Samsung might have been pipped to the post by Panasonic this year in the annual race to be the first big brand to launch its new TV range into the Australian market, but we - and, we suspect, the world at large - are still pretty psyched to have the first 2013-range Samsung TV,available for review.
Especially as this new model, the Samsung UA55F8000, comes from the very top of Samsung's new F8000 range, meaning it should show us Samsung flexing absolutely all of its latest TV muscles. Which sounds much more disturbing than we meant it to.
Samsung UA55F8000 - Design
No sooner have you lifted the Samsung UA55F8000 out of its box than it starts to impress. For even by Samsung's traditionally trend-setting design standards the UA55F8000 is one heck of a looker, chiefly because there's so little of it.
We're accustomed now to finding high-end TVs sporting crazily slim bezels, but the UA55F8000 takes this to a new extreme by surrounding its 55-inch screen with under half a centimetre of beautifully finished black frame, trimmed by a mere sliver of metallic silver.
The simple notion that such a puny bezel on an edge LED TV can still deliver 55in of bright pictures seems to defy the laws of physics, while the visual impact of having so little bezel is underlined by the fact that even the bottom edge of the TV - the edge where most manufacturers allow themselves a little more bezel depth - is just as thin as the other three sides, except for a little section in the centre holding a tiny illuminated Samsung logo. Well, you didn't expect Samsung to go to so much trouble with the TV's design without making sure they got the credit for it, did you?!
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Even the Samsung UA55F8000's stand is a work of art, using a remarkably narrow curved bar that runs behind the TV, so that aside from a couple of small silver protrusions at each of the bottom corners the TV looks like it's just floating in space.
The only thing slight issue with this stand is that it needs to stand on a surface as wide as the TV; anything less and the small front support sections of the curved stand won't rest on anything and the TV will simply topple forward. Ouch.
With so little bezel to support the screen, it's pleasing to find Samsung making the Samsung UA55F8000's rear far more rigid and robust than the ones on last year's equivalent ES8000 models. In fact, the polished metallic look to this rear is almost as pretty in its own way as the TV's ultra-minimalist front.
Samsung UA55F8000 - Connections
All the connections on the rear are positioned for side access, making the UA55F8000 easy to hang on the wall if that suits your room set up. The connections are predictably prodigious too - especially now Samsung has sensibly gone back to providing four HDMIs after curiously flirting with just three on last year's models.
Plus, of course, there are multimedia options aplenty, thanks to three USBs, a LAN port, and built-in Wi-Fi. The USBs can play back a large array of video, photo and music file formats, as well as allowing you to connect USB HDDs for timeshifting from the digital tuners.
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The Samsung UA55F8000's LAN/Wi-Fi options, though, are where things really get interesting. For as well as enabling you to stream files from DLNA-capable computers with the aid of Samsung's AllShare software, they also permit you to go online with the latest incarnation of Samsung's online Smart TV service.
Samsung UA55F8000 - Smart Features
There's far too much to talk about regarding Samsung's Smart TV platform to do it justice in this review. So we have published a two part review of the new Smart Hub in separate reviews.
In the meantime, though, we should cover at least the basics here, kicking off with the fact that Samsung has adopted a similar strategy to Panasonic by providing you with five different themed 'home screens'. The default starting screen is 'On TV' which plays a reduced version of the current broadcast programme while also showing other recommended broadcasts and shows coming up on preferred channels in the coming hour or so.
The most important word in the previous paragraph is 'recommended'. For in a really significant move, Samsung's Smart platform can now track your viewing habits and, TiVo-style, use the programme information supplied by broadcasters to identify other TV shows you might be interested in. Nifty.
The other home screens on offer cover: movies and TV show searches (again with a recommendation system) over any platform available, be it broadcast or online; a portal to your photos, videos and music files; a social page for YouTube Skype, Twitter and Facebook activity; and an Apps page for managing and accessing the apps already on your TV and those available for download from Samsung's servers.
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The presentation values throughout are extremely high, though a bit more on-screen information might have been appreciated in places. As would the option to develop a truly personalised home screen like you can with Panasonic's new system. But as we say, we'll get into this in more detail in a separate feature.
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Samsung UA55F8000 - Features and 2D Picture Quality
The Samsung UA55F8000's Smart TV system also offers the improved gesture and voice control systems, and support for second screens (tablets and Smartphones).
Both the gesture and voice control systems are much improved from last year's rather experimental efforts, but they still ultimately feel like niche tools rather than mainstream revolutionaries. And while the Android and iOS Samsung apps are decent, especially when it comes to streaming video from the TV, they're neither as flexible when it comes to handling multimedia nor as feature-rich as Panasonic's Viera Remote 2 app.
Samsung UA55F8000 - Remote Control
We should add here that the Samsung UA55F8000 ships with two remotes: a rather drab looking standard one, and a much more 'glinty' little effort with a touchpad. This is a massive improvement over the touchpad remote Samsung used last year, and quickly became our default controller.
If you're an owner of one of Samsung's ES7000 or ES8000 TVs from last year and like the sound of the new Samsung Smart TV system, remarkably you can upgrade your set to the new system via one of Samsung's newly launched Evolution Kits. The Samsung UA55F8000 also delivers Evolution Kit support, so you'll be able to update it with pretty much any new features Samsung comes up with in the years to come.
This idea that you won't have to think about upgrading your TV every couple of years will sound hugely appealing to many modern consumers fed up with the current crazy speed of TV change. Please note, though, that the Evolution Kit will not magically convert the 55F8000 into a 4K TV...
Samsung UA55F8000 - 2D Picture Quality
While Samsung's 2012 TV range did some pretty groundbreaking things where Smart functionality was concerned, they perhaps didn't advance their picture quality as much as we'd have liked, a fact highlighted as the year went on by the arrival of Sony's terrific HX853 series. Thankfully, though, Samsung has responded to Sony's gauntlet in startling fashion with the Samsung UA55F8000, delivering pictures that combine the jaw-dropping 'spectacle' for which Samsung is renowned with a new-found respect for serious AV enthusiasts.
The single biggest reason for this is that Samsung has finally got to grips with its old backlight inconsistency problem. Even using the TV's flawed picture presets, which invariably set the backlight and contrast levels way too high, the Samsung UA55F8000 is able to show dark scenes now while suffering scarcely any of the overt patches of grey clouding so noticeable with previous ranges.
It has always been possible to greatly reduce the impact of this clouding by greatly reducing the backlight and contrast settings on Samsung's top-end TVs. But even if we ignore for a moment that most people never so much as touch their TV's picture adjustments after buying a TV, we're big fans of personal choice. So that Samsung is getting rid of its old backlight problems means users now have far more flexibility over what picture settings they can use without distracting clouds appearing over pictures can only be a very good thing.
So obsessed has Samsung (finally) been with getting rid of backlight inconsistencies, in fact, that it has even introduced a new Cinema Black feature that independently dims the light levels in the black bars above and below 21:9-ratio films in the Samsung UA55F8000, where the effects of backlight inconsistencies with edge LED televisions are normally at their most distracting.
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Samsung UA55F8000 - Picture Settings
While we appreciate the greater picture setting flexibility made possible by the improved black response of the Samsung UA55F8000's panel, though, ironically we still got the most natural pictures - at least when watching the picture 'seriously', in a darkened room - by using settings for the backlight and contrast similar to those we had to use last year to reduce the backlight clouding. Namely around 6 for the backlight and between 82 and 86 for contrasts.
While discussing settings, we also found that HD pictures benefitted from reducing the sharpness setting slightly from its 50 default level to around 40-44. Otherwise images can look a touch too 'fizzy' for comfort, especially if an HD source naturally contains a lot of grain.
It's a pity that Samsung still hasn't provided a preset that roughly follows the settings described above. But in truth it's only a moment's work to get things looking good for serious movie viewing (though you can also spend hours with the provided suite of gamma, colour management and white balance tools if you're so inclined).
Actually, good is an understatement. For post-calibration the Samsung UA55F8000's pictures are truly outstandingly good.
Continuing the backlight theme we've touched on already, for instance, it delivers black colours on the 55F8000 that look actually black. There's practically no trace of the customary greyness over dark areas still commonly witnessed with edge LED TVs. To put more perspective on this, as well as producing the deepest, richest black colours Samsung has managed, the depth and especially uniformity of the 55F8000's black colours during very dark sequences are actually more convincing than they are on even Sony's HX853 TVs.
The fact that the Sony HX853 sets use a full local dimming system (rather than just the Cinema Black top and bottom light controls used on the 55F8000) does mean that the Sony sets deliver more dynamic-looking dark scenes, as the Samsung has to dim its whole image to deliver its terrific black levels.
However, a side-by-side Samsung/Sony comparison also reveals more luminance consistency in the Samsung UA55F8000's dark scenes, as they're not plagued by the sort of gentle haloing effects you get with the Sony's local dimming system. This is a crucial benefit for Samsung that might really help them appeal to the AV cognoscenti.
Also impressive is how much shadow detail the Samsung UA55F8000 is capable of resolving during dark scenes without damaging the strong black level response. This shows how good the panel's innate contrast performance is, as clearly it's not having to remove as much backlight intensity as previous models have in order to produce a convincing black colour.
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The Samsung UA55F8000's terrific contrast performance is further aided by its screen's ability to soak up ambient light and reflections from your room. In fact, pretty much the only negative we can raise about its contrast performance is that black levels start to reduce quite dramatically if you watch the TV from an angle of more than 30 degrees down its sides.
More excellent news can be seen in the Samsung UA55F8000's colour handling. For while the set can certainly go as bold and aggressive as you like with its colours if that suits your tastes, it can also deliver almost endless colour subtlety and outstandingly natural tones if you want those instead. Especially since - as touched upon earlier - the set has the high level calibration tools necessary to enable it to meet any of the key video standards with impressive precision.
Samsung UA55F8000 - 3D Pictures and Verdict
Yet another string to the Samsung UA55F8000's bow is how sharp and detailed its HD pictures look. In fact, we're struggling to think of any other 55-inch TV that delivers HD with quite such a profound sense of clarity and resolution (even after toning sharpness levels down a touch to prevent some HD images looking noisy).
With this in mind, it's great to see that the sharpness remains intact even during action scenes, thanks to a combination of the screen's native 200Hz system and a much-improved motion processing engine.
We preferred to use this motion system on its Clear setting, though it's worth adding that the new processing power wielded by the Samsung UA55F8000 is so speedy that you can now also opt for the more potent Standard setting without it creating too many negative side effects.
Standard definition playback is mostly strong too. Colours remain natural rather than becoming washed out as they can with many lesser TVs, and noise levels are kept low. Standard def images perhaps look a touch short of detail once set up to deliver the best all-round results, but the good news with them far outweighs the bad.
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Samsung UA55F8000 - 3D Performance
If the Samsung UA55F8000 is ridiculously impressive with 2D, it's downright spectacular with 3D.
We know that 3D hasn't proved a massive hit with consumers, and even Hollywood seems to be slowly losing interest in it. But after spending time immersed in the 55F8000's spectacular 3D images, we've found our interest in the format - specifically the active 3D format - renewed.
The reason we stressed the active format back there is that the Samsung UA55F8000 produces what we feel confident are the sharpest, most detail-filled full HD 3D Blu-ray images we've ever seen. There's simply no significant difference between the detail level and image 'polish' of the set's 3D and 2D images - especially as Samsung's latest processing engine is able to work on motion in 3D as well as 2D images, dealing extremely effectively with the sort of judder and blur issues commonly witnessed with 3D on LCD TVs.
Contributing still further to the sense of clarity in the Samsung UA55F8000's 3D images is their relative freedom from crosstalk. The telltale double ghosting flaw is still very occasionally visible, but far less often and far less aggressively than we've seen it before on any Samsung 3D TV.
Add to this emphatic 3D HD sharpness the retention of unprecedented levels of light and contrast even after donning Samsung's 3D glasses and you also get to enjoy the most convincing sense of space and depth that we've ever seen on a 3D TV.
The icing on the 3D cake comes from the way the Samsung UA55F8000's ultra-slim bezel provides you with an almost imperceptible boundary to your 3D viewing, allowing you to become more immersed in the action rather than feeling aware of the TV technology that's producing it.
Wrapping up the picture analysis with a couple of more general points, it was great to see how well the TV soaks up reflections of ambient light in your room (further boosting its contrast credentials), and how little input lag it suffers with. We measured just 37ms, which is low enough to make the Samsung UA55F8000 an adequate gaming monitor.
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Samsung UA55F8000 - Sound Quality
Turning finally to the Samsung UA55F8000's audio, you're probably expecting to hear that it's rubbish given how thin the TV bezel is. However, remarkably it's really rather good. Samsung has included a pair of woofer speakers within the TV's rear that both inject a reasonable amount of bass into proceedings and relieve the pressure on the upper register of the set's soundstage, resulting in an audio performance of much more substance, dynamism, openness, clarity and raw power than we've heard from a Samsung flat TV in years.
The only downside is that sometimes if you're watching a 3D film with the set's 3D Sound option active, voices can sound a little physically detached from the person speaking on the screen. This is easily avoided, though, by simply turning the 3D sound mode off.
The Samsung UA55F8000 improves dramatically over its already illustrious predecessor in almost every way, combining class-leading 3D images and outstanding 2D images with a huge, cutting edge feature count and even - honestly!- some startlingly good audio.
It's become almost customary now for Samsung's latest flagship TV to set the bar for the rest of the TV year with its first new annual TV, but this year that bar has been set even higher than usual. Over to you Sony, LG, Panasonic et al.