How good is 8K TV really? Hands on with Samsung’s Q900 8K QLED TV

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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.

Since there are literally millions of pixels to figure out per second, a lot of processing power is needed to do this well, and it’s a testament to the cutting-edge technologies used in 8K TVs. And don’t forget that along with AI upscaling, the TV still needs to spend quite a bit of time thinking about how to optimise colours, contrast, motion and clarity. To handle the job, the Q900 uses Samsung’s new Quantum AI 8K processor. More on how it performed below.

4K native video on Foxtel iQ4

For our first test we used Foxtel’s 4K channel, which plays native 4K content from the latest Foxtel iQ4 cable box. This comprised of a surf competition with lots of blue ocean waves, whitecaps and surf foam, along with plenty motion. While standing back and watching both the 4K and 8K TVs do their work, we could see that the 8K TV appeared sharper where the 4K Q9 looked ‘softer’. Presumably, this is thanks to the Samsung Quantum 8K AI upscaling, where even the tiny surfers shown from drone footage had more defined edges, and the waves, whitecaps and ripples also had just a little more definition.

Contrast was also noticeably better on the 8K Q900, with more obvious separation between whites, blues and blacks. This is likely thanks to the Q900’s new UltraBright III panel, which uses a new anti-glare layer and higher overall panel brightness.

Netflix 4K and HD video

Nexflix is fast becoming one of the most popular ways Australians view their content. Apart from a reasonable subscription fee and a large library, Netflix can stream in 4K. It also supports enhanced formats for a glorious picture including high dynamic range (HDR), Dolby Vision and even high-definition audio formats like Dolby Atmos.

For our tests, we watched Homecoming: A film by Beyoncé and David Attenborough’s Our Planet.

Homecoming comprised of a lot of on-stage footage, shot in the dark with popping strobes, colours and lots of movement. The quality of the source footage also varied with some in HD as well as lesser quality ‘handheld’ material. We could see again that the Q900’s blacks were inkier, and the colourful on-stage lights were brighter. Both TVs managed to upscale the lesser quality footage with few artefacts.

David Attenborough’s utterly stunning Our Planet series in 4K was an absolute joy to watch on both TVs. The cinematography was breathtaking and captivating on both TVs, however, we could see slightly better contrast in darker scenes on the 8K panel. Again, the 8K’s brighter picture tipped the scales in its favour, and image clarity was just that little bit sharper.

4K Blu-ray movies

To test the maximum possible 4K quality in terms of bitrate, we used a Samsung 4K Blu-ray player. We watched scenes from Pacific Rim: Uprising, and paused to compared extreme close-ups of the actor’s faces. We could see a lot of skin and stubble detail on both TVs but it was surprising how much more skin texture was visible on Q900’s 8K panel.

It appears that the Q900’s superior AI upscaling improves the appearance of detailed content, even though it’s actually not ‘adding’ any more detail. with the images of the two faces shown above, pay particular attention to the edge of the guy’s neckline, which is less jagged on the Q900 – and he has a more defined stubble pattern. To summarise, we’d say that there’s less ‘smoothing’ going on during the upscaling process, so the 8K’s image looks sharper than the 4K panel.

Xbox One X games

Games consoles will be the first real option to watch true 8K content. While both Sony’s PlayStation Pro and Microsoft’s Xbox One X can handle 4K games, next year we’re expecting a new generation of 8K consoles. For now, today’s consoles are a good test of a TV’s ‘responsiveness’, which is an important factor for competitive game-play.

Considering that the 8K panel has 4 times the visual information to process, we didn’t experience any noticeable delay when running Ubisoft’s Far Cry: New Dawn in native 4K at 30 frames per second. The screen’s response was crisp and quick and felt connected to each push of the joystick. (This is after we removed the HDMI splitter, as it was introducing about a second’s delay when displaying a game on two screens at once).

It should also be said that the 8K Q900 now has the ability to auto-detect when you are playing a game and enables the Game Mode setting for you. Game Mode maximises pixel response and reduces latency by switching off some of the more complicated picture enhancement settings.

Also new is the Dynamic Black Equaliser, which can quickly fix common occurrence in games where images are too dark or not dark enough. Then there’s the FreeSync feature that automatically matches the TV’s frame rate (normally 200 Hertz) with the frame rate of the game. This is handy as it reduces the ‘tearing’ effect, and the on-screen motion is smoother.

Standard definition TV

While we’d all love to watch 4K content, the reality is that our terrestrial TV networks are still broadcasting in standard and high definition. To test how SD content looked on the Q900, we watched Chanel 7’s Sunrise (which is still in the dark ages when it comes to broadcast quality) via Foxtel.

Let’s be honest, SD does not look great at the best of times, and certainly wasn’t attractive on our tests. What we can say is that it doesn’t look any worse on the Q900’s 8K panel, and in some cases, the picture was actually a bit sharper.

This is visible with fine print and text overlays shown during commercials, where the text was just bit more legible and less pixelated than on the Q9’s 4K panel. You can also see the Q900’s better blacks when comparing the ViSA logo in the images shown (above).

Hands on with the Samsung Q9 QLED 8K

Putting aside the 8K question for a moment, we enjoyed our time using the Series 9 Q900, and it has a lot of smart features. Here’s what topped our list:

The overall design of the Series 9 is impressive and has some very clever ‘quality of life’ elements. Firstly, the Q900 has an attractive design that is quite minimalist in terms of a thin bezel around the screen and two uncomplicated ‘feet’ that are high enough to allow for a soundbar. While not a ‘super thin’ panel in terms of overall thickness, a couple of centimetres is no bad thing and provides the space needed for a proper backlight, not the edge-lit kind used in the 2017 Q9.

Also, the ‘Iconic’ black colour is both bold and classic, and there are clever cut-outs in the back of the screen where you can place the two ‘feet’ in case you choose to wall-mount the TV. This is nice as it keeps everything you need together so you don’t have to worry about misplacing the feet if you need them down the track.

Handy cut-outs are on the back of the case to safe-keep the Q900’s feet.

One of our favourite features, which was introduced two years ago and gradually refined, is the ‘One Connect Box’ with the ‘One Clear Cable’ feature. No other TV brand does it, and it literally frees up your TV to be placed just about anywhere in a room without having to worry about connecting an ugly mess of cables to the back of the panel. Also good is that the smart remote control uses Bluetooth, not infrared, so doesn’t need a ‘line-of-site’ view of the One Connect box or TV panel to control the menu.

The One Connect Box has grown in size this year. It still consolidates all of your AV connections, as well as power, into a single cable that runs unobtrusively from the box, along the wall and up to the back of the TV. Since it’s sort of translucent, the cable blends into the background and also negates the need to have power or AV cables in your walls and fitted off to the back of the TV. You can even paint over the cable if you want to conceal it more.

In the box you also get Samsung’s special ‘slim-fit wall mount’, which is very flat TV wall mount bracket and easy to install. It also makes the panel look more like a wall-hanging print or painting by eliminating all but a very small gap between it and the wall.

On the connection front, The Q900 can work with whatever ‘Smart Home’ assistant you might use. Google Assistant and Alexa are supported, or you can use Samsung’s own Bixby assistant to turn on the TV, select channels and more with your voice.

Also very surprising and pleasing is compatibility with Apple’s AirPlay 2 ecosystem, which means you can watch movies, video, music or screen sharing from your iPhone, iPad or Mac and home wireless network. There is also a new Apple TV app, which joins Netflix, Stan, ABC, SBS and others in the SmartHub menu. Now, you can access your Apple content library from iCloud and control it via the TVs remote control. This has just launched in Australia as a firmware patch, and it also good because you don’t need to purchase a separate Apple TV anymore to play your content. For the complete story, click here.

We liked the new Adaptive Sound feature too. This ‘intelligent engine’ automatically analyses the scene that you’re watching and adjusts the equaliser settings to produce the best quality sound to match. For example, when watching an action packed movie, it will increase the explosions and bass. Watching an intense drama with low volume at night? It will increase the vocals so you can hear what’s being said without waking everyone up.

Lastly, the SmartHub is already a very good interface that consolidates all sorts of different digital, cable and terrestrial content in one place. The One Remote Control makes it easy to select what you want, and Samsung has tweaked it by adding direct buttons for Netflix, Youtube an Xbox or Soundbar.

Gadgetguy’s take:

The Samsung Q900 8K panel is visibly better than the Q9 4K model, and we came to this conclusion without ever watching native 8K content on it. It’s all about how the Q900 panel handles what’s available to watch today, and it does this very well. While the differences in ‘detail’ are not easy to spot at the best of times, they are there, which is largely thanks to better upscaling. Also, it’s more than just detail – the Samsung 8K panel has inkier blacks, more contrast, higher colour density and more peak brightness.

While the price premium may not make sense for many, 8K is an important consideration for really big screens (such as 65in and above). Also good is that Samsung’s 2019 8K models have already had a price drop by about $2000 to $3000 from the RRP.

So, if watching the ultimate picture on a large screen is at the top of your checklist, an 8K TV makes sense for you right now. You’ll also be ready for 8K gaming, with next-gen consoles due out next year. With more 8K models and brands appearing on the horizon, the 8K story is only going to get better, so early adopters, grab yours today!