Beyond a handful of models first introduced by Samsung starting at the end of last year, 8K Ultra HDTVs have been pretty hard to find in consumer electronics showrooms. That’s starting to change.

New models are here or coming soon from additional brands including Sony Electronics, LG and possibly others. In each case, these offerings are promised as enabling very big screens, enhanced color performance, greater resolution for enhanced clarity and sharpness and in some cases brighter pictures designed to better show off the nuances of an expanded range of contrast available through high dynamic range (HDR) programming.

Sounds great you say, but do I really need it?

The quick answer, as is usually the case, is it depends on what you’re looking for.

Right now the best reason for purchasing an 8K television is to get the largest screen size with the best picture quality available in a flat-panel configuration. In short, if you need a really big screen TV, and you have the cash to spend, you will likely really love an 8K TV.

Although 8K TVs are available in screen sizes as small as 55-inches (the Samsung 55-inch QN55Q900R runs $3,497), the best reason for getting an 8K TV right now is to have a really big screen size of 75-, 85- or all the way up to 98-inches. At these sizes (the bigger the better) most of the sharpness and contrast benefits of Full HD and 4K source content will be retained with little noticeable diminishment.

At 65-inches the benefits of brightness and color tonality will be slightly more visible than that offered on comparable 4K TV models, viewed at typical viewing distances (8 to 9 feet). The expanded resolution alone will be harder for the human eye to pick up, although the greater pixel density (7680×4320 pixels compared to 3840×2160 for 4K) will better show off the benefits of added brightness, color and contrast.

When true native 8K content begins to arrive in a meaningful way (more on this later), televisions with 8K resolution should be able to present objects that appear to the eye to be more real.

As we previously reported, Toshiyuki Ogura, Sony Technical Strategy Office, Sony Visual Products TV Division Chief Distinguished Engineer, made a convincing case during CES 2019 sessions that 8K images look more like real objects than they do in 4K when viewed from proper distances.

Viewing distance for these TVs is key, Ogura explained because while more picture information is visible the closer a viewer gets to a screen, the more visible the pixel structure of the screen also becomes, destroying the illusion of reality to the viewer.

Ogura said his personal observations of 8K and those of experts from the Japanese broadcasting company NHK, have determined that two pixel arc minutes, or 1.5 H – 1.5 times the height of the screen — is proper for reproducing the look of reality, where .75 H is adequate for seeing greater image “information.” This is important for things like medical applications. But for presenting convincingly real images, 1.5 H is ideal.

In addition, early 8K televisions demonstrated so far employ new Artificial Intelligence (AI) based upscaling systems that use machine learning to take Full HD and 4K source input and have it fill the larger 8K screen with clear, sharp and colorful pictures.

As pointed out previously, Samsung and Sony models demonstrated so far have some of the best video upscaling and processing we’ve seen yet, with typical problem areas like color banding and edge jaggies greatly diminished. Better yet, because most of these sets are tied back to the cloud, the technologies are promised to get better and better over time, as more content arrives and data bases are updated and expanded.

How Much?

You had to ask. Naturally, being a new technology 8K televisions aren’t cheap this year. First, understand that 8K displays are the tip of the iceburg for the latest and greatest visual technologies. That sounds pretty cool, until you stop to think what that means. First, you will be paying a hefty premium for a product that might not be fully ready for native 8K content that will eventually come.

For those early adopters with the descretionary income, in the meantime, first-gen 8K TVs will have some of the largest and most realistic images available in the market.

In Sony’s 8K Reference Series Full-Array LED-LCD TVs, the 85-inch 85Z9G, rings in at a cool $12,998, and the company’s massive 98-inch version goes for a mind-numbing $69,999.99.

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Samsung’s entry-level 8K model, the 55-inch QN55Q900R starts at $3,497.99 and ranges up to a 65-inch QN65Q900R for $4,497.99, a 75-inch QN75Q900R for $6,497.99, an 82-inch QN82Q900R for $8,997.99 and an 85-inch QN85Q900RA (14,997.99). Like Sony, it also has a 98-inch version for $70,000.

For OLED lovers, LG has announced that it too will soon get into the 8K game with the industry’s first 8K OLED television — the LG 88-inch 88Z9 offered at a pre-order price of $34,000 after which it jumps to $42,000. LG has also shown a 98-inch Full-Array LED-LCD TV.

For those less-entitled AV enthusiasts champing at the bit for an 8K set, expect prices to ramp down quickly in coming years as more manufacturers (particularly Chinese ones) get into the game. TCL, Hisense, Changhong and others have already shown models and will likely begin to ship units to the United States beginning in 2020 or soon after.

What About Native 8K?

The question on the mind of almost anyone with interest in 8K is when will I be able to watch native 8K content? Unfortunately, nothing is imminently on the radar for broadcast, cable or satellite delivery in the United States. Some streamed 8K content is posted on YouTube, but this isn’t yet compatible with some of the 8K televisions on the market this year due, in part, to unsupported file formats and compression codecs.

Such issues could be critical, since internet streaming is the most likely way native 8K content is to be distributed to the home. The good-old Blu-ray disc format that enabled some of the first native content via physical HD and later Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, isn’t likely to be leveraged for 8K this time around. Movie studios seem to be shifting attention from physical media to their own streaming services.

Meanwhile, cable and satellite services are still slowly ramping up 4K content channels and don’t seem inclined to start sacrificing bandwidth to bring 8K to a handful of early 8K set buyers.

All digital content is distributed in a compressed format, and for 4K this has typically relied on HEVC H.265, although Google (which owns YouTube) also uses its own VP9. All 8K TVs, like most 4K TVs today, support HEVC and VP9. 8K content using such codecs eventually will be playable on a supported TV using a USB flash drive or HDD connected to a port or streamed using a WiFi adaptor.

Meanwhile, a new open codec called AV1 also has been developed as a possible alternative for 4K streams and is being implemented by Netflix and other streaming movie services. For 8K, new versions of HEVC, called Versatile Video Codec (VVC) and AV1, called AV2, are in development and might ultimately prevail as the next-generation codec standard. But no one can say whether or not 8K TVs available this year will be upgradeable to support them.

Anyone who has experienced buffering lags and stepped-down resolution from variable bit rate streaming technologies while watching 4K or even HD movies online, can figure out that current generation codecs and broadband pipelines are going to be a bottleneck for much larger 8K data streams. This might be an opening for 8K downloads, stay tuned.

In the meantime, the next-generation over-the-air television broadcast system ATSC 3.0 is about to be launched by various broadcasters in markets around the country. The system can be expanded to support 8K in time, but to start broadcasters have a lot of discretion in determining if they want to transmit 4K or HD quality video or something else. These announcements are still to be made and no televisions yet incorporate ATSC 3.0 tuners.

This is important to keep in mind before plunking the money down on an 8K TV this year, since we don’t yet know what external tuner dongles will require from the television to work. At a minimum, it seems, an HDMI 2.1 input will be necessary and most 8K TVs available this year have been promised to support these or will be able to add the various feature capabilities through an update. The holy grail of HDMI 2.1 features, 48Gbps data speeds, will be among the last of the features tested and certified. This will likely be critical to importing native high frame rate 8K video sources in the future. So buyer beware when getting an 8K TV this year if your intention is to avoid obsolescence for the next five years or so.

Signs point to native 8K content coming in time. Afterall, Japanese TV broadcaster NHK already offers a dedicated 8K satellite channel in its domestic market and will be presenting the 2020 Olympics from Japan in 8K format. In Europe, streaming service Rakuten has announced plans to offer the first 8K streaming content in Spain and SES Astra is exploring 8K satellite service soon as well.

It stands to reason that the United States won’t lag too far behind. Will you?

By Greg Tarr

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