Samsung PS64F8500 £2999.99
15th May 2013 | 10:39
Samsung's plasma TV has Panasonic in its sights
Samsung is not, it would seem, a brand that likes chasing anyone. It seems almost obsessed with being the pace setter, the race leader, not the valiant runner up. This obsession has seen the brand invest vast amounts of research and development time in recent years in successfully hunting down seemingly unassailable rivals in the smartphone, tablet and LCD TV sectors.
Now, if the Samsung PS64F8500 plasma TV is anything to go by, Samsung's ruthless quest for world dominance now has a new quarry in its sights: Panasonic. Or more specifically, Panasonic's long-revered plasma TVs.
Samsung is hardly a plasma virgin, of course. It's served up numerous plasma television hits before. However, these previous plasma successes have mostly traded on value for money - when it comes to absolute picture quality, Panasonic has remained the king of the castle.
With the Samsung PS64F8500, though, the brand gets so close to upsetting this established order that you can practically hear Panasonic's teeth chattering.
As its name suggests, the Samsung PS64F8500 is a 64-inch TV - a damn fine size for movie fans, and a heck of a lot of television to be getting for a full price of £2,999.99 (around AU$4,620/US$4,575).
What's more, despite its very respectable price the Samsung PS64F8500 is no feature lightweight. On the contrary, its highlights include active 3D playback, a comprehensive multimedia playback system, a full iteration of Samsung's latest startlingly powerful and flexible smart TV/online platforms and a much more refined and uncompromising plasma panel design than anything the brand has unleashed before.
You can even wave your hands at and talk to the TV if you want to - things we've not previously felt inclined to do, to be honest, but which suddenly, thanks to recent significant firmware updates from Samsung's seemingly tireless engineers, have started to make sense.
Despite Samsung putting so much effort into the PS64F8500, the TV doesn't sit at the head of a long line of cheaper plasma models, as you might expect.
There's a 51-inch 8500 model that costs £1,899.99, but aside from that your only Samsung plasma options are the 60-inch and 51-inch F5500 models - priced at £1,299.99 and £899.99. These use less high-grade panels and video processing, don't have built-in cameras and don't support voice or motion control.
If you'd rather have a Samsung LCD TV, the obvious options to consider would be the brand's flagship F8000 LCD TVs - a range of outstanding sets that currently top out at 55 inches but will ultimately be joined by 65-inch and 75-inch models.
But you should note that the biggest two models in this series will likely be far more expensive than the Samsung PS64F8500.
So far as rival sets from other brands are concerned, the inevitable competition will be Panasonic. Where models we've already tested are concerned, the closest option is the Panasonic P65VT50. But we'll also soon be looking at the brand new Panasonic P65VT65 and flagship Panasonic P60ZT65 models.
Compared with the uber-svelte profiles of Samsung's flagship LCD TVs this year, the PS64F8500 is no shrinking violet. The deep grey frame around its colossal screen is positively chunky by today's TV standards.
And although the unusual open-framed elliptical and neckless support stand onto which the TV rests is stylish in its own way, it doesn't really detract from the sense of the Samsung PS64F8500 being a very considerable presence indeed for your room to have to accommodate.
Tucked away on the huge expanse of the Samsung PS64F8500's rear is a predictably strong set of connections, dominated by four HDMIs capable of receiving 3D feeds (two pairs of active shutter glasses are included free). There are also connections for Freesat HD and Freeview HD tuners, three USB ports and both LAN and built-in WLAN network support.
You can use the USBs for recording from the digital tuners to compatible USB HDDs, or for playing back a wide range of video, photo and music files from USB storage devices.
The same sort of files can be streamed from any DLNA computers on your network, plus, of course, the network connections give you access to both the online world at large via a built-in web browser or - more usefully - Samsung's ring-fenced but still pretty colossal smart TV service.
So far as content on its smart TV service is concerned, Samsung has now comfortably overhauled its rivals - even one-time champ Sony - with the amount of online video services it supports. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that Samsung is currently the only TV brand offering all of the UK's main catch-up TV services - including the still rare 4OD and ITV Player.
It also supports a striking array of subscription services, including Lovefilm, Blinkbox, Netflix, Acetrax, as well as an excellent Curzon platform devoted to a strong range of art house movies and even one devoted to recordings of well-known theatrical plays.
There's a plethora of much less significant apps too, combining information, trivia, basic games and news. There are one or two diamonds tucked away amid the rough with these, but for much of the time these second-string apps serve merely as a reminder that quality always trumps quantity.
With this in mind, though, it's nice to see that Samsung hasn't automatically crammed loads of its smaller apps onto your main app menu. Instead you have to download them from a cloud-based library if you want them, so that you're not faced daily with row after row of app clutter.
Samsung has also improved the presentation of its smart services by introducing a new multiple hub approach, where you can scroll easily between five different content-link screens: one for TV, one for on-demand film and TV, one for your own multimedia, one for social media services, and one for all Samsung's apps.
As well as a standard Samsung remote control, you get a very handy second remote sporting a touchpad and reduced button layout, as well as a built-in mic to support the TV's voice recognition system.
We've tended to be dismissive of this in the past, feeling it was rather gimmicky and too unreliable to be useful. Typically, though, Samsung appears to have merely taken such criticisms as a spur to try harder, with the result that recent firmware updates have genuinely started to make the idea of controlling your TV by talking to it worth considering.
Best 32-inch TVs
Best 37-inch TVs
Best 40 and 42-inch TVs
Best 46 and 47-inch TVs
Best 50-inch TVs
Best 60-inch TVs
It's particularly useful now as a shortcut for accessing content; for instance, you can just say 'Show me Netflix' at any point and the app will load without any scrolling through menus. Or you can ask the TV to 'show films starring Tom Cruise' and it instantly searches many of its broadcast, online and on-demand services before presenting a list of options you can select simply by speaking the number of the option you're interested in.
There are still moments where the recognition gets things wrong of course, and there's also an issue to do with the voice recognition's use of a cloud-based system, whereby sometimes the TV doesn't appear to hear you because it fails to connect to the network fast enough.
There's also an initial period of resistance to the whole idea of talking to your TV that some people may never overcome. Though even here Samsung is working hard to reduce this particular barrier by introducing an on-TV tutorial due to go live in the next couple of months.
The Samsung PS64F8500 additionally supports gesture control, using a built-in camera you can also use for Skype calls.
Again this was once pretty unusable, thanks to its habit of failing to recognise or track your hand properly, its fussiness when it came to trying to select on-screen options, and the sheer amount of fatigue it caused.
But again Samsung has responded to such criticisms in a positive way, having just demonstrated to us a new firmware update due to roll out soon that offers vastly improved - and faster - cursor tracking of your hand movements, a seemingly much more effective gesture recognition system that enables you to do everything with your arm resting on your chair rather than waving around fatiguingly in the air, and even a new Thumbs Up gesture recognition so you can make recommendations about things you've watched.
Perhaps the single most significant thing about the latest Samsung smart TV engine, though, is its ability to track the TV shows and on-demand content you watch so that it can build up a profile of what you like to watch and then make recommendations accordingly.
These recommendations appear on the home TV screen when you select it, or you can speak to the TV and ask it to recommend programmes it thinks you'll like.
There is an inevitable catch with this system in that it takes 2-3 months for the TV to really get a close feel for your favourite content, leaving you in the meantime sometimes feeling bewildered about some of the recommendations it makes. But we guess you just need to stick with it.
One last smart feature to mention is the way the TV enables you to control it via Samsung apps for iOS and Android devices, additionally enabling you to share multimedia between your devices and the TV, and stream video from the TV to the Android or iOS app.
The Android app also enables you to watch something from a second tuner while the rest of your family watches the main tuner on the TV.
The only problems here are that you have to use multiple apps to achieve everything that's possible rather than having a single 'one-stop' app, and that you're given no guidance anywhere over what apps you need and how to set them up. We only found out everything via regular communications with Samsung's technical people.
Leaving the impressive and ever-improving Smart Engine behind, the Samsung PS64F8500 sports a comprehensive range of picture adjustments and calibration tools, including all the gamma and colour management tools even the most serious of tinkerers - or a professional calibrator - could reasonably hope to find.
It's well worth dwelling for a moment, too, on some of the major improvements Samsung has introduced to the plasma panel at the Samsung PS64F8500's heart, because these really do have a major bearing on its performance, as we're about to discover.
For starters, a new Real Black Pro Filter in the screen soaks up more ambient light than previous iterations, enabling black levels to look deeper on the screen and light to emerge from the screen more efficiently and potently.
Samsung has also been able to speed up its panel response time so that it can reach higher brightness peaks in real time, as well as introducing a reworked discharge waveform that gives a further boost in contrast by enabling plasma cells to go darker faster.
Brightness has been further improved, meanwhile, by increasing the panel's active discharge space - meaning that more of the screen area can receive light from the plasma cells, by introducing Magnesium Oxide into its conduction materials to boost energy efficiency, and by deploying an improved discharge gas in the plasma chambers.
First impressions of the Samsung PS64F8500 in action are little short of dazzling. Literally. The huge screen defies not only every plasma TV we've seen before but even our expectations of what plasma is capable of by serving up extreme levels of brightness that actually manage to rival those that have proved so useful in making LCD the most popular TV option.
Even more amazingly, these unprecedented plasma brightness levels remain seemingly completely intact if you turn all the lights in your room up to max, because Samsung's new on-screen filter design stops plasma cells being 'infiltrated' by ambient light.
This ability to retain all of its image punch and vibrancy even with all sorts of light in your room instantly and spectacularly - especially given the set's prodigious screen size - makes the Samsung PS64F8500 the most genuinely living room-friendly plasma TV we've seen. So long as your living room is big enough to cope with a ruddy big 64-inch TV, of course.
Those of you familiar with the way flat panel TVs usually work might be thinking at this point that such intense brightness on the Samsung PS64F8500 must come at the expense of black level response.
Not so. In fact, the Samsung PS64F8500's black levels enjoy an improvement over previous Samsung plasmas that's nearly as extreme as the boost in brightness, putting them up there with the most recent Panasonic plasma TVs we've tested.
Not surprisingly, plasma's ability to render really deep and rich blacks in the same frame as the Samsung PS64F8500's dazzling whites and colours ensures that pictures enjoy a degree of dynamism that's unprecedented - especially during predominantly dark scenes - in the plasma world.
This sense of brightness and dynamism is particularly welcome when watching 3D, because it helps Samsung's TV combat the dimming effect of its active shutter glasses, enabling you to enjoy 3D pictures that are, for the first time with plasma, pretty much as vibrant and bright as those you might find from a high-spec LCD TV.
The Samsung PS64F8500's 3D images are further aided by some impressively natural motion handling that suffers much less than might have been expected with plasma's traditional issues with judder and fizzing skin tones.
Also hugely impressive while watching 3D on the Samsung PS64F8500 is just how sharp and detailed its images look - a pertinent reminder of the active 3D format's advantages when you're talking about a really large screen environment.
This sense of sharpness is also evident during 2D HD viewing, of course - so much so, in fact, that we had to rein in the set's sharpness a bit from its default settings.
Going back to 3D, the sheer scale of the Samsung PS64F8500's screen together with the extreme but accurate sense of depth its huge contrast performance helps produce make 3D an extremely immersive experience too.
The only thing breaking this sense of immersion is the occasional appearance of a little crosstalk ghosting interference over distant objects, especially if they appear in stark contrast to the colour behind them.
Now we've mentioned a negative, we might as well bring up a trio more. The potentially most troublesome issue is the appearance of green dithering noise over some shadow details during dark scenes.
Undoubtedly a product of the extreme brightness Samsung has sought to achieve from the PS64F8500, this noise is sporadic in nature and diminishes in its obviousness with every foot further back from the screen you sit. But we still became gently aware of it during our tests while using what felt like a very natural viewing distance.
A rarer and more subtle issue is some gentle fluctuations in the image's overall brightness level while showing dark scenes - a result of the TV gently manipulating (without you being able to do anything about it) its sub-field driving system to try to get the very best contrast performance with a particular scene.
Finally, another side effect of the aggressive way Samsung drives the PS64F8500's panel is a degree of image retention, whereby particularly bright, static and colour-rich image elements can leave an outline of themselves behind for a few frames.
We don't get the sense that this issue could necessarily lead to permanent retention, though, and we'd also expect its impact to diminish as the panel ages.
Despite finishing on this little run of flaws, though, don't be put off. Overall we remain hugely impressed with the Samsung PS64F8500's picture performance, especially when it comes to the screen's groundbreaking brightness.
Usability, sound and value
We obliquely covered much of the usability aspect of the Samsung PS64F8500 when talking about its features. But a recap certainly can't do any harm. So…
Samsung's 2013 TVs go further than those of any other brand right now when it comes to trying to help people find content and interact with the features on offer.
The inclusion with the Samsung PS64F8500 of a second remote control with a touchpad and built-in mic is extremely welcome, and we're also starting to warm after a few false dawns to Samsung's increasingly clever (through regular firmware updates) voice recognition system. Heck, we've even seen demos to suggest that Samsung's previously irritating gesture control engine is about to become usable, following yet another upcoming update.
The move to five separate on-screen hubs works well in principle too, and the enormous sophistication of Samsung's 'viewing habits learning engine' is a boon, so long as you're patient while it builds its knowledge of your preferences.
There remain two problems with the Samsung PS64F8500's usability, though. One is that Samsung hasn't done enough - in the interface's current form, at least - to help teach users about the features on offer. This means that we can readily imagine many users not even knowing that some of the features are there, or else feeling uncomfortable and uncertain about how to make the most out of them.
The other issue is that Samsung really needs to consolidate its second-device functionality so that smart device users can enjoy control of their TV, multimedia sharing and second screen viewing via one single app.
Pictures as big and bold as those of the Samsung PS64F8500 deserve an equally big and bold audio accompaniment. And actually, that's pretty much what they get.
The unusually powerful speaker system makes good use of the TV's relatively large and heavy-duty chassis to produce an impressively wide soundstage that enhances the sense of immersion created by the screen.
There's more bass in this soundstage than you'd usually hear too, courtesy of the woofer on the TV's rear, while the main speakers are powerful and large enough to deliver both a decently scalable mid-range and some rich, harshness-free treble detailing.
Panasonic's upcoming P65VT65 is set to cost £3,350 (around AU$5,172 / US$5,107) and Samsung's own 'mere' 55-inch UE55F8000 LCD model costs £2,500 (around AU$3,860 / US$3,811).
So with that in mind, if you ask us £3,000 (around AU$4,620 / US$4,575) is by no means an outlandish amount to pay for a screen as huge, feature-rich and talented as the Samsung PS64F8500.
The Samsung PS64F8500's pictures are a revelation in both 2D and 3D mode, especially when it comes to their brightness and resistance to ambient light.
Samsung's smart TV engine is miles ahead of the pack in terms of its features, content and sophistication too, plus its sound quality is a cut above the norm, and it seems very fairly priced all things considered.
However, Samsung needs to do more to help users understand all the facets of its smart TV platform. Also, the huge boost in brightness has caused some dither and slight image retention issues, and the set's chassis is much more substantial than that of Samsung's LCD TVs.
The PS64F8500 is easily Samsung's most aggressive assault yet on Panasonic's traditional dominance of the plasma TV market. Particularly remarkable is its brightness, which hits heights never before witnessed from plasma technology.
Couple this with the Samsung PS64F8500's excellent black depths and sharpness levels and you've got a picture of stunning dynamism that makes Samsung's behemoth as usable in a bright living room as it is in a dedicated cinema room.
The set's smart features are unprecedentedly sophisticated too, with the only issues being a little dither noise and momentary image retention.
We're still waiting for many of 2013's really large screen TVs to appear, but one alternative you could certainly consider is Samsung's F8000 series. We've tested the 55-inch Samsung UE55F8000 already, but a 65-inch model is incoming with a price of around £3,500 (around AU$5,400 / US$5,334).
Another alternative would be Panasonic's P65VT50 - one of 2012's star TVs that can still be had for some pretty aggressive prices. But you might prefer to wait for its imminent replacement, the P65VT65, which has looked spectacular during previews.