Editors' Note: The CNET Editors' Rating factors in a new Value score that joins Design, Features, and Performance in our ratings calculations for TVs. In the case of the Samsung PNE8000 series, the Value score is 5.
The Samsung PNE8000 is easily the most full-featured plasma TV on the market; no other can touch its sheer doodad-ification. It's the opposite of a "dumb monitor," building in not only the most app-happy Smart TV suite available, but also voice and gesture control, account sign-in via facial recognition, a camera, a microphone, an upgradable dual-core processor, and a beefed-up Web browser. Its box is also accessory-packed, from the second touch-pad remote to the Bluetooth IR blaster to the two pairs of active 3D glasses. It's as if Samsung took every feature that could possibly appeal to anyone and added a few more.
Samsung didn't neglect the picture quality of its flagship plasma, either -- in short, it's spectacular. That brings up an interesting question, one I suspect most buyers who fell asleep during the paragraph above might be wondering (when they wake up). "Can I get that same picture quality, minus a boatload of doodads, in one of Samsung's less expensive plasmas, namely the PNE7000 or PNE6500 series?" Last year the answer was yes. This year the jury is out until I review those two, but at least one sign already points to yes, and I know for a fact that a model like the Panasonic ST50, which also earned a 9 in picture quality, offers better bang for the buck. But if you have money to burn and want as "loaded" a plasma TV as you can get, the PNE8000 series is your boy.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 60-inch Samsung PN60E8000, but this review also applies to the other screen sizes in the series. All sizes have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality.
If not for the funky splay-legged, chrome-plated stand, the PNE8000 would have the best styling of any plasma TV I can remember. Samsung finally ditched the gray frame color for actual black and thinned the frame a hair or two compared with the "D" models from last year. The transparent edge is even narrower and sleeker, and next to the ST50, the whole package is more refined and classier by a solid notch. Like most modern panels it's thin, too; our 60-inch review sample measured just 1.9 inches deep.
Samsung's 2012 TV menus look the same as last year and remain among the easiest to use. They're bright opaque blue with rounded edges and good-sized text. Each major menu item gets a text explanation, and I noticed really snappy response time despite constant animations.
Aside from Smart Interaction (see below), the other major step-up difference between the PNE8000 and the significantlyless expensive PNE7000 is the remote control. In addition to a standard clicker, there's another that omits numerous buttons in favor of a touch pad that's supposed to ease navigation of the menus and Smart TV functions, especially the Web browser. It's a great idea in theory, and I loved that its Bluetooth connectivity meant I didn't need a line of sight to the TV.
In practice the touch pad is frustrating to use, alternating between too twitchy and unresponsive. The clicker is denuded of most buttons, relegating the number pad to a kludgy onscreen version and eliminating the Menu key altogether. The lack of buttons also made it necessary to select from annoying onscreen mini menus for functions as basic as Pause, Menu, and Chapter Skip. In short, I'm not a fan, and defaulted to using the standard clicker when I could. For using the browser, the pad is better than gesture control, but not by much.
I ended up using the normal remote whenever possible, although it's still not very good. The grid of buttons lacks sufficient differentiation, there are too many promotional keys (such as "Family Story" and Camera), and the central Smart Hub button is annoyingly just a logo. At least there's full backlighting, a feature absent from the Touch remote.
I also tested Samsung's optional wireless keyboard with touch pad ($99). Its touch pad is much more responsive than the one on the remote, and the full-sized QWERTY keyboard makes data input a cinch (but not in the dark; again, there's no backlight). Unless you're intending to use the browser extensively, however, it's not worth getting.
The Kitchen Sink award for 2012 goes to Samsung PNE8000 plasma and UNES8000 LED TVs. I doubt any TVs that are more feature-festooned will appear this year, so this plasma deserves its 10 in this category.
Samsung includes a battery-powered Bluetooth-to-IR blaster that allows the TV to directly control a cable box or Blu-ray/DVD player or both. The idea is to use voice and gesture commands, as well as the touch-pad remote, with these external devices. It's a nice idea but when I tried it with a DirecTV HR24 satellite box and LG BD690 Blu-ray player, it didn't work nearly as well as third-party universal remotes like Harmony.
Setup was tedious (pairing the blaster with the TV via Bluetooth took forever; it took three tries to get the right channel lineup; the TV initially said "source not connected" even though my player was plugged in), many direct commands (like a link to my DVR's recorded programs) are unsupported, and, worst of all, I had to use the balky Touch remote for everything, which meant fiddling with onscreen menus instead of hitting buttons directly. There's also no way to control an external audio device yet (so Volume and Mute affect only the TV) and power is not switched automatically. When I went from using the Blu-ray player to watching TV, the player remained turned on and spinning, whereas any decent universal remote automatically switches off devices that aren't in use.
The PNE8000 is the only 2012 Samsung plasma to get the company's dual-core processor, and the only plasma that can be upgraded via the Smart Evolution feature. Samsung says the TV's processor and memory can be swapped out and upgraded at a later date (as early as 2013) and for an unspecified fee to allow improved functionality.
Otherwise the PNE8000, PNE7000, and PNE6500 share very similar feature sets, and according to Samsung there shouldn't be much picture quality difference between the three. All offer a 1080p/24-friendly CinemaSmooth mode, the same Real Black Pro screen filter, and the same plasma panels. An engineer told me that the dual-core processor on the E7000 and E8000 might improve color accuracy to a certain extent, but I doubt it's major.
Samsung goes one better on TVs that have built-in Wi-Fi, allowing its sets to act as wireless access points. I really liked this extra since, if you take the time to run Ethernet to your living room to connect to the TV, you can get an additional WAP there to provide your nearby wireless devices with a stronger signal.
Like all Samsung 3D models, and unlike other major-brand TVs that use active 3D technology, the PNE8000 actually comes with 3D glasses: two pairs are packed into every box. The specs that came in my review sample's box were actually the SSG-3050GBs from 2011, not the newer Samsung SSG-4100GBs from 2012. Both retail for a scant $20 and they look exactly the same -- the main difference is that the 2012 glasses support the universal standard, so they should actually work with universal-certified 3D TVs like 2012 Panasonics. I don't have access to a set of SSG-4100GBs, so I couldn't test interoperability by press time. I also wouldn't be surprised if Samsung began packaging the newer glasses with its 3D TVs later in the year -- but for now, I was told all 2012 TVs will come with the non-universal 2011 glasses.
Smart Interaction: Smart Interaction is Samsung's unique new feature that makes use of the built-in camera and microphone to attempt to recognize your gestures and voice so you can control and interact with the TV. It's found on this plasma as well as Samsung's UNES7500 and UNES8000 LED TVs. I've already written an extensive hands-on about the voice and gesture command system, so I'll just quote from there:
"My takeaway? Smart Interaction has promise but feels half-baked and more like a gimmick than a compelling upgrade. Once the novelty wears off, its usefulness is limited (at best) to those times you don't have a remote in-hand."
For more check out my in-depth hands-on review or video. I didn't test the facial recognition feature, which is designed to automatically log different family members into their Smart TV profiles.
Smart TV: With the exception of Google TV, Samsung's Smart TV platform is the most content-rich and capable on the market. Its big Achilles' heel, aside from its cluttered interface, is lack of Amazon Instant, a service found on Panasonic, Sony, and Vizio TVs, but not LG this year.
Otherwise the available content is superb. The big standout is HBO Go, available on no other TV so far (it's not available on the 2012 models yet, however; Samsung confirmed it would be but couldn't specify a time frame). It joins just about every other mainstream non-Amazon video service, as well as numerous niche video options and 3D-specific app. There's no traditional Internet radio app like vTuner or Shoutcast, but you do get Pandora and subscription music via Mog. Compare the major TV makers' app selections here.
The company's TV app store is the biggest outside Google's, with offerings like MTV Music Meter and ESPN ScoreCenter as well as umpteen less-impressive paid and free games, educational apps, screensavers, and so on. Skype takes advantage of the built-in camera and mic, as does a simple Camera app that you can use to, uh, save pictures of you sitting on your couch.
Samsung also has a few relatively rich proprietary apps, like Family Story, which is a way to "share photos, memos, and family events stored in the cloud," Fitness and Kids (both with custom VOD), and a Social TV app combining Facebook, Twitter, and Google Talk in a bar alongside live TV. There's also a new AllShare Play app coming soon to enable the TV to grab files from the cloud. Samsung boasts the best browser we've tested on any TV, although it's still slower and more frustrating to use than the browser on a laptop, tablet, or phone.
Our favorite proprietary app is Your Video, because it features a cross-app search that can now hit Netflix in addition to Vudu. HBO Go and Hulu Plus don't show up in its results, however, and neither do your own TV listings. It shows other information too, like biographical and production notes, acting as a sort of IMDB Lite. There's a separate "search all" option that hits local files (DLNA/AllShare), Your Video, YouTube, Facebook, Samsung Apps, history, and the Web browser -- and happily you can disable any of those search targets.
I complained that Samsung's interface was too crowded and overwhelming this year, and that's still the case. You can only customize the bottom half, and even then many of the icons can't be deleted. While response time was generally speedy, I did encounter a few hitches and some balkiness even despite the dual-core processor (and I bet the single-core Smart TVs run noticeably slower). I prefer the simpler look and customization of Panasonic's interface, for example, but there's no denying that Samsung's is more advanced.
Picture settings: As in previous years Samsung provides one of the best picture adjustment suites for both 2D and 3D sources, delivering extras like a 10-point grayscale and superb color management that many TVs lack. There's also a CinemaSmooth setting in the Film Mode menu that engages a 96Hz refresh rate to properly handle 1080p/24 sources (this year it doesn't hurt black-level performance; see below). Full adjustments are also available in Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Vudu; I couldn't test the absent HBO Go, however.
Connectivity: The back panel includes three HDMI ports, which is one fewer than last year and may necessitate employment of an external HDMI switch or AV receiver in more elaborate home theaters. There's a single component/composite-video input and, unlike last year, it doesn't require use of a breakout cable. There's no VGA-style PC input, however.
“It's as if Samsung took every feature that could possibly appeal to anyone and added a few more.”
The Samsung PNE8000 is the best-performing Samsung TV I've ever tested, outdoing the D7000/D8000 from last year with its darker black levels and earning a 9 in this category. It also showed superb color accuracy, although not quite as good as those sets. That said, I still prefer the picture of the Panasonic ST50 by a nose, due to the E8000's slightly less impressive shadow detail and slightly worse bright-room performance. With 3D sources the E8000 is clearly superior to the Panasonic, however.
Black level: The PNE8000 tied the superb ST50 for darkest shade of black in the room aside from the two Elite TVs (Sharp and Pioneer), clearly outblacking last year's Samsung plasma and, to a lesser extent, the VT30. It's worth noting that the latter two were aged and so showed different black levels from their initial readings, but even comparing initial measurements, the two 2012 plasmas are darker. The PN60E8000 has the best 0 percent measurement of any plasma TV I've tested aside from the Kuro, although without an instrument it's difficult to see -- even post-calibration in a dark room side-by-side -- that it's darker than the ST50.
Nonetheless the E8000 often gave the impression of a higher-contrast picture than the ST50. That's because near-black areas were darker on the E8000. One example in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" came at 5:56, where the silhouetted pants and jacket of Oskar's grandmother, as well as the shadowed trees in the background, were all markedly darker compared with the rest of the TVs.
I actually preferred the way the ST50 and the other TVs handle dark scenes, however, because those darker near-blacks obscured shadow detail. At the 5:22 mark, for example, a shot of Central Park at night revealed even less of the trees than on the Samsung D7000, whose shadow detail I complained about last year, and compared with the others it looked downright murky. Oskar's jacket at 6:04 was also robbed of some detail. The issue persisted in brighter scenes too, for example, in Thomas' leather jacket on the swing set (25:05), although it was less obvious.
I was also a bit annoyed to see that in fades to black, the screen of the E8000 turned off completely, a behavior typically associated with LCDs and not plasmas. It does so more quickly than the PN59D7000 -- fast enough that the black screen flashed off and on distractingly during the black fades at the beginning of "Watchmen," for example. Neither the Sharp Elite nor the other plasmas turned off when fed black screens.
It's also worth noting that the 60-inch E8000 couldn't get as bright as the 55-inch ST50, maxing out at 30 FL in Movie mode and making it unable to achieve our target of 40. Larger plasmas are generally dimmer, but even so I expected the E8000 to get brighter. Last year's 59-inch Samsungs had no trouble getting to 40 in Movie mode.
Two issues from last year -- brightness pops and a black-level rise in 1080p/24 material -- didn't arise in my testing. I checked "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" for pops as seen on the 2011 D8000 and D7000 plasmas and in neither case did the PNE8000 pop at the picture settings I used for the review (due to what I saw in 3D testing, below, I have a hunch that Samsung may have intentionally limited light output to cure the "pops"). Black levels remained nearly identical regardless of whether 1080p/24 (CinemaSmooth) mode was engaged.
Color accuracy: Although it couldn't deliver the reference-level charts seen on the 2011 Samsung plasmas, the color of the E8000 looks great in person, too. In our lineup it did look a hair cooler or bluer in skin tones, like the faces of Oskar and Stan in the lobby (10:00) and Oskar doing research (19:53), and saturation in areas like Oskar's bright orange sweater seemed just a bit more muted than on our reference D7000, the ST50, and the Sharp Elite. These differences wouldn't be noticeable outside a side-by-side comparison, but they're enough to prevent the E8000 from earning a place as our new color reference.
Video processing: I have no complaints in this area. As I noted above, the biggest improvement from last year is the fact that engaging CinemaSmooth, which worked well to impart correct film cadence with 1080p/24 sources in our tests, didn't cause any appreciable loss in black-level performance.
As with previous Samsungs, the default Auto2 Film Mode setting for 1080i sources didn't result in proper deinterlacing; I had to switch to Auto 1 to get the PNE7000 to pass that test.
Bright lighting: Although it was very good, the screen of the Samsung plasma didn't perform quite as well overall as that of the ST50 in brighter rooms. Reflections, although better-controlled than on the Elite, looked a bit brighter on the PNE8000 than on the ST50 and D7000. The difference would be difficult to discern outside of a side-by-side comparison. More noticeable was the fact that it didn't preserve black levels as well in overhead lighting as did the ST50 or the Sharp Elite.
3D: The PN60E8000 is a very good 3D performer, handily beating the ST50 in this area. I compared it using "Hugo" in the same lineup as above, minus the 2D Kuro and including the UN55D8000, our current reference 3D TV, and the passive 3D-equipped LG 55LM9600. As usual I used the TVs' default Cinema, Movie, or THX modes; I don't currently calibrate for 3D.
The Samsung's biggest advantage over both Panasonics was in the area of crosstalk reduction. Crosstalk-prone areas, like Hugo's hand as it reaches for the toy mouse (5:01), the tuning pegs on the guitar (7:49), and the face of the dog as it watches the inspector slide by (9:24), looked cleaner and with a much less noticeable double image on the PNE8000 than on the VT30 and the ST50. The Samsung wasn't appreciably better than the D7000 in these scenes, however, and its crosstalk was still slightly worse than that of the UND8000 and the LG.
The E8000's color in those default settings was also punchier and more accurate -- with less of a blue tinge in dark areas especially -- than that of the ST50. Of course any of these differences could change with a calibration in 3D. I did not test 2D-to-3D conversion.
I did notice one unwelcome artifact, however, which seemed like the brightness pops of last year but only in 3D mode. At 4:10 (a shot of Hugo through a white clock face) and immediately after at 4:12 (Méliès at rest) the image got quickly brighter and then darker again. On a hunch, knowing that the 3D images are markedly brighter than 2D, I reduced the Cell Light control from the Mobie default of 20 to 13 and, yes, those particular pops disappeared. I tried 15 and the 4:12 pop disappeared, but the 4:10 one remained. The moral, as far as I can tell, is that brightness pops are directly related to light output. Perhaps that's why Samsung limited the light output of this set in 2D mode (see above) compared with last year's model.
The glasses were comfortable enough as long as I left my regular glasses off. They didn't fit well over my medium-sized prescription lenses, however, ending up perched far out on the end of my nose. If I were to do much 3D watching on this TV, I'd wear my contact lenses or (more likely) have to invest in another set of 3D glasses.
Power consumption: [Note that this test and all of the chart numbers below only apply to the 60-inch PN60E8000, not any of the other sizes.] As usual for a plasma, the PNE8000 series uses quite a bit of energy, but the numbers below don't tell the whole story. The results for "calibrated" are skewed lower because the TV can only achieve 30 Fl maximum light output after calibration. If it could match the 40 FL light output of the other sets on the comparison chart, I'm guessing it would move closer to last year's PN59D7000 on the comparison chart. One other note: the default Standard mode doesn't employ the ambient light sensor by default.
This year, due to the hard cap of 108 watts for any size TV imposed by Energy Star's 5.3 specification, nearly all 60-inch and larger Samsung plasmas fail to earn the blue sticker, as do the 51-inch members of the E8000 and E7000 series.
Editors' note: CNET has dropped TV power consumption testing for 60-inch or smaller LCD- and LED-based TVs because their power use, in terms of yearly cost, is negligible. We will continue to test the power use of larger LCD or LED models, as well as all plasma OLED models.