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LAS VEGAS—CES is all about excess — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The exuberant pursuit of technological possibilities can deliver such fascinating results as LG’s 65-inch rollable OLED screen that scrolls out and then back into a rectangular base.

But one of the bigger developments in TV tech at this year’s show, 8K televisions, shows the downside of focusing on what you can build and not what you should.

Three years after LG and Samsung showed off 8K sets at their CES exhibits (the name calls out their almost 8,000 pixels of horizontal resolution), the industry has no better answer to two key problems with this format.

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One, there’s just about nothing to watch: not on disc, not on cable (which has yet to adopt 4K seven years after its CES debut), and nearly nothing online. Instead, set manufacturers are banking on viewers being happy with HD or 4K fare digitally upconverted to 8K resolution.

Two, you will need a very large screen to see that extra resolution. 8K’s 33 million pixels represent a four-fold increase over 4K’s 8 million, but if you can’t see any discrete pixels on your 4K or mere HD set from your couch today, upgrading to an 8K set won’t change that.

“8K just muddies the waters and may turn consumers off totally,” concluded IHS Markit analyst Paul Gray in an e-mail.

And unlike three years ago, we have actual prices to look at for these 8K sets, and they are rather steep. At Samsung, its 2019 8K lineup starts at $5,000 for a 65-inch display — the minimum size vendors are citing for viewers to appreciate 8K resolution — and goes up to $15,000 for an 85-incher.

8K TV may do well as a luxury niche, but the electronics industry’s history offers reason to doubt its viability in the mass market.

A decade ago, 3-D TV was supposed to be the next big thing. It had backing from major manufacturers as well as Hollywood — but viewers didn’t care for it, and manufacturers eventually gave up on the format. The technology hasn’t been in the CES spotlight in years.

Two decades ago, the audio industry made its own bid to sell customers on a higher-resolution format by launching two better-than-CD formats, DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD. The resulting format war didn’t help that cause — 8K has at least avoided that frequent failure of the gadget business — but customers voted decisively for digital downloads that might sound worse than a CD but could be played anywhere.

In that light, the most important TV news at this year’s CES was not 8K but Apple deciding to open its AirPlay wireless streaming to TV manufacturers. LG, Samsung, Sony and Vizio will all include that in upcoming models, allowing you to cast a TV show or movie from a Mac, iPhone or iPad to your television without having to buy an Apple TV streaming-media player. Samsung will also add an iTunes app and provide these features to 2018 models with a software update.

This won’t deliver any increase in resolution or other metrics of picture quality. But it will make your existing purchases more valuable and bridge an unnecessary gap in what plays where. That’s worth applauding far more than the debut of a budget-busting lineup of TVs.

Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, e-mail Rob at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.

 

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