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Samsung Q900 8K TV hands-on: A gorgeous 85-inch image at any resolution

But it's not because of all those extra pixels.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Samsung's first 8K TV looks spectacular in person. Since it costs $15,000, I expected nothing less. 

This 85-inch behemoth is the first television with 8K resolution that's widely available to buy, if you happen to be rich. For everyone else it's more of a technology demonstration. Of course smaller, cheaper, 8K TVs will surely go on sale in 2019 and beyond -- they're already available outside the US -- so you might be mulling an 8K TV purchase sooner than you might expect.

At 33 million pixels, an 8K TV has four times the resolution of conventional 4K TVs, which start at around $4,000 for 85-inch models. So how much better can those extra pixels make the image look?

To begin to answer that, I headed to Samsung's quality assurance lab in New Jersey to check one out in person. Since my evaluation didn't take place in my lab at CNET with a lineup of competing TVs, this isn't a full, rated review. Instead it's my own early impressions based on a couple of hours of viewing a less-than-final model (see editors' note below) with a bunch of different video, much of it provided by Samsung. 

My takeaway is that the Q900 is the best-looking 85-inch TV I've ever seen, and maybe the best TV of any size that doesn't use OLED technology. Its image is spectacular, with bright highlights and deep black levels that lend the kind of contrast and punch seen only on the best screens. But from what I saw, that awesome image quality didn't have much to do with all those extra pixels.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, however, here's a quick primer on 8K.

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The state of the 8K union

Prior to the release of the Q900, the highest-resolution TVs available in the US had 4K resolution. The appeal of 8K, according to Samsung, is that with ever-larger screen sizes you'll need higher resolutions to appreciate them. 

Samsung's 8K TV is slightly ahead of its time. Plenty of sources exist in 4K resolution today, including Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Vudu and 4K Blu-ray discs, but there are basically no 8K movies or TV shows available right now. The exception is a few YouTube videos, but Samsung's rep says that the Q900 will not be able to play them in 8K yet. That may change in the future, says the rep, once the compression technology is ready. 

In Japan NHK is going to start test broadcasts of 8K in the next few months, with plans to deliver some 8K coverage of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, but widespread delivery of 8K is still a few years off. For now with the vast majority of stuff you'll watch, the Q900 has to rely on upscaling standard HD and 4K content to fill its higher pixel count.

Samsung says it has completely redesigned the scaling on the Q900 for 8K. It uses a new 8K Quantum processor and artificial intelligence to improve texture, smooth jagged edges and reduce noise and blurring. "A database analyses millions of sets of low- and high-resolution content and uses machine learning to develop algorithms" used for upscaling, Samsung says, and it can update the TV over time with improved formulas.

Cheaper, smaller 8K TVs are currently available outside the US.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Samsung's 8K TV is only available in an 85-inch size in the US, but other global markets, including the UK, get smaller 8K QLED TVs at 65, 75, 82 and, yes, 85 inches. The 65-incher costs £4,999 and is available for preorder now. The Q900 is the first 8K TV you can buy in the US, but Sharp's 70-inch LV-70X500E 8K monitor started shipping earlier this year to Europe (for 11,000 euros) after going on sale in late 2017 in China, Japan and Taiwan. 

So how does that 8K TV look, Katzmaier?

An excellent-performing 8K TV like the Q900 looks a lot like an excellent 4K TV. Samsung showed me some 8K demo footage that looked incredible, but the bulk of material I viewed was lower resolution, upscaled to 8K on the Q900. Based on my experience at Samsung's lab, all those pixels and fancy upscaling didn't vastly improve non-8K images, even at 85 inches. 

I spent much of my time in a dark room comparison, where Samsung had set up the Q900 next to the largest 4K TV it had available, the 82-inch 82Q6FN that costs $3,500. Beyond the resolution difference, the Q6 lacks most of the image quality extras of the Q900, including that fancy upscaling, full array local dimming and insane brightness. Samsung claims the Q900 can get to 4,000 nits in dynamic mode and 2,000 in movie mode. That's brighter than any production TV I know about, and although I didn't want to measure the sample Samsung exhibited (mainly because it was less than final), I believe it.

Even on a TV this big, you'll need to sit close to appreciate the extra resolution.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In just about everything I watched, the Q900 looked better than the Q6. Samsung showed me clips of nature scenes from the Planet Earth 2 4K Blu-ray and the difference was obvious. The improved brightness of the Q900 made its images pop more, the dark areas looked more natural and well defined, and the colors appeared more vibrant. 

I had to look hard to see differences I could attribute to 8K resolution, however. From a viewing distance of about 10 feet, there was a very slight improvement in the details of rocks along the edge of a shore and a shot of some waving grass, but the difference was so subtle I missed it at first and only noticed after Samsung's rep pointed it out. I asked the rep to refrain from doing so, so I could see for myself, and I did see -- or thought I saw -- a couple more detail differences, but again they were super subtle.

With lower-resolution sources the detail differences were slightly more obvious, but hardly a revelation. One of the biggest differences was in a 720p still image Samsung provided of a Buffalo Wild Wings beer glass, where the edge of the logo was clearer on the 8K display, evidence of its superior upscaling. I asked Samsung to play scenes from the original Planet Earth on 1080p Blu-ray and in some scenes the Q6 actually looked a bit sharper, albeit not necessarily better -- a difference I attribute to the edge enhancement of its more aggressive video processing. 

Up close with newspapers on an 8K display.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The most revealing resolution difference between the TVs came during another still image Samsung provided: a bunch of newspaper clippings. On the 8K Q900 I could read individual words, down to tiny stock ticker numbers, while on the 4K TV much of the writing looked blurry and illegible. I could discern the difference between the two from as far away as about 8 feet.

The diminishing returns of extra pixels

So what's going on?

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.

Based on the math of human visual acuity, you'll need to sit really close to an 85-inch 8K screen to get any benefit of the extra resolution. Carlton Bale's superb home theater calculator, for example, says you'll need to sit 3 feet or closer (to a screen that's more than 7 feet diagonal) to see all the detail of 8K, and 5 feet or closer to see the full benefit of 4K. In other words, from further than 5 feet away you won't be able to see any benefit of an 8K TV compared to a 4K TV.

My brief experience with the Q900 largely confirmed that math. From about 10 feet away, high-resolution images didn't look particularly sharper on the 8K TV than the 4K one, even with Samsung's best upscaling processing. Lower-resolution images looked different, but the difference still didn't blow me away. 

With smaller screens, of course, the benefit of 8K resolution will require even closer viewing distances. Ten feet from an 85-inch TV seems as close as I'd want to sit, and I doubt people would want to sit significantly closer to smaller 8K TVs, just to get the benefit.

Enough about pixels already!

As I mentioned above the Q900 has an incredible picture, whether or not 8K makes any difference. The combination of high light output and effective full-array local dimming is potent, as always. In my brief viewing session, the Q900 seemed to handle near-dark areas with less crushing and better detail than the Q9 in my TV test lab, for example, an improvement Samsung's rep pointed out.

The Q900 has all the other extras of the Q9, including ambient mode, the external OneConnect input box with an "invisible" connection, HDR10+ compatibility and all the smart TV fixin's. It has an HEVC decoder that can handle 8K streaming up to 60 frames per second, once the services deliver it. The TV's USB port can also handle 8K/60.

The Q900 comes with a external OneConnect box to house the inputs.

Sarah Tew/CNET

On the other hand, Samsung can't confirm that the Q900 has HDMI 2.1-capable inputs, something I expected to see on the first 8K TVs because it delivers higher bandwidth than HDMI 2.0. Samsung's rep said the issue was that the HDMI test specification wasn't ready yet, so he couldn't comment on whether the TV would be HDMI 2.1-certified in the future. 

The rep did specify that (like other Samsung sets) the Q900 supports some aspects of HDMI 2.1, specifically Variable Refresh Rate, High Frame Rate (HFR) and Dynamic HDR. The TV's HDMI inputs will not handle 8K resolutions at 60 frames per second, however, maxing out at 8K/30. It will handle 4K/60, but Samsung says it has no immediate plans to make the TV compatible with HFR 4K/120 video.

Since it's so large, the 85-inch Q900 doesn't face much direct competition at the high end of the TV market. Sony makes a couple of midrange 85-inch TVs, the $4,000 X850F and the $5,300 X900F. Among flagship TVs the closest competitors, namely the Sony Z9F and the LG C8 OLED TV, max out at 75 and 77 inches respectively. For that reason, and based on my impressions, I consider the Samsung Q900F the best TV available at its size, regardless of whether 8K makes a visible difference. At least until LG's 88-inch 8K OLED comes out.

Editors' note: The Q900 models available at Samsung's lab were close to final, but not actual mass-production units. According to Samsung's reps, it came off the same production line as final units, "but is used to test and tweak firmware and software, and sometimes results could be used to adjust the final production line in terms of minor hardware changes."

Originally published Aug. 29.
Update Oct 10: Added hands-on impressions, new photos, video and other updates throughout.

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