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Dell’s 8K monitor is stunningly ahead of its time

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Buggy and beautiful

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Dell UltraSharp UP3218K
Dell UltraSharp UP3218K
Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge

Dell’s UltraSharp UP3218K display is from the future. Usually, that’s a compliment around these parts, but on this rare occasion, I find myself ill at ease with this fragment from a time that is not yet upon us. With a native resolution of 7,680 x 4,320, this is the first widely available 8K monitor you can buy, and its sheer pixel abundance dwarfs even the 4K and 5K displays that we consider the current state of the art. It’s a monster of awesome performance and visual beauty, but it demands an incredibly powerful graphics card to feed it, an eye-watering price to own it, and the patience of a saint to navigate through its bugs.

It was at CES at the start of this year that I first came across Dell’s $4,999.99 8K monitor (which has since been discounted to $3,699.99). Measuring 32 inches diagonally, about an inch in thickness, and perched atop a big heavy stand roughly the size of an ultrabook, this thing is imposing. That first encounter was thrilling for me, just for knowing that someone pushed the pixel count beyond 33MP, and Dell did its best to show off the monitor’s strengths with a selection of extremely high-resolution photos. I saw perfectly formed beads of sweat on a boxer’s exposed torso, and I could count the eyebrow hair strands on a model’s portrait shot. The colors were awesomely saturated, the crispness unrivaled.

Dell UltraSharp UP3218K Photo: Dell

Unboxing that same behemoth in my home about a month ago, I was again impressed by its size, which now makes my 27-inch iMac feel quaintly compact. And I was, once again, wowed by the glorious sharpness and color fidelity before me. I’m sure pro users would tinker with color profiles and calibration options, but for my uses and preferences, this Dell monitor is just about perfect. I know I can trust it to convey colors as they truly are, and that gives me peace of mind when using it to process and publish photos.

What I didn’t appreciate back in my January enthusiasm, however, and had to discover by actually using the Dell UP3218K is that its added value and advantages rapidly diminish once you move away from perusing 30-megapixel photographs. For one thing, there’s basically no 8K content anywhere. Most consumer-class cameras top out at 20-something megapixels of resolution, and you shouldn’t expect to see 8K versions of your favorite movies for a good few years yet. The other problem, I found, is that most software isn’t yet ready for or properly tested to run at such an insane resolution.

Chrome on Windows was the biggest culprit for me. The Dell monitor would sometimes black out the entire browser page I was trying to look at, or, even more annoyingly, it would flicker on pages with constantly refreshing content such as Chartbeat. Opening up my library in Google Photos was fine, but as soon as I tried to edit a picture, the browser would freak out and start doing weird stuff like zooming way in on one corner of the image. My testing rig is built around an Nvidia Titan X, Intel Core i7-6950X, and 64GB of RAM (because why not?), and I’ve had no such performance issues with any other displays linked up to it. The problem looks to simply be down to the extreme edge case scenario that Dell’s display represents.

Windows itself is reasonably good at scaling up to meet the immense resolution of the UP3218K, running nicely at 300 percent scale. But that happened only after an hour’s worth of troubleshooting when I initially set up the monitor. Dell provides, and the monitor requires, two DisplayPort cables for the full 7,680 x 4,320 pixels to run at 60fps. Somewhere along the way in plugging those cables in and getting my PC to identify the monitor, the OS convinced itself that there was another monitor connected, so it extended the desktop to that phantom extra screen, which unhelpfully contained my display adjustment window. So I ended up indeed hooking up another monitor just to get this one Dell beast to play nice.

Adobe Photoshop at 100% UI scaling
Adobe Photoshop at 100% UI scaling
Image by Vlad Savov / The Verge
Adobe Photoshop at 200% UI scaling
Adobe Photoshop at 200% UI scaling
Image by Vlad Savov / The Verge

The thing that isn’t so awesome at scaling is actually the killer app for this sort of monitor: Photoshop. Adobe only offers a maximum of 200 percent scaling of its UI, which still leaves me squinting at the menu options and working more off memory than what I can see. The images themselves look great, and it’s certainly a luxury to have a huge picture at 100 percent resolution and all my tool and menu bars next to it, but those tools aren’t easy to use right now. Moreover, animations within Photoshop are stuttery, which is another consequence of the amped-up display resolution. I’d love to be able to say, as I initially believed, that this monitor would be the perfect tool for photo and video professionals, but when the pro software isn’t yet ready to work on this sort of resolution, I unfortunately can’t recommend it even for that narrow use.

You could game on this thing, I guess. I naturally gave it a try and was immediately confronted by utterly tiny Civilization VI dialogs and UI elements, which I scaled up from “scarcely visible” to “still need a magnifying glass to see them.” That was rough, but the graphics performance and visual richness were not. Civ looked every bit the grandiose venture in world conquering that it is. Moving on to the action-packed Overwatch, which isn’t so affected by resolution scaling, I again loved the visuals produced from this Dell 8K monitor: it had no issues keeping up with fast-paced motion and it made everything look a little bit stunning. I can say similar things of the experience with my all-time favorite Dota 2 (whose simpler textures and character models look laughably sharp and precise at 8K) as well as Gears of War 4 and Grand Theft Auto V.

Playing games at a solid 60fps and a mind-boggling 8K resolution is possible today, we don’t have to wait for the future to do it. But I wouldn’t advise it as a thing to pursue yet: I did my testing with a $1,200 graphics card, and maxing out the GTA V graphics settings took me past the 12GB of video RAM on that card. That’s all kinds of ridiculous. Yes, I feel special being one of only a few people on the planet playing PC games at 8K, but the difference in actual gaming experience is scarcely distinguishable (and certainly not worth the money you’d need to spend to make it happen). Nobody is designing for this resolution, nobody is crafting graphics and textures for anything beyond 4K, and even that is a niche within a niche.

What I can say about the games I played and the movies I watched on the Dell 8K monitor is that they all looked wonderful. It’s possible to perceive an improvement when going from 4K to 8K — Dell had those demos set up at CES, it’s not a fiction — but that difference is slight and the content doesn’t exist. That being said, the gap between 4K and anything below it is much more tangible. Coming from the 1440p resolution of my iMac and gaming PC monitor, stepping up to 4K content feels like a major and delightful step up in visual quality and fidelity.

In short, I suppose it’s true to say that Dell’s futuristic 8K monitor has convinced me that I need a 4K monitor in my life. I love the color, contrast, and sharpness of this screen, but until the world catches up to Dell’s impressive technological achievement, the usefulness of 8K will remain only theoretical.