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 superthin 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.
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 UNB8500 series offers good connectivity, as long as your AV system doesn't have many analog components. The highlight is four HDMI inputs, arranged vertically along the shallow connection bay on the back of the TV (note that fat cables might not fit the nearly flush sockets very well). You also get two USB inputs and an optical digital audio output on the side section of the rear input bay.
The bottom section offers a VGA-style PC input, and a single component-video input that can be converted to accept composite video instead. An RF input for antenna or cable, an optical digital audio jack, and the Ethernet port complete the picture (Samsung's optional wireless adapter is available for $80 list, or you can use a third-party wireless solution). If you need to connect more than one analog device, you'll need to use a switcher or an AV receiver.
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 the 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"?), which offer access to text messaging and Facebook messages.
For viewers seated directly in front of the screen the Samsung UNB8500 delivers the second-deepest black levels of any display we've ever tested, after the Pioneer Kuro plasma from 2008. Those excellent blacks fall off the farther you move from dead-center, however, an issue that prevented the UNB8500 from scoring even higher in this category. Aside from that, and its glossy screen, the expensive Samsung hits all the right notes, from color accuracy to video processing to fewer drawbacks in general than other LED-based displays. The entire package scored the same "9" in picture quality as the Panasonic V10 plasmas, the highest score we've awarded this year, and if it wasn't for off-angle issues, the UNB8500 would be the clear winner between the two.