Coming Soon: 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

Panasonic introduces first 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player while Blu-ray Disc Association offers more details on the format at 2015 International CES.


Ultra HD TVs are growing in popularly and declining in price, leading to near certainty that 4K will be the standard in TVs (at least in sizes 50 inches and above) over the next few years. However, one of the specters that’s been looming over that success has been content.

Ultra HD movies and TVs shows are now available from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, with more video streaming options coming online over the next few months, but many enthusiasts feel that streamed 4K is still inferior to a well-mastered 1080p Blu-ray disc. Viewers who want the best for their Ultra HD TV are clamoring for a better Ultra HD source.

Coming to the rescue is Ultra HD Blu-ray. Yes, that’s the newly official name of the 4K disc format, said Blu-ray Disc Association Global Promotions Committee Chair Victor Matsuda (who is also the vice president of Sony’s Blu-ray Disc Group) during an interview at the 2015 International CES.

Matsuda said that licensing for the format will begin mid-2015 and he expects there will be consumer products by the end of this year. Earlier this week at CES Panasonic showed a prototype of an Ultra HD Blu-ray player, though it wasn’t showing any content at the time. So far, Panasonic has been the only company to publicly show support for the format, but Matsuda said that he expects all the standard companies to come out with product (which of course means Sony as well).

Related: Panasonic’s New 4K Ultra HD TVs Get Control4 SDDP for Integration

Beyond Ultra HD resolution (3,840 x 2,160 at 60fps), the new Ultra HD Blu-ray will support high dynamic range and REC 2020 color space and 10-bit color depth. Matsuda said that HDR is a very significant technology for the new format and one that consumers will immediately see the value of. That doesn’t necessarily mean that all Ultra HD Blu-ray discs will include HDR, as not all movies recorded in 4K are mastered with HDR, but the format does support it.

The new Ultra HD Blu-ray discs can hold up to 66 GB in dual-layer format, and 100 GB in triple layer format. The players will be backward compatible with 1080p Blu-ray discs, DVD, and CD. The players will include the HEVC (H.265) codec and support HDMI 1.2 and 2.0 (4K content will only be displayed if the player detects HDMI 2.0 in the connected TV).

While not specifically mentioned, the new format will likely support 3D and similar bonus and interactive features found on 1080p Blu-ray discs.

While some people may question the need for a new physical media, especially when more consumers are turning to streaming sources for their content, Matsuda pointed out that Blu-ray disc sales rose 5 percent in 2014. That’s a pretty clear indication that people who want the best-looking video on their large screens and TVs insist on a more reliable format. Ultra HD Blu-ray discs will deliver that for 4K TVs.

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10 Questions to Ask Before Shopping for an HDTV

10-questions-HDTV-small.jpgWhen it comes to selecting a new HDTV, it’s fair to say there’s no shortage of options. Whether you’re standing in front of a giant wall of TVs at your local brick-and-mortar retailer or staring at a screen full of options on Amazon or Crutchfield, you might quickly feel overwhelmed as you try to figure out which one is the “right” one. Let me first say that there’s no such thing as the right TV; there’s only the right TV for you, and even that list could include several choices. The best thing you can do is arm yourself with a bit of basic knowledge before you begin the search process so that you’ve got some understanding of the different technologies and features that are available to you. With that in mind, here are 10 questions to think about before you shop.

1) How big a screen do you want?
We begin with this question because the answer could narrow your options. For instance, if you want a screen size over 65 inches, then you’re pretty much limited to TVs that use LCD technology (or you need to switch to a front projector, but that’s a whole different article). Rear-projection TVs – which once offered the best value at the larger screen sizes of 70 inches and above — officially died in late 2012 when Mitsubishi announced that it was exiting the RPTV business. You might still find a few for sale, but no new models are being produced. Mass-market plasma TVs currently max out at a screen size of 65 inches. Larger plasma models are available in the custom and pro A/V realms, but they are extremely expensive.

Most uber-large-screen LCD TVs use an LED lighting system (instead of a CCFL backlight) and may be referred to as an LED TV. Sharp is currently the king of this category, offering multiple 1080p LCDs in the 70- to 90-inch range. Vizio is adding more 70- to 80-inch 1080p models to its line. Samsung, Sony, LG, and Toshiba all offer screen sizes up to 84 inches, but their 84-inchers are UltraHD TVs (with four times the resolution of 1080p) that carry a very high price tag.

At the other end of the size spectrum, the same caveat holds true: If you want a TV sized 40 inches or below, then LCD is again your only option. Plasma TVs are not offered in sizes below 42 inches.

2) What is your viewing environment like? When do you normally watch TV?
Is your viewing environment dim or bright? Do you watch TV primarily during the day or at night? The where and when of your viewing environment may ultimately dictate whether you choose a plasma or LCD TV. You can learn more about each of these TV technologies and its strengths/limitations in the article entitled Plasma vs. LCD vs. OLED: Which Is Right for You,” but here’s the short version: Plasma TVs generally have better black levels than LCD but are not as bright, so they are better suited for people who primarily watch video content (especially movies) at night in a moderate to dark room. LCD TVs can be very bright and thus are a good fit for daytime viewing in a bright room. In my case, I have an LCD TV in my brightly sunlit living room, which is where we generally watch TV during the day. I have a plasma TV in my family room, the room to which I often retire in the evenings to watch movies and TV with lights turned off or low.

If your room has a lot of direct sunlight or other bright light sources, you might want to look specifically for an LCD TV that has a matte screen. All plasmas and many of today’s more expensive LCDs have glossy screens, which can offer some performance benefits but may show a lot of distracting room reflections in a very bright environment.

3) Are you willing to pay more to get the best performance?
Let’s be honest: A lot of TVs on the market these days can produce a nice-looking image with Blu-ray and HDTV content. If “good enough” is good enough for you, then choices abound. If, on the other hand, you want the cream of the crop in terms of black level, contrast, black detail, screen uniformity, color accuracy, and motion resolution, then you need to be prepared to pay more. This is especially true in the LCD realm, where high-performance options like full-array LED backlighting, local dimming, and a 240Hz refresh rate are reserved for the higher-priced models. Many of today’s LCD TVs use an edge LED lighting system, which allows for a thin, light cabinet design but often causes screen-uniformity problems in which some parts of the screen are clearly brighter than others. A full-array LED backlight should provide better screen uniformity than an edge LED design. Local dimming allows these LED-based LCDs to produce deeper blacks and better overall contrast that rivals plasma; it can also improve screen uniformity. A 240Hz or 120Hz refresh rate helps reduce or eliminate the motion blur that can be visible on a traditional 60Hz LCD TV. On the plasma TV side, you can often get very good black levels, screen uniformity, and motion resolution in lower-priced models, but you still have to pay more to get the best – the best black levels, the best color accuracy, and the best screen filter to improve brightness and cut down on room reflections.

4) Do you have/want true HD sources?
Your new HDTV will upconvert standard-definition sources like DVD and SDTV to its native resolution (these days, that’s probably 1080p). However, upconverted sources are not the same thing as true HD sources. Learn more about this in our feature “Five Tips to Make Sure You’re Actually Watching HD on Your HDTV“. To enjoy high-def movies, you need a Blu-ray player and Blu-ray discs, or you need a streaming media player that supports HD output and includes a service like VUDU that offers HD movies. Cable/satellite subscribers will likely need to upgrade to an HD-capable box and order the HD channel package, which may cost an additional monthly fee. Once you upgrade your programming package and have an HD box installed, make sure you’re actually watching the HD versions of the channels. Chances are, the grid will include both an NBC and an NBC HD, for instance, and you want to tune in to the correct one.

There is another option for receiving HDTV signals: Any display that’s officially labeled as a TV (as opposed to a monitor) will include an HD (ATSC) tuner in it. Buy an HDTV antenna that connects to the TV’s RF input, and you can tune in free over-the-air HD channels like ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, The CW, and PBS, but you won’t have access to premium HD channels like ESPN, TNT, HBO, etc.

5) How many sources will you connect to the TV?
HDMI is the primary (and oftentimes the only) high-definition connection found on new Blu-ray players, gaming consoles, streaming media players, and other set-top boxes. Make sure the HDTV you buy has enough HDMI inputs to accommodate all of the HD sources you want to connect to it, and make sure you purchase enough HDMI cables. If you’re running all your sources through an A/V receiver, then you only really need one HDMI input on the TV. Don’t forget about “legacy” sources that you might want to connect, such as a DVD player, gaming console, or VCR that does not have HDMI outputs. As TVs grow increasingly thinner, TV connection panels grow increasingly leaner; many new TVs have only one analog video input (usually a shared component/composite video input, no S-video). Do you want to connect a computer? You can pick up a DVI-to-HDMI adapter to connect your computer to the TV’s HDMI input; however, many TVs also include a dedicated PC input in the form of a standard 15-pin VGA/RGB connector.

6) Do you want a 3D-capable TV?
3D capability is a feature found on many new HDTVs. At first, this feature was only offered on the most expensive TVs in a company’s line, but now 3D capability has trickled down to lower price points. There are currently two types of 3DTV: active and passive. Both require that you wear 3D glasses: Active 3D requires the use of battery-powered glasses that are more expensive than the basic passive glasses. Some people (myself included) feel that active 3D produces a sharper, cleaner 3D image because it sends a full-resolution signal to each eye, but passive 3D can serve up a brighter 3D image and can be more comfortable over a longer viewing period. Many TV manufacturers include a few pairs of 3D glasses with the TV purchase; this is an especially important feature to consider if you select an active 3DTV, as the active 3D glasses are more expensive. As for 3D sources, you’ll need a 3D-capable Blu-ray player and Blu-ray 3D discs, and you’ll need to check with your cable/satellite provider to see what (if any) 3D channels they offer. Some smart (networkable) TVs include 3D video-on-demand services.

7) Do you want a smart TV?
8) If so, how smart do you want it to be?

Speaking of smart TVs, all of the major TV manufacturers now offer a Web platform on many of their mid- to higher-priced models. These Web platforms generally include on-demand media services like NetflixVUDU,Hulu PlusAmazon Instant VideoPandoraYouTube, and Picasa. Social networking services like Facebook and Twitter are available on many TVs, as are games, news/sports apps, and more. Many smart TVs also offer DLNA media streaming, which allows you to stream your personal videos, music, and photos from a DLNA-compliant media server or computer to the TV. You can often control these smart TVs using a free control app on your smartphone or tablet, and many of these apps allow you to flick Web content and media files from the mobile device to your TV.

The smarter you want the TV to be, the more you should expect to pay for it. Top-shelf TVs may include integrated cameras that allow for facial recognition and video chatting via Skype, as well as the ability to control the TV via motion/gesture commands. Some smart TVs respond to voice commands. A few premium TVs now incorporate NFC (near field communication) that lets you play back files from a mobile device by simply placing the device close to the TV’s NFC sensor. Conversely, some TV manufacturers (like Panasonic) offer a stripped-down Web platform, with just core services like Netflix and VUDU, on lower-priced TVs.

9) How accurate do you want your TV to look?
Most HDTVs are not set up to look their best out of the box. They are set up to catch your eye under the harsh lighting of the retail floor or, in the case of plasma, they are set to a very dim standard mode to earn EnergyStar certification. These settings seldom translate well to a normal living room, be it bright or dark. Simply switching the TV’s picture mode from one called Dynamic or Daytime to one labeled THX, Cinema, or Movie can make a huge difference, but some people may want to go even further in the video-setup process…and we certainly encourage that. After all, you’ve just spent hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars on a TV. Don’t you want it to look its best? Add a $30 (or less) video calibration disc like Disney’s WOW or Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics to your shopping cart and learn how to make adjustments to basic picture controls like contrast, brightness, color, tint, and sharpness. THX sells an iOS app called THX Tune-Up that will walk you through video and audio setup procedures.

If you want to enjoy the most accurate image that your TV is capable of, then you should have your TV professionally calibrated by an ISF- or THX-certified calibrator. This trained calibrator will use professional equipment to measure and adjust your TV’s color temperature, gamma, and other settings to meet recommended industry standards (at least, as close as your specific TV can get to those standards). Contact the Imaging Science Foundation or THX to find a certified calibrator in your area. If you purchase your HDTV through a specialty retailer, the store may have a certified video calibrator on staff. Ask about this.

10) Should you shop at a specialty store instead of a big-box chain or e-tailer?
Have you narrowed down your list of potential TVs to just a few, or do you still have a lot of unanswered questions? How confident are you that you can set up your system correctly? Are you shopping for a casual budget TV, or is this a major investment? You’re more likely to get accurate answers, better guidance, and real setup assistance (including the aforementioned calibrations) from the staff at a specialty store. In general, you can spend more quality hands-on demo time with a TV in a specialty store; the staff may be more open to letting you change the room’s lighting and even try out your own demo discs to check out video quality, which is an especially wise thing to do if you’re shopping in the higher-end realm. The downside is that you’ll likely have to pay a bit more for the product, and there’s always a chance that you’ll encounter a salesperson who is too commission-focused and trying too hard to upsell. If that happens, just leave and find a better specialty store that has salespeople with whom you feel comfortable. Remember, though, that courtesy goes both ways: Don’t spend an hour getting advice from a trained specialty-store salesperson, only to leave and go buy the same product for less online.

Onkyo Releases New Envision Cinema Products

Onkyo aims to bring cinematic sound to listening rooms where space or budget preclude use of a multi-speaker surround-sound setup by introducing two additions to its Envision Cinema line with a new soundbar system and an all-in-one TV-base speaker system.

The LS-B50 (soundbar with wireless subwoofer) and LS-T10 combine a multi-channel, multi-speaker array with DSP technology. As Onkyo-LS-B50-and-LS-T10-system-small.jpgwell as boosting audio from TV, gaming consoles and media players, these audio systems only require a single digital cable to connect. Operating these units is simplified by using a regular TV remote control since both the LS-B50 and LS-T10 are preprogrammed with IR codes for nine major TV brands and learning ability for others. This feature is also available on the Onkyo’s initial Envision Cinema offering, the LS-3100.

These products double as home hi-fi systems with Bluetooth technology for wireless audio streaming via mobile and PC. USB ports are also included to play audio from flash-memory-enabled media players such as smartphones, tablets, and mass storage-class devices.

The LS-B50 packs eight drivers (six full-range drivers and two ring-radiator tweeters) into very compact package. The LS-T10, meanwhile, features a total of six full-range drivers plus an integrated subwoofer and is designed to slip underneath the television base.

Both models feature an efficient six-channel digital amplifier with audio output controlled by AuraSphere DSP from Onkyo. Advanced algorithms reportedly manage equalization and sound pressure levels in real time to create a realistic 3D immersion field from regular PCM stereo or Dolby Digital sources.

The LS-B50 adds a wireless active subwoofer, while the LS-B40 includes a subwoofer pre-out. Wall-mounting kits and IR flashers enable flexible soundbar placement.

The LS-B50 and LS-T10 Envision Cinema products are now available and have suggested retail prices of $699 and $499 respectively.

Plasma Burn-In: Is It Still a Cause for Concern?

It’s fair to say, TV reviewers love plasma technology … because we love great picture quality. Year in and year out, publications like ours Plasma-Image-retention-small.jpgselectplasma TVs as our best-of in the TV category, because plasma TVs usually do a better job than LED/LCDs at reproducing the deepest black levels and best real-world image contrast to render a gorgeous film image for a home theater environment. This year, Panasonic has truly outdone itself with its ST, VT, and ZT Series plasma lines, and Samsung has significantly upped its game with the F8500 plasma series. It’s a great time to buy a plasma, yet whenever we review one, a few readers inevitably chime in and say there’s one reason why they simply will not consider buying a plasma TV: image retention. They usually go on to ask why we never talk about image retention. So let’s talk about image retention.

Plasma image retention comes in two forms. Short-term image retention (also known as image persistence) is a common plasma artifact that’s caused when the phosphors that create the image continue to glow after being in an excited state for a given time. The result is that a trace of the image temporarily lingers on the screen. The brighter the image, the more excited the phosphor becomes, and the more likely it is to continue to glow for some amount of time, be it a few seconds, minutes, or hours. Sometimes, when reviewing a plasma display, after working with a bright test pattern for a few minutes, I’ll switch to dark one and see a lingering hint of the bright pattern for a few seconds. It’s much more difficult to notice this effect with real-world moving images. Leave a bright, static image on a plasma screen for a full day, however, and you’ll very likely see a trace of it for a while afterward. But the trace will fade, and most new plasma TVs have anti-retention tools like screen wipes to help “erase” an especially tenacious bit of short-term image retention.

When most people express concerns about image retention, they are talking about permanent image retention, also known as burn-in. This occurs when the phosphors have aged unevenly and created a permanent outline of an image on the screen, one that will not fade over time. Burn-in was a major concern in the early days of plasma TVs and could occur quite easily. Today’s plasma TVs use phosphors that are faster in action and decay and more efficient, so the technology has evolved to a point where permanent burn-in is harder to achieve … but not impossible. Let me say that again: it is still possible to burn images into your plasma panel if you’re not careful. Read your plasma TV manual, and you’ll still find a warning in it about burn-in, which is not covered by the manufacturer’s warranty precisely because the manufacturer considers burn-in to be caused by improper use of the display.

This brings us to the all-important question: how can you avoid plasma burn-in, as well as nasty cases of short-term image retention? Sometimes, people think that an image is permanently burnt into their screen because it has been there for weeks, only to discover over time that it does gradually fade away. Still, even short-term image retention can be an annoyance, so it’s better to take the necessary steps to avoid it. Reviewers (myself included) don’t often talk about image retention in our reviews because, again, it’s rarely an issue that presents itself as a performance limitation during our time with a particular TV. If I do notice that a certain plasma tends to hold on to images very easily and the effect is obvious with real-world content, I will certainly say so … but, frankly, I haven’t noticed that in quite some time. Beyond that, I just mention the anti-retention features that are available and move on. Some people have suggested that I should try to actively create image retention to see how easily it might occur. That’s like asking me to slam a sledgehammer into the panel to see how resilient it is. I’m sure there are websites out there that run those kinds of resiliency tests, but I have no intention of actively trying to damage a review sample. I don’t consider that to be a wise or cost-effective review methodology. What I can do is give you some recommendations on how to minimize the likelihood of burn-in.

Avoid the Dynamic/Vivid Picture Mode and Turn Down the Contrast Control
Plasma TVs no longer come out of the box in a ridiculously bright, exaggerated picture mode. In fact, in order to meet energy standards, plasma TVs usually come out of the box in a ridiculously dim and equally undesirable Standard mode. When you switch modes (as you should), don’t go to Dynamic or Vivid, even though those are usually the brightest options. In addition to being the least accurate, these modes usually crank up the contrast to 100 percent and run at a high panel brightness, which is a surefire way to overly excite the phosphors, especially with a brand-new TV. We generally recommend the Cinema/Movie mode, which will likely have the contrast preset to a lower level. I’m most comfortable with a contrast setting around 85, as long as it doesn’t adversely affect image accuracy (and it usually doesn’t). Having your TV professionally calibrated by an ISF or THXcalibrator is a good way to get proper settings for your TV and room. If you constantly feel the need to push your plasma TV’s contrast and light output to the maximum in order to enjoy a well-saturated image, you may have purchased the wrong display type for your viewing environment.

“Break in” Your Plasma TV
I’m going to steal a great quote from my colleague Geoffrey Morrison in his CNET article about burn-in: “Think of the phosphors in a plasma like kids. Once you get them riled up, it takes a bit for them to calm back down. Also like kids, as they age, they calm down much faster. As a plasma TV ages [after 100 hours or so], it becomes far more difficult to burn in.” In other words, during the first 100 to 200 hours of watching your new plasma TV, be more mindful about what you watch and how long you watch it. Avoid leaving static images – like network logos, sports/news tickers, and game/computer graphics – on the screen for an extended amount of time. Don’t watch a marathon of your favorite SDTV show with black sidebars. (Most plasmas now let you choose gray sidebars instead of black ones to help age the phosphors more evenly, but I personally find gray sidebars to be very distracting.) Enjoy watching the TV, but keep the content varied while the phosphors age. Many experts suggest that you set the contrast control even lower – under 50 percent – during this break-in period. Of course, you can speed up the aging process by running constant video on the screen; just make sure there’s nothing static within the video, or you will create the very problem you’re trying to prevent. Imaging Science’s Joel Silver recommends that you age a plasma TV for 200 to 300 hours before having it calibrated, because color shift and burn-in can occur more easily during that time.

Turn on the Pixel Orbiter
Most new plasma TVs have a feature in the setup menu called Pixel Orbiter that very subtly shifts the image to prevent static images from sitting in one spot for too long. In Panasonic’s 2013 models, this feature is turned on by default, but in older plasma TVs, you usually need to enable it. The Pixel Orbiter doesn’t give you a license to still (yes, I’m rolling my own eyes at that one); it’s not guaranteed to prevent burn-in, but it can be helpful with smaller static images, like channel logos or score boxes. The Pixel Orbiter won’t help as much with 4:3 or 2.35:1 bars that take up more screen area.

Screen Savers and Shutoff Timers Are Your Friends
Make sure the screen saver is enabled in source devices like DVRs and media players so that, in the event you pause a show, walk away, and unexpectedly get hit by a bus, the static image won’t sit on your screen during your entire hospital stay. Likewise, almost every plasma TV (and source component) has some type of automatic shutoff feature that will turn off the device after a designated amount of time. This feature is designed for energy savings and is often found in the TV’s Eco sub-menu, but it’s also a good way to ensure that your TV is not left unattended with stationary images. If your kid is playing a video game or watching TV and decides to leave the room with all the equipment still on (something kids are prone to do), then the automatic shutoff feature makes a good safety valve.

Understand When Plasma Technology Is the Wrong Choice

Just because we’ve picked a plasma TV as our display device of the year and all your videophile friends have told you that plasma performance is superior doesn’t mean that you should absolutely buy a plasma for your specific viewing needs. It’s our nature to want things to be stated in black-or-white, right-or-wrong terms – “XYZ is the best TV on the market and the one everyone should buy” – but the real world isn’t that neat. Both plasma and LCD technologies have their own strengths and weaknesses that suit them for different purposes.

When someone asks me what TV he or she should buy, the first thing I do is ask how and where the TV will be utilized. I have used a plasma TV as my primary display device for years and never had a problem with image retention of any kind, but here’s the thing: I only watch my theater-room plasma display for a couple of hours in the evenings, usually in a dim to dark room in a calibrated Movie mode that doesn’t need to be excessively bright. It’s rare that I leave my plasma TV on all day or watch a single channel for hours on end. It’s unlikely that I would even watch multiple 2.35:1 movies in one sitting, and I don’t play video games. Truth be told, my living-room TV is the one that gets extended daytime use, in the form of all-day football/ESPN watching or long sessions on a kids’ channel where a static logo might sit for hours. That TV has always been an LCD. Why? Because LCD is a better fit for my bright living room, and it’s also the safer choice for those types of extended viewing sessions. (By the way, LCD/LED TVs can also suffer from burn-in, but it’s even harder to accomplish.)

How do you plan to use the TV for which you are currently shopping? Is it going to be located in a bright viewing environment, where you’ll be tempted to crank up the panel brightness and/or contrast to get maximum light output all the time? Is it a family room where your kids are going to play a lot of video games or watch Cartoon Network eight hours a day? Are you looking for a TV that can pull double-duty as a large-screen computer monitor? Do you still watch a lot of SDTV with 4:3 sidebars? If so, then a plasma TV is probably not the ideal choice. If, on the other hand, the TV will generally be used for a few hours at a time for movie and TV watching, then you likely have nothing to fear in the burn-in department.

If you don’t want to worry about image retention, if you don’t want to have to monitor how long images are being left on your screen, it’s okay to say no to plasma. We won’t shun you. On the flip side, don’t blindly dismiss plasma because you’ve heard that image retention is a major problem, when it might not be a problem at all for you and your viewing habits. Make an informed decision, and you’ll save yourself a lot of worry (and perhaps money) in the long run.

Samsung UN55F8000 LED/LCD HDTV Reviewed

The F8000 Series is Samsung’s top-shelf 1080p LCD television for 2013. Consequently, this TV is loaded with all of the company’s best technologies and features. I’m especially happy to see the return of local dimming to this edge-lit LED model. In last year’s top-shelf ES8000 Series, Samsung decided to omit local dimming of the actual LEDs and instead use a form of electronic dimming within the image, which hindered the display’s performance in the areas of black level and especially screen uniformity. The company has wisely re-thought that decision and returned to a true form of local dimming, which has proven to be hugely beneficial.

The F8000 Series includes screen sizes of 46, 55, 60, 65, and 75 inches. We reviewed the 55-inch UN55F8000, which is currently selling for $2,499.99 via Samsung’s website and other retailers. In addition to its edge-LED design with Precision Black local dimming, this 1080p TV uses Samsung’s Ultra Clear Panel to reject ambient light and Clear Motion Rate 1200 to reduce motion blur and film judder. This is an active 3DTV that comes with four pairs of 3D glasses. The TV sports built-in WiFi, a quad-core processor, and the Smart Hub Web platform, which has evolved into one of the best TV platforms for searching and accessing Web content.

Setup & Features
The UN55F8000 boasts a sleek, very attractive design, with just a hint of brushed-charcoal bezel around the 55-inch screen. A brushed-silver accent runs around the sides of the TV, matching the unique arched stand. The TV weighs just 37 pounds and measures 1.4 inches deep without the stand. The input panel includes four HDMI ports (one supports ARC, another supports MHL), one shared component/composite mini-jack, a standard A/V input, and an RF input to access the internal ATSC and ClearQAM tuners. There’s no dedicated PC input. An Ethernet port is available for a wired network connection, as are three USB ports for media playback and the addition of USB peripherals like a keyboard. Built-in Bluetooth also allows you to wirelessly connect a keyboard, and the TV has an integrated camera that pops up from the top center of the panel. Samsung’s EX-Link port is available for integration into an advanced control system, and the TV supports Samsung’s Evolution Kit, which allows you to upgrade the TV via an expansion slot.

You’ll also notice an IR output on the back panel, and a glance at the supplied accessories reveals an IR extender cable. The UN55F8000’s On TV service allows you to very easily set up the included Smart Touch RF remote to control your cable/satellite set-top box. The On TV interface, which is part of Samsung’s redesigned Smart Hub, allows you to view a grid of your service provider’s program guide to browse and tune to desired channels, as well as colorful graphics for currently playing and upcoming shows. The Smart Touch remote takes a minimalist approach in terms of hard buttons, but it does include options for volume, channel, power for the TV and STB, DVR, Guide, and Exit, among others. In the center of the brushed-silver remote (which is backlit) is a touchpad for navigation. The More button pulls up an onscreen virtual remote through which you can directly input channel numbers, jump to recent channels you’ve viewed, and access other TV-related controls like Tools, PIP, etc. In years past, Samsung also included its standard IR remote with the top-shelf TVs, but this year, the Smart Touch remote is the only one in the package. While I did miss some of the dedicated buttons on the old IR remote, I found the Smart Touch remote to be very simple and enjoyable to use, easily the best touchpad I’ve tried in terms of speed and responsiveness for general and Web navigation. Smartphone and tablet owners can also use the free SmartView control app for iOS/Android, which will control your set-top box and includes a virtual keyboard for text input. As is so often the case, the virtual keyboard does not work within apps like Netflix and YouTube.

Speaking of apps, let’s talk about the redesigned Smart Hub interface. The new layout consists of five pages: On TV, Apps, Social, Movies & TV Shows, and Photos, Videos & Music. Apps is where you’ll find icons for all your favorite Web services, like NetflixPandoraHulu PlusVUDU, HBO Go, Facebook, Twitter, and many more. A Web browser is available that, thankfully, supports Flash and is very speedy in page loads and navigation. Through the Samsung Apps Store, you can add free and fee-based services. The Social page allows you to integrate your social-media services, along with Skype, into one page. Obviously, the inclusion of the built-in camera makes using Skype a breeze, and the camera can also be used for motion control of the TV and the My Mirror function with the various fitness apps. Photos, Videos & Music is where you can access your personal media files via DLNA or USB. The TV has good file support, including AVI, MKV, MOV, MP4, VOB, WMV, AAC, FLAC, M4A, MP3, OGG, WMA, JPG, PNG, and BMP. The UN55F8000 also supports Miracast so that you can view your tablet or smartphone screen on the larger TV screen via WiFi Direct. Finally, the page called Movies & TV Shows highlights content that’s available across the different VOD platforms. Select a certain title, and the interface reveals multiple VOD services where that title is available for rent or purchase, with pricing. Many Web platforms now include these smart search tools, but this is by far the most intuitive and attractive one I’ve yet used. This statement really applies to the entire Smart Hub experience. I really like the new layout; it’s clean, easy to navigate, and filled with helpful tools to unite your movie and TV watching in an intuitive way.

Motion and voice control are available again this year, and both are improved over last year’s implementations. I still don’t see much point in the motion control, but the voice commands are actually starting to become useful – not necessarily for things like volume and mute, which are just as easily accomplished via the remote, but for search options through the new S-Recommendation tool. Both the Smart Touch remote and the TV have microphones. Press and hold the remote’s Voice button and ask a general question like, “What football games are on right now?” The TV will scan your program guide to find the content. It worked quite well. There’s also a Recommendation button on the remote that will pull up banner along the bottom of the screen with content recommendations.

In the area of picture adjustments, Samsung has included pretty much everything you need. The company added a new picture mode called Natural that doesn’t exactly fit my criteria for that adjective and only includes access to the most basic picture adjustments. The Movie mode is still the best preset from which to start, although the Standard mode – while dim out of the box – can be calibrated to serve as a good bright-room mode. (A professional calibrator can also customize Cal-Day and Cal-Night modes through the service menu.) Advanced picture adjustments include 2p and 10p white balance, flesh tone adjustment, an advanced color management system for all six color points, seven gamma presets, and digital/MPEG noise reduction. As in previous models, the Auto Motion Plus menu is where you can make adjustments to affect motion resolution and film judder. The Clear mode reduces motion blur without changing the quality of film sources, the Standard/Smooth modes add frame interpolation to reduce film judder, and the Custom mode lets you independently adjust the blur and judder tools. Within the Custom mode, you can also enable the LED Clear Motion control that adds backlight scanning to further reduce blur. Finally, the Smart LED and Cinema Black controls apply to the local-dimming function. Smart LED adjusts the aggressiveness of the local dimming, with options for High, Standard, Low, and Off (Standard is the default, and we’ll discuss performance in the next section). Cinema Black turns off the LEDs in the black bars of a 2.35:1 film to make them completely black.

The Sound menu includes five sound modes, with Auto Volume to help reduce level differences between content. Using the TV’s internal microphone, you can set up custom sound profiles based on your room’s ambient noise and your hearing abilities. These modes can be helpful, but you still shouldn’t expect miracles in terms of sound quality from the tiny down-firing speakers. The TV offers Dolby Digital Plus and DTS 5.1 decoding of internal audio sources, and you can set up the TV’s optical digital audio output for PCM, Dolby Digital, DTS, or DTS Neo 2:5 (these settings only apply to internally decoded signals like QAM/antenna signals and streaming sources signals, not to HDMI sources, which are only output as 2.0 PCM).

I began my evaluation by measuring three of the UN55F8000’s four picture modes as they are right out of the box, with no adjustments. Not surprisingly, the Movie mode proved to be the most accurate, with the Standard and Natural modes falling far short of reference standards. What I did find surprising, though, was just how accurate the Movie mode was. In both grayscale and color points, the Movie mode’s Delta Error was already less than three (under 10 is tolerable, under five is good, and under three is considered imperceptible to the human eye), meaning calibration isn’t really necessary. The average color temperature was about 6,400 Kelvin (6,500 K is the target), and the color balance was very even across the board, with just a very slight red emphasis. The only minor issue with the Movie mode at its default settings was that it’s brighter than it needs to be. At a backlight setting of 12 (out of 20), the TV measured about 55 foot-lamberts, which may be fine for a brighter room, but is likely to cause eye fatigue when viewing brighter scenes in a dim or dark room. By simply dialing the backlight down to seven, I got the light output right around the THX-recommended 35 ft-L.

Even though calibration isn’t necessary, I was curious to see what kind of numbers I could get by fine-tuning the advanced picture controls. The answer is, extremely good numbers – better than the Sony XBR-55X900A, thePanasonic TC-P60ST60, and even a hair better than the TC-P60VT60. The Samsung’s grayscale Delta Error fell to just 0.56, the average color temperature improved to 6,511 K, gamma was a perfect 2.2, and all of the color points had a DE of 1.2 or lower.

The Smart LED local-dimming control is crucial to the UN55F8000’s performance. All three Smart LED modes improve the TV’s screen uniformity. As I mentioned, the lack of screen uniformity was a major hindrance for last year’s ES8000; this year, it’s not something you have to worry about, even at higher backlight settings. The UN55F8000 exhibited no light leakage at the corners and no bright patches elsewhere on the screen with both Smart LED and Cinema Black enabled. As for black-level performance, I felt that the Standard mode did the best job of producing a deep black with very little glow/halo around bright objects. The High mode produced a slightly deeper black, but the halos were a little more noticeable and distracting in my darkest demo scenes. Even at the higher backlight setting of seven, the Standard mode resulted in a respectably deep black level, but I was able to improve performance further by moving the backlight down to three or four, which still produced a solid amount of brightness for movie-watching in a dark room. The Samsung could not compete in black level and overall contrast with the Panasonic VT60 plasma, which produced that extra degree of depth and color richness in a darkened room. Still, the Samsung’s performance was very impressive for an LED/LCD. It produced slightly deeper blacks and better black detail than the Sony XBR-55X900A UHD TV in my best black-level torture test, Chapter Two from Flags of Our Fathers (Paramount).

On the flip side, the UN55F8000 can also be insanely bright, notably brighter than the Sony UHD TV. At the maximum backlight, the TV puts out well beyond 100 ft-L of light output. The Standard mode is very dim out of the box (it’s the EnergyStar mode) but, since this mode includes access to all of the advanced picture adjustments, I decided to calibrate it as a daytime mode and got very good results: a grayscale DE of 3.14 (down from 19.84 out of the box), an average color temperature of 6,595 K, a gamma of 2.19, and color points with a DE of 1.2 or less. The calibrated mode’s measured brightness was about 85 ft-L – ample for even the brightest of possible situations in my room. The screen does an excellent job of rejecting ambient light to improve image saturation and keep black levels looking dark during the day, far surpassing the Panny plasma in bright-room performance. In fact, even when I placed the TV right next to a window with the sun shining in on the screen, I was able to see a well-saturated image. This bad boy simply won’t be denied in a bright room.

Combine the TV’s reference-level grayscale and color, good black level and detail, and great brightness with its razor-sharp detail and excellent video processing, and you’ve got the makings of a great all-around performer that is well suited to both daytime and nighttime performance. The UN55F8000 passed all of the 480i and 1080i processing tests on the HQV discs (it needs to be in the Auto1 film mode to correctly handle 1080i film content), and it serves up a clean image with very little digital noise. In setting the Auto Motion Plus control to address blur and judder, I opted for the Clear mode, which produced clean lines up to HD720 in the FPD Benchmark resolution pattern. In the Custom mode with blur reduction set to maximum and LED Clear Motion turned on, the TV produced clean lines to HD1080. However, even with the judder control set to zero, I was smearing in some of the test patterns, which suggests that the TV is still using frame interpolation to affect film motion. Since I don’t like this effect, I stuck with the Clear mode instead.

Finally, the UN55F8000 is an active 3D TV and comes with four pairs of non-rechargeable SSG-5100B glasses. These glasses feel pretty flimsy, but they’re light, and they stayed in place on my nose, which made them comfortable to wear for extended viewing sessions. The UN55F8000’s high light output pays huge dividends in the 3D realm, allowing it to serve up a nice, bright image despite the shutter glasses. Flicker was not an issue. I did see just a hint of ghosting in the floating spoon from Chapter 13 of Monsters vs. Aliens (DreamWorks), but I did not notice any significant crosstalk in various scenes from Life of Pi (20th Century Fox). All in all, the 3D image was clean, sharp, and rich-looking.

The Downside
Viewing angle is a common downside for LCD TVs. The F8000 has a wider viewing angle than last year’s ES8000, but this LCD still can’t compete with plasma in the viewing-angle department. The screen is reflective, a bit more so than other new TVs I’ve tested recently. Room reflections were certainly apparent in a well-lit room when I viewed darker content. The screen filter also produced some polarization/rainbow issues. When I turned on the floor-standing lamp in the back of my room, not only was the lamp itself clearly reflected in the screen, but the lamp reflection was surrounded by four small rainbow patterns. I noticed a similar effect with other light sources, mostly when viewing the TV screen at an angle. In other words, even though the TV is bright enough to overcome most light sources in terms of picture quality, you still need to be careful where you place it in relation to those sources in order to keep reflections to a minimum.

My only other issues with the UN55F8000 fall into the ergonomic department. In general, the Smart Touch remote did a good job controlling my Dish Network Hopper with the IR extender cable. Samsung had all the correct codes in place to change channels, enter numbers, navigate the Dish guide, and bring up my DVR list. Unfortunately, Samsung did not have the correct Dish Network channel numbers programmed into its own onscreen program guide. All of the channel listings and programming info in the guide were right; however, when I tried to tune to a particular channel, it always input the wrong number. For instance, when I highlighted CBS HD Channel 4 and hit enter, the system would punch in channel 6331. I could find no way to correct this, which essentially rendered the guide useless. Instead, I had to use the virtual onscreen remote to cue up my actual Dish Network program guide and browse from there, which worked fine, but required a few extra steps. If Samsung has the right info for your provider, then the system should work great. If not, you’re just plain out of luck until they fix the problem (if they fix it). Also, the remote’s lack of dedicated transport controls makes it more challenging to completely ditch your DVR remote in favor of the Smart Touch remote.

Speaking of remotes, a recent update (v3.0.0) to the SmartView iOS control app gave us a completely redesigned interface that I don’t consider to be an improvement. The screen navigation is confusing, the buttons are too small and too close together, and sometimes they simply don’t execute the desired commands. This update took the control app from being a suitable option (not exceptional but not the worst control app I’ve used) to being an exercise in frustration. Hopefully another update will arrive soon.

As cool as the TV’s stand looks, its wide footprint really needs a wide platform to rest on, and the TV sits so low in the stand that soundbar users won’t be able to simply place the bar on the countertop in front of the TV.

Competition and Comparison
As the top-shelf 1080p LCD in Samsung’s 2013 lineup, the $2,500 UN55F8000 carries a higher price tag than many other 55- to 60-inch panels. However, its price is close to that of other top-of-the-line 1080p TVs that boast similar feature sets, including the Panasonic TC-P55VT60 ($2,300), the Sony KDL-55W900A($2,300), and the LG 55LA8600 ($2,700). I’d say its closest LCD competitor is the Sony KDL-55W900A. While I haven’t reviewed that TV, I did review the more expensive Ultra HD version that shares the same core set of technologies. Calibrated performance was very close between the two, but the Samsung measures better out of the box and has better light output, and its list of features and included accessories is more robust.

Versatility is the name of the game with the UN55F8000, in both performance and features. This is an excellent all-around performer that can serve up a very attractive image in both bright and dark viewing environments without a lot of advanced adjustment required. If I were shopping for a home-theater-oriented display for a dim to dark room, I’d still lean toward a plasma like the Panasonic VT60 or maybe Samsung’s own F8500 for that nth degree of black-level improvement and contrast that’s so crucial with film content. However, for a multi-purpose room where I want to enjoy great performance day and night, it would be tough to beat the UN55F8000. Add in the very well-executed Smart Hub platform with great search tools and a great RF remote with universal control capabilities – and let’s not forget that attractive form factor – and the UN55F8000 is an easy one to recommend if you’ve got the money to spend.