The expensive Samsung PNE8000 series comes through with stellar picture quality, but its main appeal is to people who crave the latest gadgetry in their plasma TV.
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 upgradeable 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 dongle 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.
Aside from Smart Interaction, the other major step-up difference between the PNE8000 and the significantly less 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 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. Lack of buttons also necessitated selecting from annoying onscreen mini menus for things 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, too many promotional keys are onboard (e.g., 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 touchpad.
Samsung includes a Bluetooth-powered IR blaster that allows the TV to directly control a cable box and/or Blu-ray/DVD player. 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 to the TV via Bluetooth took forever; it took three tried to get the right channel lineup; the TV mistakenly said "source not connected" even though my player was plugged in), many direct commands (like a link to my DVR's reecorded programs) are unsupported and, worst of all, I had to use the balky Touch remote for everything which meant fiddling with on-screen menus instead of hitting buttons directly. There's also 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.
Samsung finally ditched the gray frame color for actual black and thinned the frame a hair or two compared to 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.
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. A VGA-style PC input is a no-show, however.
Like all Samsung 3D models, and unlike other major-brand TVs that use active 3D technology, the PNE8000 actually includes 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 look exactly the same -- the main difference is that the 2012 glasses support the universal standard, so they should actually work with so-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.
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.