Don’t Buy an 8K TV

If you’ve paid any attention to CES hype this year, you’ve probably spotted some news on 8K TVs. Samsung debuted a bezel-less display that’s 99 percent screen, LG launched no fewer than eight 8K panels, and Sony showed its own 8K device.

In addition, there’s been a fight between LG and Samsung over which company offers “real” 8K. LG’s devices are certified by the Consumer Technology Association, while Samsung’s are certified by both the CTA and the 8K Association. The 8K Association’s definition of 8K only covers the required resolution, while the CTA standard also requires 8K TVs to hit a target for contrast modulation, or CM. The image below (from a Samsung website, no less) is intended to illustrate how different levels of contrast modulation impact text display at a constant resolution of 3840×2160:


From a 2016 Samsung document on why CM is a superior method of measuring image quality compared to resolution. The 8K Association does not use CM to evaluate image quality. The CTA does.

The fact that Samsung and LG are literally fighting over what the definition for 8K content is the first clue that the 8K ecosystem is nowhere near ready for prime time. Device manufacturers may be starting to bring 8K sets to market, but buying one of those sets today is a bad deal for virtually anyone.

Not only is there no unified 8K standard, but there’s also no current discussion of an 8K content market. The physical media market may have stretched up to include 4K with Ultra HD Blu-ray, but if you haven’t noticed, the UHD Blu-ray market is withering on the vine. Oppo and Samsung left the market last year. Most films are still finished at the 2K resolution (2048×1080). The reason that watching a 2K movie in the theater often looks better than watching a 4K stream is because of how compressed the 4K stream is, despite the lower resolution. The chance that we see an 8K Blu-ray standard is small to nonexistent. It took companies like Netflix years to roll out 4K support and getting 4K streaming to work on a computer used to involve jumping through a great many hoops, long after 4K was available as a desktop resolution.

Second, even if there was an 8K streaming service, a lot of US citizens wouldn’t be able to use it. Netflix specifies a 25Mbps stream requirement for 4K. Since there’s no H.266 standard to introduce alongside 8K to make the files smaller, we can count on that requirement quadrupling. You’ll need 100Mbps internet service to stream in 8K, and streaming at that rate will eat about 44GB of bandwidth an hour. Better not watch more than 20 hours of Netflix per month, or you could find yourself running over the 1TB/month limit some ISPs impose.

Third, the benefits of 8K to most consumers are tiny. Film and photography editors will like the resolution because it allows for greater zooming without loss of detail, but that doesn’t mean that ordinary content mastered in 8K will look dramatically different than 4K. In fact, if you talk to companies like AMD and Nvidia, they’ll openly say that we’ve hit the point of diminishing marginal returns already, as far as resolution is concerned. The jump from 1080p to 4K made a larger difference than the move from 4K to 8K will, even though both standards quadruple the pixel count of the previous.

Both AMD and Nvidia have turned to other methods of improving image quality. Nvidia has focused on ray tracing as a method of improving game image quality since late 2018, while AMD has talked up HDR tone-mapping improvements as a key FreeSync capability. This year, AMD will add ray tracing to its own products. While resolution obviously matters, neither company is leaning solely on resolution as a feature that distinguishes 4K gaming from traditional 1080p.

The benefits of higher resolution increase with larger televisionsSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce but decrease with viewing distance. Large screens can definitely benefit from 4K compared to 1080p, but it’s unlikely that many people own the 80-inch+ displays required to make 8K a true upgrade over its 4K predecessor.

Far too many people treat the idea that we’ve nearly reached the end of useful resolution scaling as equivalent to meaning we’ve run out of ways to improve display quality. It’s not true — TVs still don’t offer 100 percent of the Rec. 2020 color gamut, HDR isn’t yet a bog-standard feature, and the HDR standard(s) continue to evolve. Micro-LEDs and OLEDs have both continued to improve over time. Just because we’re approaching the effective limits of resolution improvement doesn’t mean there’s not plenty of room to continue improving displays.

Don’t believe the 8K claims Microsoft and Sony are making about their next-generation consoles. If you look back in time, Microsoft and Sony have always played fast and loose with vague claims about what their platforms were capable of, as opposed to what game designers actually delivered. The Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 are going to target 4K for gaming, not 8K. Not even the RTX 2080 TiSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce is capable of delivering 60fps in 8K, and whatever GPU MS and Sony ship won’t be as powerful as an RTX 2080 Ti.

The earliest part of a rollout is always the worst time to buy. Buying into a standard before the standard has been finalized is a great way to find yourself locked out of an ecosystem. Whatever features and capabilities Samsung, LG, and Sony are offering at 8K in 2020 will be available in vastly improved and significantly cheaper flavors come 2025. That’s when IHS Markit expects an actual content ecosystem to be available.

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