Editors' note (March 4, 2010): The rating on this product has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace, including the release of 2010 models. The review has not otherwise been modified..
If you watch football or read CNET, chances are you've noticed ads for Samsung's so-called LED TVs. The company has released three series of these super-thin LED-based LCDs so far this year, the 6000, the 7000, and the 8000 models, but it's saved the best for last. The fourth series is dubbed UNB8500, but you can remember it best as the king of LCD--for now.
Unlike the other three Samsung models, which use LED elements arranged along the edge of their screens, the company's two 8500 models employ a full array of local dimming LEDs behind the screen, yet maintain an ultraslim profile. As a result, this expensive HDTV handily outperforms its brothers and, yes, every other LCD-based display we've ever tested. It still can't match the best plasma, the legendary and discontinued Pioneer Kuro, and its off-angle picture leaves plenty to be desired, but people who claim the sweet spot in front of a Samsung UNB8500 will be treated to the most impressive flat-panel picture quality of the year.
We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 55-inch Samsung UN55B8500, but this review also applies to the 46-inch Samsung UN46B8500. The two share identical specs aside from screen size and should have very similar picture quality.
Editors' note: Many of the Design and Features elements are identical between the UNB8500 series and the UNB8000 series we reviewed earlier, so readers of the earlier review may experience some déjà vu when reading the same sections below.
The 8500 series is a sliver when seen from the side, coming in at 1.6 inches deep at its thickest point and tapering even thinner toward the edges of the panel. Samsung offers a special thin wall mount, and if you decide to keep the TV on its stand, the panel will still look pretty impressive from edge-on. From the front the set is no slouch, either. Unlike the red-tinted members Samsung's edge-lit LED line, the frame of the 8500 is basic black accented by a transparent border, which lends the whole TV a jewel-like appearance. A subtle blue power indicator, which can be disabled, provides the only touch of color on this Samsung TV.
The stand has a brushed metal surface and a transparent, swivel-topped stalk to keep the thin panel gracefully suspended above its surface and allow viewers to aim the TV toward different areas of the room--a good idea since you definitely want to remain as close to dead-center of the screen as possible.
Aside from the obvious thinness, the LEDs allow a couple other design bonuses. The UNB8500 runs a lot cooler than other LCD and especially plasma displays, and the panel itself also weighs less.
Samsung used the same menu system as last year and we still think it's one of the best. Big, highly legible text is set against transparent blue backgrounds that occupy almost the whole screen. Getting around is easy, there's helpful explanatory text along the bottom of the menus, and we liked the context-sensitive menu that provided more options depending on your current activity.
There's a different twist to the 8500's remote compared with step-down Samsung models. The included clicker features RF capability, allowing it to work without you having to aim it at the TV, or even be in the same room. RF worked great in our testing once we had "paired" the remote with the TV (a simple first step), and we really appreciated the convenience.
Another big difference is the rotating scroll wheel, an extra of which we're not big fans. While the wheel was better than it was last year, it still took a half-turn or so on most occasions to respond at first when we navigated the menu. Combined with the sluggish widgets (see below) it wasn't a user experience we appreciated. Aside from the wheel the remote is fine, with buttons that are big, backlit, and easily differentiated by size and shape. We liked the dedicated "Tools" key that offers quick access to the E-manual, picture, and sound modes, the sleep timer, and the picture-in-picture controls. We didn't like the remote's glossy black finish, however, which picked up more than its share of dulling fingerprints after a few minutes. The company also includes a small, nearly useless hockey-puck-style remote that only controls channel, volume, and power.
Samsung was the first TV maker to produce a mainstream LCD with LED backlighting, the LN-T4681F from 2007. Its successor, the LN46A950 from 2008, was a significant improvement. Both of those models offered LED backlighting helped by local dimming technology, which brightens or dims the LED elements individually across the screen depending on picture content. As a result these sets can achieve much deeper black levels--the main ingredient in a good picture--than conventional LCDs or Samsung's edge-lit models, whose backlights remain illuminated or dim all at once.
As much as local dimming helps, it's important to note that the number of LED elements behind the LCD screen still can't come close to matching the number of pixels in the LCD itself (1,920x1,080, or roughly 2.1 million), so the dimming isn't as local as it could be. Some of the elements remain lit in "black" areas, for example, which can produce visible "blooming" onscreen. In contrast, so to speak, plasma and OLED technologies can fully darken and illuminate adjacent pixels. Samsung says the 8500 has even more LED elements, or dimmable zones, than its previous local dimming models, but won't specify an exact amount. See performance for details on how all of this mumbo jumbo affects the 8500's picture quality, and how it compares to plasma.
The other big item on the 8500's spec sheet, and one that affects picture quality to a much smaller extent, is its 240Hz refresh rate. Its main benefit is better motion resolution than 120Hz models, although the difference will be nearly impossible to discern for most viewers. Unique to the UNB8500 series is an LED Motion Plus control that engages a sequential backlight scanning system to further improve motion resolution, at the expense of some light output. Samsung's Auto Motion Plus dejudder processing is also onboard, and new for 2009 it includes a nicely implemented custom setting that lets you tweak blur reduction and judder.
Interactive features: Samsung's main interactive capability is supplied by Yahoo widgets. The system gathers Internet-powered information nodules, called "snippets," into a bar along the bottom of the screen. The model we reviewed came with widgets for stocks, weather, news, and Flickr photos, plus YouTube, Yahoo video, sports scores, games, and Twitter.
New widgets include TV Guide, which features local TV listings, and Rallycast, a sort of superwidget with access to text messaging, Facebook messages, and, most interestingly, the ability to track your fantasy sports teams from a number of providers. The TV Guide widget basically duplicates the channel guide found on digital cable and satellite boxes, and unless you don't have a guide already or the one on your box's guide is particularly annoying, you probably won't find much use for this sluggish widget. The Rallycast widget worked well to display our Yahoo fantasy football team (it also supposedly works with ESPN and CBS fantasy systems, although we didn't test those), and while response time was still pretty slow, we loved being able to see our teams' scores--although not enough to pay the $15 monthly subscription fee. We didn't test the other Rallycast miniwidgets ("widgettes"?).
For more information check out our full review of Yahoo widgets. That review was based on our experiences with a Samsung UN46B7000, and our impressions of the system on the UNB8500 series are mostly the same, including its sluggish response time. It's worth noting that the widgets system on Sony and LG TVs, while more limited in terms of content, is also much more responsive.