One of the more technical and ambiguous specifications you’ll run into when shopping for a monitor or TV is color depth. These days the lowest would be 8-bit, with 10-bit becoming increasingly popular and 12-bit constituting the higher end of the market.
Color depth has always been important, but with the rise of ultra HD 4K and HDR the ability to more accurately display color gradations and nuances has become even more essential. Of course, the higher the color bit depth the better was true when 1080p was dominant but the distinction carries more weight as images become denser and more loaded with metadata. That’s because color depth really means how much image info a panel (or screen) shows accurately. We mentioned metadata just now – that usually refers to added information beyond the basics of the image such as resolution and framerate. HDR, or high dynamic range, falls under metadata. The more information a panel displays the better and more accurate the image.
Bit depth and the effect the spec has on color representation have particular appeal to enthusiast users. Gamers, movie and TV buffs, photographers, and video professionals all place great value on color fidelity and know that every bit counts.
Figuring out color bit depth gets mathematical really quick, but we’ll try to spare you the boring calculations. Since modern display panels use pixels controlled by digital processors, each pixel represents bits of data. Each bit has either a zero or one value for every primary color: red, green, and blue, aka RGB. Thus an 8-bit panel has 2 to the power of 8 values per color: that’s 256 gradations or versions each of red, blue, and green. We calculate them as 256 x 256 x 256 to arrive at a total of 16.7 million possible colors.
For 10-bit panels, every pixel shows up to 1024 versions of each primary color, in other words 1024 to the power of three or 1.07 BILLION possible colors. So, a 10-bit panel has the ability to render images with exponentially greater accuracy than an 8-bit screen. A 12-bit monitor goes further with 4096 possible versions of each primary per pixel, or 4096 x 4096 x 4096 colors: that’s 68.7 billion colors.
Well actually the difference comes in as rather huge. While 8-bit panels do a good job of showing realistic images, they’re also the bare minimum in terms of modern input sources. The vast majority of ultra HD 4K content (and 8K in the near future) gets authored in 10-bit color depth or higher. That means an 8-bit panel won’t be able to display content as intended by content creators. An 8-bit panel receiving 10-bit or higher content has to “crush” details and color gradations to make them fit.
While to casual observers the difference may seem acceptable, if you really care about the content you’re using, whether for enjoyment or work, then the compromise may be too much to tolerate. An 8-bit panel has far less range than a 10-bit screen and can’t show the same rich variety of color gradations, resulting a duller, more washed out, and overall plainer-looking image. The lack of variety shows up most typically in dark and light areas. For example, on an 8-bit panel the sun may appear as a bright blob with very clear bands of light emanating from it. A 10-bit panel will show the same sun as a gradually bright object without obvious banding.
A quick historical perspective may help. The 8-bit color depth was designed for VGA displays decades ago, and only goes up to RGB color gamut. As such, 8-bit monitors can’t hope to work with wider color spaces such as Adobe RGB or DCI-P3. They also can’t properly show HDR content – for that you’ll need 10-bit as a minimum.
Yes, and to be honest, you should aim to get one anyway. As we just said, 8-bit is very 1980s. In an age of 4K HDR you really want to have a 10-bit display to get the benefit of modern graphics and content.
Games for contemporary PCs and modern consoles all render in 10-bit as a minimum, and HDR is becoming universal. Of course, they’ll work just fine with a low cost 8-bit panel but you’ll miss out. Even more expensive 8-bit monitors and TVs with HDR support exhibit limitations. For example, on Xbox One X a dithered 8-bit display (which simulates 10-bit as best as possible) can only work with basic HDR10. Proper 10-bit displays open up Dolby Vision and HDR10+ options.
In that regard gaming’s no different from serious movie watching, streaming, photography, or video editing. For all of them, source content keeps increasing in detail and quality. Obviously, the display you use should keep up with the content, not stay stuck in the past. That means 10-bit or more, since 8-bit, while reliable and proven, simply doesn’t show you the whole picture.
With 10-bit you get a more detailed image and as resolution increases, there are more details to display. Force a game to run on an 8-bit panel and you’ll get less complex darks, washed out or banded brights, and approximated textures instead of the ones intended by the artists. Even if not shocking, the difference is becoming increasingly important.
Luckily, the choice continues to become easier for prospective monitor or TV buyers. In general, 8-bit panels are being phased out as 10-bit takes over and 12-bit signals a move to the mainstream. Don’t get us wrong, there are plenty of excellent 8-bit monitors out there still. But there’s no way they can do justice to the high quality content produced these days. There’s simply no reason not to go with a 10-bit panel if you can – and we recommend you do.