It might surprise you to learn that mighty Samsung, the dominant force in TVs for the last few years, has a less-than-dominant history in CNET TV reviews. The company's last two top-of-the-line LED LCD series, the UND8000 and UNES8000, produced "just OK" picture quality on a level with many other makers' midrange sets that cost much, much less money. We expect high-end TVs to produce pictures that match their daring designs and kitchen sink features, and when they don't, we dock 'em.
Samsung's flagship non-4K LED LCD for 2013, the UNF8000 series, lives up to its price tag. This TV is the complete package, a futuristic combination that oozes coolness. The company managed to outdo the beautiful styling of last year's model with an even more minimalist panel and stand -- it even shrunk the logo, a move that probably gave the marketing department fits. No other TV boasts a better feature set, in both quality and quantity, and while some of the myriad extras don't work as well as I'd like to see, the whole feels more thoughtful and well integrated than ever. The biggest improvement, however, came in the form of deep black levels and a uniform screen, both thanks to a well-implemented edge-lit local dimming system that the company's less expensive TVs lack.
As usual the best plasmas still have it beat, but the only other 2013 LED we've placed in its picture quality league so far is the Sony KDL-55W900A -- and fresh off a massive price drop, the Sony is also a comparable value. It's available only in one 55-inch size, however, and it can't compete with the Samsung's design, features, or sheer wow factor. If you're in the high-end TV market and don't want a plasma, the Samsung UNF8000 should be among the first on your list.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 55-inch Samsung UN55F8000, 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 UN46F8000||46 inches|
|Samsung UN55F8000 (reviewed)||55 inches|
|Samsung UN60F8000||60 inches|
|Samsung UN65F8000||65 inches|
|Samsung UN75F8000||75 inches|
Except perhaps for ultrathin OLEDs, I've never seen a TV more stunningly minimalist than the Samsung UNF8000. I keep wondering when the company's intrepid TV designs will simply vanish except for the picture. The hairline bezel of the F8000 is so narrow it somehow makes last year's ES8000 -- a TV I called "one of the most beautiful TV designs you can buy" -- look kinda chunky.
The bezel is not only thinner now, it's mostly black instead of silver adjacent to the screen, and the shape is no longer rounded off. A ribbon of silver runs along the edge, widening on the bottom to accommodate the admirably tiny, albeit very well lit, Samsung logo. As always I appreciated being able to adjust when the logo lit up or turn it off altogether.
Part of the magic of the F8000's design is also its biggest weakness: the stand. Depending on the height of your tabletop it can disappear, leaving the TV to levitate above. And not far above -- the TV measures just 1.5 inches between the bottom of its frame and the tabletop, the lowest profile of any TV I can remember (it has the Sony W802/900A beat by 1/8 inch). Only a pair of curved feet peek out at the extreme edges to either side; they're actually the ends of the base, most of which arcs behind the set. Needless to say, it doesn't allow the TV to swivel.
It also requires a table as wide as the TV itself. As long as you follow the manual's grave instructions to not let those little feet protrude over the edges of your tabletop, it's plenty stable. But try placing it on a narrower stand, like I did, and you risk the thing toppling ignominiously over. Like mine did. I got lucky; there was no damage, but take that as a warning.
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 pad, but it fit perfectly in my hand. The remote uses Bluetooth to work without needing to be aimed at the TV. Responsiveness was superb and 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, like Panasonic's touch-pad remote uses, 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 a massive pain 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||LCD||LED backlight||Edge-lit with local dimming|
|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)||240Hz||Dejudder (smooth) processing||Yes|
|Other: Built-in camera and microphone for voice and gesture recognition; cable box integration and control via IR blaster; additional 3D glasses (model SSG-5100GB, $19); optional Smart Evolution kit (available 2014 and beyond; price/model TBD); optional keyboard (model VG-KBD2000, $99)|
The UNF8000 series is Samsung's highest-end LED-based LCD TV for 2013 that doesn't cost $40,000 or have a 4K (UHD) resolution screen. Samsung, in turn, seems to have a pathological need to "outfeature" the competition. So you won't be surprised to learn that this TV has more features than pretty much any other on the market.
First, let's look at what I actually consider important: features that affect picture quality. The main advantage over the step-down UNF7500 series is a feature Samsung is calling "Micro Dimming Ultimate with Precision Black Local Dimming," as opposed to mere Micro Dimming Pro on the UNF7500. The difference, according to Samsung, is that the UNF8000 actually dims different areas of the backlight, while the dimming of the 7500 and lesser Samsung TVs (down to the UNF6400 series) is strictly video-processing-based. The company claims there are hundreds of different dimming zones on the UNF8000 -- down from "thousands" touted at CES, if you're keeping track.
Like the F7500, the F8000 has a panel with a 240Hz refresh rate, even though the former has a "Clear Motion Rate" of 960 compared with 1,200 on the F8000. According to Samsung, the difference is because the F8000 has superior backlight scanning, by virtue of its local dimming scheme. Otherwise the two TVs have nearly identical picture-related feature sets.
The two Samsungs share much of the same nonpicture feature set otherwise, including the pop-up camera, quad-core processor, the full Smart TV suite described below, the same remote, and voice control.
The F8000 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 F8000 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 F8000 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 F8000, 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. (New since I reviewed the PNF8500, you can also call up a traditional grid guide of channels, above, but it's so simplistic, down to its poor navigation and pointless scheduled TV channel tuning, that most cable box guides have it beat.)
On TV's default view replaces that staid grid guide 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 recs make sense for me, but as someone who doesn't watch much TV beyond sports and the occasional series like "Mad Men" and "Dexter," 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 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 the Guide view or, more likely, your cable box's trusty EPG (electronic program guide). I'm happy to see Samsung seems to have fixed another I experienced on the F8500: the TV now tunes to the HD channel by default, not the standard-def one (this issue may vary too, depending on your cable provider).
Cable box control: Ever the attentive readers of CNET reviews, the fine folks at Samsung made a few improvements to their cable box control scheme since I reviewed the PNF8500. They added a bunch of codes and button associations to make the system more usable with my FioS DVR box from Motorola. I have no idea whether they've also improved usage with other brands of DVR though, and while the changes are welcome, the basic problem still remains: Samsung's remote is still too inconvenient for my DVR-heavy use case. I'll stick with my favorite standard universal clicker.
Samsung's system uses a single, old-school wired IR blaster (above) to send commands from the TV to the cable box, and response times were very quick for such a system. 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. Unlike when I first tested the system with the F8500, all of the cable box commands from the virtual remote -- chiefly transport controls like Forward Skip and Play, as well as the remote's formerly unresponsive "DVR" key -- now appear to work properly. Unfortunately the Guide key on the remote calls up Samsung's simplistic grid guide, not the superior EPG on my DVR.
Keep in mind that getting it right is simply a matter of Samsung putting the correct remote control codes in its database and associating them with the correct physical or virtual buttons. Since the system (unlike, say, a Harmony universal remote) doesn't have learning capability, you need to depend on Samsung to do it. Your results may vary from mine if Samsung hasn't yet added or corrected the codes for your DVR or cable/satellite box.
Even after the system has the correct commands, it's still painfully inconvenient to use the virtual remote for everyday DVR-ing. That's because transport controls reside on the virtual remote (above) instead of earning a dedicated key. Every time I wanted to Play again to stop fast-forwarding after a commercial break, for example, I had to enact the following sequence: More > [swipe right] > [down] > [right] > Select. That's a massive pain compared with just mashing a real Play button on a regular remote.