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Samsung Galaxy S20 8K resolution video capture: Should you care?

Not unless you want an excuse to buy a new 8K TV.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra
Sarah Tew/CNET

One of the coolest-sounding features of Samsung's new Galaxy S20 line of phones is the ability to capture video in 8K resolution. That's four times the capture resolution of the Galaxy S10 and the Apple iPhone 11 for example, which both max out 4K video, and 16 times as much as HD. Sounds like a lot, right? Maybe you're thinking "Wow, 8K, I bet those videos look awesome!"

I haven't seen the S20's 8K video capture yet, but I have seen my share of other, professionally shot 8K video and, yes indeed, it does look awesome. But then again, so does a lot of 4K video. I got the chance to compare 4K to 8K video at Samsung's lab using two gigantic TVs and it was tough to tell the difference. 

Like other examples of very high resolution -- think megapixels in cameras (of which the S20 Pro has 108!) or pixels in phone screens -- 8K video suffers from diminishing returns. The human eye can only see so much detail, and extra pixels beyond what you can discern are basically wasted. To get anything out of higher resolutions and their proportionally tinier pixels, you need to watch on a huge screen and/or sit closer.

That's why, despite all that extra resolution, I don't expect to see a major improvement in sharpness and resolution between 8K video and 4K video from Samsung's S20. But maybe there'll be some; it's impossible to say without a real comparison. 

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Yes, you'll need a new 8K TV (and they ain't cheap)

Even if there is a big difference, you'll need an expensive new TV to see it. 8K video recorded on the S20 can either be cast to a Samsung 8K TV or exported to YouTube, which supports 8K video. In either case, to get the full benefit of the video's resolution your TV will need to be 8K (and I do mean TV -- the S20's 3,200x1,440 screen isn't even 4K, and 8K computer monitors are bonkers). Samsung's cheapest 65-inch 8K TV sells for $3,500 and while it says the 2020 models will be cheaper, it hasn't specified by how much. But here's a guess.

Samsung says its entry-level 8K TV in 2020, the Q800TS, will be priced comparably to its premium 4Ks in 2019. Its best 65-inch 4K TV, the QN65Q90R, currently sells for $2,600 but got as low as $2,200 during the Black Friday season. If the new Q800TS 8K TV matches that price, it will represent a big drop but still be really expensive. 

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Samsung's 2020 8K TVs will be cheaper than they were in 2019, but still really expensive.

David Katzmaier/CNET

By comparison LG's cheapest 65-inch OLED TV, the 4K B9, got down as low as $1,800 during Black Friday, and there's no reason to expect that its 2020 successor won't cost even less. If the past is any indication that 4K OLED TV will have a better picture than the Samsung 8K QLED, for less money. And in case you're wondering, LG's cheapest 8K OLED TV is 30 grand for 88 inches, although a less expensive 77-inch version is coming in 2020

24 more limitations

8K video shot on the S20 is limited to 24 frames per second. Frame rate determines how quickly the image is captured, and 24 is lower than the 30, 60 or even 120 fps rates available with other, lower video resolutions. 24 is the default frame rate for Hollywood movies and lots of other high-quality video, but for fast motion subjects like sports, a higher frame rate often looks better because it creates a smoother, more realistic image. 

A rate higher than 24 is especially important in a phone wielded by an amateur who doesn't necessarily hold it steady or plan shots to minimize pans and camera movement -- which can induce noticeable stutter. For what it's worth, I keep my phone camera at 60fps and I've always been pleased with the results.

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Samsung made 8K capability a big deal onstage at its Unpacked event.

My colleague Jason Hiner was at Samsung's Unpacked event on Tuesday and wasn't impressed by the 8K video demonstration. 

"Samsung opened yesterday's event with that super-fast-paced fly-in video of the SF skyline and the streets of the financial district," he told me. "On the big screen in the venue, I kept thinking it must be an old video because the quality wasn't great. You could tell the video was 24fps -- it didn't look very smooth and the images felt low-res. 

"And then, of course, later they told us that it was shot with the 8K camera on the new S20 Ultra. Ouch. In Korea I saw a 98-inch 8K QLED showing a soccer match that was obviously shot with high fps cameras, and I was blown away. I've also seen 4K high-fps clips from smartphones that looked a lot better, at least for stuff with lots of motion." 

Bigger files, no image stabilization

I'm sure one reason Samsung limited 8K capture to 24fps is because each frame of 8K video has quadruple the pixels of 4K, leading to all sorts of issues -- starting with storage space. At 24fps, Samsung says one minute of 8K video on the S20 takes up 600MB of storage space. That's about twice as much space as 4K/30 video takes up on a Galaxy S10. Even if you opt for the 1TB storage option on your S20, shooting a bunch of 8K video will burn through it faster than 4K.

Reducing frame rate also reduces the bandwidth required for transmission, which is one reason why 8K TVs need a new, higher-bandwidth HDMI 2.1 standard to handle 8K at 60fps. 

Contrary to some reports, Samsung's representative told CNET that there's no limit to recording length in 8K, but did say "the system will cut up the videos into 4GB clips." In other words, those clips will be stored separately in the Gallery app for any video that exceeds that size. Samsung says those files can be edited together seamlessly.

The rep did confirm that image stabilization is disabled with 8K video, and that shooting in 8K means video is not captured in HDR or HDR10+.

The takeaway? Shooting in 8K resolution requires sacrifices in other areas of image quality -- ones that are potentially much more important than extra pixels. 

Calling all YouTubers

So if the S20's 8K video doesn't necessarily have improved quality, takes up more space and you need a new TV to see it anyway, what's the point? One reason is editing. If you capture video in 8K you'll have more room to play around with it -- cropping a smaller section of video preserves more detail, for example. Samsung also says you can pull higher-resolution stills from 8K video, up to 33 megapixels, and the S20 will allow you to edit 8K video right on the phone.

Those features undoubtedly appeal to YouTubers and others looking for more video production options, but most casual users don't edit video or pull stills. 

It's still early days for 8K -- there's basically no 8K content you can watch today beyond YouTube -- so giving what's sure to be a popular phone the ability to record 8K video will significantly increase its availability. I agree that 8K is the future of video, but the question is when that future will arrive for real. The first major 8K-capable devices will likely be the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X launching later this year, but it'll be longer before we see affordable 8K TVs or 8K Netflix, for example. In the meantime I'm looking forward to seeing Samsung's 8K video capture in person and plan to test it as part of my upcoming 8K TV reviews.