The first ‘8K’ definition TVs hit the New Zealand market this month offering the highest screen quality so far – can ‘upscaling’ bridge the content gap?
The Rugby World Cup has traditionally served to boost TV sales in New Zealand as sports fans upgrade to get the best big-screen picture to settle onto the couch in front of. But for several years now, the resolution of new displays has leapt far ahead of what is broadcast by Sky and free-to-air TV broadcasters and even what is available on most Blu-ray players and TV streaming services.
Samsung will be the first TV maker to sell 8K TVs here when they go on sale next week in Noel Leeming and Harvey Norman stores priced from $11,000 for the 65-inch Q900R, up to $20,000 for the 82-inch version and the ridiculously big 98-inch with an equally lavish $80,000 price tag.
What is 8K?
If 4K has become widely known as the ultra-high-definition standard in TV, accounting for the majority of TV sales, it has now been well and truly outclassed. An 8K TV display has four times the number of physical pixels as a 4K display and 16 times the pixel count of a high-definition TV. Most New Zealand content is still broadcast and streamed in mere high-definition.
The difference 8K equates to in terms of quality literally has to be seen to be believed. Displaying ‘native’ video shot on 8K cameras, the results are as close to real-life as you are likely to have ever seen on a TV screen to date.
At a recent showcase of the TVs in Singapore, I watched a video on an 82-inch QLED 8K TV of a tiger padding through the jungle. On a screen that size, it was as if I was standing a few metres in front of an actual tiger.
Even when you walk up close to the screen, which usually betrays the edges of the pixels presenting the image, it appeared as a seamless, natural image. This is how cinematic movies and TV shows should be watched.
But there’s a problem. It will be years before native 8K content is widely available for us to view. The information that goes into generating an 8K image makes delivering it via satellite and terrestrial networks hugely challenging and it will push even fibre broadband connections to their limits.
An hour of 8K (7,680×4,320) video recorded at 25fps (frames per second) takes up around 550GB of data, six times that of 4K content.
The lack of 8K and even 4K broadcast content and the huge file sizes of videos in those formats has led the TV industry to new technology to give TV viewers a taste of the future now.
Upscaling your viewing
Samsung and other TV makers for several years now have featured upscaling technology in their 4K displays. It effectively analyses the video source, determines whether it is standard definition or HD and improves the screen quality using software that reduces the ‘noise’ in images, smoothing edges and textures.
Samsung’s 2019 8K TVs take that a step further with the computer chip that drives the TV, the Quantum Processor 8K. The computer processor uses artificial intelligence and a vast reference database of image characteristics to add information to video images regardless of the source – set top box or streaming service, USB stick or even content mirrored from your smartphone.
“You will be able to see an up-scaled difference in all content which is played on the new Samsung QLED 8K TVs,” says Jens Anders, the director of Samsung New Zealand’s consumer electronics division.
“The processor is able to calibrate lower-resolution sources and upscale them into 8K-quality, however you will notice a more refined 8K viewing quality on higher quality source content.”
That’s because the TV has to do less work filling in the blanks in upscaling from 4K images, than with the plain old HD or low-quality standard definition we’ve become used to.
The handful of 8K videos floating around the internet will look spectacular on your new 8K TV – if you don’t blow your data cap trying to download them. But what about broadcasts of the Rugby World Cup, which will be streamed by Spark Sports and broadcast by TVNZ in high definition only? Will Kiwi rugby fans with an 8K TV get a better picture?
“The new 8K range is Samsung’s smartest and most powerful TVs yet, and we are confident that there should be an increase in quality for sports fans,” says Anders.
But Carlos Byungseok Min, principal engineer in the principal display Visual Display Division at Samsung Electronics says the difference between a 4K picture and an upscaled 8K picture for rugby or cricket may not be dramatic at first.
Like many artificial intelligence systems, the Quantum processor uses machine learning to analyse data and improve its computer algorithms.
“As time goes on, as we have more data in the database, we can upgrade the AI,” he says, comparing the machine learning to what search giant Google has employed to improve its own products.
“We can change the formula. At this time, it is maybe slightly limited on sports broadcasting, but it will be much better once we get more in the database.”
Essentially, the algorithms that utilise the processor as more 4K and 8K sporting content arrives will be tweaked as sample images are classified in the Samsung database. The 8K TVs can then be updated remotely to reflect those changes.
Samsung’s side by side demos in Singapore of TVs running HD and upscaled 4K and 8K content revealed subtle through to dramatic improvements at higher resolution, depending on what was being displayed. More detail was obvious in nature scenes, while there were fewer artifacts and jagged movement in slow panning shots across cityscapes. Text on screen, such as the Amazon Prime logo on the streaming service app look remarkably clearer upscaled to 8K.
AI isn’t just being put to work on upscaling. It is also powering the Bixby digital assistant in Samsung’s TVs which lets you use your voice to change the channel or pull up factoids about the show you are watching. It even assists with audio rendering, automatically adjusting the sound settings based on what you are watching, be it a rugby game or a superhero flick.
4K the sweet spot
For many, the upscaling differences will be academic anyway, given the price of 8K TVs. The sweet spot for Samsung and its rivals this year in New Zealand will be their 4K TVs employing OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology, and Samsung’s similar rival, QLED (quantum dot light emitting diode). LG isn’t featuring 8K TVs in its new OLED line-up also launched this month, and Sony and Panasonic are unlikely to as well.
For Darren Gittins, director of electronics retailer 100% Newbolds in Upper Hutt, 4K OLED and QLED TVs are driving TV sales with bigger screen sizes also becoming popular.
“We often sell OLED based purely on the picture,” says Gittins.
He keeps a 50-inch high-definition TV set on the shop floor, to let people compare 4K to.
“That's how we sell 4K. Here's a normal TV signal with Sky Sports, here's HD and here's 4K upscaling.”
He says the 4K upscaling commonly available across TV brands does make a difference for sports viewers.
“It isn't just the detail. You can see it when you are watching cricket when they zoom out. It is quite blurry with HD. The technology hasn't been put into the full HD TVs to make it any better. The upscaling to 4K is much better.”
Samsung’s 4K QLED range is priced from $2,700 for the 49-inch entry-level Q60R to $12,000 for the top of the line 75 inch Q90R. The 75-inch screen size has become the new 65-inch format as more buyers opt for an upgrade. The market for 75-inch or bigger TVs is expected to grow by 43 per cent to three million units this year, according to analyst group IHS Markit.
Gittins expects Samsung’s 65-inch Q60, with a launch price of $4,300 to be a popular model. TV prices usually drop as much as 20 per cent within a month or two of release, so there are likely to be sharp deals on 4K and even 8K models ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
Other technologies such as high dynamic range (HDR10+) and revamped panel structure and screen calibration angles to improve the viewing angle of Samsung’s TVs are notable improvements in Samsung’s 2019 line-up.
The TV maker also has the advantage of securing early access to two smart TVs apps that will likely prove popular – Spark Sports and Apple’s iTunes app. Spark Sports will hit Samsung screens in May giving users enough time to test drive it before the Japan-based rugby tournament kicks off.
Apple’s debut of iTunes exclusively on Samsung TVs means users can stream TV shows and movies from Apple’s library direct from their TV for the first time. The app will be compatible with 2018 Samsung models too. Support for Apple’s Airplay 2 system also means Apple users can now share content from their iPhones, iPads and Macs on their TV screen. Later this year, Samsung’s TVs will also integrate with the Alexa and Google digital assistants.
Streaming video apps such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and the iTunes download service are the main sources of native 4K content today, though you may have to pay extra to access movies and TV shows in 4K. Netflix, for instance, only offers 4K as part of its premium monthly subscription.
With the foldable format signalling the way forward in the smartphone sector, is there a new technology set to transform the appearance of TVs? While LG debuted its roll-up OLED TV, which retracts into a base when not in use at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, it won’t go on sale in New Zealand this year.
Visitors to Samsung’s forum were greeted by The Wall, a massive TV made up of modular QLED TV panels that can be customised to fit the dimensions of a room. Those TVs are likely to remain in the domain of high-end shops and corporate offices, though Samsung said at least one Wall TV had already been sold in New Zealand for home use.
Samsung has expanded its Frame series of TVs after experiencing strong uptake in New Zealand, which is ranked 13th globally in sales of the TVs. The Frame TVs are designed to display high-quality images of artwork when turned off, including a selection of artworks made available for the purpose by Te Papa. Complete with swappable picture framing, Frames are hard to distinguish from a high-quality painting.
An improved ambient mode on the QLED TVs has a Frame-like feature that lets you display colours and textures to match the colour scheme in your lounge, as well as images, to remove the black box when the TV is turned off.
Sound all around
Gittins says new soundbars supporting the Dolby Atmos audio format are also likely to grow in popularity this year.
“We have a 60 per cent attachment rate for soundbars with our TV buyers. Soundbars can range from $200 to $2,500 depending on size and quality,” says Gittins.
“The Dolby Atmos ones are very clever. Rather than having speakers all around you, the sound is all around you,” he adds.
How does that work? Movies and TV shows are specially mixed to support Dolby Atmos, which gives a three-dimensional effect to sound. In conjunction with a compatible player and sound bar, soundwaves are bounced off the ceiling of your room to create an audio bubble around you.
It trumps the surround sound we’ve become used to, by allowing the effect to be delivered from a single soundbar in front of you. The effect was certainly impressive in the confines of Samsung’s sound booth in Singapore.
But as with 8K TVs, it is early days for Dolby Atmos soundbars and compatible content and players are still thin on the ground.
The TV revolution remains a few leaps ahead of consumers as new display, design and audio technologies continue to emerge to tempt us into some serious big screen spending.
Peter Griffin attended the Samsung forum in Singapore as a guest of Samsung.