It was only a few years ago that 4K panels were the cutting-edge technology on display at CES. For the last few years, we’ve seen 8K televisions popping up here and there, more as proof-of-concepts than actual practical products. Dell’s new display announcements aren’t just products the company plans to build some day; they’re cutting-edge hardware that’s coming to market this year.
First up, we’ve got the Dell UltraSharp 32 Ultra HD 8K monitor (UP3218K). This new 8K panel offers 33.2 million pixels in a 32-inch screen — that’s 7680×4320 — for an average pixel density of 275 PPI. Measurements like this indirectly reveal the reason most monitors don’t try to push resolutions the way smartphones do. The pixel density you need to not be able to see individual pixels falls off steeply as the distance between your eyes and the display increases. A 2560×1600 32-inch panel is considered “retina” (meaning the typical human eye cannot distinguish between pixels) at 36 inches. A 4K panel of the same physical size is retina at 25 inches. An 8K panel hits that mark at the one-foot mark, but precious few people use a 32-inch display while sitting just 12 inches from the screen.
This panel has a 60Hz refresh rate and covers 100% of the Adobe RGB and SRGB color gamuts, 100% of the old Rec.709 gamut for HDTV, 98% of the DCI-P3 professional gamut, and ~80% of the newest UHD Blu-ray Rec.2020 gamut. It’s not clear how Dell is pushing this kind of capability — the company may be using Multi-Stream Transport (MST) for 8K support. In MST, the signal streaming from the source device (the GPU) is routed to each side of the monitor, creating a desktop that behaves like an extended desktop you’d configure using Windows’ multi-monitor support. Early 4K monitors used this approach. The latest AMD and Nvidia GPUs might not require it, since they support later iterations of DisplayPort, but Dell hasn’t yet released any information on which GPUs this panel plays nice with. We’ll have to wait and see.
In fairness, early 4K panels were known for having certain issues — the 4K Dell 24-inch monitor we tested several years ago had some firmware bugs that were never resolved. The UP3218K is expected to go on-sale in March for an estimated list price of $ 5,000. It seems likely that Dell would fix all such issues before shipping it, but then we thought that about the $ 1,300 UP2414Q as well.
Are 8K games, monitors coming soon?
Given that it’s only been a few years since 4K panels were selling for over $ 1,000, it’s easy to assume the 8K revolution is going to arrive in the next year or two. This view, however, ignores three larger trends. First, the market forces that drive new display technologies tend to move at the speed of their slowest members. First, the iPhone 4 made high resolution displays desirable in very small devices in 2010. Over the next few years, high-DPI products proliferated across the smartphone industry, leading us to ask when monitors would follow suit — all the way back in 2012.
Four years later, 4K panels have become much more common, but they aren’t a majority of the market yet. You can’t date the introduction of a new monitor that supports a resolution and treat it as synonymous with the mainstream adoption of that resolution. Apple, after all, introduced a 30-inch Apple Cinema Display in 2004 at 2560×1600, yet neither that resolution nor its 16:9 counterpart, 2560×1440, ever claimed more than a fraction of the display market. Ultra Blu-ray has only just arrived, streaming barely supports 4K (and you’d better be willing to jump through a lot of hoops to get it), and all the cable and digital television services in the US I’m aware of use 720p or 1080p for their services, often with some compression.
Second, there’s a fundamental problem of file size. H.265, aka HEVC, can cut file encodes by up to 50% while maintaining the same image quality, but 4K still packs 4x more pixels than 1080p. Moving to 8K quadruples that again. There’s no standard yet for how to encode files this large, which means the files themselves have to be enormous, which means additional pressure on streaming services, disc capacity, and broadband requirements.
Third, we don’t have any GPUs that can plausibly drive this kind of resolution. GPU performance has been growing faster than CPU performance for years, but it’s still considerably off its early 2000s peak. Back then, Nvidia and AMD often doubled performance every 12 months. These days, they tend to double performance more like every three years. That’s still great compared with what we see in CPUs, but it’s not nearly enough to make 8K gaming plausible with anything like modern visual effects. Even an optimistic calculation would put 8K 5-7 years away, and I frankly don’t expect it to achieve mainstream, ubiquitous adoption much before 2025 – 2026, at least not as a gaming resolution. Steam’s Hardware Survey still shows all resolutions above 1920×1080 as holding just 5.88% of the total market, nearly three years after 4K panels technically went on sale.
For now, Dell is marketing this as a display for people working with graphics, advertising, image design, or possibly video editing, where its vast real estate could come in handy (no need to worry about running out of screen real estate when editing 4K video, for example).