Samsung UE55ES8000 £2500
9th Mar 2012 | 10:00
Samsung's new 55-inch TV redefines 'smart'
Samsung has developed a handy habit of being the first major brand out of the traps each year when it comes to launching new TV ranges.
And this year it's done it again, with the ridiculously glamorous Samsung UE55ES8000 - an achievement made all the more impressive by the fact that this 55-inch screen might very well turn out to be 2012's most innovative television.
Despite the UE55ES8000 boasting another of Samsung's trademark - and much loved - super slim body designs, it still manages to squeeze inside its svelte form some genuinely revolutionary stuff.
Particularly startling is the set's new control system. Or rather, control systems, plural. Samsung has done a real 'kitchen sink' job in this respect, delivering voice control, gesture control, and even chucking in a second remote control with a touch-sensitive pad on it.
Some of these systems work more successfully than others, as we'll discover later, but Samsung certainly deserves an early five gold stars for trying so hard to address the growing problem of how to handle smart TV's ever-increasing feature lists.
More innovation finds no less than three new big sections of content on Samsung's smart TV platform, focused on family, fitness and kids.
Also potentially key to the Samsung UE55ES8000's appeal is its new dual-core processor, designed to boost picture performance and improve the functionality and speed of the online services engine.
Wrapping up the Samsung UE55ES8000's headline features are its active 3D playback, and the intriguing fact that it can actually have its core chipset upgraded in the future via a slot-in module - potentially to, say, a quad-core system.
Samsung has left few, if any, stones unturned in trying to make its new flagship TV the ultimate set in what's looking like being a heck of a year for televisions.
For starters, it's one of those TVs that will 'have you at hello'. The way its 55-inch screen appears with barely a centimetre of metallic trim is the sort of technological achievement that would have Einstein scratching his head.
While the sheer slimness of the bezel is its main attraction, though, Samsung has still managed to make what little bodywork there is count, dressing it in a luxuriously glinty finish.
The Samsung UE55ES8000 sticks out a bit more at the back than some of Samsung's previous TVs - especially the C9000 series models, such as the Samsung UE55C9000 - but it's still very slim by typical LCD standards.
And it will be extremely easy to forgive an extra few millimeters of depth if this has helped Samsung boost its picture quality.
Inevitably with such a slim design, the Samsung UE55ES8000 is illuminated by Edge LED lighting. This immediately raises concerns - especially given how big the screen is - about whether the illumination will be able to remain even across the screen, or whether you'll get hot spots or clouds of extra brightness as happens with many Edge LED TVs.
Potentially reducing this possibility is the fact that the move to dual-core processing in its new flagship TV has enabled Samsung to study and respond to incoming images on a much more localised basis, serving up more than double the number of macro dimming zones used on last year's equivalent models.
The Samsung UE55ES8000 is predictably well connected, with highlights comprising four HDMIs, two USBs, an Ethernet port, built-in Wi-Fi, and a D-Sub PC input. Some of these hint at a few of the TV's key features.
The USBs, for instance, can play back a strong mix of video, photo and music file types, and will also enable you to record to USB HDDs from the integrated tuner.
The HDMIs, meanwhile, are all v1.4 affairs, as is necessary to deliver Full HD active 3D playback from suitable Blu-ray players.
As for the Ethernet/Wi-Fi options, these enable you to access files on networked DLNA PCs or go online with Samsung's latest smart TV service - a service that's pretty radically improved from last year's effort.
The most important trio of these improvements become clear immediately, as they dominate a highlighted bar of content options that runs right across the centre of the new Smart Hub home screen. First up is Family Story.
This enables you to set up a private, password-protected network with other smart TV, PC and smart device users, within which you can share messages, photos and calendars.
As its name suggests, Samsung predominantly sees this as being used to enable different family members to stay in touch with each other, no matter how far apart they might live. It's a clever idea, and although it's a bit fiddly to set up, it works well.
The next of Samsung's big new content servers is devoted to fitness. It requires up to 10 users to set up a profile containing their weight and height (from which a BMI measurement is calculated). Then it provides access to a quite extensive and varied collection of fitness videos, each of which runs for a clearly stated amount of time and require a set number of calories to complete.
The system monitors what videos you use, and then attempts to calculate potential weight loss from your efforts, charting your progression on a series of enticing-looking graphs.
There's a huge limitation in the system, of course, in that it hasn't got a clue how much food you might be tucking away between your exercises.
But still, it's easily the most fully developed fitness system developed for a smart TV to date, and even proved quite addictive to a couple of die-hard gym haters who were unleashed on it for a few days.
A Kids zone makes up the last of Samsung's new trio of major online service areas - and it's the least developed of the three. As its name suggests, it's aimed squarely at younger users, and is essentially a repository for a currently not especially large collection of somewhat obscure kids' show videos.
There's also a fun on-screen 'sticker book', where your child can put reward stickers for good behaviour. But overall it's impossible to escape the feeling that, for now, the Kids zone is still to some extent a work in progress.
These new content sections are joined, of course, by an even longer list of other video and infotainment apps than you could enjoy from 2011's Samsung smart TVs.
Particularly good to see among the new apps is one for Netflix, which joins other key video providers including LoveFilm, BBC iPlayer, AceTrax, Box Office 365, and Samsung's own 3D streaming service.
With so much now going on with its smart TV services, Samsung has decided that just using last year's remote control/Smart Hub menus interface approach is no longer adequate.
So it's hit the innovation trail in startling style, introducing three new ways of interacting with your TV: gesture control, voice control, and an included second remote with a touchpad system. For full details on how these systems all work, check out the Usability section of this review.
The Samsung UE55ES8000's out of the box active 3D system comprises a built-in transmitter and two pairs of 3D glasses.
In addition, the TV set ships with a reasonably full set of picture calibration aids, including a degree of colour management and plenty of flexibility when it comes to fine-tuning its many video processing tools, from noise reduction to motion reproduction.
And actually, as is covered more fully in the Usability section of our review, you're recommended to learn your way around all the screen's adjustments to help you 'rescue' the TV from its unhelpful picture presets.
Samsung sure knows what sells. If the startling design of its top-tier TVs doesn't grab your attention hard, then their pictures certainly will. The Samsung UE55ES8000 ships with its pictures eye-wateringly vivid, with brightness, colour and contrast settings all cranked way up high.
The result is an image that stands out like no other, hitting you hard with a visceral mixture of dynamism, sharpness and almost scarily intense colours.
There are plenty of people who will feel just fine with this state of affairs. And of course, it's hardly rare for TVs to ship with their pictures set to stun.
However, most TVs also provide at least one picture preset option that calms picture settings down to levels more suitable for the more relaxed environment of a typical living room (versus a harshly lit shop floor).
Samsung continues to be resistant to this idea, with not one of the UE55ES8000's provided presets actually serving up settings that remotely get the best living room quality from its own screen. Bizarre.
Just as well, then, that it doesn't take much work to transform the Samsung UE55ES8000's pictures from garish eyeball bashers with backlight inconsistency and OTT colours into genuine video excellence.
You can go to town with an installation tool such as the HDV Video Essentials Blu-ray, but if you want an instant impact for minimal effort, just slash the backlight output to under half of its maximum setting and tone down the colours a bit.
Even after these simple adjustments, you get a picture that goes from having rather washed out dark scenes with obvious backlight inconsistencies to one with arguably the deepest and most uniform black levels delivered to date from Edge LED technology.
Even better, you don't have to remove so much backlight from the images to reach this point that shadow detail and greyscale subtlety gets crushed out.
This means dark images enjoy more or less the same sense of depth and space that bright ones do, delivering a much more consistent experience than you often get with LCD TVs.
Colours, meanwhile, prove to be enjoyably flexible rather than garish and overcooked. It's possible to get tones calibrated to pretty close to the lauded D6500 standard if that floats your boat, but you can also go for a bit more punch if you prefer, without colours losing either blend subtlety or balance.
Actually, there's so much finesse in how the Samsung UE55ES8000 displays colours that you've got to think that some of the dual-core processing power is being brought to bear on the screen's colour processing.
Another picture element that seems to benefit from the shift to dual-core processing is Samsung's motion processing. This hasn't tended to impress in the past, due to the amount of unwanted, distracting side-effects it creates.
But on the Samsung UE55ES8000, while it's still not necessarily something you'll want to leave on while watching films, it does at least do its judder and blur-reduction duties while throwing up far fewer flickering and colour smudging effects than has previously been the case.
Even without the motion processing in action, though, the Samsung UE55ES8000 produces a wonderfully sharp, detailed HD image full of texture and crisp, stark but unforced edges.
The Samsung UE55ES8000's processing power also helps it to produce a superb upscaling performance, turning any decent - and even a few not so decent - standard definition signals into HD remarkably ably, adding detail while simultaneously removing video noise.
In fact, aside from a rather limited viewing angle before contrast and colour start to reduce, and provided you steer clear of the Samsung UE55ES8000's ill-judged presets, there really isn't much to dislike about its 2D pictures.
In many ways its 3D pictures are superb, too. The screen's extreme capabilities where brightness is concerned serve it very well in countering the (surprisingly minor) darkening effect of Samsung's latest lightweight 3D glasses, ensuring that 3D images are as rich and dynamic as we've ever seen them on an active 3D TV.
What's more, while Samsung might not do very well with its 2D picture presets, the settings that kick in with 3D actually seem rather clever, providing solid colour correction as well as brightness compensation.
Then there's crosstalk. As 2011 rolled on and more and more 3D TVs emerged, it became increasingly clear that Samsung's 2011 LCD TVs weren't the best when it came to handling the 3D ghosting phenomenon.
But the improvement for the Samsung UE55ES8000 is substantial, to the extent that with one or two rare exceptions, you tend to only see crosstalk around objects in the extreme distance.
The Samsung UE55ES8000's 3D images are bolstered, too, by the fact that the TV is powerful enough - unlike last year's models - to enable you to apply motion processing to HD 3D images as well as 2D ones. This makes them look clearer, more immersive and less fatiguing.
The only serious flaw with 3D images is that as the screen ramps up its light output for 3D viewing, it causes fairly obvious jets of backlight bleed to appear over dark scenes in each of the image's corners.
You can reduce this problem by taking some of the backlight brightness out of the picture, but this inevitably takes some of the punch out of 3D images, too.
The main thing to address here is how well - or otherwise - the Samsung UE55ES8000's trio of innovative new control mechanisms pan out.
First and worst is a gesture system, whereby you can use movements of your hand to control the cursor on the screen, closing your hand to select an option the cursor is sitting over. During our review, this system proved frustratingly imprecise and quite tiring. It also sometimes mistook head movements for 'wake up' hand gestures, thus calling the system into play when we didn't want it.
This is despite the fact that the camera built into the Samsung UE55ES8000 is surprisingly good at recording bright, colourful images.
Much more successful are the voice and touchpad control systems. In fact, it didn't take much practice before a combination of these two systems became second nature - and were sorely missed upon going back to ordinary control systems with other brands of smart TV.
The voice controls in particular were a revelation. As well as providing a reasonably wide selection of specific commands, the voice recognition software is sophisticated enough to identify even quite complex and 'random' words, so long as you speak them clearly. This rapidly proves an invaluable way of inputting text into internet search fields.
The touchpad on the second remote Samsung ships alongside a more standard one, meanwhile, is sensitive without being fiddly, and again proves much more intuitive and speedy than just trying to shift a cursor around using normal direction keys.
Samsung has even included a mic on this remote, so you can issue voice controls in a regular tone of voice rather than having to bark instructions across your room.
There are a couple of issues with both the touchpad remote and voice systems, though. With the remote, having to press the trackpad in to select an option can cause accidental movements of the cursor, so that you miss your selection or pick the wrong one by mistake.
And occasionally, when watching a particularly loud movie scene, the TV would flash up an annoying error message stating that it was worried there was so much background noise it wouldn't be able to hear your voice commands.
This is easily rectified, though, by turning the voice control system off when watching loud films.
In more general terms, the presentation and structure of the Samsung UE55ES8000's on-screen menus is mostly terrific - especially as the Smart Hub home screen now enjoys a Full HD resolution rather than the previous HD Ready resolution.
You can't ignore the fact, of course, that whenever there's a TV with as much going on as the Samsung UE55ES8000 there's potential for people to get overwhelmed by the options on offer. But with an on-screen instruction manual to help you out, it's hard to see what more effort Samsung could have put into making its new flagship easy to handle.
The only genuine cause for concern is that Samsung's continued insistence on piling on lots of small-scale apps means the app store and menus can look a bit overwhelming, and make it tricky to sort the app wheat from the (hefty amounts of) chaff.
Sound and value
Samsung has improved the sound performance of its UE55ES8000 from the equivalent 2011 model, with a slightly richer, more open mid-range clearly in evidence - no mean feat, given the challenges always associated with getting any sort of half-decent audio out of size zero TVs.
However, just because it's a bit better than last year's models does not mean the Samsung UE55ES8000's sound is by any means brilliant. The speakers quickly start to sound rather flimsy and bass-light when put under any real pressure, and the soundstage never matches the scale of the king-sized images.
The UE55ES8000 is Samsung's new flagship TV, so it's hardly surprising that it's not especially cheap. But then cheapness is, of course, relative.
And actually, when you add up how many features it has, how gorgeous its design is, how accomplished its pictures are, how big its screen is and how innovative it's being with its control systems, then actually £2,500 doesn't seem so bad.
Samsung is in serious no-compromise mode with the UE55ES8000. Aside from, perhaps, its sound, the whole TV looks and feels cutting edge.
The voice, gesture and touchpad remote systems are particularly startling, and set a new standard for TV operation that no other brand looks set to match in 2012. The set's 'barely there' design is both gorgeous and innovative too, even if it doesn't in reality improve a great deal on what Samsung brought to market last year.
Also crucial is the introduction of a dual-core processor to the Samsung UE55ES8000, since this makes the smart TV services more comprehensive and slick to navigate and delivers palpable benefits to picture quality.
Ah yes, picture quality. Out of the box the Samsung UE55ES8000's pictures are flashy and eye-catching, but flawed. But with just a couple of minutes calibration work they can be converted into arguably the finest pictures yet to grace an Edge LED TV in both 2D and 3D mode, with only some backlight bleed in the corners during dark 3D scenes letting the side down.
Elsewhere, the gesture control needs work, there are still a few too many pointless apps on the smart TV servers, and Samsung really needs to deliver a sensible picture preset. But still, overall, there's far, far more to admire on the Samsung UE55ES8000 than there is to criticise.
The Samsung UE55ES8000 hooks you in immediately with its gorgeous slimline looks and bright, punchy, contrast-rich pictures. And then it just grows on you more and more, thanks to its genuinely useful voice and touchpad control systems, its gorgeous presentation and a feature count that doesn't know when to quit - especially when it comes to online features and network file playback.
There's some backlight inconsistency during dark 3D scenes unless you compromise on their brightness. A lot of the smaller apps in the smart TV service are a waste of space and the gesture control isn't quite there yet. Plus, Samsung really does need to start including a picture preset that actually delivers a picture that gets something like the best quality out of its panels.
The UE55ES8000 is Samsung's most uncompromising TV yet. From the moment you first behold its almost sci-fi design and bold, dynamic pictures, you'll be entranced.
Admittedly you'll need to calm these pictures for normal domestic viewing, but once that's done pictures still look hugely impressive. And your admiration only grows as you explore the TV's revolutionary interfaces and the depth of its online and multimedia functionality.
There are still things Samsung can improve, but as the first true next generation TV of 2012, the Samsung UE55ES8000 throws down a terrifyingly big gauntlet for the following pack to pick up.
If you want the ultimate in contrast and no backlight consistency concerns whatsoever, a great alternative to the Samsung UE55ES8000 is the Panasonic TX-P55VT30. This uses plasma technology, which is renowned for its contrast potential and lighting uniformity, and for its clarity when it comes to handling motion.
3D looks less punchy on the Panasonic set, though, and its online platform isn't nearly as advanced.
Another alternative to the Samsung UE55ES8000 is the LG 55LW650. The trick with this LG television is that it uses passive rather than active 3D technology, meaning you get loads of 3D glasses included free, and get more relaxing, bright but less high resolution 3D images.
LG's TV is the more affordable and convenient alternative. But picture quality isn't nearly as strong in either 2D or 3D mode, and its online service, while wide-ranging, isn't as stable or quick as that of the new Samsung UE55ES8000.