Editors' Note, July 27, 2011: Samsung ran a promotion earlier this year that guaranteed a free pair of 3D glasses with this TV. In July the company canceled that promotion, so we have modified this review to remove references to the free glasses. Individual retailers may offer similar promotions, however. Click here for more details.
Updated September 1, 2011: The reviewed size of this TV is undergoing long-term testing, the results of which don't affect this review but may be interesting nonetheless. Click here for details.
Updated November 7, 2011: Further testing was performed on this TV to evaluate reports of "brightness pops," and we've also addressed reports of screen peeling. Click here for details.
For the last couple of years it has seemed that our job as TV reviewers comes down to determining which TV is better: the best Panasonic plasma or the best Samsung plasma. In 2011 the vessel bearing the Samsung flag is the PND8000, and while Panasonic's VT30 still deserves the nod for overall picture quality in our book, the Samsung is good enough to match the Panasonic's numeric Performance score of 9. The PND8000's picture quality is superb, and we don't expect any other TV aside from the VT30 to surpass it this year--although the less expensive PND7000 series, which we have yet to review, might equal it. The kicker, and it's a big one, is that the 59-inch Samsung PND8000 we reviewed actually costs less than the 55-inch Panasonic, while delivering a better design and even more features. Unless you're the pickiest of videophiles with the most unlimited of budgets, it's tough to justify the cost of the VT30 over the PND8000.
Series information: We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 59-inch Samsung PN59D8000, 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. That said, we've heard reports that the smaller 51-inch model may have worse black-level performance than the size we tested, although we won't know for sure until we can evaluate one ourselves.
Thinner than its Panasonic and LG counterparts and sporting a new, more compact frame around the screen, the D8000 series gets our vote for the best-looking plasma TV available. That bezel is narrower than any plasma's we've tested, outdoing the Panasonic GT30's by 0.19 inch. The bottom edge of the frame is a bit thicker (2.13 inches), but that does nothing to spoil the PND8000's LED TV-like dimensions.
The panels of the D8000 and D7000 plasmas look basically identical. Samsung's web site says their metallic frames are colored "titanium" and "brushed black," respectively, but in person we couldn't tell any difference. We do like the D7000's stand better however, with its rectangular base and transparent stalk. The D8000's chrome-colored spider stand is a great reason to get this TV wall-mounted.
The remote included with Samsung's PND8000 and UND8000 is a flipper. The top side of the wedge-shaped rectangle offers standard TV controls that shoot infrared commands to the TV, while the bottom gets a full QWERTY keypad along with a screen, and works via Bluetooth (which doesn't need line-of-sight).
Unlike our experience with the UND8000, we had no trouble this time around pairing the clicker with the PND8000 (a necessary step to enable Bluetooth). According to Samsung, the pairing issue on the UN was due to a previous pairing performed before the review sample was sent to us; since we
purchased our PN review sample directly from a merchant, rather than it being a sample sent by Samsung, its remote was never previously paired. We expect most users won't have any problems pairing.
We liked the clicker more than the QWERTY remotes included with Vizio's current models or Sony's Google TVs, but that's not saying much. The screen is its best feature, allowing you to see what you're typing without having to look up at the TV. Spacing and key action were improvements on the other two. Unlike the flipper found on Boxee, Samsung's can sense what side is "up" and automatically deactivate the "down" side to prevent accidental button presses.
While we appreciated the little thumb touch-cursor control better than Sony's when using the browser, it was still quite difficult to control. The lack of backlighting on the QWERTY side was a major flaw--using the remote in dim to no light ranged from annoying to impossible--and all told we actually liked using our Android phone as a remote best of all (see "Streaming and apps" below).
Samsung's new 2011 TV menus have been refreshed and also feel a bit snappier than before. The main column of adjustments, formerly transparent, is now bright opaque blue with rounded edges and good-size text. Each major menu item gets a text explanation and many are accompanied by helpful little illustrations.
As Samsung's highest-end plasma TV for 2011, the PND8000 comes equipped with the kitchen sink. The main step-up features compared with the less-expensive PND7000 are the remote described above, the ability to interface with the optional Skype camera, a Web browser, and a performance-related feature called Local Contrast Enhancer (LCE).
A Samsung representative described LCE to us as an enhancement to the dynamic contrast control that automatically optimizes contrast separately for different areas of the picture. We generally leave dynamic contrast disabled to avoid such on-the-fly fluctuations as much as possible, so we don't consider LCE an improvement to picture quality.
Unlike some previous Samsung plasmas, the D8000 is missing dejudder--and we couldn't care less. If you're a fan of its smoothing effect and still want a plasma, however, Panasonic has added the option to its 2011 models.
As we mentioned above Samsung no longer offers free 3D glasses with this TV. Panasonic, on the other hand, does include one pair of glasses with its flagship TC-PVT30 series plasma. Retailers may offer promotions at their discretion, but since Samsung doesn't pack the glasses in with the TV, you'll have to check with the retailer first.
The PND8000 is incompatible with Samsung's 2010 3D glasses. Bluetooth does make the new glasses easier to use, though, since they keep sync much better than the old infrared versions did.
We applaud the inclusion of built-in Wi-Fi on this Samsung (as well as the D7000 and D6500 plasmas), saving the cost and hassle of the $80 USB dongle.
Like other Nexus devices, the Galaxy Nexus has a pure Android interface that isn't muddled by a manufacturer or carrier skin. It's great for users and developers alike, as it lets Android's true appearance shine through. Developers also will love the dedicated "Developer options" in the main menu; it offers access to such features as showing CPU usage, setting a background process limit, and activating a visual feedback for the touch screen.
At the very bottom of the phone's front face sit three touch controls for moving backward through a menu, jumping to the Home screen, and opening a list of recent apps. Yes, you lose the dedicated search button that's on earlier Android phones, but that's a trait that the Galaxy Nexus inherited from Honeycomb (the search field is available in almost every native app and home screen). And as in Honeycomb, these ICS controls will fade in some apps to three points of light, until you tap them again. What's more, the controls rotate 90 degrees when you reorient the phone.
Unlike the UND6400, the PND8000 does include two separate app and widget Interfaces: the main Samsung Apps Smart Hub and, yes, Yahoo Widgets. The latter offers 43 total choices as of press time, ranging from local TV station apps to Twitter to Revision3 to eBay to NASA Live TV. We really wish a single interface could deliver all of the content to one place, but since most of the important apps can now be found in Smart Hub, we doubt most users will even access Yahoo.
Even without Yahoo, Samsung's Smart Hub seems to offer more apps than the competition. The only major missing link so far is Amazon Instant, available on Sony, Panasonic, and LG TVs.
Smart Hub is basically the same as we described on the UND6400 and on Samsung's Blu-ray players, so check out those write-ups for details. We found its interface somewhat crowded and the Search and Your Video functions, while ambitious, disappointing since neither incorporated apps like Netflix and Hulu Plus. On the plus side we liked the ability to customize our favorites area with folders--especially the ability to dump unwanted but unremovable shortcuts, like AllShare and Channel, into a folder.
Samsung's Web browser is superior to the browser in Sony's EX720 or the PS3, but not as good as Google TV's. It's fine for light use and viewing most Web pages, although complex ones (Gmail) and videos caused it to slow down, crash, or lose functionality. We tried loading Hulu.com, for example, and it simply didn't work, but reading a review on CNET was easy enough...although the video played only sound. The little pointer on the remote was a pain to use but better than tabbing around, while response times and load times were slow in general.
Samsung's remote app on our Android phone worked quite well, with excellent response times and most of the functionality we wanted. We liked the easy access to apps and the ability to input text searches using the Swype keyboard, but its best feature is changing context according to what you're doing--hitting the Smart tab, for example, brought up a simplified interface that we actually preferred to Smart Hub on the TV. Sure you have to look at the touch screen, as opposed to feeling your way with the remote buttons, but all told we liked using it better than the QWERTY remote included with the TV.
New apps launched since we reviewed the UND8000 in April include Fandango (unfortunately it lacked features found in the Vizio version, such as local theater showtimes and the ability to purchase tickets directly), Gymbox (workout videos, albeit only 3-minute previews are free), and games including Pac-Man ($4.99), Extreme Hangman, and Speed Racer ($2.99 each).
As usual Samsung provides one of the best suites of picture adjustments 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 at the expense of some black-level performance (see below).
When this review was first posted we wrote that picture settings can't be adjusted in Netflix, but that's incorrect. Calling up the Tools menu and then pressing the main menu button brings up picture adjustments in Netflix. Vudu's picture can also be adjusted, although we didn't try other services.
3D settings are the same as last year, and provide plenty of control as well. You can use the 2D-to-3D conversion system with streaming services and other sources, if you want.
Like other thin TVs, the D8000 is light on analog connections and those it does have require breakout cables (included). We'd like to see a headphone jack, but the third USB port might make up for the lack if you're using the Wi-Fi dongle and you like to stream media via USB.
“The Samsung PND8000 series has outstanding overall picture quality, with excellent black-level performance, and the most accurate color of any TV we've ever reviewed.”
Samsung's PND8000 is the best Samsung plasma we've ever tested, and the third-best of all time after the Kuro and the Panasonic VT30. Its black-level performance was very good, with the ability to produce extremely deep blacks, although it failed to resolve full shadow detail--and properly reproduce 1080p/24--when calibrated for those deep blacks. Color after calibration was, simply put, as close to perfect as we've seen on any TV, bright-room and 3D picture quality were excellent, and of course it trounced any LCD in terms of uniformity and off-angle viewing.
The 59-inch version we tested was even a hair quieter (with less audible buzzing) than last year's 50-inch PN50C8000, which itself was quiet enough that we doubt any viewer would find it irksome.
As usual we found Movie to be the most accurate of Samsung's preset picture modes, with very good gamma and color--although it measured a bit too bright for dim rooms (47 fL) with a grayscale that went from too blue in dark areas to too red in brighter ones. Thanks to Samsung's excellent user-menu controls we were able to achieve near-perfect calibration that's as close to reference as anything we've ever seen (check out the chart below). In fact it surpassed the color and gamma accuracy and linearity of our Pioneer Kuro, and we intend to use the D8000 as a reference display for color going forward.
For our evaluation we watched "Tron: Legacy" on Blu-ray and compared the Samsung with the following displays.
Black level: After the Panasonic TC-P55VT30, the Pioneer Kuro, and the Vizio XVT553SV, the Samsung PND8000 delivered the deepest black levels among our comparison models. It's easily the best non-Panasonic/Pioneer plasma we've tested in this category, getting twice as dark as the PN50C7000 and also outclassing the TC-P50GT30. As usual those deep blacks had a positive impact on many aspects of picture quality, creating the vibrant, high-contrast picture that we expect from the very best plasmas.
The black-level difference between the VT30, PND8000, and GT30 was relatively subtle even side by side in a dark room, but watching dark scenes we ended up ranking them first, second, and third place respectively among the non-Kuros. The Samsung's main issue was a lack of subtle details in some deep shadows. In "Tron" at the 12:51 and 13:05 marks, for example, Sam's black vest and the guard's black pants appeared a bit less detailed, respectively, than on our reference displays. We saw similar differences in some other shadowy areas, such as in the jungle from "Avatar" we cited in the VT30 review. The Panasonics in comparison showed full detail, albeit a bit brighter than reference, but overall we liked the look of dark areas better on the VT30.
As usual we could have sacrificed some black level on the D8000 to achieve better shadow detail, but we preferred the look of the deeper blacks. Since our gamma measurements were excellent, and we used the same test patterns and methods to set brightness and other controls affecting shadow detail, we suspect the TV might be performing some sort of on-the-fly adjustment to contrast despite our having disabled the Auto Contrast feature (and presumably LCE; see Key Features above). We can't say definitively one way or the other, however, and we noticed no other ill effects.
We also kept an eye out for "floating blacks"--an artifact in which the level of black changes abruptly enough to notice along with the brightness of the rest of the picture--but we didn't see it in "Tron" or in the close-up scenes from "I Am Legend" (Chapter 3). (Update November 7, 2011: Further testing revealed fluctuations in black level on other select material; click here for details). The D8000 does "turn off" and display a completely black image when the picture content goes dark for long enough, but this never happened during normal-length fade-outs in Movie mode in our experience.
These observations were made (and our calibration was performed) with Film Mode on the PND8000 set to Off, not CinemaSmooth. That's because CS caused a relatively large loss in black level, from 0.0071 to 0.0114 by our measure. The picture also dimmed slightly from 40fL to about 36fL, although of course a tweak to calibration (perhaps at the further expense of black level) could remedy that. See "Video processing" for more details.
Color accuracy: As we mentioned above, color was the PND8000's greatest strength and this plasma is our new reference for color accuracy. Program material bore out the excellent measurement results we achieved in calibration. In Chapter 3 (15:30) of "Tron," for example, the skin tones of Sam and Alan appeared realistic and natural without the slight green tinge of the Panasonics or the generally grayer, less saturated appearance of the LG and PNC8000. In this scene and others, we ended up preferring the color rendition of the PND8000 to that of the Kuro by a nose, although the latter appeared more saturated thanks to its deeper blacks.
The color of near-black areas was superb on the PND8000 as well, easily outdoing the others aside from the VT30, which measured a hair better at 5 percent--although the difference was tough to discern, even in our side-by-side comparison.
Video processing: While the PND8000 has the ability to handle 1080p/24 sources with proper cadence thanks to its CinemaSmooth mode (hence the "Pass" in the Geek Box below), we didn't take advantage of it. That's because engaging CS caused black levels to worsen as noted above. We asked a Samsung rep about this black-level rise and he mentioned that it was due to the need to cycle the phosphors more quickly to achieve the 96Hz refresh rate required.
In our test clip of the flyover of the Intrepid from "I Am Legend," the difference between CinemaSmooth and Off was subtle but obvious. In the former mode the movement of objects in the frame has a regular cadence, smooth but not too smooth, that we associate with film. In the latter the cadence stuttered slightly with a sort of hitching motion characteristic of 2:3 pull-down. Such differences won't be as apparent in most scenes, but sticklers who want to see the true motion of film at all times will engage CS to the detriment of black levels on this TV. The Panasonic plasmas handle film cadence without black-level loss, although each also necessitates a minor trade-off to achieve it.
As with previous Samsungs the default Auto2 Film Mode setting for 1080i sources didn't result in proper deinterlacing; we had to switch to Auto 1 to get the PND8000 to pass that Geek Box test.
Bright lighting: Compared with the VT30 the D8000's screen was a bit less reflective, doing a better job of dimming ambient highlights when we turned on the lights. While it did a worse job of preserving black levels under bright lights, it was still very good in that area (and better than any of the other plasmas in the room). We ended up slightly preferring the bright-room picture of the Samsung, but the two were very close.
PC: The PND8000 handled a full-resolution PC signal at 1,920x1,080 pixels, but we noticed some softness and interference in high-frequency test patterns and text. Still, its VGA performance was among the best we've seen for plasma TVs.
3D: The PND8000 is a very good 3D performer. It outperformed the two Panasonics at reducing crosstalk; only the UND8000 LED (which replaced the Vizio in our lineup for 3D tests) was better.
We're able to cite a few examples from "Tron." The word "1989" appearing in the intro (1:28) and the white pattern on Quorra's chest in the mirror (1:04:00) were both instances where the PND8000 showed fainter crosstalk images than the VT30 (the UND8000 was better than either). The two plasmas were basically the same in most other scenes we compared, such as the uniform sequence in Chapter 5 and the beginning of the meal scene in Chapter 9, and very close overall.
Between Movie mode on the Samsung PND8000 and THX mode on the VT30 we preferred the look of the Panasonic. It had better color accuracy to our eye, and skin tones and color looked a bit oversaturated on the Samsung. The Samsung's Movie did look a bit brighter and punchier, but it also seemed a bit too crisp and somewhat edge-enhanced, and had a bluish color palette. We assume the difference could be narrowed in calibration, but we don't calibrate for 3D at the moment.
Power consumption: Don't expect your PN59D8000 to score any points with your environmentally conscious friends. Its post-calibration watts/square inch matches the 55-inch Panasonic VT30, although by that measure the D8000 does improve upon the 2010 C8000. The relatively miserly Panasonic ST30 is the best of the plasma bunch, and as usual you'll get significantly better power savings from LED.
The default Standard mode of the D8000 (25.21fL) isn't nearly as dim as that of the VT30 (just 3.4), although if you engage the light sensor in a completely dark room the D8000's brightness drops to 7.36. The D8000's relatively brighter default picture is why the VT30's default (133 watts) uses so much less power. Both TVs qualify for the current iteration of Energy Star, for what it's worth, but we doubt the D8000 will qualify for Energy Star 5.3 when it goes into effect this September.