Monday 22 July 2019

Adrian Weckler: 'For this enthusiast 8K televisions are a case of hype over substance'

Attendees look at 8K televisions at the TCL booth at CES 2019 consumer electronics show, January 10, 2019 at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada
Attendees look at 8K televisions at the TCL booth at CES 2019 consumer electronics show, January 10, 2019 at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Oh dear. What was the standout product from the biggest tech conference in the world last week? A dud. Plain and simple. The industry is trying to sell us magic beans. So do yourself and your wallet a favour: don't fall for the '8K' telly spin.

To remind anyone who wasn't watching the Consumer Electronics Show, last week, tech companies and pundits were abuzz about the next big thing in home entertainment. Soon, you'll start seeing ads for €1,000-plus televisions "with 8K resolution".

Don't fall for it.

The industry's move from 4K to 8K is nothing like the switch you once made to 'high definition', let alone from 'HD' to '4K'.

According to most sober experts, you almost certainly won't be able to access 8K features. It's like increasing the top speed of your car from 160km to 250km - you'll never get a chance to use it anywhere you drive.

Here's a layman's guide as to why.

1 It's impossible for humans to detect the difference: I've looked at a couple of 8K televisions and you can only see any difference when your nose is in front of the screen *and* you're staring at a bit of it intently. Step a few feet back and it all blends in - your eye can no longer discern those precise details. In other words, if you're sitting on a sofa, it's useless. This isn't just my conclusion. Netflix's last chief product officer, Neil Hunt, said the same, dismissing 8K content because it's "only interesting if you're going to sit too close to the TV".

This isn't new. For some people, 4K televisions already have this challenge. Experts say that you need to sit within four feet of a 4K set to notice the difference. In most living rooms, this is possible. But with an 8K television, the experts say that it's only noticeable within two feet of the set. Given that virtually all 8K televisions announced are over 65 inches in size, no-one will see the resolution difference.

2 There's no sport, movies or TV shows: 4K content, which is just a quarter of the resolution of 8K, is still a rarity from broadcasters, despite 4K televisions being around over five years. There is barely a hint of any movies, sport or TV series being commissioned in 8K from any major studios or television companies. This might eventually change (the 2020 summer Olympics in Japan are to be filmed in 8K, even though almost no-one will be able to broadcast or receive it at that resolution), but looks unlikely to within the next five years. Mainstream providers in Ireland like Sky and Virgin don't appear to be readying support for it.

3 The broadband needed for 8K isn't available to many people: YouTube, one of the few services that supports 8K footage, says you need broadband of at least 50Mbs to see it. In Ireland, that's probably under half of Irish households. While it's true that most of us will have faster broadband in the future, it's still a number of years off.

4 Other 8K gadgets won't make any difference: Don't fall for the line that since one or two cameras are being upgraded to 8K video, that there's a wider standardisation going on. The ordinary TV consumer has never, and will never, display their photos or camera videos on their telly. They don't do it now with 4K and they didn't do it with HD.

It's even possible that we'll see 8K cameras on phones in the next year or two, which will lead some manufacturers to suggest that you can 'throw' your camera footage onto your telly. But no-one will record in 8K because the files will be way too large for anyone whose phone has a terabyte of internal storage (which is no phone at present)

5 By the time the world catches up you'll need to change your TV: Buying an 8K television for your home now is like buying an electric car as a travelling salesman in 2014. There's almost no infrastructure for it.

To be fair, this doesn't mean that 8K is useless. For professionals or hobbyists who somehow get an 8K camera or video camera and who have giant hard drives and mega-powerful processors in their PCs, it may prove to be very handy for editing. Because the resolution is so much better, you can edit it to make small portions of the footage look like an original video shot at a normal HD or 4K standard (by zooming in while editing). This is what happens with 4K video-editing today. But for everyone else (which means almost everyone), it's a waste of money.

6 This isn't Ludditism: I know that there are cynics who continually scoff at new technology. Devoid of imagination, such commentators often say that the stuff we have is just fine and that all we need to do is lower the price of existing products.

Respectfully, that is not the message to be gleaned from this column. There's tons of new technology coming down the line, from health devices to artificial intelligence to better phone cameras, that is really exciting. Indeed, even in the TV world, there are some real enhancements worth your extra cash. High Dynamic Range (HDR) is one - you get a noticeably better overall picture at any distance. But 8K doesn't count in the same way.

Where it will count is in your pocket. You can now get a decent 50-inch 4K television for under €500. It will come as little surprise that the 8K TVs will start at around €2,000 before 'settling' at around €1,000.

It's possible that the manufacturers will try to load the 8K tellies with other things you might actually want, such as faster interfaces, better smart apps and the aforementioned HDR.

But otherwise, give 8K a miss.

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