Despite its headline-grabbing push to be the first to ship 4K and now OLED TVs, LG isn't the first name most buyers of high-end TV seek. Its most expensive non-4K/OLED TV this year, the LA8600 series LED LCD, again struggles to make its case to those buyers.
The strengths of the LA8600 include beautiful design mated with a Smart TV feature set that's in many ways, despite the absence of Amazon Instant streaming, the best available today. It outdoes Samsung's at controlling a cable box and integrating live TV listings, and its innovative, surprisingly precise and universal Motion Controller is the best TV remote on the market. Voice control and a built-in camera? Check. Nothing major goes missing from its list of luxuries.
On the other hand most of those extras, aside from the camera, can be found on less expensive LG TVs this year, and on paper the picture quality of the LA8600 -- unlike that of Samsung's UNF8000 -- doesn't have any obvious advantages over those step-down linemates. Compared to that Samsung and other high-end TVs, or even to some midpriced LED LCDs, the LA8600's picture isn't in the same league. Better values are likely available lower on LG's totem pole, but the LA8600 offers little to justify its price.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 55-inch 55LA8600, but this review also applies to the 60-inch size in the series. Both have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality.
Although not as daringly seductive as the Samsung UNF8000, the LG LA8600 is still a looker. It embraces the "all-picture" trend full-force, with an ultrathin bezel just a fingernail or two thicker than Samsung's, clad in the same black-trimmed-with-silver color. The bottom of LG's bezel is thicker, and bulges around a prominent logo further highlighted by defeatable illumination.
The LA8600 sits higher above its stand than the F8000 or the Sony 900A however, making it appear less aggressively rakish. The stand itself is a distinctive curved silver "U" that projects the thin panel forward slightly for a floaty vibe. Like many design-first stands these days, it doesn't allow any swivel.
Motion control: The best TV remote yet
LG's unique Magic Motion remote takes Samsung's touchpad's place as my new favorite clicker included with a TV. It's improved from last year, with a few extra buttons including one devoted to voice control. It fits comfortably in the hand and places all keys, including the brilliant scroll wheel, within easy thumb access. The organic shape still sits naturally upright on a coffee table. It's illuminated and doesn't need to be pointed at the TV to function.
The motion control aspect, where you wave the wand to move a cursor around the screen much like a Nintendo Wii game controller, simply works. It makes for substantially quicker navigation than Samsung's touchpad and runs circles around a standard remote, especially when dealing with lots of icons on-screen at once.
Entering search terms, URLs and password info using the virtual keyboard, for example, went faster than with any input method aside from an actual physical keyboard. Control was pleasingly precise, especially when I chose the "slow" pointer speed, and I loved the scroll wheel for whizzing through long menus and my cable box's program guide. The remote makes LG's great cable box control (see below) even better, and motion control even works within select apps like Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, and Skype.
My main quibble is that the "select/OK" action, the most commonly used function on any remote, is a down-press on the scroll wheel. The click is too stiff, and worse, I often scrolled accidentally when trying to simply click. It's not a deal breaker, but I did find it annoying on a regular basis. Another annoyance is that the cursor seemed to disappear too frequently, necessitating a button-press or vigorous shake to bring back up.
And yes, like Samsung's button-light 2013 touchpad remote, LG's motion wand skips numerous major controls. The biggest missing link for frequent DVR users is transport control (Play, Pause, Rewind, Fast-forward, etc.). To use those functions you'll have to call up a virtual remote. Using it is much easier than with Samsung's system, however, because highlighting and selecting a key using motion is a relative cinch. There were still issues, however, one being the tendency of the virtual remote to disappear quickly when not in use -- inconvenient and frustrating when you want to stop the DVR from fast-forwarding, for example. I also missed having a dedicated "Input" key; changing sources again requires calling up the virtual remote.
In the end, lack of transport controls is still a deal killer for me. I'd much rather use a good universal clicker, and since having more than one remote is anathema, I'd likely leave LG's remote in the drawer. But if you make less frequent use of the DVR, or have a simple setup that doesn't require a universal clicker, the coolness of LG's motion control might be worth the downsides.
|Key TV features|
|Display technology||LCD||LED backlight||Edge-lit with local dimming|
|Smart TV||Yes||Internet connection||Built-in Wi-Fi|
|3D technology||Passive||3D glasses included||Four pairs|
|Refresh rate(s)||240Hz||Dejudder (smooth) processing||Yes|
|Other: Pop-up camera/speakerphone; voice search and control; cable box integration and control|
LG's highest-end non-4K OLED TV for 2013 comes gills-filled with extras. From a picture quality standpoint, however, there isn't much separating it from the company's 2013 step-down models.
One highlight is local dimming for its edge-lit LED-based LCD screen, a feature known in LG speak as "LED Plus." The same feature also available in models as mainstream-priced as the LA6900 series. Looking at the other chief picture quality differentiator, the LA8600 gets a true 240Hz refresh rate, according to the company. So does the LA7400 series. Judging from the specifications, there's no reason to think the 8600 has significantly better picture quality overall than either of those sets.
The 7400 and 8600 also share the same non-picture-affecting features for the most part, including identical Smart TV suites, voice control, and dual-core processors. Passive 3D is onboard too, along with LG's standard four pairs of 3D glasses -- plenty for most families, but half as many as households that purchase Vizio's M series.
The LA8600's biggest extra over from LG's other sets is its built-in camera. A manual slider allows it to pop up above the TV or back down when not in use. Unlike Samsung the company didn't yet implement gesture control (despite what we saw at CES) or facial recognition, which isn't a terrible omission considering how borderline-useless those functions are. The only real use for the LG's camera is Skype, and of course people who purchase a less expensive Skype-compatible LG TV are free to add LG's $99 camera/speakerphone.
Smart TV: LG didn't completely redesign its Smart TV interface for 2013, but it did add some improvements. The most ambitious is a system called On Now, integrating cable box control with a robust browse/search/suggestion engine that incorporates shows from your cable or satellite provider as well as traditional on-demand sources like Netflix. In most ways the system is even better than Samsung's own similar "On TV" offering.
The main Smart TV interface is pretty busy and icon-heavy, although I didn't mind much since the layout is clear enough and navigation via the motion remote is a cinch. A row of function shortcuts and apps lines the bottom below a series of "cards," three of which appear on the screen at once. The first card has an inset window showing a live view of what's playing on the current input, set above an equal-sized ad. Hey, at least there are no banner ads.
The next card shows "premium" services, which by default include Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, MLB TV and other heavy hitters. LG's app selection lags a step behind Panasonic and two behind Samsung, lacking both Amazon Instant Video and HBO Go. Aside from the addition of Pandora and Crackle, the selection of available big-name apps is the same as last year's.
The remainder of the cards available by default includes On Now (see below), My Interests (with weather and news in up to three categories), Smart Share (access to mobile devices, DLNA and USB media), 3D World (LG's proprietary, relatively robust on-demand 3D app), Smart World and Game World (apps). You can re-order the cards and create a custom one from the bottom row of shortcuts and installed apps (which can itself be re-ordered too). You can't delete any, however, and you can't disturb the order of Premium or the inset window/ad. In all the interface is a nice balance of customizability, form and function--better than Panasonic's in my opinion, but not quite as good as Samsung's.
Speaking of Samsung (and, er, speaking), I didn't perform extensive testing of either company's voice control features. I'll have that for a follow-up, if enough readers seem to care.
On Now browse and universal search: Somewhat buried among all of those icons is a pair labeled On Now and Search. Hitting the former calls up a list of shows now playing on your current cable or satellite provider, complete with thumbnails and an indicator bar of time elapsed. You can quickly filter by popularity (the default), Genre, HD or SD, "For you" (with the system's recommendations) and Favorites (which didn't work for me, but supposedly calls up shows related to what's on the current channel), and a flick of the scroll wheel calls up many more choices for easy browsing. There's also a "More" command that calls up a full page of thumbnails.
The system provides a great alternative to browsing your cable box's electronic program guide. The icons for TV shows are a lot more pleasing to look at, and the ability to quickly scroll through numerous choices, especially on the full-page version, reminded me of the great browsing experience Netflix provides -- except it's for live TV. I much preferred it to Samsung's On TV system because it surfaces so many more options at once, and the extensive manual filters gave me much more control -- something I prefer to relying on nebulous "recommendations."
As good as it is for browsing live TV, I personally wouldn't normally use On Now to select my shows since most of the TV I watch is stored on my DVR's hard drive. That list of recordings isn't incorporated into On Now at all, so it has no idea which of them I watch and can't make suggestions based upon them. For people like me, who almost never watch live TV, LG's system will be much less useful. Even browse-happy users will find drawbacks--for example, the system has no idea whether you subscribe to previous channels or not, so it just surfaces everything, and it doesn't remember preferences (for example, I'd like to have it default to show HD channels only).
On Now also has a tab called "Catch Up TV," which lets you browse on-demand video from Netflix, Vudu, and CinemaNow. It works OK as a universal browser, but can be frustrating especially since it doesn't hit other services (like catch-up TV stalwart Hulu Plus) and doesn't tell you whether you'll have to pay until you access the episode itself by hitting "watch."
If you know what you want to watch, LG's universal search is a nice alternative. Hitting the the ubiquitous magnifying glass calls up a search field that hits live TV, YouTube, the Web, and the three Catch Up TV apps. You can either type search terms into the box or use voice search. There were still some SNAFUs -- for example, a search of "Louis" didn't find the series, which is on Netflix, but did strangely hit a lot of "adult-only" titles, apparently from an app I didn't have access to -- but it worked as well as search on any TV I've tested.
Cable box control: Although LG isn't perfect in this area, it's still the best example of cable box control I've tested on any TV. Initial setup is relatively simple, requiring you to enter your cable provider, set-top manufacturer, ZIP code, and so on, and took me less than five minutes.
Instead of the kludgy wired dongle employed by Samsung, LG's TV simply blasts the infrared control signals around the living room -- the same method we loved on the Logitech Revue and employed by the upcoming Xbox One. Although the setup routine tells you to keep the box no more than a meter from the TV, it worked well in my testing at roughly three times that distance.