Unlike smartphones, where innovation flourishes on an annual basis, television and monitor manufacturers follow longer product life cycles. There have been a few notable innovations in screen resolution since the Millennium (LCD, HD, etc), but nothing particularly radical. However, a debate has broken out regarding the new 8K picture standard. Is this a dramatic breakthrough, or another false dawn like 3D TV and curved screens?
Before we consider the implications of manufacturers launching 8K displays, let’s look at its predecessor. Compared to the 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution of an HD screen or monitor, 4K devices operate at a standard of 3840 x 2160 pixels. This is referred to in the industry as 2160p, continuing the 16:9 screen ratio we’re all familiar with. Computer monitors are commonly 4K-compatible nowadays, while smartphones including the Sony Xperia XZ range are also equipped with Ultra High Definition (UHD) displays.
The first 4K-standard home theater projectors were launched in 2012, with comparable high-resolution TVs following soon after. Despite this, it was 2014 before Netflix pioneered 4K streaming services. Other broadcasters have been slow to embrace this new technology. Less than 1% of Amazon Prime’s available streaming content is comprised of UHD films and series. The BBC has recorded a handful of documentaries and live sporting events in 4K, while YouTube’s roster of 4K footage remains limited despite having offered it for five years.
Statistics suggest 31% of American households have a 4K-compatible TV, but there’s little evidence of ultra-high definition content actually being viewed. This is partly because it’s not widely available, and partly because most consumers seem content with HD-quality footage. Most new TVs offer 4K as standard, so replacing an old set generally provides the scope to enjoy what’s undeniably a superior level of picture quality. But this change is being driven by manufacturers rather than consumers, and the same is true of 4K’s natural successor – 8K.
The development of 8K screens has been underway since the mid-1990s, with 8K screens incorporating 33 million pixels. That’s 16 times as many as a 1080p display, and four times the quantity of pixels comprising a 4K image. The resulting screen resolution of 7680 x 4320 pixels creates incredibly lifelike visuals, resembling a window rather than a screen even from close by. High-end 8K televisions are already on sale across the US, measuring at least 65 inches and commanding price tags north of $5,000.
However, it’s important not to assume 8K screens deliver picture quality four times better than 4K, because that’s not the case. From the perspective of streaming services and media providers, HD content is more than adequate for most consumers. The photos used as screen savers on Amazon Prime TV units may be 4K, but the majority of people would be just as
happy studying an image from an SLR camera. Indeed, you’d need a screen of at least 75 inches (and a very large room) to identify a significant difference between 4K and 8K screens.
More pressingly, limited internet bandwidth and sluggish domestic connections mean many consumers prefer compressed or lower-resolution images. Tomorrow’s 8K screens might offer superior clarity over today’s UHD displays, but these marginal gains don’t justify the huge increase in file sizes and loading times. Until every home and business has full fiber or 5G connectivity, less will remain more in terms of web-based content. And in the absence of video codecs capable of piping 33 million pixels per frame through our laboriously slow broadband infrastructure, the big streaming services have no plans to launch 8K content.
The exaggerated pace of screen resolution growth was recently underlined when Sony unveiled a 16K screen in Japan. Measuring 63 feet by 17, this gigantic display fills two floors of a cosmetics store in Yokohama. And while its picture quality is mesmerizing, expert opinion suggests it’ll be decades before streaming media providers need to worry about improving on 4K standards. Japanese broadcaster NHK’s experimental and part-time 8K TV channel (mainly showing upscaled older footage and live sporting events) is likely to remain the world’s only mainstream 8K resource for some time to come.