Even if you can actually afford one, now is not a good time to buy a TV with 4K resolution. Hold off a few months and better ones will be announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, likely with actual HDMI 2.0 inputs, a wider range of screen sizes, and maybe even improved picture quality. They'll probably still be too expensive for mainstream consumption, but they'll be cheaper than the ones available now.
But if you just Want A 4K TV Now, Damn the Caveats! (™), the Samsung UNF9000 series is as a good choice as any. Its picture is superb for an LED-based LCD -- and LCD happens to be the only TV technology that can deliver 4K resolution to the market now. The F9000 offers best-in-class future-proofing, with Samsung's unique Evolution Kit option available to keep its processor, Smart TV suite, and inputs from going obsolete over the next few years.
Now, about those caveats. Anyone buying a 4K/Ultra High-Definition TV of 65 inches or smaller and expecting to see an improvement in detail -- or any other aspect of picture quality -- with normal HD sources will be disappointed. We tested the Samsung UNF9000 and Panasonic TC-P65WT600 extensively to look for any such improvement compared with a same-size 1080p TV, and it simply wasn't there.
Meanwhile actual 4K content is as rare as hen's teeth today, and not going mainstream, especially as broadcast TV, for years. Even when a 4K TV plays 4K content, the improvement over a 1080p TV is likely to range from subtle to nonexistent, depending on how close you sit. As difficult as it is to believe when you hear about all those extra pixels mentioned in marketing materials, 4K offers at best marginal real-world improvements on 1080p. See "Why 4K TVs are stupid still" for more.
Speaking of 1080p TVs, Samsung makes an excellent alternative to this one: the UNF8000 series. In just about every way aside from resolution, it's the same as the F9000. It also costs $500 less at 55 inches, and $1,200 less at 65. Until that price delta closes to a couple hundred bucks, 1080p TVs will always offer superior value to 4K TVs for most buyers.
Update 11-18-2013: Due to a recent price drop, the Value rating of this review was increased from a 3 to a 5, the overall rating accordingly improved from 6.4 to 7.5, and a portion of the review text modified.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 65-inch Samsung UN65F9000, but this review also applies to the 55-inch screen size in the series. The two have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality.
The UNF9000 shares the same brilliant, stunningly minimalist design as the UNF8000. The bezel around the screen on my 65-inch review sample is too thick to call "hairline," but it still makes the big TV seem almost all picture. I appreciated its mostly black coloration, accented by the thin line of silver along the very edge when seen from the front. Another thing I appreciated: the "Samsung" logo below the screen is tiny.
Another highlight is the unique stand. Depending on the height of your tabletop, the stand 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. Only a pair of curved feet peep 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. When I ignored those instructions during my F8000 review, the TV did actually fall over. No harm was done, but let that be a lesson to ya.
All Samsung high-end TVs this year include its touch-pad clicker. 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. In many ways it's the best remote control included with any TV I've ever used.
The main flaw of Samsung's clever clicker comes with its lack of buttons, but unlike every other 2013 Samsung TV, the F9000 includes a traditional remote as well. While certainly more cluttered, it actually does a better job than the touch pad at allowing easy access to many functions, especially for cable box/DVR control. It's a relief to not have to rely on a pop-up onscreen remote to do something as basic as fast-forward or pause live TV.
|Key TV features|
|Display technology||LCD||LED backlight||Edge-lit with local dimming|
|Screen finish||Glossy||Remotes||Touch pad and standard|
|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/One Connect kit (available 2014 and beyond; price/model TBD); optional keyboard (model VG-KBD2000, $99)|
The short version? The F9000 is just like the F8000, but with 4K resolution and a special One Connect box where all the inputs live. And the F8000, in true Samsung fashion, had more features than any other TV on the market until this one came along.
As far as picture-affecting features go, the Samsung Web site seems to indicate a slight difference in the two TVs' local dimming systems. The F8000 features "Micro Dimming Ultimate with Precision Black Local Dimming," as opposed to mere "Micro Dimming Ultimate" on the UNF9000. Since the latter lacks a Cinema Black setting in the menu, I'm guessing that's the difference. Cinema Black dims the letterbox bars of ultra-wide-screen movies specifically and separately from the standard dimming, creating higher perceived contrast. Regardless of this apparent difference, in practice the two TVs' dimming behaved nearly the same: among the best I've tested on an edge-lit TV.
Both have a 240Hz refresh rate, which goes officially unmentioned in favor of Samsung's "1,200 CMR" spec. Yes, that spec amounts to a crazy-inflated number that's basically fake, but in Samsung's case at least it indicates excellent motion performance.
Like all Samsung TVs the F9000 uses active 3D technology, despite the improvement 4K resolution affords passive 3D. It 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. Since the F9000 adheres to the universal standard, you can always purchase other glasses.
The set will also be compatible with future Smart Evolution kits, but they'll be wholly different in form from the current version. Instead of attaching like a lamprey to the back of the TV, future Evolution Kits for the F9000 will replace its current One Connect box -- which contains not only the physical inputs described below but also, apparently, the TV's "brains" (processor, memory, etc.). Beyond Samsung's promise that a future version of the box will offer compatibility with the HDMI 2.0 specification, it remains to be seen how much such kits cost and what improvements they offer.
Smart TV, cable box control, and voice and gesture control
In case you're wondering, we didn't test these features on the F9000. However, we expect them to work basically the same as they did on the F8000. The brief summary is that Samsung's Smart TV suite has more content than anyone, and its design is second to none. While the TV's cable box control isn't very useful for heavy DVR users, it works well enough. I didn't find much use for the recommendation engine, and I haven't really tested voice and gesture control. For more details, I'll refer you one final time to the F8000 review.
One minor, supposed difference between Panasonic's TC-L65WT600 4K TV and the F9000 is that Panasonic claims to be the only one whose Web browser renders pages in 4K resolution. Even if you actually care about TV Web browsers, don't get too excited. In my quick comparison, Panasonic's browser didn't look any sharper than Samsung's, even when looking at Google Maps (one of Panasonic's own examples of its browser's benefits). Even if it did, I'd take Samsung's browser any day instead, with its much better design and vastly superior responsiveness via the touch pad.
Picture settings: There's plenty on tap here and no differences from the F8000, aside from the aforementioned Cinema Black. You get 2-point and 10-point grayscale control, an excellent color management system, and four picture presets. Samsung's class-leading Auto Motion Plus dejudder control not only turns the Soap Opera Effect on or off, it allows adjustment of both blur reduction and smoothness. Meanwhile there are three levels of Smart LED to control local dimming. I can't really ask for anything more.
Connectivity: Nothing major goes missing here. Four HDMI ports, three USB, and an optical digital output do the digital heavy lifting, while analog video is served by a single component-video port that's shared with composite video (via breakout cables). There's no VGA-style PC input, but there is a port for the included wired IR blaster.
Aside from one of the USB ports, the jacks are housed in a slim breakout box Samsung dubs One Connect, which connects to the TV itself via a single 10-foot umbilical that terminates in proprietary plugs at both ends. The idea of using an outboard box is to allow relatively simple upgrades. The F9000's current box has only HDMI 1.4-compatible inputs; the company says a future box (release date and price TBD) will offer HDMI 2.0 inputs.
That HDMI 2.0 solution isn't as elegant or inexpensive as the promised free firmware upgrades of Sony and Toshiba, or the already-included "based-on HDMI 2.0" compatibility of the Panasonic TC-L65WT600 (albeit on only one input). But it actually offers the best guarantee of future compatibility, mainly because none of those companies actually claims full HDMI 2.0 compatibility via their upgrades. Check out our roundup of HDMI 2.0 upgrade paths for more.
Allow me to reiterate that once you get to HD resolution on a TV, other factors like contrast, color and uniformity have a much greater impact on how good the image looks. I'd rather see TV makers address those points than simply throw more tiny pixels on the screen, which is why CNET and many others -- including these poll respondents and industry experts -- are more excited by OLED than by 4K. But whatchagonnado? 4K TVs are here now, and it looks like their prices will hit mainstream levels long before those of OLED TVs.
This review represents the first opportunity I've had to test a non-Seiki 4K TV in my lab. I performed extensive side-by-side viewings comparing the UN65F9000 with another 65-inch 4K TV, the Panasonic TC-L65WT600, as well as to a 65-inch 1080p TV, the Panasonic TC-P65S64. As always, I compared the TVs after calibration in a dark room using HDMI distribution amplifiers capable of providing simultaneous signals to each TV without degradation.
Unless otherwise noted, all of my observations were conducted at a seating distance of 77 inches (6.5 feet). That's much closer than the 9 feet most viewers sit from their TVs, but equal to the THX recommended distance for immersive home theater. I'll use those recommendations to specify the lower bound of what I mean by "normal seating distance." On a 55-inch TV like the UN55F9000, that distance is 65 inches (5.5 feet), and on an 85-inch TV like the UN85S9, it's 101 inches (8.4 feet). Moving farther away, of course, makes the benefits of high resolution dwindle further.
Everything I saw indicated that even at these relatively large screen sizes and theatrical viewing distances, the improvement afforded by 4K resolution with standard video content (as opposed to PC games or still photos) is subtle at the best of times, but usually nonexistent.
In fact, with some 1080p sources, the Samsung occasionally looked very slightly worse (softer) than the 1080p TV. Perhaps that's because of the picture quality advantage of plasma versus LCD, or imperfect upconversion on Samsung's part, but regardless, it runs counter to the notion that the magic of video processing can make 1080p look better on a 4K TV -- at least in the cases of the F9000 and WT600.
Unfortunately I wasn't able to perform what I consider "The Ultimate Test," which is directly comparing high-quality 4K native footage on a 4K TV next to the exact same footage in 1080p on a 1080p TV. When I get the chance to do so, hopefully soon, I expect to be able to sit farther back (maybe around 8 feet) and see some minor benefit to 4K resolution. This excellent calculator tells me that at that distance, the 4K vs. 1080p improvement on a 65-inch TV is about 40 percent, given my 20/20 vision.
Beyond resolution, the F9000 is an excellent performer for an LED LCD. It evinced the same superb black-level performance and color accuracy as the F8000, beating the WT600 in overall picture quality -- although the latter has an advantage in bright rooms and from off-angle. As usual, however, the best plasmas, and even a midlevel one like the S64, provide a better overall picture.
4K sources testing It's tough to get 4K sources these days, even for someone with my resources at CNET. Both Panasonic and Samsung sent USB keys with a few minutes of 4K footage, each of which looked great. Samsung's included the breathtaking landscapes, time-lapse cityscapes, and unnaturally well-lit nature scenes I've come to expect from 4K demos. Unsurprisingly they were rife with amazing detail, especially from up close. Too bad the video from Samsung's USB wouldn't play back on Panasonic's TV, and vice-versa, so I couldn't put the same footage on both TVs to compare.
I was able to compare the two TVs' handling of 4K using a Redray 4K video player, however, which that company was kind enough to loan me for this review. It came filled with a few 4K videos (at 4,096x2,060 pixels, so scaled somewhat by the TVs), the best of which for my tests was the "Red 800" sampler montage. It contained plenty of spectacular shots including extreme closeups of eyes and fingernails, desert and arctic landscapes, motorcycles and crossbows, and a variety of other highly detailed images. Seen side-by-side, the two 4K TVs didn't show much difference in detail at all; the major differences were in black level and other nonresolution areas (see below).