Samsung may put all its marketing push behind its LED TVs, but of all of last year's flat-panel sets, its plasma models were the most impressive in terms of picture quality and overall value for money. This year's model, the PS51F8500, is even brighter, and packs improved smart TV and voice control features.
You can buy it online for around £1,850, which means it's still fairly reasonably priced by high-end TV standards as. It compares favourably with its LED counterpart, the UE55F8000, which comes in at around £2,599 -- although it also offers an extra 4 inches of screen space.
The F8500 is the premium model in Samsung's plasma lineup, so as with last year's TVs you can control it with your voice or by waving your hand around. It also comes with two remotes: a traditional zapper and a touchpad remote with a built-in mic, in case you don't fancy raising your voice to get the TV itself.
You have to say a trigger phrase to get the TV to respond to you, unless you use the touchpad remote, in which case it'll start listening to you as soon as you press the mic button on the zapper.
You can use either "Hi TV", or the slighty less chummy "Smart TV" as your trigger phrase, but you can't choose your own. The trigger phrase is necessary to stop the TV from responding to dialogue in TV shows or movies, but every now and again the set still automatically triggers itself. To be fair, this happens rarely, so it's not a massive annoyance.
Samsung has also improved the voice recognition system so it's able to have a stab at understanding natural speech. As well as saying "Channel Up" and "Channel Down", or "Volume Up" and "Volume Down", you can now also tell it to open Netflix or ask it what films are coming up today. Essentially, it's now using a similar system to S-voice on the company's Android phones.
Unfortunately it still doesn't work very well, frequently misinterpreting what you're asking it to do. Also, every time you trigger the voice-recognition system you have to wait a couple of seconds before it's ready to listen to the command you want it to perform.
As a reviewer, I had to stick with the voice recognition system to give it a fair crack at proving its worth, but it really is difficult to get good results from it -- even if you use the mic on the touchpad remote rather than the onboard mic built into the TV.
Samsung really wants the voice recognition system to be one of this TV's wow factors, but its still just not good enough. I can see the vast majority of people throwing in the towel after trying it out a few times -- such is the frustration you feel when it doesn't respond correctly.
Samsung has added a better camera to this model, compared to the one integrated on last year's smart TVs. It now uses a 5-megapixel sensor to improve general performance and tracking in low light. The camera can also be pushed down into the TV's chassis when you don't want to use it, or if you're worried about security.
Unlike the camera on Panasonic's VT65, however, there's no automatic release mechanism for when you open camera-enabled apps like Skype. Instead, you have to get up from your seat and push on it to release the catch to get it to pop up.
To give the TV notice that you want to use its motion control feature you have to raise your hand and wave it over and back with your open palm facing the TV. It then displays a cursor onscreen that you can control by moving your palm around. To make a selection you hover over an icon and then scrunch your hand up, which acts much like clicking a mouse button.
The motion tracking is still very problematic, however. I had trouble getting it to respond to the waving trigger even during daylight hours, or at night with lights turned on -- it simply refused to respond on most occasions.
When it does actually work, it's slightly more accurate at tracking your movements and the user interface has improved, making it easier to control the TV via motion. There's now Minority Report-style swiping gestures to flick through pages in the smart TV menu, negating the need to tap through all the icons one at a time. The camera can also now track two hands simultaneously, so you can zoom in and out on pictures by stretching your hands apart or bringing them closer together and you can rotate images by rotating your two hands, which is very cool.
The problem remains though, that holding your hand up to control the TV feels a bit unnatural and becomes uncomfortable after a short while. I did try to persevere with the motion controls, but they're just not reliable or useful enough to really be worthwhile, so eventually I gave up and largely relied on the more intuitive -- and much improved -- touchpad controller that ships with the TV.
User interface and EPG
The basic user interface for adjusting the TV's picture and audio controls barely differs from that on last years' models -- there's nowt wrong with that though. The menus still look great with clear easy-to-read text, simple sliders and switches, and good looking, colourful icons. There's also a hints box giving you a short explanation of what each function does, which stops you having to refer to the manual.
The EPG hasn't changed much from the one that appeared on last year's models either, but that's no bad think -- it's still top notch. Its presentation is colourful and clean, and there's a video window in the top left-hand corner so you can still keep watching the show you're tuned to while having a gander through the EPG. The EPG now integrates with the smart TV features too, so you can draw suggestions of what to watch when you open the smart TV menu.
Design and connections
The PS51F8500 definitely looks high end,hanks to its gun-metal grey finish. The elliptical stand is certainly different, even if it won't be to everyone's taste. Unlike traditional pedestal stands it extends the full width of the TV, so your entertainment unit is going to have to be at least as wide as the TV, or else the stand will awkwardly hang over the edges.
The stand also doesn't swivel, which is a pain. As it's a plasma screen this TV is pretty heavy and not easy to move around on its base. Nevertheless, the way the stand is fully integrated with the set gives the F8500 a very sharp and futuristic look.
Samsung has also come to its senses and put four HDMI ports on this model rather than the three that graced last year's E8000. There are also three USB ports, as well as built-in Wi-Fi and Ethernet. The TV has dual tuners onboard for both Freesat HD and Freeview HD, meaning if you plug a USB drive into one of its ports you can use it as a full blown PVR. The dual tuners mean you can record one show while watching another.
Other connection options include a digital optical audio out, so you can send audio from the tuners to external amps that don't support HDMI and a set of component inputs. There's also an AV socket that you can use with a supplied breakout cable to hook up older kit such as video recorders or DVD players to the TV. Oddly, though, the F8500 doesn't have a headphone socket.
As well as making changes to the way you control the TV, Samsung has also completely changed the look and feel of its smart TV system. Whereas before everything was pretty much dumped together on a single homescreen, the company has now split it up into themed pages, or hubs. It looks much neater, and the graphical 3D effects as you move between pages makes the whole thing feel a good deal slicker. Essentially the interface now feels more like something that you'd use on a tablet, and is undoubtedly the best looking system on any smart TV at the moment.