Samsung’s latest range of LED and plasma TVs offer incremental upgrades in picture quality and performance, but also include a new and innovative approach to controlling the TV — voice recognition and motion control. These features, and plenty of new Samsung apps, promise a more immersive and full TV ‘experience’ than just sitting back with a remote control.
Samsung Series 8: Design
The Series 8 is the most expensive TV that Samsung makes, and accordingly it has the most modern and space-aged styling of any model in the company’s line-up. Available in 55in, 60in and 65in sizes, the Series 8 — model number UA55ES8000 for our 55in test unit — is all chrome and smooth curves.
A very thin chrome bezel runs around all four edges of the television, with a bump in the middle of the top bezel for the TV’s integrated stereo microphone and webcam-cum-motion-control sensor. There’s a corresponding bump on the bottom bezel where the Samsung logo can be found, with a soft white glow when the TV is turned on (this can be disabled if necessary). Inside the chrome bezel, an equally thin black bezel surrounds the TV’s LCD panel. Instead of a set of power/volume/channel buttons, the Series 8 has a multifunction five-way controller/power button at the back of the TV on the right that corresponds to an on-screen menu.
Continuing on with the fashionable chrome stand trend of the 2011 Series 7 and 8, the 2012 Series 8 sits on what Samsung calls an ‘arch flow’ stand. It’s nearly as long as the TV itself, so the two feet offer excellent support. There’s no swivel, though, which is a step backwards from last year’s model.
The TV is attractive, and while the bezel isn’t quite as thin as the one on the LG LM9600, it’s still very thin and looks great. The stand raises the TV a few centimetres from whatever it’s sitting on, with a floating effect that means it stands out from other models we’ve tested recently — it’s worlds apart from the monolithic Sony HX850, for example.
The screen is moderately reflective like last year’s models. If you’re in a darkened or dim room with no single bright light source, you won’t notice any reflections — ideally, we’d suggest an entirely dark room for viewing but if you’ve got a window behind or to the side of the TV that you can dim with curtains, that would be adequate. If you don’t have any curtains, and if you’ve got a bright light source directly in front of the TV, your viewing will be interrupted by very noticeable reflections.
Two pairs of active 3D glasses are included with the Series 8. They’re Samsung’s latest rechargeable units, syncing with the TV through Bluetooth and weighing only 29 grams. They’re reasonably comfortable due to the light weight, and the large lenses mean a wide field of vision, so if you intend to watch a lot of 3D then Samsung’s approach is solid. We’d still pick a passive 3D TV like the LG LM9600 when it comes to 3D, though: the glasses are far cheaper, and there’s no chance of annoying flickering around light sources.
The Samsung Series 8 LED TV comes bundled with two remote controls — one standard channel-changer, and Samsung’s Smart Touch Control. The Smart Touch Remote Control has is dominated by a touchpad, but also has buttons to activate voice control (there’s a built-in microphone in the remote) as well as to jump quickly to Samsung’s Smart Hub or change inputs. The touchpad is useful for navigating the integrated Web browser, but for most other purposes we’d stick with the standard remote.
Samsung also includes an infrared blaster in the Series 8’s packaging. You can set this up to control your other devices — TiVo, Blu-ray player, home theatre system — by using the Smart Touch Remote as a universal remote control. The idea is that you’ll hide your other devices in a cupboard with the IR blaster aimed at them, and use the Smart Touch Remote to mimic their original remote controls. We didn’t test out this feature but we can see its value if configured properly, although it won’t work with any devices that need an RF signal rather than infrared.
Samsung Series 8: Connectivity, networking and setup
The Series 8 is, like the Sony HX850 and LG LM9600, at the front of the pack when it comes to connectivity. Three HDMI 1.4 ports is a slight step back from last year’s four, but there’s now three USB connectors as well as the standard Ethernet, headphone and digital audio ports. Older component and composite connectors are optional, on a break-out cable, and there’s no VGA input.
The USB ports support almost any compressed video, photo or music files; we tested 1080p MKV videos, 24-megapixel JPEG photos, and 320kbps AAC music with no problems, and these are generally the trickiest file types for TVs to play. You can also plug a USB hard drive into the Series 8 and use it to record TV.
Wi-Fi is built into the Series 8, and is 802.11b/g/n compatible. It supports Wi-Fi Direct so any new laptop or smartphone can beam files directly to the TV for playback, with no infrastructure wireless network required. You can also use a compatible Samsung smartphone as a second display for the TV with the Smart View app, and another app lets smartphone users mimic a TV remote control. The Smart Connectivity pillar of Samsung’s 2012 TV sales pitch is a solid one.
Wireless and wired networks on the Series 8 supports Samsung’s DLNA service, referred to as AllShare. We found the same file types to work over a network as directly over USB. Samsung’s premium Smart TVs also have a feature called AllShare Play, which is a cloud service running through SugarSync that allows compatible Samsung products like smartphones tablets, TVs, Blu-ray players and any PC or Mac to access files stored on any other device.
You could use AllShare Play to watch videos stored on your TV (or on a connected USB drive) on your smartphone over 3G — it’s another method for sharing content that should attract anyone who already has or is thinking of buying a Samsung smartphone or tablet.
Another feature that is worth mentioning on the 2012 Samsung Series 8 is its Smart Evolution port. Hidden behind a sticker on the rear of the TV is a little port that, from 2013 onwards, will be able to accept an approximately-~$130 plug-in upgrade kit that includes extra features or processing power. Where this 2012 Series 8 has an internal dual-core processor, for example, the 2013 Smart Evolution kit will have a quad-core CPU. The idea is that if you buy a Smart Evolution-compatible TV, its lifespan will be longer than an incompatible TV thanks to the incremental yearly upgrades available.
Setting up the TV is simple — the stand bolts together with around ten screws holding the TV to its cradle, and everything lines up and screws in securely. Power and the TV’s antenna are the only mandatory cable connections, although we opted for a wired Ethernet network connection over wireless as well.
Samsung Series 8: Three new apps
Samsung is pushing three particular apps as key players in its 2012 Smart TV range. As well as the usual suspects from last year and the year before — ABC iView (our favourite, even now), Facebook, Twitter, Quickflix et al — the three stand-outs this year are Family Story, Fitness and Kids.
Family Story is for the Samsung mobile device-equipped family: it’s a private, invite-only Facebookesque social network that hinges heavily on group chat ‘wall’ posts and sharing photos. You’ll need a Samsung Galaxy S2 or newer smartphone, Galaxy Tab 10.1 or newer tablet, or new Samsung Wi-Fi-enabled digital camera to take part in a Family Story network. It’s a novel idea, but we think it has limited appeal.
Fitness, on the other hand, is an excellent free app. There’s a Samsung smartphone tie-in app called Noom that you can use to record your meals and daily exercise, but the TV aspect incorporates a library of exercise videos with the mirror image output of the Series 8’s integrated camera: you can check out your posture to see whether you’re doing what you’re meant to. You can also buy an optional Withings wireless weight scale that you can connect to the same Wi-Fi network as the TV, and track your weight loss reguarly. It’s an exercise ecosystem that ties into every part of your day, as long as you’ve got a Samsung phone and TV — like Wii Fit on steroids (so to speak).
Kids is, as the name suggest, a library of child-friendly programming — heaps of cartoons and live-action kids’ shows, with a sticker book to track what shows have been watched. It’s an award system that we can see being addictive for primary school-aged kids, and we do appreciate that it’s a free inclusion. It’s the kind of feature that could sway young parents with money to burn into picking the Samsung over another similar TV.
Another nifty new feature is the ability to log into all your social networks and other sites using the camera at the top of the Series 8 for face recognition. It’s a novelty feature that isn’t as secure as manually typing in a password, but it’s much faster. We don’t see great appeal in using social networking services on your TV, but if you’re a convert then this is another bonus.
Samsung Series 8: Voice and motion control
In addition to the good ol’ fashioned remote control, premium TVs in Samsung’s 2012 TV line-up — that’s just the Series 8 in 55in, 60in and 65in sizes — can be controlled by both voice and gesture. The system is controlled by two elements: a webcam in the TV’s top bezel, and an inbuilt microphone. There’s also a microphone in the bundled Smart Remote Control.
Samsung calls this system Smart Interaction. A user can talk to the TV in predetermined phrases to perform specific functions — “Hi TV... volume up.” “Hi TV... channel ninety-one.” “Hi TV... TV power off.” The TV can also interpret natural language phrases and turn speech into text, which is most useful when you’re searching in the integrated Web browser.
As well as voice control, the TV’s webcam picks up faces and outstretched hands. Stretching your hand towards the TV with fingers extended brings up a hand-shaped cursor on-screen, which you can use to activate basic channel and volume control buttons, as well as performing a range of gestures — an anticlockwise circle to mimic the remote control’s Return button, for example. Face recognition works in harmony with Samsung’s user account system, which can automatically log in to Facebook, Twitter, SugarSync and a small range of other services.
These interaction features are good in theory, and they do have practical merit for basic functions. We used the motion control to change volume and channel, and the voice control to turn the TV on and off, but beyond these features we’d generally prefer to use the remote control.
The reason for this is that the voice and motion control systems aren’t especially quick to activate or intuitive to use. If you stretch your hand towards the TV, it’ll take up to three seconds to realise what you’re doing and bring a cursor up on-screen. If you say “Hi TV...” there’ll be a two-second pause before the contextual menu pops up. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to try again.
Further to that, as an example — if you say “Hi TV... Volume up” (which takes at least five seconds with the correct pauses in speech) and it works the first time (we had a success rate of around 70 per cent), the volume is raised by a single digit out of 100. To make a significant change in volume, you’ll have to repeat yourself ten times.
When we set up this Series 8, Samsung did go to pains to explain to us that Smart Interaction is a complementary control system rather than a primary one — it’s not going to replace the remote control any time soon. It does have its uses — changing directly to a different TV channel was our best use of the voice system — but using the traditional remote control is both faster and more reliable.
Samsung Series 8: Picture quality
Despite everything else the Samsung Series 8 can do — fancy Wi-Fi sharing, upgrade kits, motion and voice control — it all comes down to how good the LED panel actually looks when you’re watching a Blu-ray movie or a digital TV broadcast. We generally compared the Series 8 against the LG LM9600, Sony HX850 and Sharp LE835X in our tests, as it’s these models it rivals in picture quality and specifications.
First up, the specs: the Series 8 is a 1920x1080p Full HD TV available in Australia in 55in, 60in and 65in sizes. We tested the 55in model, the UA55ES8000M. It’s a LCD panel with edge LED backlighting, with ‘Micro Dimming Ultimate’ local dimming — closer to the LG LM9600 than the Sharp LE735X, which uses a full LED backlight without local dimming.
Viewing angles are excellent. The thin bezel doesn’t block viewing from extreme angles, and moving off-centre both horizontally and vertically doesn’t have any negative effect within a 130-degree cone. Moving past 130 degrees does slowly wash out contrast towards the maximum 178-degree angle, although the effect is more pronounced when moving vertically rather than horizontally. We think the viewing angles of the Series 8 are more than generous enough for a family or group of friends arranged around the TV.
The Standard setting of the Series 8 may look impressive, but it really does let the TV down in terms of the detail it throws away. We noticed over-saturation of bright areas and under-saturation of dark areas, as well as a contrast setting that crushed blacks and blew out whites, and sharpening that was far too strong.
Switching to the Movie video preset makes things much, much better — it’s the display preset we’d recommend you choose straight away, even if you’re not going to change anything else on the TV. It’s able to display a lot more fine image detail, but we still altered it by raising colour temperature, lowering gamma slightly and dropping backlight and brightness settings.
The Samsung Series 8 LED TV has two video sub-menus of on-the-fly picture adjustments for colour enhancements. We opted to keep most of these — like Dynamic Contrast to boost blacks and whites — off to preserve the original video source’s quality. It’s also a smart idea to turn off any noise reduction settings if you’re watching a Blu-ray movie or other high quality video. We did activate the LED Motion Plus setting, which scans the backlight to make motion appear smoother, but disabled the regular Motion Plus setting that doubles videos’ frame rates — this had a too-smooth effect we didn’t like.
Once it’s been appropriately adjusted — as usual, we’d recommend a professional calibration — we found the Samsung Series 8 produced a stunning picture. It’s got excellent general detail levels when displaying Full HD 1080p Blu-ray material, and black levels that are very low while still retaining plenty of shadow detail. Just like the Sharp LE835X it thrives when it’s fed the highest quality video sources.
The Series 8 displayed all the detail we expected to see in Avatar, The Dark Knight and Terminator: Salvation.It’s one of the best screens we’ve seen for outright image quality, besting the Sony HX850 and LG LM9600, and coming close to the black level performance of the still-unequaled Pioneer LX509A.
We didn’t notice any backlight cloudiness or spotlighting in our test model, which is a rarity for an edge-lit LED TV. There may be some sample variation at work here, but we were very impressed with the Samsung Series 8’s uniformity — it resoundingly beats the LG in this regard and has a slight edge over the Sony.
3D picture quality is slightly improved over last year’s D8000 series. There’s still a small amount of cross-talk in high contrast scenes, but generally the TV handles 3D playback well. The panel is very bright during 3D playback, which addresses some of our concerns about small-screen (as opposed to theatre) 3D being too dark. We’d still like to see Samsung try out a passive 3D approach for lowered glasses costs and the elimination of any flickering in brightly-lit rooms.
The speaker built into the Series 8 are good, but not great. They’re on par with other thin TVs; the two 10W stereo speakers are reasonably clear but an external system is a smart additional purchase. For better integrated sound we’d pick the Sony HX850 and its monolithic stand.
Samsung Series 8: Conclusion
Samsung’s Series 8 TV has almost too many features to list. Some of them are a novelty, like the voice and motion controls and the touchpad remote control. Some of them have some impressive theoretical applications, like the media-sharing AllShare Play. The be all and end all of a TV is its picture quality though, and we’re happy to report that the Series 8 has the best picture quality we’ve seen this year.