Amid the hubbub about Panasonic's financial trouble and questions about how it will affect the future of plasma TV, it's easy to forget about Samsung. The world's No. 1 TV maker has invested substantially in plasma research and production, and has managed to compete strongly against Panasonic for the hearts of the video-quality-obsessed.
The Samsung F8500 series continues the tradition beautifully, delivering the best picture quality we've ever tested in a Samsung TV. It's not quite as good overall as Panasonic's best 2013 efforts, such as the like-priced VT60, but it does offer one major advantage: light. The F8500 can produce a brighter image than competing plasmas, which combined with an excellent antireflective screen, leads to superb picture quality in high-ambient-light situations. If you have the kind of room that required an LED-based light cannon in the past, the F8500 might be bright enough to open your door to plasma.
Since this is a high-end Samsung TV, you can also expect oodles of features, including an all-new Smart TV suite that plays nice (sort of) with your cable box, as well as a built-in camera and mic for voice and gesture control.
The main downside is price. Unlike previous years with models like the awesome PNE6500 -- our third-favorite TV of 2012 considering value -- Samsung decided not to produce a relatively inexpensive yet permium-performing plasma TV in 2013. The F8500 costs a mint, meaning Samsung effectively forfeits the "videophile value" ballgame to the Panasonic ST60.
On the other hand, for plasma fans with the cash to burn who crave LED-like punch, the F8500 is the only game in town.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 60-inch Samsung PN60F8500, but this review also applies to the other screen sizes in the series. All sizes have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality.
|Models in series (details)|
|Samsung PN51F8500||51 inches|
|Samsung PN60F8500 (reviewed)||60 inches|
|Samsung PN64F8500||64 inches|
It's too bad many buyers well-off enough to afford an F8500 will likely elect to wall-mount it, because it has the most unique stand I've ever seen on a plasma TV. Set atop a table the big panel is kept upright by a smoothly curving base that flares out in the middle and recedes gently back to either side. Seen from the front it almost looks like it's smiling, and the stand makes a beautiful complement to the TV's thin, dark gray metallic frame. Samsung calls it "Titan Black," but it looks dark gray in person.
Since the base spans the entire width of the TV, you might need a wider table or TV stand than normal. The 60-inch Panasonic VT60, for example, has a standard pedestal base measuring 21.8 inches wide, while the 60-inch F8500 requires at least 54.8 inches of width. Despite its floaty appearance the F8500 seemed stable enough when I tried to rock it back and forth. As always with a large flat-panel TV, however, you should use wall anchors, especially in households with kids.
The remote is even more remarkable than the stand. Samsung's recent flagship TVs included daring if disappointing clickers, from the chunky QWERTY flipper of the D8000 to the unresponsive touch pad of the E8000. The company totally redesigned the touch pad this year, and it's a massive improvement. Despite a few flaws and the need for a learning curve, in many ways it's the best remote control included with any TV I've ever used.
It's small, with just a few buttons above and below a spacious touch pad, but it fit perfectly in my hand. The remote is Bluetooth, so it works without needing to be aimed at the TV. Responsiveness was superb, so I found myself merrily swiping along large menus and rarely missing my selection. Convenient slider bars above and on either side of the pad worked perfectly to scroll past pages at a time. The whole pad depressed with a satisfying click when I made a selection, although (nitpick alert) a laptop touch-pad-style tap-to-click would be even better. In total navigation was faster, almost as accurate and, I gotta admit, much more fun than with a standard remote.
The main flaw of Samsung's clever clicker comes with its lack of buttons. The few that are included have raised, uniquely tactile shapes and useful backlighting, but to improve the remote's size, design and perceived simplicity, plenty of common keys go missing. To enter numbers, for example, you have to hit the "More" button, which calls up a numeric keypad (below) that requires tedious swiping around to select each digit. You can also "rotate" the keypad -- it's fastest to use the top slider bar -- to access additional controls, such as transport functions (play, pause, stop, and so on), Picture-in-picture, an Info screen, various set-top-box controls, and, well, more.
Most traditional remotes have dedicated keys for these functions, and how much you'll miss them depends on how you typically use your TV remote. For example, I rarely need to dial in channels directly, but I do use the fast-forward, skip, and play/pause keys all the time when watching TV (e.g. controlling my DVR). That's basically impossible with Samsung's remote (see below).
Like most Smart TVs Samsung has two distinct menu systems, one for the TV's settings and one for the Smart functionality. The former are exactly the same as last year: opaque blue layers logically arranged and featuring helpful explanations, a nifty preview pane, and very quick navigation, thanks in no small part to the remote
|Key TV features|
|Display technology||Plasma||LED backlight||N/A|
|Screen finish||Glossy||Remote||Touch pad|
|Smart TV||Yes||Internet connection||Built-in Wi-Fi|
|3D technology||Active||3D glasses included||4 pair|
|Refresh rate(s)||96Hz, 60Hz||Dejudder (smooth) processing||Yes|
|Other: Additional 3D glasses (model SSG-5100GB, $19); optional Smart Evolution kit (price/model TBD)|
"Featuritis" is one way to describe Samsung's "kitchen sink" approach to its high-end devices, from its phones to tablets, to TVs, to refrigerators, to -- yes -- actual kitchen sinks. But there's no avoiding the fact that products like the F8500 have more options than just about any other competitor. I'll try to cover them here, including whether they're useful or not, and I expect to augment this section as I spend more time with it.
But first, let's look at what I actually consider important: features that affect picture quality. The main reason the F8500 costs so much more than the step-down F5500 is its superior plasma panel. Samsung calls it "Real Black Pro" or "Super Contrast Panel" depending on where you click at the company's Web site, but the main differences between it and the F5500's are better light output, deeper black levels, and a better antireflective screen. I haven't compared the two directly yet, but based on what I saw from the E550 and E8000 from last year, I expect the F8500 to be substantially better.
The two Samsungs share much of the same feature set, otherwise, however, including the full Smart TV suite described below, the same remote, and even voice control. The F5500 has fewer inputs, no built-in pop-up camera (pictured below), and a dual-core processor compared to the F8500's quad-core.
The F8500 continues Samsung's tradition of including four pairs of active 3D glasses in the box. The new SSG-5100GB specs are slight retreads of the SSG-4100GBs from last year with no real improvement made to their flimsy design, but at least additional pairs are cheap. Panasonic and Sony's throw-ins, for what it's worth, are better. Since the F8500 adheres to the universal standard, you can always purchase other glasses.
The set will also be compatible with future Smart Evolution kits. Acting as a sort of brain transplant, the kits debuted this year to upgrade the company's flagship 2012 TVs. Samsung promises a semblance of future-proofing for its most expensive TVs by offering a similar kit for the F8500 in early 2014, as well as "years down the road."
Samsung's Smart Hub offers the usual array of apps, social media hooks and access to local content, but that stuff is presented as secondary to an ambitious "On TV" section. Available from no other TV maker I've tested yet (although LG has something similar this year), it basically attempts to replace your cable or satellite box with the TV's own interface -- and when it can't do that, at least control the box via Samsung's own remote.
The Hub's new design is reminiscent of an Android smartphone, with five different home pages you can flip through by swiping the remote touch pad's scroll bar. Navigation and the slick animations were superquick on the quad-core F8500, although I wouldn't be surprised if step-down Samsungs moved a bit more sluggishly. Overall the design is refreshing, colorful, and relatively simple, a welcome change from the cluttered feel of the company's previous Smart TV suite. It's also a big step up in design from Panasonic's multipage suite, although it doesn't provide the quite same level of customization.
Setup: Like many new TVs, Samsung greets new users with a step-by-step guided setup, which I usually don't describe. In this case, however, it's unusual enough to merit mention. First, it's accompanied by strange Muzak. Second, it's quite involved, including setup not only for Wi-Fi but also for cable box control, and requires you to choose your provider from a list. I wasn't sure which channel lineup to choose between the two different options for Verizon Fios, so I just picked one.
Once you get it set up, you're taken to the default home page for the Smart Hub. Unfortunately, as with Panasonic's 2013 TVs, you'll be greeted with this page every time you turn on the TV. A tweak from the default (Menu>Smart Features>On TV Settings>Auto Start>Off) is enough to fix it, but it's still annoying. At least there are no pop-up ads.
On TV and Recommendation engine: The default Smart Hub home page, On TV, consists of a grid of TV show thumbnails along with a large window showing live TV. Below each thumbnail is a progress bar showing time remaining. You can also switch to a "timeline view," which displays a list of five shows for every hour.
On TV basically acts as a very select electronic program guide (EPG), replacing the staid grid of hundreds of channels with a few cozy images of your favorite TV stars. As you use the system to select shows, Samsung's "recommendation engine" kicks in to surface more shows it thinks you'll want to watch. I didn't spend much time trying to make those reccs make sense for me, but as someone who doesn't watch much TV beyond sports and the occasional series like "Mad Men" and "Game of Thrones," I probably wouldn't be a good subject. I usually know what I want to watch, and I don't need suggestions from the likes of TiVo (one service that has incorporated "suggestions" for years) or Samsung.
I also wouldn't normally use On TV to select my shows, because most of the TV I watch is stored on my DVR's hard drive. That list of recordings isn't incorporated into On TV at all, so On TV 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, Samsung's attempt to replace the cable box simply doesn't work.
Even someone who watches a lot of live TV and doesn't know what they want to see will experience some hiccups with the system. One issue is that choosing a show, for example, "The Price Is Right," took me to the standard-definition channel on my system, not the HD one. Another is that the On TV page shows just six shows each under Now Playing and Coming Up; If you want to browse more than that, you have to turn to your cable box's trusty EPG.
Cable box control: The system uses a single, old-school wired IR blaster (above) to send commands from the TV to the cable box. Like most such systems it's disappointing, and further hobbled by the Samsung remote's paucity of controls.
I set up the system to control my Motorola DVR from Verizon Fios. Samsung's remote navigated my DVR's menus and EPG nicely, entered channel numbers as expected (complete with a handy channel history list) and items like a swipe-to-fast-forward were nice. On the other hand, mainstay buttons like "Guide" and "DVR" on the Samsung remote, and the transport keys on the virtual remote, didn't work at all. So, absurdly, I couldn't stop fast-forwarding once I'd swiped to start.
Confusingly, there's a separate universal remote control setup routine that goes unmentioned in the initial setup, but even after playing around with it, I was unable to get full functionality. The system failed to properly control my Denon receiver, for example, and even when it worked, the Volume keys on the remote controlled the TV's volume, not the receiver's. There's no way to reprogram Samsung's remote to perform these functions, so in the end I had to use other remotes in addition to Samsung's, defeating much of the purpose.
Cross-platform streaming video browse: The second page, called "Movies & TV Shows," is a portal to Internet-based streaming video services -- despite the name, it doesn't surface any cable-based TV shows. The recommendation engine works here, too, to suggest new content based on past selections. Choose a TV show and you're taken to a page listing related shows, cast information, a description, and a "Watch Now" button. Clicking it will show you results from Netflix, Vudu, CinemaNow, and Samsung's Media Hub, along with per-episode pricing. Unfortunately, Amazon (including Prime), Hulu Plus, and HBO Go aren't included in the results; you'll have to go into the individual apps to search those.
Even more unfortunate is that there's no way to search without using voice commands. The system lacks last year's "Search" box, and instead seems designed primarily for browsing. Even the promising "Recomm. Search" button at the bottom of the remote brings up only more thumbnails, with no search field. I understand that Samsung wants to push voice command as simpler than typing keywords onto virtual keyboards, but I'd at least like the option for the latter to find my shows, especially if the voice commands fail.
Media and Social: The fourth page accesses music, photo and video content, whether from an attached USB thumb or hard drive, DLNA device (NAS drive or PC) or smartphone, or the cloud. Naturally the TV is compatible with Samsung's AllShare system, and it can also access cloud storage from DropBox, SkyDrive, and SugarSynch, as well as work with MHL and Miracast to screen mirror-compatible smartphones. I didn't test this functionality, nor did I test Samsung's remote control apps for tablets and smartphones.