Samsung UE55F8000 £2499
18th Mar 2013 | 17:00
Samsung's debut 2013 TV raises the bar in picture quality once again
Samsung has an uncanny knack of kicking the new TV season off each year by unleashing its all-singing, all-dancing flagship TVs ahead of the competition, setting a high bar right away for rivals to aim for, and establishing a positive buzz around the brand that seems to carry it throughout the year.
It's no surprise, then, to find 2013's new television season being introduced by Samsung's latest flagship 55-inch LED TV, the Samsung UE55F8000, priced at £2,500 (around US$3,782/ AU$3,635).
And it's also no surprise to find this set packing an almighty punch on all three key fronts of design, performance and features.
The design boasts what appears to be the trimmest bezel ever - under half a centimetre across - as well as a gorgeously finished and robust rear that makes last year's ES8000 flagship TVs such as the Samsung UE55ES8000 and Samsung UE46ES8000 look flimsy by comparison. Underneath the TV is an arch design desktop stand that pokes out at each corner while curving around the back of the TV.
Features of the new Samsung UE55F8000 are dominated by a revamped smart TV system, complete with a brand new multiple home screen interface and the facility to 'learn' what you like to watch.
Meanwhile, a quad-core processor is there to enable some seriously smart antics, making the TV about 3.5 times faster than previous incarnations, and more capable of multitasking.
As for performance, for now let's just say that Samsung has finally solved its old problem with backlight inconsistency, instantly shifting its picture quality to a whole new level. More on all this later in the review, of course.
The Samsung UE55F8000's £2,500 (around US$3,782/ AU$3,635) asking price isn't cheap, it has to be said.
Its smaller brother, the 40-inch UE40F8000, sells for £1,450 (around US$2,194/ AU$2,108), and the mid-range 46-inch UE46F8000 costs £1,900 (around US$2,875/ AU$2,762), but of course these offer less screen real estate to enjoy.
So if the price of the UE55F800 is a bit high for you, but you want a big screen, you can step down to Samsung's F7000 models. These still offer more or less the same level of feature functionality, but save you a couple of hundred quid by not using such a high-grade panel/microdimming combination.
In terms of rival models, it's tricky right now given that no other brands have yet brought out their 2013 flagship TVs. Looking at 2012 models still on sale, though, easily the most persuasive competitor would be the Sony KDL-55HX853, which lacks the design prowess of the Samsung and boasts a less sophisticated smart services engine, but uses local dimming in its edge LED array to deliver exceptionally punchy pictures.
Otherwise the most intriguing model to put up against the Samsung UE55F8000 would be a plasma model: the Panasonic TX-P55VT50. This lacks the design finesse and aggressive brightness and colours of the Samsung model, but it delivers peerless contrast and exceptionally natural motion handling.
There's so much to get through here that we can't possibly hope to do everything full justice - especially where the latest smart TV interface is concerned. But hopefully you'll end up with at least a feel of just how much the set crams in.
As noted in the introduction, the Samsung UE55F8000 is definitely something you'll love having in your living room. Its unfeasibly tiny frame delivers the nearest thing yet to what appears to be the 'bezel-free' holy grail of TV design. Especially as Samsung has somehow managed to retain the slenderness even in the bottom edge, where most brands put a bit of bulge on.
There are some nice touches when it comes to the handling of the plethora of connections on the Samsung UE55F8000's gleaming rear, too. They're all accessible from the side, to aid wall mounting, and in what we're pretty sure is a first for Samsung, they can also be hidden by a detachable cover.
The quantity of connections is impressive too. Samsung has thankfully returned to providing four HDMIs after flirting with three on its 2012 range, and these are all built to the v1.4 spec to support the TV's active 3D playback capabilities.
The multimedia playback features so key to any self-respecting modern flagship TV, meanwhile, are catered for by three USB ports, built-in Wi-Fi, a LAN and a D-Sub PC input. The USBs can be used for recording from the TV's built-in tuners (Freesat and Freeview HD are both provided), or for playing an extensive suite of video, photo and music file formats.
The network options, meanwhile, enable streaming of multimedia files from your DLNA-equipped PC, and access to Samsung's latest, radically revamped smart TV service.
It's also important to say that adding the TV to your home network opens up the possibility of some pretty extensive collaboration with any smart devices you might have in your home.
If you've got a compatible Android device you can use Samsung's Smart View app to stream video from the TV to your tablet or phone, or even watch a different channel to the one being watched on the TV.
You can also send multimedia from your phone to the TV via the Zappo.tv app, and even mirror your mobile device's screen precisely on the TV via the Samsung S3 AllShare Cast feature. Much of this functionality is available on iOS too, though an update to the iOS app later in the year will introduce greater feature parity.
The latest smart interface built into the Samsung UE55F8000 is radically different to the one seen on 2012 Samsung TVs. For starters, it now features not just one home screen but five.
The first of these home screens, On TV, is focused on broadcasts, showing a reduced version of the live TV picture alongside photographic links to six other currently showing programmes and six more links to other shows scheduled to start soon.
The clever bit about this is that the programmes shown are based on an analysis of your viewing habits. The TV remembers your favourite genres, actors and so on, and scans the TV listings for similar content when populating the On TV screen.
You can also jump off via links at the bottom of the On TV screen to a standard EPG, a timeline of upcoming content from preferred channels, and a list of the programmes you've got recorded on your connected USB HDD drive.
The next new home screen is built around on-demand movie and TV content, and again most of the titles presented on the home screen are selected based on your viewing preferences. This sounds like a genius idea, but inevitably the system isn't very effective when you first get the TV, since it takes time for it to gather enough information on your viewing habits to start to form a really helpful recommendations list.
It's also a shame that this on-demand interface doesn't seem to draw on the full range of video content providers available through Samsung's online portal, and doesn't offer as much on-screen information on the provenance of its recommended titles as we'd like it to. This can cause frustrations when something you were hoping was available through your Netflix/Lovefilm subscription turns out to only be on Acetrax for loads of money.
The next home screen provides an attractive portal to your own multimedia content, showing your most recently used stuff in the main part of the screen, and providing filters for your different media types along the bottom.
The fourth home screen features the inevitable Social Media support - though its presentation is anything but what you might expect. Rather than just providing links through to Twitter and Facebook apps, it niftily aggregates content from both those sources in a bid to gather your whole social world together in a more seamless way.
While this sounds great on paper, the reality is a bit odd. For a start, the decision to dominate the opening Social screen with a Friend's Picks window showing links to videos recommended in your timeline doesn't feel right. Watching video links is generally one of the lowest priority tasks on our social media agenda.
More useful is a Skype recent calls roster beneath the Friend's Picks one, and there are links below that to the current trending YouTube videos, and a full Skype phone directory. Nowhere, though, can you simply access your basic Facebook or Twitter newsfeeds in the way you most likely want to.
All in all, while we hugely admire the technical prowess behind the Social screen, its practical usefulness seems rather limited.
The Samsung UE55F8000's Apps menu is far more helpful. It provides an elegant and straightforward way to view and jump through to all the apps you've got installed on your TV already, as well as enabling you to search through all the extra apps Samsung's got stored on its servers ready for you to download if you want them.
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The quantity of apps available is prodigious, and they include the strongest range of video apps - ie, the ones we really like to find on a TV - of any of the online platforms we've seen to date. The video services on offer include the key Acetrax, Lovefilm, Netflix, BBC iPlayer and ITV player platforms.
Happily there's also a social media app on here that enables you to access your Facebook and Twitter accounts in a much more straightforward way than the Social home page does, even giving you options to communicate with your friends while still watching TV. Perfect. Unless, of course, you'd rather do your social networking on a second screen and leave your TV to being, well, a TV.
Samsung has accompanied its new home screen menus with considerable improvements to the gesture and voice control systems introduced for the first time on last year's high-end models. We'll get into more detail on this in the Ease of Use section of this review.
The final features to discuss here relate to the television's picture potential. As you would expect, the Samsung UE55F8000 enjoys the very top level of Samsung's edge LED panel design and micro-dimming processing, enabling it to calculate the optimum levels of brightness, contrast and gamma for each frame of your image more accurately than any of the brand's cheaper TVs.
The menus also contain an extremely wide-ranging suite of picture adjustments, including full white balance, gamma and colour management controls. Samsung doesn't pursue the official endorsement of the independent Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) calibration group, but there's no question that the Samsung UE55F8000 has all the tools necessary to support and reward a professional installation.
And actually, the huge positive difference we were able to make to pictures with our own calibration makes us think that paying a professional calibrator to get the very best out of your swanky new TV really wouldn't be a bad idea.
While the overall picture quality of Samsung's top-end TVs has generally impressed us for the past few years, getting the best out of them has traditionally meant wrestling with a single flaw: backlight inconsistency, whereby some parts of dark pictures can look cloudy.
The problem has been manageable by being very aggressive in reducing the set's backlight setting, but it's remained the one fly in Samsung's otherwise impressive picture quality ointment.
Why this Samsung backlight history lesson? Because the Samsung UE55F8000 finally sees the brand getting to grips with its traditional enemy, taking Samsung's already impressive picture quality into a whole other stratosphere.
Feed the Samsung UE55F8000 a really dark scene and the screen manages to deliver an excellent black level depth that stretches all the way across the screen with near immaculate uniformity.
The level of uniformity on show would be impressive with any edge LED TV, but it looks like an even greater achievement in the context of the television's incredibly slender bezel. Quite how any lighting system, never mind a good one, has been fitted in such a small space is anyone's guess.
It's also important to stress that the Samsung UE55F8000's black level response retains much of its depth and nearly all of its uniformity even if you just stick with one of the picture presets the TV ships with - despite the fact that all of these presets, in typical Samsung style, are much too aggressive for our tastes, pushing brightness and contrast too hard despite the damage this does to colour tones and noise levels.
To get the best picture results out of the Samsung UE55F8000's screen, we'd suggest that you take the backlight down all the way to its eight (out of 20) level or less, since this produces both the most natural, nuanced colours and the best balance in dark scenes between rich black colours and good levels of retained shadow detail.
The key point here, though, is that we're not being forced to reduce the backlight setting just to get rid of distracting backlight clouding. It's just a choice we're making to get what seems to us to be the most satisfying, nuanced pictures, at least while watching films in a darkened room.
If you prefer pictures that look more punchy and dynamic, or you want a more vibrant, bright picture to counter a light room environment, then the great news is that now you can go for the punchy presets without having your enjoyment spoiled by ugly backlight clouds. Excellent.
Samsung has become so obsessed with tackling its backlight uniformity nemesis, in fact, that it's introduced a handy new Cinema Black feature that dims separately the sections of edge LED lighting that correspond to the black bars you get above and below 21:9 ratio films.
This is because aspect ratio black bars are the single biggest revealer of any backlight inconsistencies an edge LED TV might be suffering with if they're included in the edge LED calculations driving the rest of the picture.
Moving away from the Samsung UE55F8000's startlingly good black level response, the set still delivers the fearsome brightness and colour aggression that's become such an attractive trademark of the Samsung brand over the years.
In fact, the stunning impact of the Samsung UE55F8000's pictures when showing bright, colourful material is emphasised by the incredible slimness of the TV's bezel, since it just looks as if these dazzling, radiant images are appearing pretty much out of nowhere.
Don't let the aggressive nature of its pictures fool you into thinking that the Samsung UE55F8000 isn't interested in the finer things in life, though. On the contrary; thanks to the extra power now available to Samsung's picture processing tools the set delivers even more nuance in colour tones and even more subtle detailing in dark scenes than the brand has ever managed before.
What's more, precious few other TVs have such an uncanny knack for bringing out all the stunning detail in HD footage. So sharp, crisp and textured are its HD pictures, in fact, that they somehow seem to go beyond HD at times.
This isn't always a good thing; grainy Blu-rays and some HD broadcasts can start to look a bit fizzy unless you tone the sharpness setting down a bit. But for much of the time the exceptional clarity is a hugely appealing effect, especially if your TV viewing distance is further than most.
The staggering sharpness and detail of the Samsung UE55F8000 isn't blighted significantly by motion blur or judder, either. Samsung uses native 200Hz panels in its high-end TVs, which operate in tandem with scanning backlights to deliver some of the cleanest, crispest motion we've seen from an LCD TV.
Although some purists would disagree with us, we'd argue that the best motion results are achieved with Samsung's motion processing in play - albeit on its relatively tame Clear setting rather than the Standard mode the set defaults to.
The extra processing power at the Samsung UE55F8000's disposal again helps here, enabling the set to deliver its motion benefits without causing as many negative side effects as previous versions of the system have.
If you really can't stand the idea of using any motion processing, though, don't worry; even with the system turned off, pictures still look cleaner and purer than they do on any of the vast majority of other LCD TVs.
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Shifting to 3D playback, if anything it looks even more impressive relative to any previous Samsung TVs than 2D playback. One of the main reasons for this is that motion looks much cleaner and more comfortable within the 3D frame, avoiding the pretty overt judder problems noted in the otherwise excellent Samsung UE55ES8000 last year.
A significant reason for this improved motion handling appears to be that Samsung now has enough processing power at its disposal to apply motion processing to 3D images as well as 2D ones.
If we're correct about this, then you should note that the motion processing involved doesn't appear to be defeatable. But honestly, however purist your tastes it's hard to imagine that you could argue that the motion of last year's Samsung 3D TVs is somehow better than it is on the Samsung UE55F8000.
The Samsung UE55F8000 also improves on last year's 3D models by reducing the amount of crosstalk ghosting noise 3D pictures suffer with. It hasn't been completely removed; distant objects can still show a ghost or two, especially if they're bright objects against relatively dark backgrounds.
But the problem crops up sufficiently rarely and is subtle enough when it does that it hardly ever becomes a genuine distraction.
What's particularly good about the Samsung UE55F8000's 3D pictures is the way they deliver this reduced crosstalk while retaining - or actually increasing - the brightness and vibrancy that's been a strong Samsung 3D trait since the active 3D format first appeared.
The improved motion handling and crosstalk in 3D mode have a pretty scintillating effect on the sharpness of the Samsung UE55F8000's pictures too, enabling the TV to reproduce every last nuance and texture of the Full HD 3D detailing the active 3D format was developed specifically to deliver.
This fact together with the 3D image's brightness and colour richness means that you don't feel at all as if you're having to compromise anything when switching from 2D to 3D playback.
One final excellent point to raise here is that the extra clarity and dynamism of the Samsung UE55F8000's 3D pictures helps the television to produce the most consistent and engaging sense of depth we've seen to date from an active 3D TV.
A search for negative things to say about the Samsung UE55F8000's pictures doesn't get very far. The set's useful viewing angle is rather limited versus plasma and those rival LCD TVs that use IPS panels.
Also, dark scenes don't look as dynamic as they can on Sony's 55HX853, thanks to Sony's use of a local dimming engine. However, Samsung's dark scenes also look more consistent in luminance terms than the slightly uneven appearance delivered by the Sony.
Finally, for the umpteenth time, we still can't understand why Samsung can't manage to include even one picture preset that delivers the sort of subtle, accurate images AV enthusiasts like to see when they've dimmed the lights to watch a film. The set is certainly capable of achieving a suitable setting for this type of use, but you have to calibrate it yourself.
Usability, sound and value
This section is a bit more involved than it would usually be (surprise surprise) thanks to the sheer wealth of control options Samsung has integrated into its new flagship 55-inch TV.
So far as the Samsung UE55F8000's on-screen menu system is concerned, this has been covered pretty well in the Features section of the review. But to summarise, while the move towards providing a series of different home screens makes a lot of sense, and the presentation of all the smart interface screens is first class, some of the on-screen content decisions Samsung has made don't always feel quite right.
Also, it feels at times as if Samsung has tried too hard to streamline the content-finding process, to the point where the resulting menus can actually be a touch confusing rather than helpful.
Next we get to Samsung's much-hyped gesture and voice recognition interface options. These have thankfully both been improved greatly from their debut versions last year; you can now 'chat' much more normally to your TV than you could before, and the in-built camera responds to your hand movements much more efficiently, as well as requiring less precision in the positioning of the cursor before you can select an on-screen option.
Despite these improvements, though, we still found both the voice and gesture controls to be at least as frustrating as they are rewarding. The voice recognition system regularly fails to recognise correctly what you're trying to say, and the gesture control system is just exhausting, frankly - though we do admit to liking the way a swipe of the hand can shift between the screen's five home screen menus.
The problem is that it only takes a few stumbles in the voice and gesture systems to start making them feel like more trouble than they're worth. With the result that if you're anything like us, you'll quickly revert to using the normal remote controls for the vast majority of the time, only using the alternative methods if you can't lay your hands on one of the physical handsets.
Underlining our attraction to the two physical remotes Samsung supplies with the UE55F8000 is the fact that the touchpad remote option is excellent. Its touchpad's sensitivity is much better judged than that of last year's equivalent remote, and the way it harmonises with the on-screen menu system to deliver all the TV's functionality via just a handful of spaciously laid out buttons is outstanding.
We should also spare a thought for the way the Samsung UE55F8000 can interface with Android or iOS devices. The extent of the functionality on offer here - video streaming from the TV to your tablet or phone, controlling the TV from the tablet/phone and sharing multimedia from the tablet/phone to the TV - is impressive.
But we do rather take issue with the way that accessing all this functionality requires you to use at least three separate apps, rather than everything being neatly integrated into one all-singing, all-dancing app.
It's also a pity that the iOS Smart View app is currently not offering the same functionality as the Android version - though we're assured this situation is being addressed.
Although much of this section of the review has been spent with nitpicking the flaws with Samsung's new interface technologies, overall we're still big fans of the remarkable sophistication and depth of the Samsung UE55F8000's interface.
Samsung is clearly headed down the right track with much of what's on offer (with the exception, perhaps, of the gesture and voice controls), and we're seriously excited to see where the journey is going to take us over the next year or two.
Samsung's improvements for 2013 haven't been restricted to the UE55F8000's pictures. Despite the brain-bending slimness of the TV's frame, the introduction of dedicated bass speakers to the set's rear helps it produce a much richer, more well-rounded soundstage than expected.
The soundstage can go much wider without losing cohesion than we'd have anticipated, too.
Things can still sound a bit muddy during really loud action scenes, and we'd probably suggest you don't use the set's 3D Audio mode, since it can leave dialogue sounding as if it's coming from somewhere removed from the actors' mouths.
Overall, though, the Samsung UE55F8000 can claim to deliver a soundstage that actually keeps its 55-inch pictures in credible company for a change.
Priced at £2,500 (around US$3,782/ AU$3,635), the Samsung UE55F8000 is one of the most expensive 55-inch TVs we're likely to see in 2013.
But it works damn hard to justify every penny of its cost, from its groundbreaking design through to its uniquely clever smart TV services and, best of all, its terrific picture quality.
Samsung's new flagship 55-inch TV wears its high-end status right out there on its sleeve, courtesy of a mind-blowing design boasting the slimmest bezel we've ever seen. It's extremely well connected too, for both video and multimedia purposes, and its latest on-screen menu system is in some ways revolutionary.
Certainly its ability to 'learn' your viewing habits hasn't been seen before outside of a TiVo box, and the quality of the presentation of all the five new home screen menus you use to access all your content is is gorgeous.
There are places where Samsung stretches itself a bit too far; the gesture and voice controls still fail to convince, and some of the menu options are a bit obscure. But by the time you've added to the Samsung UE55F8000's heady feature and design mix a dose of truly mesmerising picture quality, it's clear Samsung has yet another massive hit on its hands.
Samsung has finally vanquished its backlight inconsistency nemesis to deliver outstanding pictures in both bright and dark room conditions, and with both 2D and 3D content. The Samsung UE55F8000's design is something else too, and its multimedia ambitions are positively precocious - including delivering the most comprehensive suite of video streaming options seen on a smart TV to date.
The touchpad remote control you get free with the TV is extremely helpful too, and even the set's audio isn't bad.
Samsung's picture presets continue to frustrate, with no option provided that might best suit serious film viewing in a darkened room. We also continue to struggle with Samsung's gesture and voice control options (despite them being improved this year), and the content decisions Samsung has made with some of its on-screen menus are questionable.
The Samsung UE55F8000 kicks the 2013 TV race off in mostly astonishing style, as Samsung flexes its muscles to produce easily its best picture quality yet from a TV frame so small that you mostly forget it's there.
The extent of Samsung's ambitions with its latest smart TV system is mind-boggling too, so that even in the few areas where those ambitions over-reach themselves you're still left admiring Samsung's thought processes.
The Samsung UE55F8000 has thrown down the gauntlet to the rest of the TV world. Now we just have to see if anyone else has the skills and the confidence to pick it up.
With Sony's 2013 range still waiting in the wings somewhere, the Sony TV most worthy of consideration against the Samsung UE55F8000 is the Sony 55HX853. This set uses a brilliant local dimming lighting system to produce pictures of unprecedented contrast for the edge LED market. There's much to admire in Sony's current smart TV offering too - especially where video streaming services are concerned.
The Sony struggles against the Samsung when it comes to design, though, and while the 55HX853's dark scenes are punchier, they also feature slightly more light inconsistency than the Samsung's, on account of the Sony's local dimming engine.
If you're a serious movie fan, meanwhile, prepared to regularly dim your living room lights, you should also consider Panasonic's TX-P55VT50 plasma TV. This produces the best black level response we've seen since Pioneer's legendary Kuro plasma TVs, as well as colours of peerless accuracy and levels of shadow detail that you just don't get in the LCD world.
The set struggles to match the vibrancy and brightness of LCD models if used in a bright environment, though.