What is 8K and should your next TV have it?


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Since the introduction of 8K resolution TVs in 2019, two questions have dominated the discourse: What is 8K, and is it worth it? Television innovation throughout the 20th century focused more on color, display type, screen size, and weight/portability, but in the 2000s, things have moved faster and faster in the realm of resolution. The last big jump in television resolutions—Ultra HD, aka 4K—was only available to consumers a scant seven years earlier. Now, there’s this newer, visibly superior format, but the technical differences—and the availability of media that takes advantage of those differences—still leave questions as to whether 8K is right for your home media center. So, whether it’s the Super Bowl or Champions League, movie night or next-gen. gaming that’s got an 8K TV upgrade on your mind, we’re here to give you the big picture on the big pixel count.

Samsung's 2024 8K TVs, with the NQ8 AI Gen3 processor, can leverage deep learning to enhance picture and motion quality at advanced resolutions—a common cure for upscaling issues as content comes of age.
Samsung’s 2024 8K TVs, with the NQ8 AI Gen3 processor, can leverage deep learning to enhance picture and motion quality at advanced resolutions—a common cure for upscaling issues as content comes of age. Samsung

What is 8K resolution?

Resolution is the number of pixels that comprise the image on a screen. Screens are built to only be able to handle a maximum resolution. Lower resolutions are typically “upscaled” to fill the screen, which means that a chipset embedded in the TV’s hardware recognizes that the digital video signal input is below the maximum resolution, and an algorithm “fills in” extra pixels in order to simulate the higher resolution. AI and deep learning are playing an increasing part in this. For example, Samsung unveiled its 2024 TV lineup at CES in January and heavily promoted its NQ8 AI Gen3 processor’s increased neutral networks and its ability to follow the onscreen action and counter motion smear, enhance clarity, and sharpen content. Upscaling works really well from 1080p (aka “Full HD”) to 4K (aka “Ultra HD”) and 4K to 8K because all those resolutions are built on the same ratio. A 1080p TV has a resolution of 1920 pixels (horizontal) by 1080 pixels (vertical). 4K is twice that, 3840 pixels by 2160 pixels. 8K, the highest available resolution on the market, is 7680 pixels by 4320 pixels.

Why is it called “8K?”

“8K” is essentially a marketing term, based on the resolution being twice that of the previous generation’s “4K.” The designation 4K referred to the horizontal pixel count, 3860, which was rounded up to 4000. 4K and “Ultra HD” (or “UHD”) were competing marketing terms for its generation of TVs (just as “1080p” and “Full HD” competed the generation before), and 4K won out amongst consumers as the best way to describe these screens or devices that could record in this resolution. “8K” continues the naming convention.

This chart shows the pixel difference between an 8K, 4K, and 1080P image.
This chart shows the pixel difference between an 8K, 4K, and 1080P image.

What is 8K DCI?

OK, I spoke too quickly above. While the “standard” 8K resolution is 7680 pixels by 4320 pixels, a second 8K resolution is longer horizontally at 8192 pixels. This wider format is called 8K DCI, with DCI standing for “Digital Cinema Initiatives.” With the advent of digital projection and production technologies replacing film, the movie studios came together to create a standard resolution for digitally shot or displayed movies. These DCI ratios existed for full HD (2048 x 1080) and 4K (4096 x 2160) and now for 8K. The goal of DCI was for digital film to still have a “cinematic” size different from the home-viewing ratio. Typically, films that are originally in 8K DCI will have black bars at the top and bottom when displayed on an 8K UHD screen.

How is 8K better than 4K, technically?

In order to understand why 8K is a leap over 4K, it’s important to understand how pixels on a screen work. Each pixel can only represent a single color value and, taken together, these millions of single points of color make up the image on a screen. Rather than “bigger is better,” smaller is better when it comes to pixels. The smaller and more numerous the pixels are, the more detail can be shown because the distance between single colors gets smaller and smaller until it’s almost imperceptible to the human eye where one pixel ends and another begins. 

If you blow pixels up but keep the same resolution, an image looks considerably worse and very blocky, like the graphics on the 8-bit NES games of the mid-’80s. So, if an 8K image is displayed on an 8K screen, the details will be twice as deep as the same image recorded in 4K displayed on a 4K screen. Of course, a badly recorded, poorly lit, or oddly colored image may look bad no matter the screen, but when it comes to our media, the higher resolution of the recording or stream and the higher resolution of the display, the smoother, more detailed, and more vibrant the image will be.

While Sony and LG still have 75/77-inch and above 8K TVs in their lineup, and Hisense exhibited a new luxury 8K Sonic Laser TV at CES 2024, Samsung remains the brand truly dedicated to the format and offering multiple sizes to push prices down. We’ve spent significant time with Samsung’s 2023 flagship TVs, particularly the Mini-LED NEO QLED 8K QN900C, and those meticulously managed 33 million pixels—aided by 2000-plus nits, HDR10+/HDR10, up to 144Hz refresh rate and quick response time for 4K gaming, and excellent reflection handling—ensure a screen with rich yet realistic colors, excellent contrast with deep uniform blacks, and details that pop whether the content is streaming or physical media. The local dimming/light control engine makes this a set that can compete with OLEDs. Textures and depth of field benefit from the density of pixels and motion management, with 4K upscaling clean and compelling, and advances in neural processing are sure to improve definition further in 2024’s models.

The Samsung QN900C on a table in a room with big windows
Samsung’s NEO QLED 8K QN900C is among the best TVs in its resolution class. Stan Horaczek

Do any services stream video in 8K? How about video games?

Unfortunately, the resolution of media is where 8K is hitting a roadblock. An 8K video image would require an incredible amount of bandwidth (internet data speed) to stream. The infrastructure of internet technology around the world simply cannot handle the kind of traffic that 8K streaming would require, and the amount of energy needed to output that kind of data is also a concern for server farms and media streaming companies.

Therefore, while 4K is widely available on services such as Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, or Hulu, 8K streaming is not yet a reality. Technically, a high-end gaming PC or gaming console (aka the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X) can handle 8K video, but programming a game at that level of resolution with a consistent framerate is very, very difficult. The tools and know-how to create games at 8K aren’t where they need to be for 8K gaming to be a thing just yet.

As of right now, 8K simply hasn’t been adopted on a wide scale by streaming, video games, or even home video. Instead, 4K is still the highest available resolution in almost every category. The exception is YouTube, which has the capability to stream limited amounts of 8K footage (almost all travelogue or nature documentary content at the moment). Remember that to receive this footage, you must dedicate between 20 megabits per second (Mbps) and 50 Mbps of consistent bandwidth just for the video. Many households simply do not have access to services that can provide these speeds consistently, and those that do must have a reliable WiFi router that won’t bottleneck the bandwidth. If you do, and you have an 8K TV or monitor, you can see what 8K truly looks like. For almost all other situations, you’ll be watching upscaled 4K video in 8K, which looks better than native 4K video, but not by the leap that true 8K does.

What else should I buy along with an 8K TV for a full home theater experience?

If you’re investing in 8K to get the very best from your movies, TV shows, and video games, you’ll want to focus not just on the screen, but also on your sound system. The latest generation of thin, almost bezel-free TVs has certainly improved the placement and displacement of its built-in speakers, but flatscreens just can’t pack in the drivers the way they do the pixels. Immersive surround sound speakers—whether it’s a complete wireless surround system or even just a great Dolby Atmos soundbar can create an audio experience that may make your media even more enjoyable than a resolution jump would. For video games, particularly 3D games, a good pair of 3D audio headphones will allow you to more clearly place the location of sounds around your avatar, resulting in better in-game decisions. While the huge, high-resolution screen is the centerpiece, the sound is what really completes the home theater experience. 

The Sony A7000 complete setup.
Sony’s HT-A7000 (with the SA-SW5 subwoofer and SA-RS5 speakers) is a multi-channel surround sound system well-suited to complement the video quality of an 8K TV, especially if you’re an avid PS5 gamer. Markkus Rovito

So, do I need 8K now? Are 8K TVs worth it?

Short answer: probably not. Long answer: possibly yes. The truth is that even though 8K is the top-of-the-line when it comes to screens, not a lot of 8K content exists, and if you don’t have a very fast internet connection, when that content does show up, you might not be able to consistently stream it. Plus, just as 4K TVs went very quickly from multi-thousand-dollar sets to some of the best available on the market for around $700, 8K will come down in price. So, unless you’re one of those people who only settle for the very best, you don’t need 8K now. For those who can afford it and don’t mind the lack of native 8K content, 8K vs. 4K screens are noticeably better, even when upscaling 4K media. 

Additionally, 8K screens include all the other high-end features—HDMI 2.1, high dynamic range (HDR) color, wide color gamut (WCG), and high refresh rates—that a discerning TV buyer is going to want. So, do you want the best screen you can buy? Then buy 8K now. Everyone else can buy it later, but make no mistake: you will buy it later. Eventually, 8K will become the standard 4K is now within streaming, gaming, and digital films/television shows (disc or download). It’s a matter of when not if. TV broadcasts will lag behind as even 4K content is not fully available on broadcast or cable TV. However, everything else will most likely be there within just a few years, so you can futureproof yourself now or upgrade later; it’s your choice.

FAQs

Q: Can you tell the difference between 4K and 8K?

Yes. True 8K is visibly sharper with more depth of color than 4K.

Q: Does 8K look better than 4K?

Yes. Even 4K upscaled to 8K looks better than standard 4K.

Q: What does 8K look like?

Higher resolution means more gradation between colors as well as light and dark portions of an image. On a good 8K screen, images within shadows look “correct” instead of looking like gray blobs. Many large electronics stores will have the same program playing on their display sets, and you’ll be able to see the difference in 4K vs. 8K.

Q: What is 8K image resolution?

Television sets and most monitors that are 8K display an image at 7680 pixels by 4320 pixels. 8K DCI used in 8K digital cinema is 8192 pixels by 4320 pixels.

Q: Can the human eye see 8K?

Theoretically, yes. The human eye can technically see images in a resolution far, far greater than 8K. However, the way the eye sees images means that the further away from something one is, the less the effective resolution of that thing registers within the eye. So, an 8K screen far away could be imperceptible from a 4K screen or even a 1080p.

Q: Can you watch 8K on YouTube?

Yes, in very limited quantities.

Q: Is 16K resolution possible?

The technology already exists, and commercial-level screens have been produced. At the consumer level, cost and miniaturization, plus processing technology and internet bandwidth, will be limiting factors in producing the kind of power and data necessary for 16K at scale for home viewing, but it will most likely come sooner than you think.





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