Above all else, CES is about new TVs. The week we spend in Las Vegas every year is a showcase for the present and the far-off future of home entertainment. CES 2019 was no different, and there’s a lot that’s got me excited for the year ahead and beyond. But 8K, the biggest TV trend at CES yet again, still feels like a fantasy that’s not making much progress towards becoming a living room reality. The very best of what was on the CES show floor had nothing to do with resolution.
That’s not to say 8K TVs aren’t a real thing. They very much are: you can buy one from Samsung today for around $5,000, and there are plenty of other options. This year at CES 2019, we’ve seen a whole new wave of them from Samsung, Sony, LG, and many other companies. But the idea that anyone should buy an 8K TV is just sheer stupidity. They’re marvelous to look at up close, yes, but the stuff you’d actually want to watch — your favorite movies or Netflix / Amazon Prime shows — just isn’t there. None of it. And there’s no real evidence of that changing anytime soon.
Let’s start off by acknowledging that yes, 8K TVs are an incredible technical achievement. When there are 33 million pixels crammed into a display, you can get your face right up inches away from an 88-inch screen and have difficulty making out individual ones. If 4K opened up a new level of clarity, 8K makes everything feel more like you’re looking through a window and not staring at a giant TV screen.
That's actually part of the problem. To truly see any difference between 4K and 8K, you need a very big screen: a 55 or 65-inch TV won’t do any good. At that size, your eyes just can’t distinguish between the two at typical viewing distances. It’s overkill. So, we’re talking 75 inches and above. Companies are going bigger and bigger at CES this year: Sony has a 98-inch 8K LCD TV, and LG unveiled an 88-inch 8K OLED: I don’t even want to think about how much those will cost when they go on sale in a few months. As one example, Samsung’s latest 82-inch QLED is priced at $10,000. I hope you’ve got a big living room.
But the most pressing problem with 8K is a complete lack of content. It’s a desert, which I guess is appropriate seeing as CES is in Vegas. Honestly, the best thing you might be able to watch anytime soon in 8K are probably MKBHD videos. (And I’m very much here for that.) But otherwise, you’ve got random 8K sizzle reels on YouTube and... that’s it. If you’ve got enough disposable income to spend $10K on a TV so you can watch some nature footage or drone flyovers in 8K, who am I to stop you? Live the dream. But most people shouldn’t.
Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have shared no firm plans to stream in 8K. Samsung brought an Amazon executive on stage at its CES press event during the QLED TV section, but there were still no promises made. If it’s not them, who’s going to lead this charge? Most Hollywood films shot in 4K are mastered down in 2K. Do you really expect studios to invest in the cameras and computing horsepower necessary to make 8K happen? There’s no real incentive for them to bother. And cable TV? How much 4K are you getting from your cable or satellite box right now? Maybe some sports and special events like the Olympics, but there’s not much happening. The still-in-the-works ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard will someday upgrade free, over-the-air TV to 4K HDR — a huge and very welcome milestone — but 8K isn't even in the cards.
Samsung and other TV makers say AI and upscaling can improve 4K to look like 8K, and I do believe machine learning and clever algorithms can help get partially there. But upscaling isn’t worth such a pricey investment when there’s still such a question mark around native 8K content.
The 8K Association (not to be confused with the UHD Alliance) was announced at CES, with members including Samsung, TCL, and Hisense. Its self-stated mission is to “promote 8K content and TVs” and encourage the industry to start taking it more seriously and get moving. But so far the association’s best comeback for the hurdles facing 8K are that we went through the same ones with 4K. That’s partially true (4K is by no means the norm on Netflix), but something tells me 8K is going to have an even harder time overcoming them — especially since its upside requires huge screens, whereas 4K’s upgrade was more evident on your average-sized TV. Likewise, the benefit of HDR is also immediately obvious when you upgrade to a TV that offers it.
And we can’t forget about bandwidth. The average broadband speeds in parts of the US (particularly middle America) aren't nearly what they should be thanks to our apathetic ISPs. How are their customers supposed to stream anything in 8K when even 4K streams run into buffering interruptions? More efficient video codecs can help lessen that hurt, but it’s still going to pose serious challenges. At the end of the day, 8K is still a lot of resolution to be pulling down.
Maybe by the time Avatar 2 comes out, everything will be different. But there’s just no counting on that. I’m not, and you shouldn’t.
Having said all that, theres definitely TV tech to get excited about at CES 2019. Many of this year’s flagship sets are making the upgrade to HDMI 2.1, which allows far more data to pass through the HDMI cable and will someday enable 4K video at up to 120 fps or 8K at 60fps. It’s also a boost to audio, providing enough bandwidth for uncompressed, 24-bit Dolby Atmos 7.1 over HDMI through eARC. And similar to Nvidia’s G-Sync and AMD’s FreeSync, HDMI 2.1’s variable refresh will be a big difference maker for gamers — eventually. You’ll need new cables at some point down the road if you want 2.1’s full potential, but they’re nowhere near necessary right now.
Also, Apple’s AirPlay 2 is being backed by pretty much all the major TV makers with the exception of TCL. So you’ll have a much easier time playing something on your new TV from an iPhone, iPad, or Mac on many premium TVs hitting store shelves over the next few months. The news of AirPlay 2 on TVs came seemingly out of nowhere, but it’s a great example of a benefit that consumers won't have to wait years for. Same goes for the continued expansion of Alexa and Google Assistant being worked into more TVs, which inherently makes using them more convenient.
And the future holds even more to look forward to. MicroLED is the most promising next-generation display technology we’ve seen in a long time: it has the potential to be even better than OLED, with millions of tiny, self-emissive LEDs that produce a superior picture with none of OLED’s downsides like burn-in or natural degradation over time. MicroLED displays are modular and can be made into any size, aspect ratio, or resolution you want.
Samsung started showcasing MicroLED last year with The Wall, and at CES 2019 it unveiled a 75-inch 4K MicroLED TV that could fit in many living rooms. But dial back the hype a bit: it’ll be several years before anyone can actually buy a MicroLED TV for any reasonable amount of money. These screens require a painstaking and precise manufacturing process that’s difficult to do at scale right now for any company — even the Samsungs of the world. It’s still damn exciting to me, though. We’ve been waiting for a true OLED “killer” for a LONG time, and this seems like the best candidate. It’s just going to take some patience.
So where does that leave us here at CES 2019? As a self-professed home theater nerd, I want 8K to succeed, but only when all the pieces are in place (or at least closer to being there). Right now, that’s simply not the case. The cart has gotten so far ahead of the horse that it’s a bit silly. Companies are making some stunning 8K TVs because they can and because the technology is there. But they’re doing it before everyone else is ready. This isn’t the time to buy 8K or even consider it.
TVs are long-term purchases, so you might be wondering “well, what about five years from now?” If you’re confident that the situation will shake out in the best way possible, I can’t stop you from buying an 88-inch LG 8K OLED TV or that “super-large” Sony. But it just feels underhanded that manufacturers and retailers will be trying to pass off 8K as the best thing going this year and pushing it on consumers when it’s just not ready. Even if I had the cash, I’d sooner go for the rollable 4K model — at least until MicroLED comes around.