Samsung may be eating everyone else’s lunch when it comes to LED/LCD TVs, but that doesn’t mean the company has backed away from the basics, and by that I mean plasma. With few exception, plasma TVs produce better pictures than any other available flat panel TV technology (OLED TVs of substantial size haven’t hit the market yet). That said, this Samsung 8000 series plasma is anything but basic. It includes every advanced feature the company could throw at it—some you’ll probably love, and some you may throw back.
We’ve seen so many acrylic accents, floating bezels and other attempts to make TVs look like more than just big chalkboards. The Samsung PN51E8000 sports a conservative black bezel with a clear acrylic accent, which looks wide compared to the pencil-thin bezels of LED TVs. The TV is 1.8 inches at its thickest point and weighs 52 pounds with the stand. The X-shaped stand allows the TV to be swiveled left and right. It actually feels a little wobbly on the stand, so I recommend hanging it on a wall or attaching to table mount.
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On the back you get three HDMI ports, one with an audio return channel (HDMI 2), so make sure this is the one you connect to your receiver if you want to use the streaming content features. If your receiver doesn’t support ARC, then you can get the TV’s audio out via the optical port. The third HDMI port supports Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL) which allows you to connect a compatible (i.e. Samsung) smart phone or tablet to your TV to display the mobile device’s screen on the TV.
In addition to the digital ports, you get component and composite for connecting older gear like a Wii.
Something else you’ll notice on the back is a slot for an Evolution Kit. This is a neat concept Samsung came up with to give you a little peace of mind regarding obsolescence. If you’re worried about new features coming out on next year’s TV, you can buy the Evolution Kit which will make this TV do whatever new tricks next year’s TV can do.
On the front top of the TV you’ll see something that looks like a PC web camera mounted in the bezel. That’s exactly what it is. This camera allows the TV to be controlled by hand gestures, do face recognition and make video calls. More on those things later.
Like most of Samsung’s new TVs, this one does 3D and comes with two sets of very slim and light active shutter glasses.
Samsung is pushing the entire TV industry forward on innovation lately, but this TV is among the most innovative due to how it integrates new control methods. We’ve written before about how the traditional remote control may be going away over the next few years. You can control this TV with a standard remote, a Smart Touch remote, a Bluetooth keyboard or by waving your hands and shouting (well, not shouting exactly). There’s also an app, of course.
For this review I’ll skip over the standard remote—it’s a remote, you know how those work—and start with the Smart Touch control. This is a squat little Bluetooth remote with only a few buttons (power, volume, channel and Smart Hub). Most of the remote’s face is taken up with a touchpad area. It’s also got a microphone for using the voice control feature, but the TV has its own mic for voice control. The touchpad on the remote makes some onscreen navigation of the Smart Hub features (and web browsing) a little easier, but it wasn’t always very responsive. I found myself reaching for the regular remote frequently.
Next up is voice recognition. The TV’s built-in microphone allows you to speak some basic commands to control the TV. If you’ve used Apple’s Siri on an iPhone 4S you know that voice control can be cool, but has a long way to go. That’s the same way I feel about it on this TV. To launch the voice feature you need to speak the trigger words “Hi TV.” Then a picture of a microphone pops up on screen and you have a couple seconds to give your command to turn up the volume, change the channel, switch inputs or launch the things like the Smart Hub. The problem is that it doesn’t always work, so you end up saying “Hi TV” over and over until it’s just easier to find the remote. When it works, it’s neat, but it’s unrefined. It also feels a little silly. Like most things though, it feels less silly as you get used to it.
Feeling even sillier is gesture control. Gesture control relies on the camera built into the TV, and perhaps Samsung needs to upgrade the quality of the camera. To get the TV’s attention you need to wave your hand in front of it. When it works, you can then use your hand to move a cursor around, adjust the volume and a few other features. Unfortunately the camera seems to need a ridiculous amount of light to make the feature work. My living room isn’t dark, but it’s not office-level bright either. Even with the curtains open and all the lights on, the gesture function was inconsistent. My daughter wanted to try the gesture-controlled Angry Birds game and figured out that she could aim a camping lamp directly at herself to solve the problem. Of course, that really solves nothing for someone who just wants to watch TV. Remember, most people like to watch TV in the evening in a dim room.
Here’s another strange thing I noticed: the TV would randomly turn itself on when no one was in the room. This happened about three times. My kids got a little spooked by it, but I told them the TV was probably responding to our dog’s wagging tail. We tried to teach him to turn down the volume too, but without success.
Most of the smart gesture controls are for operations directly on the TV, but people get their TV programs from a cable box, so Samsung includes an IR blaster that allows you to control your cable box with gestures or voice.
Samsung also sent along a Bluetooth keyboard that includes a small touchpad. For Smart Hub and web browsing, this was great, but if you don’t plan to use things like Facebook, Twitter or the web browser then the keyboard isn’t that important.
Aside from the control issues, Samsung continues down the smart road with a load of smart TV internet content. You find all the standard services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Skype (remember, the TV has its own camera) plus tons of games and other things. A Fitness section within Smart Hub features work-out videos that will track your progress. You can use the mirror feature of the built-in camera to compare your form to that of the on-screen instructor. My teenage daughter spent lots of time doing aerobics in front of the TV and noted that it offers much better work-outs than any Wii programs.
On to picture controls. Right away I switched the TV into movie mode and was impressed. This Samsung offers and excellent picture experience with very little effort. I spend some time tweaking it with a variety of test patterns, but I didn’t need to do a lot to be satisfied. You’ll want to make sure some of the extraneous features, like Eco Solution, Dynamic Contrast and Noise Reduction are turned off, because those can cause more harm than good. Unlike with an LED TV, you don’t have to worry about those pesky 120Hz motion smoothing features that can corrupt your movie viewing. Black level and color accuracy were both excellent—nearly the best I’ve seen this year.
While I always suggest that people at minimum use a soundbar rather than the TVs speakers, if you insist on not using a separate sound system, you won’t be too disappointed at the Samsung’s built-in speakers. Sure, there’s not much in the way of bass, but the sound had a full, well-rounded quality to it.
The TV’s 3D performance was also excellent. The included glasses were light, but not rechargeable, so you may need to stock up on little batteries. Unlike TVs that use passive glasses, you get full 1080p resolution in each eye. Crosstalk was minimal to non-existent.
While some of the features on this TV may seem like gimmicks (and I didn’t cover all of them), there’s no question that this is one of the most advanced TVs on the market. When you combine that with the upgrades possible from the Evolution Kit, and the fact that the Smart Hub apps can be expanded until your run out of memory, this is a TV that’s much much more than just a screen.
51-inch diagonal screen
3 HDMI inputs
3 USB inputs
1 component/composite input
Optical audio output
2 3D glasses included
Streaming media apps