News of new video technologies is dominating consumer electronics media. With all of the hype surrounding OLED and 4K TVs, it’s very hard not to get excited about the future of video. But let’s not be too eager to open our wallets for these untried technologies, especially since one of them hasn’t even hit the market yet. What will be the video quality? Will the technology live up to the marketing hype? How good or compatible will first-generation products be a year or two from now as the technology matures and next-generation software becomes available? These are great questions that early adopters rarely ask when paying premium prices to be the first on the block to own the new technology. For the rest of us, we want to know the answers to these questions and feel confident with our purchase. We want to be sure that before we spend a few thousand dollars on a reference video display, that the technology is mature and performs at its best. I strongly feel this way about Samsung’s newest reference plasma TV, the PN64F8500 ($3,499). After years of delivering great televisions, this one takes the cake.
This TV is very attractive. My eyes first landed on the base of the TV. Rather than resting on a pedestal, it has a very modern ramp-style base that curves out from the TV’s outer edges. It’s symmetrical in the front and back, and has a dark titan metal look matching that of the TV’s outer frame. When the TV is off, the screen is jet black. At under 80lbs with the stand, this must be one of the lightest 64-inch plasma TVs I’ve come across. The packaging is well thought out and all small items are contained in a master box to ensure the user doesn’t lose anything during the unpacking process.
Samsung has shifted the majority of connections to the digital realm – there are 4 HDMI and 3 USB, with one USB dedicated for a hard disk drive. The ATSC RF connection with optical audio out is for viewing over-the-air HD, and there is one composite and one component video input available with a mini-plug. A print manual provides 32 pages of information essential for setting up the TV for Smart TV applications and operating the remote control. The remaining information can be found on the TV’s on-screen e-manual which can be updated automatically along with the TVs firmware.
The TV comes with one, small, nearly buttonless remote. This is in contrast to last year’s 8-series TV that came with two remotes. Samsung has ditched the second traditional remote this year and is braving it with a Smart Touch Control Unit only. It’s relatively small and fits in the hand nicely. The most important buttons are on it (power, source, volume, channel, and menu) and all are backlit. The remaining buttons are designed around the Smart capabilities of this TV and the central swipe pad. At first I was nervous about the response of the touch pad. There seems to be an improvement with sensitivity when compared to the previous remote, and the swipes (dragging and tapping) seem to be much better. After getting used to it, it’s easy to use. So why the touchpad? Given the rise in touchpads on consumer devices (eg. smartphones, tablets), it’s no surprise that Samsung is attempting to bring TVs into the 21st century. Clicking on the “More” button, the Smart Touch remote opens a virtual remote on screen that includes a numeric keypad, channel history, hot keys to specific TV controls (eg. aspect ratio) or accounts (eg. Netflix), and the Playback Control Panel for file/media playback. While a virtual remote may sound a little strange, it was easy to use and didn’t make me miss any of the extra buttons normally found on the remote. The touchpad, while not perfect with every swipe, made remote navigation easy to use especially when navigating Samsung’s newest Smart Hub screen.
To take advantage of everything that this TV has to offer, you’ll definitely want to connect it to the internet, which can be done both through a wired or wireless connection. Last year I wasn’t so hot on the idea of my TV being connected and thought it was better to have a small computer such as a mac mini connected to the TV instead. With a redesigned Smart Hub centered on video streaming, I’ve changed my mind. The Smart Hub home page offers access to popular video streaming apps including Netflix, CinemaNow, YouTube, Skype and the Cineplex Store. There’s also plenty of room on the main page for viewers to place up 30 of their favourite apps on a single page. The Smart Hub looks much like a tablet screen, and the swipe pad on the remote used to navigate this interface feels similar to using a tablet – I enjoyed its look and feel. The Apps area is one of four groups in the Smart Hub, with the others containing Photos/Videos/Music, Movies & TV Shows (with a Samsung account) and Social for connecting with friends and watching user-created content. The PN64F8500 has a built-in internet browser – if you’re into that kind of thing – and I strongly recommend connecting the TV to your home network with a wired connection for the best experience. I found my wireless connection choking when running iTunes radio wirelessly through Apple TV in the same room while trying to start up VIMEO through Samsung’s Smart Hub.
Features carrying over from last year are voice and gesture recognition. I’m still not a big fan of either because I often found myself repeating the same voice or gesture control multiple times, to get it to work. With gesture recognition, the lighting needs to be at the right level and the camera on the top of the TV needs to aim at the seating position. In my room, I sit fairly close to the TV and the camera pointed over my head and hence didn’t capture my gestures properly. The PN64F8500 does not allow you to tilt the camera, which would be very functional. Mounting the camera on the bottom of the TV would also solve this issue. Samsung’s voice recognition has improved from last year thanks to a microphone being built into the remote control. This allows the system to hear your voice better, but if there’s any noise in the room, even from the TV speakers, I found it getting confused once in a while. Overall, I think that controlling the TV with voice commands is gimmicky and takes more effort than just pressing a button on the remote. For example to lower the TV volume with a voice command, you have to press a button on the remote to start voice recognition and say “Hi TV, Volume Down”, which lowers the volume down just one notch. It’s much more efficient just to use the volume down button on the remote.
I mentioned earlier that this TV’s screen looks very black when it’s turned off – the same can be said when the TV is turned on. Samsung touts a new super contrast panel, described on the website in a contradicting manner and not really explaining anything about the panel at all. In plain English, the TV makes bright whites and dark blacks thus increasing contrast ratio even in rooms with ambient light from windows or lamps.
Samsung recognizes that Smart TV functionality is evolving rapidly and hence gives owners the option to install a Smart Evolution Kit (a hardware/software upgrade) to prevent the TV from some level of obsolescence in the near future.
What hasn’t changed on this TV from last year’s model is the 3D capability. It comes with four sets of lightweight active 3D glasses that are powered by a CR2032 battery, so there is no need to recharge with USB cables. Just remember to turn the glasses off when done or else you will find your battery nearly depleted the next time you watch 3D. The look of the on-screen menu is the same and calibrated image modes can be copied over to the Smart Hub control for all media types.
So how does the picture look? I performed a full calibration of the PN64F8500 prior to my viewing session. For full calibration results and measurements, please visit the CANADA HiFi forum at novo.press/\forum. Watching the TV after the calibration proved that Samsung’s plasma TV technology has once again bested its previous efforts. I was astounded by the television’s deep black level. I purchased and viewed two Star Trek film Blu-ray collections for this review (the Original and Next Generation Motion Picture Collections). I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen any of these movies before, but given the hype of the newest film in theatres, I felt obliged to sit through the good and cheesy films of the past (I was an original Star Wars guy back then). After calibration, the Samsung was excellent at conveying the finest of details in the source material. The first two Star Trek films had excellent transfers and they looked brilliant on this TV. Details were incredible, colour fidelity excellent, and image contrast fantastic. Any Star Trek fan would be happy to watch these films on this TV because it could deliver the deep black of outer space, with only some dithering noticeable in shades slightly higher than black. Dithering is an artefact of all plasma displays, but how much and at what light intensities tends to differ from one manufacturer to another. This effect looks like film grain from afar so most people tend not to notice it at far viewing distances. I also watched a handful of newer films as well: Cloud Atlas looked brilliant with deep blacks and well-saturated colours; Gangster Squad conveyed a gritty, old and worn-out look from days long gone sporting brownish overtones and crushed blacks; and The Hobbit delivered the “you are there” experience that the film has been praised for. Shot on Red Epic cameras, Peter Jackson’s revision of the novel was delivered with precision by the PN64F8500. I haven’t enjoyed this movie as much on my personal TV as I did on this Samsung. Perhaps it’s time to consider a new reference video display.
On the flip side, this TV is so precise at delivering Blu-ray content, it also shows how bad Blu-ray mastering can be. Watching the Star Trek films (parts 3 to 6) wasn’t as pleasant as the first two, and the same criticism goes to the original Star Wars trilogy for their horribly outdated transfers. Compression artefacts blur the image and cause movement in the image that isn’t there in the source. When watching a reference TV like this Samsung, it’s disappointing to see that not every Blu-ray is created equally. I’ve been intentionally sitting closer to this TV than most people do for two reasons: 1) my room is small, 2) to take up a greater field of view as if watching a bigger screen. This is no fault of Samsung, in fact, you want a TV that can reproduce the best image. The best images will look outstanding on the PN64F8500, while the not-so good ones, well there’s no saving those.
Watching Life of Pi in 3D was good, but not the greatest I’ve seen. The effects of 3D are still outstanding, and when calibrated for 3D, the PN64F8500’s image looked just as stunning as it does in 2D. My only complaint is that this TV’s light level seemed to fluctuate between bright and dark by a small amount. At first I thought it was the glasses I was wearing or the angle of my head, but I tried the other sets of glasses and the same thing happened consistently throughout the film. Most viewers may not notice this, but once seen it was tough to ignore.
I would feel very confident purchasing this TV. It looks great in the room, it offers an excellent image quality, a slick menu, it’s got useful Smart TV features, and its remote control is uncluttered, functional, and cool. It’s simple to use and has many options to help you out if you unsure how to get things working, including remote support from a live technician. The Samsung PN64F8500 is a mature plasma TV and provides the best of what plasma technology can deliver today. It knows what it wants to do and it does it very well. If you’re looking for a top-notch picture quality, without investing thousands of dollars into a 4K or OLED TV, this is one TV that you should definitely look at. At $3,499 this TV is worth every penny.
Mike Osadciw is a THX/ISF
Professional Video Calibrator/Instructor with The Highest Fidelity
Samsung 8500 Series 64-inch Plasma TV (PN64F8500)
Price: $3,499 CAD