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Will 2021 be the year of 8K TV?

All the way back in November 2019, Trusted Reviews attended a presentation about the future of 8K TV. It looked as if the technology was set to make strides in 2020, though it hasn’t quite turned out that way.

Not least because of the pandemic that caused a dip in sales before the market turned around towards the end of the year. 2020 has seen progress made on the affordability front, so could 2021 be the year of 8K TV?

If there’s one stakeholder most bullish about 8K’s prospects its Samsung. The company’s been leading the charge since 2018, and back in the halcyon days of 2019, its market share increased from 34% to 52%, a figure likely to have increased despite Covid-19.

Both LG and Sony have launched 8K TVs, while we’ve seen OLED prototypes from Philips. Sony’s approach has been relatively low key, serving the market with a couple of models at big sizes for a premium cost. LG’s tactics are similar to Samsung, peppering the market with different sizes and prices. Despite Samsung launching its 55-inch Q700T 8K TV at £1999, LG came in even lower at £1499 for the 55NANO956NA.

Those prices speak to 8K’s increasing affordability. 8K TVs were expensive – Samsung’s QE85Q900R sold for £15,000 – but within two years the South Korean manufacturer’s most affordable option sits at £1999. While much of that is down to the difference in size (82-inches down to 55), and that too speaks to 8K’s democratisation.

And prices are set to fall even further in 2021, with Deloitte predicting a million TVs to be sold with entry-level TVs potentially hitting £1000. While that would undoubtedly hit 8K’s premium price – partly why major TV manufacturers looked at 8K after profit margins decreased due to the influx of cheaper 4K LCD TVs – getting in on the ground floor and driving sales means they dictate the direction and have ownership of the market.

Although it’s all well and good to own an 8K TV, what can you actually watch on it? That still remains vague, though signs are at least healthier than they were a year ago. Out of the 8K TVs Trusted Reviews has reviewed in 2020, we’ve noted the improved pixel can make 4K content look better than it does on native 4K displays.

However, better upscaling doesn’t necessarily set minds alight and leave tongues wagging. What 8K needs is content shot, scanned and distributed in the format, and the availability of TVs will hopefully lead this push.

We were at the Emirates when BT Sport hosted the first ever live 8K broadcast. Japan’s public broadcaster NHK (the BBC of Japan) has its own 8K broadcast channel. Spanish broadcaster RTVE successfully conducted its own 8K broadcast trial as recently as October 2020. If it weren’t for the pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics would have been shown in 8K. It’s not as distant a spec on the horizon any more.

The AV1 codec, used by Google to decode and encode videos in 8K, should help expand options via YouTube 8K videos. 5G should also help to deliver 8K streams to mobile devices, after France TV trialled it at the 2019 Roland Garros tennis tournament. On the other hand, Rakuten TV set itself a target of streaming 8K films but little has been heard since 2019. Hollywood’s push to digital capture has led productions to shooting at higher than 4K resolution, though with visual effects for big budget films done at a lower resolution and scanned at 2K, true 8K content is still thin on the ground.

The PS5 and Xbox Series X suggested they could deliver 8K experiences but that remains vaguely defined. Nvidia’s 8K graphics cards are expensive and PC gaming is niche, while user created content through Galaxy and Galaxy Note smartphones may help, how many people are aware of the resolution they’re recording at?

At least Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express was scanned at 8K, as was 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Wizard of Oz was restored in 8K. David Fincher’s MANK (Netflix), was shot at 8K and we’re fairly certain Christopher Nolan’s recent films shot in IMAX/65mm large format such as Dunkirk and Tenet have been scanned at 8K too. For 8K to take off, more native content needs to be shot and not just in the future but right now, to take advantage of 8K if or when it hits mass adoption.

What’s still lacking is a fixed infrastructure. 8K needs more bandwidth to operate, and that will impact both streaming and terrestrial broadcasts as the former will need to be more efficient and higher download speeds more prevalent. Broadcasters are still firmly HD SDR – even the iPlayer’s 4K HLG streams are still few and far between. Only BT Sport has really sought to innovate in the 8K space, but its status as premium live/on-demand broadcaster won’t help 8K’s wider acceptance, though it will make some noise.

Those who speak about 8K assert that it is on time and on track, matching the transition we saw from HD to 4K, and hopefully leading to the same crossover as consumers look to upgrade. One issue is that 4K is still maturing, and while there’s a definable gap between the two, there’s not as much incentive in the here and now to make that leap.

It contributes to a feeling that while 8K is the future – it’s unlikely to be ditched like 3D was – it’s perhaps arrived a little too soon on the stage. The spotlight is on it and its act is not quite fully rehearsed. 2021 may not be the year that 8K flourishes, but it’ll be one of laying down the tracks with a firmer idea of where it’s going. There’s a destination called ‘8K’ in the distance and we are heading towards it, perhaps just not quite at the speed some expect.