The future of television, 4K, is just now catching its stride. Eight years after the first 4K sets were released, live television is finally starting to experiment with 4K: The upcoming Super Bowl LIV will be the first to be broadcast in 4K Ultra High Definition. And the prices of 4K sets have started to drop to reasonable levels, with many quality sets below $300.
Which puts manufacturers right on schedule to tout an even newer future of TV. At CES in this year, TV makers including Samsung, LG, and Sony showed off their latest 8K models, with four times as many pixels as a 4K image. With a screen resolution of 7680 x 4320 pixels, or more than 33 million pixels, you can theoretically see the individual hairs of animals or patterns of butterfly wings.
But pixels aren’t the sole determinant of image quality. To the naked eye, the differences between 4K and 8K can be imperceptible at a distance as short as 4.3 feet. And with the largest models costing roughly the same as two Tesla Model 3s, it’s worth asking: What exactly does 8K have to offer?
Not content—at least not yet. YouTube has supported the uploading of 8K videos since 2015, but there’s still a relatively small inventory. Japan became the first nation to create an 8K TV channel, NHK BS8K, back in 2018. At present, it’s still the only 8K channel that exists. And while China is working on building up its 8K TV programming, the effort is expected to take years.
There are signs that’s due to change. For viewers in Japan, the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will be broadcast in 8K. “For 8K to succeed there needs to be a thriving content ecosystem, which means that people have to figure out whether consumers are prepared to pay for the extra resolution of 8K,” wrote Paul Gray, a principal analyst at IHS Markit, in an email to Quartz.
In the meantime, 8K TV manufacturers have anticipated that customers will be watching mostly content made for older televisions. The latest 8K models, including those made by Samsung and LG, use AI for image upscaling, which they claim makes 1080p and other lower resolution sources look even better. But Gray warns that such future-proofing can only accomplish so much. ”Upscaling cannot create information that isn’t there,” he wrote. “Better algorithms produce better guesses but that’s all.”
Even once the content appears, though, it’s not clear whether 8K will make a visible difference in most living rooms. Quartz took a look at the optimal screen distances for TV sets for Full HD, Quad HD, 4K, and 8K. The optimal screen distance for a 75-inch 8K TV set is a rather paltry 2.5 feet. Anything further than that, and viewers risk missing out on the extra details that a higher screen resolution provides.
“Performance reaches a point where consumers either cannot perceive a difference or won’t pay for it. For 8K, you need a TV set over 80 inches, and you need to sit close to it,” noted Gray.
But others in the industry encourage 8K cynics to wait and see. Chris Chinnock, executive director of the 8K Association, recalls that there was a similar reluctance to accept the switch from Standard Definition to High Definition, High Definition to Full High Definition (FHD), and finally FHD to 4K. “TVs must come first, then content comes, then distribution follows,” said Chinook. “All of the pieces needed to make this happen again are in place, so I am confident history will repeat itself.”
While a $70,000, 98-inch screen may be out of reach for most households, it could be a different story for companies. Chinook noted that the use of 8K screens is being evaluated for use in sports, medicine, museums, and more.
In large, public spaces, an 8K screen coupled with high-quality audio can be especially compelling. Live shows by the likes of Taylor Swift, U2, and Lady Gaga have featured the technology. “It creates a true sense of presence. I think this kind of live telecasting has potential. But that’s a different proposition to TV in the home,” said Gray.
As it stands, though, most of the hype behind 8K has been directed at consumers. So if you’re in the market for an 8K TV, the general consensus is to wait a couple years. Much as we’ve seen with 4K, costs will go down and the amount of native programming will increase. Both the PlayStation 5 and X Box Series X, which are due to come out this year, will support 8K graphics. Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy 11 smartphone could also record in 8K.
Instead, now may be the perfect time to invest in a 4K television set. A price comparison of major 8K models with their 4K counterparts reveal you can buy the latter at a fraction of the cost. While your eyeballs won’t be able to tell the difference in many cases, your wallet certainly will.