Samsung PS51D8000 £1350
13th Dec 2011 | 14:46
Clean, comfortable 3D and smart TV on a plasma screen
Forget Samsung's bevy of super-slim and much-marketed LED TVs - it's actually the brand's plasmas that see it at the peak of its powers.
Strapped with its fast evolving and increasingly ambitious Smart Hub online platform, the 51-inch Samsung PS51D8000 includes apps for movie and media streaming, as well as web browsing, home networking and digital media playback.
The Samsung PS51D8000 increases its reach in more ways than that. Unusually dimensioned because of a slightly slimmer bezel (at 23mm it's still not as slim as an LED TV, but it's a fine effort nonetheless) that creates a slightly larger playground for the plasma cells, this TV is an excellent example of why the gloss black template - initially popularised by Samsung - should be binned.
Nicknamed the 'Metal Crystal' design by Samsung, the unusual look of this TV involves a slither of transparent plastic around the outside of the bezel, while a spider stand adds to the allure.
The insides of the Samsung PS51D8000 are a similarly polished affair, with tuners for Freeview HD and Freesat HD - complete with USB pause and record features - and, of course, a 3D option.
The most obvious alternative to this plasma TV - priced at £1,350 in the UK and $2,300 in the US - is Samsung's 51-inch PS51D6900. This is a lower spec and much cheaper plasma screen that's mopped up the mass market.
Samsung also offers a smattering of lower-spec 3D plasmas, including the 43-inch PS43D490, 51-inch PS51D550 and 59-inch PS59D550 (the latter two have a Full HD resolution and a Freeview HD tuner).
Away from Samsung, Panasonic's stable of 3D televisions - such as the Panasonic TX-P50GT30B or similarly 3D glasses-free Panasonic TX-P50ST30B - will most suit those after an active shutter 3D plasma.
The PS51D8000 is not Samsung's flagship TV - that honour goes to the plasma-less D9000 Series - and, in some ways, this set is almost fighting against the Edge LED TVs within its stable.
Apart from its Full HD plasma panel (complete with Real Black Filter and 18-bit Natural True Colour system), the Samsung PS51D8000 is identical to its liquid crystal brethren, such as the Samsung UE46D8000 and Samsung UE60D8000, in terms of features.
The headline grabber is Smart Hub, a collection of apps for video and entertainment, although the set's built-in Wi-Fi and Timeshift feature (the latter using a USB stick or HDD to pause or record live TV) will attract just as many.
It uses Wi-Fi to power Smart Hub, which includes apps for BBC iPlayer, LOVEFiLM, Google Chat, Acetrax, Facebook, YouTube and Blinkbox, among many, many others - it's a hefty offering indeed, with a polished user interface.
Also accessed via a Smart Hub shortcut, AVI, MKV, AVC HD, MOV and MPEG video files can be read from a USB flash drive or streamed from a networked computer (using the PC-centric AllShare DLNA protocol, which Mac users can fool by using UPnP software such as TwonkyMedia), as well as MP3 music and JPEG photo files.
The Samsung PS51D8000 is well connected and specifically designed with wall mounting in mind. Along an easily reachable side panel are four HDMI inputs, one of them Audio Return Channel-compatible, while nearby are two USB inputs.
Two audio connections also reside on that side panel - optical digital audio and a minijack for PC audio, while the bottom panel includes the RF and LNB for powering the free-to-air cable and satellite TV tuners, Ethernet LAN for hardwiring to a broadband router, and a legacy VGA 15-pin hook-up for a PC.
Adaptors are supplied in the box for RGB Scart and component video. Audio, meanwhile, is dealt with by downfiring 10W stereo speakers along the Samsung PS51D8000's slim undercarriage.
Ease of use
Smart Hub, Samsung's offering to the online TV era, is fast becoming one of our favourite such platforms, although it still can't compete with Sony's Bravia Internet Video for must-have content. It's a close contest though, with LOVEFiLM, BBC iPlayer, Acetrax movies and Samsung's own Explore 3D app the headline acts on Smart Hub.
What we like most about Smart Hub is that all of its apps and services are visible from the Samsung PS51D8000's homepage; its iPhone-esque app icons are nicely grouped and separated from each other.
There is, however, a small snag that tests our patience with Smart Hub. When initiated from the remote's dedicated button, it can take a while (around 20 seconds) to load. Scrolling and general navigation of the home screen is quick but, when selected, apps often hang or suffer from unexplained connection issues that render them useless.
A similar problem plagued the AllShare DLNA streaming feature, which is irritating since when it's in a good mood, Smart Hub is peerless.
Web browsing on the Samsung PS51D8000 is also a victim of frequent "Cannot connect" messages, despite the set being warmed up and fully networked. But the main issue here is it's slow - so slow - to scroll through pages. It took us at least 10 seconds to get from a headline on a BBC news story to being able to read the first paragraph. Avoid, avoid, avoid.
Like Smart Hub, the Freeview HD electronic programme guide is also immaculately designed. With the exception of Sony, perhaps, no other manufacturer gets close to Samsung's slick treatment of the Freeview TV schedules - and this time it's a thoroughly speedy experience.
Smart Hub is just about fine for daily operation, but that doesn't mean the standard picture/sound/set-up menus have been sacrificed. A green menu button on the Samsung PS51D8000's lightweight and intelligently backlit remote control takes us to the picture menus, which contain an immediate surprise.
Besides the usual tweaks for contrast, brightness, sharpness, colour and tint, there's also a dedicated section for adjusting the pixel brightness of each cell in the plasma panel. This Cell Light setting goes from one to 20, yet even on its top setting it never reaches the scorch-yer-eyes out levels of some LED TVs.
Preset picture modes include the usual dynamic, standard and movie modes, but there's also another mode simply called 'relax', which appears to dim the brightness even further than the movie mode. It's worth trying out if you're planning to watch in blackout surroundings (where plasmas also do their best work).
An advanced settings menu has choices surrounding gamma, colour space and white balance, as well as a motion lighting feature that adjusts brightness levels according to the amount of movement on the screen, thereby reducing power consumption.
Although 3D is merely an optional add-on, it's to this mode we headed to first on the Samsung PS51D8000 - and we're glad we did, since it's this plasma TV's strongest point.
With a pair of remarkably lightweight and comfortable SSG-3100GB 3D glasses (sold separately) on, we set about watching a bunch of movie trailers from Smart Hub's Explore 3D app. Consistently clean and with depth effects that are almost always comfortable to watch, the Samsung PS51D8000 produces some of the best value 3D images we've seen so far.
Excerpts from How To Train Your Dragon, Ocean Voyagers and Shrek all displayed bags of colour and life, with only live-action fair occasionally displaying hints of double imaging - and we're not blaming the Samsung PS51D8000 too much for that common phenomenon.
It's motion that the Samsung PS51D8000 deals particularly well with. When the 3D action hots-up and the depth effects in How To Train Your Dragon start to fly, we're not startled, squinting or feeling ill, but genuinely engaged and impressed - and comfortable.
Over in Wonderland, this time from a 3D Blu-ray disc, Alice looks decidedly doubled-up, but the cat and all other animated characters hugely impress in both depth and cohesiveness. The richness of the colours and believability of black zones also impress.
Let's not go overboard on the latter. Although the Samsung PS51D8000's contrast and black levels do increase when the 3D glasses are donned - and in a hugely impressive way - it's partly because the native panel lacks ultimate darkness. There's a definite grey tint to the panel that's especially noticeable when the 3D specs are taken off, which is an inevitable consequence of the Active Shutter system.
However, the plasma panel's extra brightness (relative to earlier incarnations of 3D plasmas) not only provides colours with such a sparkle, but will also no doubt help to tempt shoppers that by intuition pick the brightest TV in the shop.
Those customers who do look twice and plump for this plasma TV will also be buying a screen that handles 2D content well, despite that Real Black Filter not putting the Samsung PS51D8000 up alongside Panasonic's pricier plasmas.
Freeview HD sources look excellent, tight and smooth, with a run-through of our beloved Frozen Planet recorded from BBC One HD seeing the Samsung PS51D8000 showing-off its Full HD panel.
If you're used to watching an LCD TV, you will notice the pixel structure of the plasma panel if you sit too close. Sit where you're supposed to (at least a couple of metres away) and you'll be rewarded by an impressive image, although colours can appear a tad ripe.
We largely relied on the Samsung PS51D8000's movie mode, but did tone down the colour somewhat - it was simply too much for us at its standard setting.
Sound and value
There are a few sound modes on board the Samsung PS51D8000, including Music, Movie, Amplify and Clear Voice, as well as a separate section containing the self-explanatory SRS TruDialogue and SRS TruSurroundHD. SRS TruSurroundHD is the most impressive - don't expect 7.1 wizardry, but we did perceive a much wider soundstage that was just about suitable for movies.
Kudos go to Samsung for achieving what would appear to be some low frequency sound - not something we've often heard from a flatscreen TV. It's able to go to fairly high volumes without getting distorted, too.
Despite its slimness, this plasma TV actually has rather good speakers, something that at a stroke justifies our continued criticisms of TVs with weak sound, and gives us hope for the future.
The reticence of 3D TV manufacturers to give away multiple pairs of 3D glasses with their latest wares will be the death of the format, and we're sad to report that it's a similar situation with the Samsung PS51D8000. Not a single pair of 3D specs adorns the box.
Judged on ultimate picture quality, the Samsung PS51D8000 is a mixed bag. It's not bright enough to compete with LED TVs, but not dark enough to be considered as good a home cinema choice as Panasonic's ultimate plasmas. The TV is left somewhat in limbo - but that's easily spun as 'good value', and justifiably so.
Considering its Smart Hub and associated online trickery, the Freesat HD tuner and Wi-Fi, we'd judge the Samsung PS51D8000 to be just about worth the £1,000+ price tag. It's as versatile a TV as you'll find, and a better performer with 3D than most other TVs in its price range - although the inclusion of some 3D glasses would instantly convince us.
Boasting enough features to be deemed at least a mid-to-high-end TV, the Samsung PS51D8000 keeps plasma at the forefront for anyone after picture perfection, but it's 3D that this set excels with.
Although Freeview HD has come to be regarded as almost the bare minimum for a TV in the UK, any set that adds built-in Freesat HD gets a hearty slap on the back from us. Doing so might set the super-slim Samsung PS51D8000 tumbling, but there's a lot more to get head over heels about - its nicely designed, all-encompassing and content-stuffed Smart Hub user interface, for one.
The appearance of the Explore 3D app is a great addition, particularly since those buying 3D glasses will get one of the best - and certainly the best value - 3D performances available anywhere in the TV market.
Smart Hub looks great and is an advanced piece of software, but it's slow and gets in a muddle. After waiting for several apps to load and umpteen connection problems (even when wired to a router), we declare this a rather moody GUI.
Aside from middling contrast for 2D fare, our only other complaint is that there are no 3D glasses included in the box - and the Samsung PS51D8000's awesome 3D pictures make that an especially bitter pill to swallow.
Sensibly - in our view - sticking to active shutter 3D while the slow trickle to the less impressive passive 3D tech continues, Samsung is quickly becoming as known for its good value 3D plasma as it is for its impossibly slim LED TVs.
It's sculpted another stunner with the Samsung PS51D8000, and although Smart Hub could do with debugging and super-charging, this is an easy to use TV with all the latest features - and a cracking 3D performance.