Samsung UE55F9000 £3300
22nd Oct 2013 | 15:00
Samsung's first 'affordable' UHD TV blazes into town
The 4K/UHD TV resolution isn't just upon us, it's also already getting competitive.
For hot on the heels of Sony's 65in 4K trailblazer, the KD-65X9005A, comes Samsung's 55-inch UE55F9000.
And after initially launching at the same £4,000 price as Sony's 55-inch 55X9005A, within days it had its price slashed to just £3,300. But does this value appeal mean Samsung's TV is compromised in performance terms compared with the outstanding X9005As?
Samsung's slender model represents a neat contrast with Sony's deliberately huge 4K design, and in specification terms it doesn't seem to hand any advantage to the Sony model, offering a high potential motion rate of 1000Hz that compares favourably – on paper, at least - with Sony's Motionflow 800 system.
The UE55F9000 also has a seriously sophisticated Smart TV service that's uniquely well set up where video streaming services are concerned, and not only does it join Sony's models in offering 3D, it is excitingly the first UHD TV that upscales HD 3D content to a UHD resolution.
The UE55F9000 marks the first 55in UHD TV we've tested, raising questions over whether you can really appreciate UHD at such a relatively small (well, compared with the 65in and 84in UHD/4K TVs we've seen previously!) screen size. The F9000 series is also the first point in Samsung's 2013 range where the brand applies local dimming technology to its edge LED lighting system.
If you don't want to futureproof yourself with a UHD TV, the next model down in Samsung's range is the F8000 series. These are outstanding Full HD performers despite not using local dimming. A step further still down are Samsung's F7000 models, which feature less high-powered motion processing and a less sophisticated dynamic contrast system.
As for rivals, really the only close alternative right now is Sony's X9005A series of 4k models – unless you're willing to consider leaping up to a hugely expensive 84in screen like LG's £17k 84LM960V.
The headliner in this section has to be the UE55F9000's UHD native pixel count of 3840x2160. This delivers four times the native resolution of a normal full HD TV to hopefully give images a much denser, sharper and more detailed look – even in a relatively 'small' 55in screen environment – than anything you can get with a normal HD TV.
Obviously there's a fairly major issue where UHD is concerned right now in that there are precious few – practically none, actually – native 4K/UHD sources around to get the maximum effect from such a high-resolution TV. But all the indications are that 4K/UHD content is coming sooner than you might think.
In the mean time, of course, the UE55F9000 is equipped with enough processing power to convert high definition and even standard definition sources to the screen's UHD resolution, hopefully giving them an extra touch of quality you don't get with an HD screen. Assuming the upscaling processing works well, of course.
Samsung still refuses to entertain the idea of adopting the passive 3D technology developed by its great rival, LG. Which means the UE55F9000's upscaling processing also has to work in the 3D domain, delivering our first experience of a UHD-resolution 3D image. This is pretty exciting in our opinion - despite consumers' apparent indifference to 3D.
Samsung supports its intriguing 3D playback by providing two pairs of active shutter 3D glasses free with the TV.
The UE55F9000's slender, attractive, glass-covered frame houses an edge LED lighting system. But unlike the F8000 models one-step down Samsung's current TV range, this lighting array is accompanied by a local dimming system, whereby segments of the LEDs down the screen's left and right sides can have their brightness adjusted individually. Experience and simple common sense suggest that this should significantly improve the UE55F9000's potential contrast performance.
When it comes to UHD pictures, you really don't want their remarkable clarity and sharpness to be spoiled by motion blur. So it's promising to find the UE55F9000 enjoying a 1000Hz-like motion system, delivered by a combination of a native 200Hz panel, a scanning backlight, and motion interpolation processing.
Samsung doesn't pursue the endorsement of the independent Imaging Science Foundation pro picture calibration group, but that certainly does not mean the UE55F9000 doesn't have bags of calibration flexibility. On the contrary, with its colour management, gamma management and white balance tools, as well as its extensive controls over most aspects of its video processing, you can get its pictures to look pretty much exactly how you want them to look - including meeting film industry standards if that's what you like.
It might, perhaps, have been nice if Samsung had provided more clear-cut controls over its UHD upscaling engine, as Sony does with its X9005A models. But the reality is that the sharpness/noise reduction/etc settings still give you a solid amount of control over how the upscaled images look.
Its other highlight feature area is its Smart TV interface, which is for our money the most advanced in the TV world right now. Its strongest asset is the way it delivers all the main UK catch up TV services: the BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4OD and Demand Five. Samsung is the only brand currently offering all of these services.
They're joined, moreover, on the online video front by Netflix, LoveFilm, Blinkbox and a variety of other lesser known but still in some cases really content-rich services.
There's a wide variety of other apps at your disposal too, though many of these are of questionable value/quality. Video streaming remains king where Smart TV services are concerned.
The UE55F9000 allows playback of video, photo and music files from USB storage devices or networked, DLNA-capable PCs, and provides content sharing and control via secondary Android and iOS devices.
Hub, hub hooray
The multi-hub presentation of the Smart TV system is attractive too, and also well worth pointing out is the way the TV can remember your viewing habits and start to make recommendations accordingly. It takes around three months of normal TV use before this system really comes into its own, but it's much more sophisticated than any other recommendation systems currently being employed by TVs.
Two final features of the UE55F9000 to draw on are its use of an external connections box – a rather handy idea it seems to us, as it means you only have one cable running into the screen – and its future-proofness against the as yet unratified HDMI 2.0 connection standard that enables 4K/UHD signals to be delivered.
At the moment we only have Samsung's categorical assurances about this future proofing, but it's easier to see how necessary hardware updates could be made to the UE55F9000 than it is with Sony's X9005 models.
Not surprisingly, this section kicks off with a look at native UHD content. And as usual this has to be prefaced by a mention of the sources used. In this case we watched a selection of cityscapes, landscapes and, um, prettily prepared food on a Samsung-supplied USB stick, along with a more diverse range of content – including some football and the Rio carnival – from a Sony 4K content server we had lying around. Neither of these sources, alas, is commercially available. But when you CAN get your hands on native 4K content, your jaw will be left gaping in awe at what you're witnessing.
For despite the UE55F9000 only enjoying a 55in screen - a size at which some would have you believe UHD can't deliver any significant benefit – the extra detail, resolution, colour subtlety and especially image depth delivered by having so many pixels to work with is palpable and a joy to behold.
It helps, too, that Samsung's processing is powerful enough to keep a lid on the motion blurring problems that can affect LCD technology, meaning that even action scenes and camera pans retain the sensational next-generation sharpness and clarity.
Going back to the point about the 55in screen size, it would be true to say that the impact of the UHD/4K pixel count isn't quite as potent as it is on Sony's 65in TV unless you sit very close to the screen.
However, there's no doubt that even from 'normal' viewing distances UHD/4K is worthwhile on a 55in screen, particularly when it comes to the density of the image (which feels like a vision of the real world rather than just a picture being reproduced by a TV); the greater perceived depth of the image; and the finesse of rendered colour blends.
In short, even after witnessing UHD/4K on Samsung's 'mere' 55in TV, we're still finding it hard to go back to our normal HD sets.
There are currently hardly any native UHD/4K 3D sources, but as noted earlier, the UE55F9000 is the first TV that upscales HD 3D images to UHD. This is an enormously challenging thing to do, given the need to deliver images at a fast enough rate to 'split' them between each eye to produce the active 3D effect, and the vast number of pixels that have to be calculated to make them UHD. But Samsung manages to deliver results that are nothing short of staggering.
In fact, we'd go so far as to say that they make 3D feel vital and worthwhile as a home entertainment format in a way we just haven't seen before. Not even with the very best normal HD 3D TVs.
There are two main reasons for making such a bold statement. The first is that the extra pixels on offer enable the screen to render a greater and more believable sense of 3D depth, underlined by the way the extra subtlety of the set's colour rendition helps objects achieve a more three-dimensional solidity.
More realistic 3D
The second key point is that the extra resolution makes 3D images look more like real life. We mentioned this in the section on UHD 2D as well, but given that the point of 3D is to make pictures look more like your experience of the real world, it follows that seeing 3D images that enjoy a visual density much closer to what your eye perceives in your daily life makes the 3D impact much more instant and powerful.
Comparing the UE55F9000's 3D images with those of Sony's 65X9005A 4K TV, which uses a passive 3D approach, the extra resolution and detail on show with the Samsung's images is startling.
On the other hand, the Sony's images enjoy slightly richer colours, slightly more brightness, and no crosstalk or flicker (there are some occasional traces of crosstalk ghosting on the Samsung's images, and you can see flicker if you're watching in a bright room). There's no doubt, though, that for some people the sheer visceral impact of the UE55F9000's UHD 3D images will be simply irresistible.
Sony proved with the 65X9005A that even though the higher resolution technology is still in its infancy as a technology, it's already possible to upscale 2D HD images to UHD/4K levels very effectively. Which is pretty crucial given that for now, at least, it's upscaled HD material that will take up the vast majority of your viewing time.
Happily the UE55F9000's upscaling keeps up with that of its Sony rival – even if it takes a slightly different approach.
The key point is that Samsung has opted to go for a slightly sharper, crisper, more aggressively detailed upscaled image than Sony – an approach that's high on impact and really means you can appreciate the UHD joys of the TV even without UHD content.
The Sony set, by comparison, compensates for not looking quite as crisp and sharp as the Samsung's upscaled HD images by delivering palpably more colour richness and definition – an effect which can with some content actually make pictures look even more subtle and ultra-high resolution than those of the UE55F9000.
The bottom line is that when it comes to upscaling to UHD/4K, the UE55F9000 and 65X9005A deliver a score draw, with choosing between the two sets' quite different approaches coming down to a matter of personal taste.
What about standard def?
The UE55F9000's talent for interpolating detail is even more startling if you're forced to watch standard definition on it from time to time. The resulting images are a touch noisier than standard definition as upscaled on the 65X9005A, but if you want to feel a more overt sense that you're watching a UHD screen, the Samsung may prove slightly more satisfying. But really you shouldn't even think about standard definition performance as a serious factor in any UHD buying decision.
So far our assessment of the UE55F9000's pictures has focused predominantly on the impact of the screen's UHD resolution. But there are other areas to quickly cover too.
Its contrast performance, for instance, is outstanding. The quality of Samsung's local dimming system manages to rival that of Sony's top-end TVs in the way it boosts black level depth and contrast without generating distracting 'blocks' of light around especially bright objects. Dark scenes thus look considerably richer and punchier than they do even on Samsung's F8000 TVs.
Colours are naturally and vividly toned meanwhile, as well as revelling in the extra colour finesse made possible by the panel's huge pixel resolution.
While the UE55F9000's pictures sail comfortably closer to perfection than those of any lower-resolution Samsung TV, though, there are still a few minor issues to make you aware of.
Lag, judder and black bars
First, we measured a slightly high input lag of 60ms from the screen, which could potentially affect your gaming skills. Second, 3D can suffer a bit of judder, which requires the use of some fairly high-level motion processing to address. Third, it's a pity Samsung hasn't replicated the Cinema Black feature of the F8000 and F7000 TVs on the UE55F9000, since this means that if you're watching wide aspect ratio sources with black bars above and below them on the UHD model, you're a bit more likely to notice shifts the brightness levels of these black bars.
Finally, the set's Dynamic and Natural picture presets are much too aggressive with their approach to sharpness, causing pictures to look gritty, uneven and stressy around high-contrast edges, at least when you're watching upscaled sources. The Standard (default) and especially Movie presets work well, though, even for people not confident enough to start tweaking picture settings themselves through Samsung's in-depth calibration menus.
In some ways the UE55F9000 handles the vast array of features it carries admirably. Its main set-up menus are easy on the eye and logically organised for the most part, with good use of 'layering' to make sure casual users don't have to be faced with huge lists of options that will only bewilder them.
The only things we take issue with where this part of using the UE55F9000 is concerned is the division of advanced picture features into two separate menus when one would probably been enough, and the hiding of the Game preset (which keeps input lag to its lowest level) inside the TV's system menus rather than including it with the other picture presets.
The set's Smart menus, meanwhile, are gorgeously presented, with HD graphics galore, and a reasonably effective use of space that manages to present lots of information and content shortcuts without looking overwhelming.
The only issues here are that when you first get the TV it's a bit hard to figure out what's going on in some places (though Samsung has started to introduce tutorial videos to help alleviate this), and that the Recommendations system initially confuses, essentially generating near-random results until it's really got a handle on your viewing habits.
The UE55F9000 ships with two remotes: a standard one and a streamlined version with a touchpad and built-in mic. This touchpad remote works well for the most part, feeling like a better match for modern smart menus than the normal remote.
The mic aspect of the touchpad remote reminds you that the TV supports Samsung's latest voice and gesture control systems, both of which have been improved considerably since they first appeared earlier in the year. Though we still suspect that aside from verbalising search terms, most people will likely only use the voice and gesture controls if they can't quickly find the touchpad remote.
One last niggle is that it's frustrating that you need multiple apps for iOS and Android devices to enjoy all the potential features on offer, rather than having all the features built into one easy to use app as happens with some rival Smart TV engines.
The UE55F9000's speakers comprise a combination of stereo down-firing speakers and a built-in woofer for enhanced bass. These speakers prove slightly more powerful than those of Samsung's typical flat TVs, being able to expand quite handily to accommodate the greater dynamics of action scenes while also handling treble detailing without sounding harsh or compressed.
Even with the woofer, though, bass response is a bit limited, and certainly there's no denying that the UE55F9000 isn't even in the same audio ballpark as Sony's 65X9005A, thanks to the latter model's use of front-mounted, front-firing, magnetic fluid speaker arrays.
If you consider the UE55F9000 against high-end normal HD resolution TVs, then obviously its £3300 price is high. Samsung's own UE55F8000, for instance, is a whole £1,000 less.
However, if more fairly you look at the UE55F9000 in the context of other UHD/4K TVs, the current £3,300 price actually looks pretty great value, coming in at £700 less than Sony's 55in X9005A, and many thousands of pounds less than the 65in and 84in UHD models that have been launched to date.
Samsung might have been beaten out of the 'mainstream' UHD/4K TV traps by Sony, but that certainly hasn't stopped the Korean brand from making its mark on this burgeoning new sector of the AV marketplace.
For starters, the 55-inch UE55F9000 is the smallest UHD TV launched to date. It's also very different to Sony's 4K debutantes aesthetically, offering a much slimmer look, and it's the first UHD TV we've seen that delivers a genuine UHD take on 3D. Plus it offers all of Samsung's now familiar and in some ways ground-breaking Smart TV features, and handily undercuts Sony's rival models on price.
The set is a stunning picture performer with all sources too. Native UHD content looks so good it's silly, while upscaled HD looks crisper but also cleaner than we'd imagined Samsung would be able to manage with its UHD debut.
Add in Samsung's best contrast performance of 2013, and you've got pictures that routinely take your breath away.
The UE55F9000 provides yet more evidence of just what an impact UHD/4K resolutions can have on picture performance. Its 3D pictures, in particular, are like nothing we've seen before. Its space-saving design is a nice contrast to the bulk of Sony's 4K TVs too, and the set's Smart features are class-leading.
The UE55F9000's price is attractive by UHD standards, too.
Input lag is high enough to marginally reduce gaming performance, a couple of the picture presets are too aggressive with their sharpness elements, and the set's audio isn't quite as potent as such a picture powerhouse perhaps deserves.
Samsung's UE55F9000 is another simply spectacular UHD/4K screen that also happens to bring the high-resolution technology in at more manageable price and size levels than any previous UHD model.
Its slender design delivers an attractive alternative to the bigger look of Sony's 4K TVs, and its Smart TV service is unmatched in terms of the video streaming content on offer.
The UE55F9000 isn't necessarily better than Sony's X9005A 4K models, but it's certainly just as good, simply offering a surprisingly different approach to the undoubted joys of UHD.
There's currently only one direct rival for the UE55F9000: Sony's 55X9005A. We've only tested the 65in version of the X9005A series, but from this it's possible to say that the Sony models are strongest when it comes to colour resolution and sound quality, while the Samsung models deliver a greater sense of UHD detailing, a slimmer design, and a superior number of key video streaming options.