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hello, 8K displays: TV's next must-have feature isn't really a must-have

Samsung, LG and others are jumping into super high-resolution displays. But your old 4K TV is just fine.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Remember when every consumer electronics company hyped 3D TV as the next big feature? Or started pushing curved TVs? Yeah, I barely do, either.

That's because those supposedly hot TV features eventually faded away.

The latest TV "must have" that you actually don't really need -- at least right now -- has arrived at the IFA electronics show in Berlin. That's 8K, the super-crisp display technology that has four times the resolution of 4K screens. (I know, the math confuses me too.)

Now playing: Watch this: Samsung's first 8K TV is an 85-inch beast
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Samsung on Thursday showed off the Q900, which packs in more than 33 million pixels. The 85-inch TV will be the first 8K TV to hit the US market when it goes on sale in October, although Samsung didn't specify the price. Its arch rival LG a day earlier announced what it called "the world's first" 8K OLED TV. It showed the 88-inch device to some reporters in January at CES but didn't specify when there would be an actual product for consumers. Meanwhile Sharp began shipping the LV-70X500E 70-inch 8K monitor earlier this year to Europe after launching it in late 2017 in China, Japan and Taiwan.

8K TVs dramatically boost the number of pixels in the displays, which the companies say will make pictures sharper on bigger screens.

"We … are confident that [consumers] will experience nothing short of brilliance in color, clarity and sound from our new 8K-capable models," Jongsuk Chu, the senior vice president of Samsung's Visual Display Business, said in a press release.

It's the latest "next big feature" from an industry that has hyped advancements with dubious value. It may be a long time -- if ever -- before you'll even consider one. Experts say you'll have to sit really close to the screen, even with huge 85-inch TVs like the Samsung, to notice a difference in the sharpness, and there isn't even content you can watch on it. Also, you can bet these initial TVs won't be cheap. As CNET TV expert David Katzmaier noted in his initial thoughts about Samsung's new TV, "all those pixels might be so much overkill."

But people tend to hold on to their TVs much longer than their phones. The push to get 8K into the market -- when 4K is just starting to become a thing -- underscores the industry's desire to give consumers a reason to upgrade and pay more for a premium product.

Bigger is better?

Despite a mixed track record of successful features, the TV industry is enjoying success now. 

Advancements like 4K and OLED, combined with lower prices, have boosted the market this year. So far in 2018, TV unit sales in the US are up 11 percent compared to the same period a year ago, according to NPD. The amount of money made from TVs is up 7 percent so far this year, even as the average selling price is down 3.5 percent at $414.

"We have seen growth in virtually every screen size as falling prices, better designs and the continuation of the upgrade cycle have all combined to deliver better sales," NPD analyst Stephen Baker said.

That may bode well for 8K -- but not until prices fall. Samsung hasn't said how much the Q900 will cost, but CNET's Katzmaier estimated a selling price of about $14,000.

samsung-ifa-2018-tv-8k-30

Samsung introduced an 8K TV on Thursday during a press conference at the IFA trade show in Berlin. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

8K "is fun, it is interesting, it gives a glimpse of where the technology is moving," NPD's Baker said. But "it is not a product designed to move large numbers of units at Walmart in the next few years."

The same thing happened with 4K. In 2013, when the technology was new and pricey, only 3 percent of all TVs sold were 4K, Guy Kinnell, marketing director for TV at Samsung UK, said Thursday during the company's press conference in Berlin. But today, that number has jumped to 70 percent for overall TV sales and "a whopping" 97 percent of TVs that are 55 inches or larger.

"As the demand for larger screens continues to rise, so will the demand for even higher resolution," Kinnell said.

And 8K works best if you want something approaching cinema size. Even then, you won't really notice a difference if you're sitting 10 feet away from the screen, as CNET's Geoffrey Morrison noted. You'll either have to sit much closer than that to really see the crisper screen.

Despite the growing popularity of 4K TVs, there's still relatively little content for them beyond services such as Netflix. You can expect the wait for 8K video to be even longer. 

Dead technologies

Given the rare exceptions when 8K is useful, there's a chance it may fall into the category of heavily hyped features that consumers ignored. In 2010, most major TV vendors started offering 3D on their sets. They required specialized glasses that were easy to lose and uncomfortable to wear. Unsurprisingly, 3D didn't really take off.

Vizio dropped 3D from its TVs in 2013, and Samsung followed suit in 2016. LG and Sony, the last two major TV vendors to support the technology, stopped making 3D TV in 2017. None of their sets, not even high-end models such as OLED TVs, run 3D videos.

Another technology pushed especially by Samsung was curved displays. The company five years ago introduced TVs that curve slightly inward on the edges, which it said would give viewers a more immersive experience.

But curved displays often distorted the picture (you had to be sitting directly in the middle to get the right effect) and they were harder to display in homes than flat-panel TVs that can be mounted on walls.

Samsung now has shifted focus away from curved displays (although it still sells them) to 8K and its new MicroLED screen technology -- that's the first major advance in displays in a decade.

Still, "8K doesn't seem destined to marginalization the way 3D was," Reticle Research analyst Ross Rubin said. It eventually will be the mainstream TV technology we all buy, whether we really need it or not. LG estimates that the 8K TV market could grow to more than 5 million units by 2022.

4K has "seen broad adoption even if the change hasn't been revolutionary," Rubin said. "We can expect the same for 8K" as it gets cheaper. 

But for now, you might just want to stick with 4K.

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