolution LCD panel, but improving the other aspects of performance for that tech is a greater challenge. This is why OLED is a thing, and why many companies, including Samsung, are researching new technologies like true direct-view quantum dot displays, MicroLED, mini-LED and other technologies.

direct-view-qd

Direct-view quantum dot display.

Nanosys

Don't wait for 8K

If you're thinking about buying a new TV, does this mean you should hold off? Well, if your current TV works, you should probably hold on to it regardless, but new 8K TVs shouldn't be a factor. As we mentioned above, these early 8K TVs are very expensive. We're also many, many years away from any sort of widespread 8K content. We arguably don't have widespread 4K content, and no one is talking about scrapping 4K to go directly to 8K.

The other aspect is a warning that will be seconded by countless 4K early adopters: There is no guarantee these early 8K TVs will end up being compatible with any future 8K standard. There are tens of thousands of 4K TVs that can't play any current 4K media content. 

Why pay exorbitant amounts of money on a TV that barely has any content now, and might not be able to play any later? Bragging rights, I guess, and if that's your thing, who am I to stand in your way? Just keep in mind that current HDR 4K TVs look vastly better than every first-gen 4K TV and cost a fraction of the price. 


Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why you shouldn't buy expensive HDMI cablesTV resolutions explainedhow HDR works and more.

Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff, then check out his travel photography on Instagram. He also thinks you should check out his best-selling sci-fi novel about city-sized submarines and its sequel