The first 8K televisions are just appearing in stores across Australia. As with any new TV technology, there’s plenty of hype. 8K TVs are said to produce the best picture ever with a price tag to match. However, there’s practically no true 8K content available to watch so how can we be sure of their capabilities?

Lucky, we had a rare chance to compare Samsung’s latest 8K television side-by-side with last year’s top of the range 4K model. We auditioned Samsung’s 65 inch 2019 Series 9 Q900 8K QLED TV – which can be purchased from electronics retailers right now – and a same-sized 2018 Series 9 Q9 QLED 4K TV.

Our intention was to carefully consider the qualitative differences between the two panels to see if 8K technology really offers any tangible benefits, aside from bragging rights. Our tests consisted of comparing the content Australians watch in their living rooms right now on both TVs – more on how we did this this below.

What does ‘8K’ actually mean?

For those who may not be aware, 8K is actually a measure of the amount of detail a screen screen can display. If you consider your screen as a giant grid of tiny dots, 8K is the horizontal number of dots across the screen. These dots are actually ‘pixels’ or ‘picture elements’ and are small squares that represent one building block of the image you see on screen. The more pixels a screen has, the more detail it can display. To be exact, Samsung’s Q900 8K screen measures 7,680 (8K) pixels across by 4,320 pixels high.

The size of the TV screen plays a big factor in resolution, especially with 8K TVs. If you have a very large screen, such as a 75, 82, 88 or even 98 inch, its pixels will be larger in size compared to a smaller screen (such as a 55 inch) that has the same resolution. So as screen sizes increase, it’s important that pixel sizes get smaller to prevent the ‘flyscreen effect’. This is when individual pixels become visible causing the image to appear coarse, blocky or ‘jagged’. To rectify this, you need more, smaller pixels.

A high definition (HD) screen from a few years ago had just 2 million pixels, compared to the 33 million in an 8K display. This is a 16 times increase! With so many pixels that are also much smaller, this means that we can sit closer to TV panels, or conversely, they can be much larger, without us even being able to see the pixels. So eventually, we could have a TV that runs from floor to ceiling and no worries about the ‘flyscreen effect’ if we sit too close to it.

The 8K comparison

It’s probably fair to say that Australian electronics retailers don’t really want you to compare 8K and 4K televisions side-by-side. This is because 4K televisions already look very good, and an 8K TV’s benefits aren’t all that obvious to the untrained eye. It also doesn’t help that native 8K content is extremely limited, and a lot of the stuff you’ll see running on an 8K TV in a store will be upscaled from a lower resolution, likely 4K.

In terms of our testing environment, both TVs were situated in the same room, side by side. There was a bank of windows on the left, and viewed in daylight conditions with a bit of sunlight across each screen. We could have drawn the blinds but wanted to replicate a sunny living room, which is how many Australians watch their TVs at home.

Our tests consisted of a side by side comparison of the 2018 Q9 4K QLED TV (left) and the 2019 8K QLED TV (right)

Our source video was displayed on both screens simultaneously using an HDMI splitter box. Both models were configured to their default screen picture modes (with the exception of Game Mode, but more on this later). It’s also worth pointing out that the HDMI splitter box removes picture metadata that is used for finer scene adjustments, but this was applied to both screens.

To echo the content that Australians watch, we tested the TVs with different sources including Foxtel’s 4K channel, free to air TV, 4K Blu-ray, Netflix, YouTube and an Xbox One X games console.

After our tests, we also noted some key differences between the new Series 9 Q900 8K QLED television and the 2018 Series 9 Q9 4K QLED comparison model from a features point of view. Here’s a quick summary:

The Q900 has an 8K panel, which contains about 33 million pixels versus the 11 million in the Q9’s 4K panel.
The new Q900 is brighter with about 4000 Nits of peak brightness versus the 4K TV’s 2000 Nits
The viewing angle has improved on the Q900 and looks better when viewed from off-angles versus the Q9.
Both TVs have the same 480 micro dimming zones, which is a technique used to produce more realistic (inky) blacks during dark scenes.
The 8K Q900 consumes more power than the 4K model since it’s brighter and needs to manage more pixels
The Q900’s ‘One Connect’ cable box is larger. Also, the thickness of the clear cable that connects the box to the TV panel has increased due to greater power requirements
There are new ‘Games Mode’ features on the Q900 including FreeSync, Dynamic Black Equaliser and Automatic Game Mode detection
Price wise, Harvey Norman is selling the 2019 8K Q900 for $6,995, compared to about $3,000 for the Q9 if you can still find it for sale

Artificially intelligent upscaling?

Until there are more native 8K things to watch, Australians will have to make do with a mix of 4K, HD and SD content on their 8K TVs. So, while we’d love to see the Q900’s full potential with an episode of, say, Game of Thrones shot in 8K, this just doesn’t exist. What’s important right now is how well an 8K TV performs with non-8K movies, games and video.

Since an 8K display has a higher resolution than most things that can be shown on it, the TV needs to ‘upscale’ this content to match its pixels. Essentially, an 8K TV has to evaluate each frame and calculate how to add more pixels without degrading the image. To do so, there’s a lot of math going!

With earlier models of TVs, the upscaling process often introduced imperfections called ‘artefacts’ to the image. These artefacts look terrible, and you’ve probably already seen plenty of these when watching really low resolution TV or video on older HD TVs and computer screens. Thankfully, over time, and with higher quality TVs, upscaling algorithms have improved.

In the case of the Samsung Q900, as with 8K TVs from LG, Sony and others, upscaling harnesses machine learning and artificial intelligence. By intelligently evaluating millions of different video sources, advanced algorithms have been created that extrapolate the best way a shape or scene should be upscaled for an 8K screen.