Samsung UE55D8000 £2500
1st Mar 2011 | 09:40
Samsung's flagship LCD TV introduces Samsung Smart Hub
Samsung UE55D8000: Overview
The Samsung UE55D8000 is arguably the most eagerly anticipated TV of 2011 and it only takes a cursory glance at its design and spec sheet to see why.
It gets closer to dispensing entirely with a bezel than any previous set: the frame around the UE55D8000's gaping 55-inch screen is just 5mm wide, an achievement that seems to defy logic just as much as the crazy rear-end slimness of Samsung's C9000 range (continuing for 2011). After all, the edge LED lighting system used to drive the screen is tucked in there somewhere.
The UE55D8000 also introduces us to Samsung's Smart Hub, making it arguably the first true 'smart' TV to arrive on these shores and is, perhaps most significantly of all, the UK's first genuine second-generation active 3D TV, complete with faster panel response, improved motion performance and new Bluetooth 3D transmission in place of Samsung's previous, slightly unreliable IR system.
Of course, there's always a chance that any TV as bursting with innovation as the UE55D8000 could fall flat on its face in cold, hard performance terms, but there's little in Samsung's recent history to suggest that this will be the case.
The UE55D8000 arrives as the new flagship TV in Samsung's range, sitting marginally above a D7000 range that's identical aside from costing £100 less and using a crystal bezel design in place of the premium metallic one around the D8000s.
Samsung is also extending 3D down to its 6 Series LED TVs this year, which will comprise two branches: the 6100 series and the 6500 series. These appear to be differentiated by design (with the 6500 having a narrower bezel) and a degree of 'smart' capability, with the 6500's having more online features than the 6100s.
It's entirely understandable, though, that Samsung should want to announce the arrival of its 2011 range with the sort of splash that only a set of the UE55D8000's size and uncompromising spec sheet can produce.
Samsung UE55D8000: Features
The practically bezel-free design of the UE55D8000 immediately identifies the set as a cutting-edge screen and makes much more sense than the usual obsession with making the rear slimmer. After all, you look at the front of a TV, not the back. The UE55D8000's rear is actually slightly thicker than that of last year's equivalent models, but it's unlikely that anyone will be in the slightest bit troubled by this.
There's a potential practical benefit to the tiny bezel, as well as the obvious styling one. Experience suggests that 3D viewing is slightly more compelling if the visible frame around the picture is smaller, as big, dark, bezels sit in stark contrast to whatever they contain.
Keeping the bezel so extraordinarily slender also means the UE55D8000 occupies markedly less physical space in your living room than a normal 55-inch TV, which is potentially handy if you have a particular recess or gap you need to work with.
You might think that having practically no bezel would reduce the styling options for the 55D8000, but – typically – Samsung has made the most of what it's got, with a gleaming metallic finish with an attractively angled back and an illuminated Samsung logo tucked under the centre of the bottom edge.
The UE55D8000's rear sports an irreproachable set of connections. Four 3D-compliant (v.1.4) HDMIs set the ball rolling and are joined by multimedia including an Ethernet port and built-in Wi-Fi. The set's 'AllShare' network compatibility also means you can stream in an extremely wide variety of video, photo and music files from your DLNA PC.
A trio of USBs, meanwhile, can play back an equally diverse selection of multimedia files from USB storage devices and you can record from the set's two integrated HD (satellite and terrestrial) tuners to external USB hard-disk drives.
Samsung's new Smart Hub represents a complete reboot of the way you access online and multimedia features via your TV and improves markedly on the rather clumsy Internet@TV system.
The interface, with its striking, high-resolution graphics, clean presentation and careful categorisation/organisation of different multimedia features, is immediately many times more inviting and useful than any TV multimedia interface seen before.
Even more impressive is just how much content this elegant new interface can handle without becoming cumbersome or overloaded. For as well as all of Samsung's new online functions, including open internet access, this single Smart Hub screen also provides a straightforward leaping-off point to pretty much every potential source for your TV, including the tuners, favourite channel lists, music/photos/videos stored on USB drives and your networked PC.
Given how deeply multimedia content has now infiltrated our daily lives, putting all of your potential sources on a broadly equal footing on a single screen makes much more sense than having totally separate menus all over the place.
Another key feature of the Smart Hub finds a much greater emphasis being placed on online video content. Indeed, 'Video' gets a section of the Smart Hub screen all to itself, and you can use this to find IMDB-style information on a huge selection of films, as well being able to recommend films to friends via twitter and Facebook. For actual playback of streamed movies, meanwhile, you've got the AceTrax movie 'cloud' service, where you buy films and download them to view whenever you want, or LoveFilm, with its monthly subscription.
Smart Hub's Apps section is arguably even more significant and includes Google Talk, Skype, Giggly Theme Dictionary and Dibo's Story apps. Not exactly an app hall of fame, then, but clicking on this box takes you into Samsung's full App 'market', where you can choose whatever you want to download to your TV.
At the time of writing there were 37 apps tucked away in here, all free. This number is certain to increase rapidly, though, now that Samsung's app-development kit is out there and it's also certain that you will start to see the arrival of apps you have to pay for, sooner rather than later. Angry Birds on your TV, anyone?
For the sake of completeness, here (deep breath) is the full list of apps available now: Twitter, Facebook, LoveFilm, Skype, GoogleTalk, Accuweather, History Channel's This Day In History, BetFair Football, Picasa, GalleryOn.tv, USA Today, Google Maps, Giggly Theme Dictionary, Giggly Matching Cards, Phonics Game, Bunny's New Dance, Cro's New Book, Social TV, Vimeo, Just Find It, AceTrax, Yahoo, mySkin TV, LoveFilm, YouTube, Muzu.tv, WiseStar, and a bunch more games, namely Drop Duel, Texas Hold Em, Kurakku, QuizzMaster, Mahjong Fruits, Memory, Dracula's Coffin, Rockswap, Sudoku and Dibo's Story.
Of course, it's questionable how useful some of these apps are. But regardless of how sceptical you might be about the idea of Smart TVs in general, it does seem likely that at least the video-related apps will get regular use by many households, given that video viewing is what your telly is actually for.
With this in mind, it is no surprise that the all-important BBC iPlayer should also be up and running on the Smart Hub by the time the TV goes on sale.
Dragging ourselves away from the Smart Hub to investigate other features finds plenty of picture adjustments to get your teeth into. Picking out the most unusual or useful, there are separate backlight and brightness adjustments, a black tone booster, different settings for a dynamic contrast engine (including, thankfully, 'Off'), a shadow detail booster, gamma adjustment and white balance adjustment via red, blue and green offset and gain tweaks, plus many more, including a new feature that adjusts brightness based on the movement in the picture to reduce energy consumption.
Wrapping the 55D8000's key features up is a contrast ratio so wide Samsung reckons it can't be meaningfully measured, Samsung's 800CMR (Clear Motion Rate) processing and, of course, the 3D playback tools. These include an improved 2D to 3D conversion engine, options for changing the perspective and depth of the 3D image, a '3D Optimisation' mode with three settings and an auto-detect system that should switch the TV to the correct 3D mode automatically when, say, it spots incoming Sky 3D broadcasts. This auto-detect system didn't manage a 100 per cent success rate during this test, however.
Also potentially significant is the shift to a Bluetooth transmission system between the TV and the glasses to deliver a more stable connection and faster-reacting panels that should reduce problems with 3D crosstalk.
Samsung UE55D8000: Picture quality
As with its design, the 55D80000's pictures certainly know how to make an entrance. Using the Dynamic preset provided in the menus, pictures are extraordinarily aggressive, with dazzlingly rich colours, a precociously huge contrast range, and levels of texture and detail that look like some sort of 'super HD'. While undoubtedly eye-catching, though, the Dynamic mode is also pretty unimpressive. It's just too much, especially where colours and sharpness are concerned.
Fortunately, the Dynamic mode proves to be just an OTT expression of what are actually some major strengths of the 55D8000's picture make up.
Once you've reined in the backlight output and contrast settings, you're still left with a phenomenal contrast level. The black levels can't rival plasma, at least when a picture contains a mix of dark and light material, but you'll witness some of the deepest black levels ever achieved by edge LED technology.
As is so often the case, being able to achieve a good black tone provides a great foundation for the 55D8000's colours. So it is that even away from the gaudy dynamic mode, the 55D8000's colours look exceptionally dynamic and rich, even – and this is a rarity for LCD TVs – during dark scenes.
The ability to combine bright whites and colours within the same frame as believable blacks, even with the dynamic contrast function turned off (since it does tend to cause some pretty aggressive flickering at times), flies in the face of pretty much everything you'd expect of an edge LED screen and helps it deliver some of the best shadow detailing yet seen from an LCD TV.
As if to underline this apparently impossible contrast feat, the 55D8000 doesn't suffer with the sort of horribly inconsistent backlight found on a depressing number of recent edge LED sets. In other words, even though the screen can show a bright object against a black background with plenty of vigour, the edges and/or corners of dark pictures aren't besmirched by patches of extra brightness compared with the rest of the screen.
An interesting aspect of the 55D8000's backlighting is that it sees Samsung moving from last year's 'top and bottom' lighting to having lights down each of the TV's left and right sides. Samsung's main idea with this is to reduce running power, as you need fewer LEDs on the relatively short left and right sides than you do along the top and bottom edges. But it could also be that the shift to side lighting has in some way helped Samsung reduce backlight consistency issues.
The 55D8000's unfathomable combination of brightness and contrast is almost certainly responsible for the huge punch of its colour palette. It's possible to push this palette to the point where even EastEnders looks like some kind of ultra-colourful Pixar animation, but with a little care, the palette can be brought down to a more sensible level, where tones look natural and where there's a huge amount of subtlety in blends without sacfricing that dazzling vibrancy.
Then there's the set's sharpness. For while nobody in their right mind would want the beyond-forensic, forced look to sharpness noted using the Dynamic preset, turning off the pointless Edge Enhancement circuitry and reducing the sharpness setting to between 20 and 30 leaves you with pictures that still look crisp and detailed, but which don't look noisy or processed.
Yet more good news finds the 55D8000 doing a remarkably good job of upscaling standard-definition pictures to its vast 55-inch screen. Motion also looks a good degree or two better than on previous models, presumably thanks to a combination of refinements in Samsung's processing engine and the faster panel response mentioned earlier.
The improved motion handling means there's less motivation to try Samsung's Motion Plus system out, though if you do still find yourself troubled by a little judder, the 'Clear' setting can reduce it without leaving images looking unnatural or plagued by processing noise.
The 55D8000's superb 2D performance creates expectations for 3D playback that are more or less fulfilled. The amount of brightness and colour saturation 3D images retain even after you've donned Samsung's comfortable new Bluetooth glasses, for example, represent an exciting step forward and throws down the gauntlet for the likes of Sony and Panasonic.
Perhaps because of this greatly enhanced dynamism, the 55D8000 also seems to deliver more depth and definition to its 3D images, but without forcing depths to a point that becomes uncomfortable.
Crucially, the 55D8000 suffers much less from crosstalk noise than 2010's C8000 models, making long-term 3D viewing more comfortable and enabling you to appreciate even more the unrivalled sharpness, colour and brightness. There is still clearly more crosstalk over 3D pictures than you get with any plasma sets, though and even a touch more than on one or two rival LCD 3D TVs.
There are a couple of other much more minor issues to report. First, colours occasionally contain either a touch too much red or yellow and second, when the picture contains an expanse of a single colour, the central portion of the picture occasionally looks a shade deeper than the edges, but this is preferable to the more overt inconsistency found on most edge LED sets.
Samsung UE55D8000: Sound, value and ease of use
The sound quality is surprisingly good, with a wide, open midrange that enables believable and clear dialogue complementing a reasonable gift for subtle treble effects and, most startling of all, a genuine portion of bass.
Obviously, £2,500 is a lot of money to spend on a TV, but then the 55D8000 is 55 inches across and comes with groundbreaking 'smart' capabilities, impressive 3D playback and exceptional 2D pictures with both high and standard definition.
Ease of use
Smart Hub instantly makes the 55D8000 much easier to use than most TVs that combine multimedia, DLNA and online functions. After all, never before have you been able to access absolutely everything in your source arsenal from a single page.
Another great touch on the Smart Hub is the Universal Search tool, which enables you to send out search requests across absolutely every source option you've got connected including the open internet.
The setup menus are neatly presented and there's a cool new touch in the form of an 'interactive instructions manual', which displays a short but usually coherent explanation of whatever option you've got selected.
The standard remote control supplied with the set is pretty decent, too. It doesn't look as glamorous as the TV, but its layout is reasonably logical and its buttons are accessible. It's also good to see dedicated e-manual, 3D, Social TV and, especially, Smart Hub buttons.
Samsung also does an optional touchscreen remote for the 55D8000. Thankfully, this is much better than the hugely frustrating effort shipped with last year's 9000 Series screens. It particularly comes into its own with the Smart Hub, making icon selection and, best of all, text input (into the search field or the internet browser) much more straightforward than it is on the standard remote.
It's not all good, though, for the LCD remote does also make using some much more basic functions feel unnecessarily tortuous.
Overall, though, the 55D8000 is impressively straightforward to use, considering its sophistication.
Samsung UE55D8000: Verdict
The 55D8000 is one of the Samsung's most ambitious TVs yet. It looks extraordinary, sets new standards for multimedia capability and introduces a more defined apps sensibility that considerably increases the potential for video streaming.
Brightness and colour performance in 3D mode are unprecedented, while crosstalk noise is certainly reduced, though not entirely eradicated.
Add to all of this a stellar 2D performance in HD and standard-def, plus even a respectable sound performance, and the 55D8000 certainly is one hell of a way to kick off 2011's TV generation.
The 55D8000's bezel-free design is a revelation, as are its huge roster of connections, ground-breaking Smart Hub interface, greatly expanded online service, much-improved 3D pictures and science-defying contrast performance. It even sounds quite good, for heaven's sake.
There are some very occasional colour tone concerns and some of the picture presets are ill-judged. More colour management tools might have been nice, but the only significant problem is 3D crosstalk.
After seeing some of its flagship LED TV thunder stolen last year by the 3D-led resurgence in plasma's fortunes, Samsung has gone into innovation overdrive for the first of its 2011 LED models. Its design will turn heads right away, thanks to the way it shrinks the bezel to the point where you frequently completely forget it's there.
It also covers all the connectivity bases and revolutionises the TV operating system via its excellently conceived and presented Smart Hub interface.
Its online services are so extensive, meanwhile, that the 55D8000 might reasonably be described as the first genuinely 'smart' TV, while its picture performance is outstanding in 2D mode and mostly excellent in 3D mode.
There's still a bit of crosstalk noise over 3D images, but this isn't severe enough to stop the 55D8000 from being an absolutely terrific TV for what, in the circumstances, isn't an unreasonable amount of money.
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