Picture adjustments: Samsung offers its usual myriad picture adjustments, starting with four adjustable picture modes that are all independent per input. This model also features a pair of picture modes, called "Cal-Day" and "Cal-Night, that require activation and adjustment by a qualified calibrator. Since we restrict our reviews to user-menu control options available to everyone, we didn't incorporate those two modes into our tests.
The five color temperature presets are augmented by the ability to adjust each via a custom white-balance menu. Other adjustments include three varieties of noise reduction plus an automatic setting; a film mode to engage 2:3 pull-down (it also works with 1080i sources); a seven-position gamma control that affects the TV's progression from dark to light; a dynamic contrast control that adjusts the picture on the fly; a "black tone" control that affects shadow detail; and a color space control that lets you tweak the Samsung's color gamut.
You can choose from four aspect ratio modes for HD sources, two of which let you move the whole image across the screen horizontally and vertically. As we'd expect from a 1080p TV, one of those modes, called Screen Fit, lets the UNB8500 scale 1080i and 1080p sources directly to the panel's pixels with no overscan--the best option unless you see interference along the edge of the screen, as can be the case with some channels or programs.
Other features: We appreciated the three power-saver modes, which further reduce energy use. As far as other conveniences, Samsung throws in picture-in-picture, an "E-manual" on a USB stick that displays the manual onscreen, and a customer care screen that includes the firmware version for when you need to call the company. We're also big fans of the new-for-2009 capability to get firmware updates via an online download, rather than making you go to the Web site, as was the case before. Another nice touch: the last firmware version is retained by the TV automatically, so you can return to it if you don't like the update.
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, 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.
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, which is 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.
Our standard setup of the Samsung UNB8500 began, as usual, by selecting the Movie preset, which delivered the most accurate initial picture. Like most Samsung sets we've tested this year, the grayscale in Movie's default Warm 2 color temperature preset was still relatively blue. We improved it somewhat with the user menu fine color temperature controls, but the midtones still measured a bit blue.
We're sure a professional calibration that took advantage of additional
During our calibration we noticed that, as with the LN46A950 from last year, the 8500's LED Motion Plus setting dimmed overall light output considerably, so with it engaged (see video processing below) we had to crank the backlight control to 8 out of 10 to achieve our standard 40ftl light output. That's not a big deal, however, and the TV was still capable of plenty of light output. After calibration gamma measured a respectable 2.264 versus the ideal of 2.2.
The Samsung LN8500 series begs to go up against the best TVs from this year and last, and happily we had most of them on hand for our side-by-side comparison. From the LCD camp our lineup included the local dimming Samsung LN46A950, the Sony KDL-55XBR8, and the LG 47LH90, the edge-lit Samsung UN46B8000, and the standard-backlit LN52B750. We also threw in the best plasmas from 2009 and 2008, respectively: the Panasonic TC-P50V10 and our reference Pioneer PRO-111FD. For the majority of our image quality tests we used "Watchmen" on Blu-ray.
Black level: When seen from the sweet spot directly in front of the TV, the black levels of the Samsung UNB8500 series were the darkest and most realistic of any display in our lineup, with the exception of the Pioneer plasma. The difference was obvious in our side-by-side comparison, where the 8500 beat even the superb XBR8 and the V10, its closest competitors.
The effects of its black levels showed up best in extremely dark scenes, such as when Dreiberg first steps into his apartment in Chapter 5 and the only illumination is the light from the street coming through his doorway. The shadows in the rest of the apartment, Dreiberg's silhouette, and the letterbox bars and other black areas, were inkier and deeper than all but on the Kuro. We also noticed the difference between the 8500 and the lighter displays, albeit to a lesser extent, in brighter scenes such as when Dreiberg confronts Rorschach in his kitchen. The 8500's extremely deep blacks made every scene more lifelike and enjoyable.
Shadow detail on the 8500 was superb as well, albeit not quite as realistic as on the plasmas. When the cops investigate the scene of the Comedian's murder, for example, their dark uniforms blended into the black background a bit more than we'd like to see, and although we could still make out every detail, some shadows seemed just a bit too dark given our overall gamma target. The 8500 still surpassed the other sets in this regard, however.
Like other local dimming LED-based LCDs we've tested, the 8500 evinced some "blooming," where a brighter object will bleed into a darker adjacent area, but the issue was less intrusive than on any other local dimmer we've tested. When Rorschach's flashlight illuminates the framed picture of the Comedian and Nixon in Chapter 3, for example, the light bleeds into the bottom letterbox bar to a lesser extent on the 8500 than it did on the XBR8, the A950, and the LH90. Likewise the lighter cloud around the scrolling credits or the icons and text from our PS3 was less noticeable on the 8500. Blooming was still visible, especially from off-angle, but it was never distracting. Naturally only the local dimming sets, not the edge-lit or standard LCDs, nor the plasmas, exhibited blooming.
Finally we really appreciated that the backlight on the 8500 didn't introduce noticeable fluctuations when the scene changed from dark to light and back again, as it does in the intro credits, for example.
Color accuracy: The UNB8500 scored very well in this category, albeit not up to the standards of our reference Kuro or the LG LH90. Its main issue was a slightly bluish grayscale in the midtones, which we couldn't correct with the user-menu controls without sacrificing other areas. As a result, skin tones, such as the faces of Jon Osterman and Janey Slater at the carnival in Chapter 18, or Sally Jupiter as she confronts The Comedian in Chapter 22, appeared a bit paler and cooler than on our reference display and the LG. As we mentioned, primary and secondary colors, such as the red of the blood on the Watchmen logo or the yellow of the NYC cabs, was spot-on.
Thanks mostly to the 8500's excellent black levels, colors throughout the film were beautifully saturated and lush, looking more lifelike than any of the other sets aside from the Kuro. We also appreciated that dark areas stayed relatively neutral, instead of turning bluer as they did on the LH90 and other Samsung LCDs, or (worse) greener as they did on the Sony XBR8.
Video processing: The 8500 has more processing options than any HDTV we've tested this year, but the result is superb performance in this category. We'll begin with the set's motion resolution, which came in at the full 1080 lines on our test, equaling the best plasmas we've tested (Panasonic's 2009 models, such as the V10) and surpassing the best LCDs, namely the LG LH90, the Sony XBR8, and the Samsung A950.
Samsung's UNB8500 only achieved this mark when we engaged both the Auto Motion Pro 240Hz (any position aside from "Off") and LED Motion Plus functions. Disabling the latter softened motion resolution somewhat on our test pattern, scoring the standard 240Hz mark of between 900 and 1,080 lines. Adjusting the Blur Reduction slider between 0 and 10 affected motion resolution accordingly; we preferred 10, which gave the best results. Turning off the 240Hz processing entirely left the TV at the standard LCD mark of between 300 and 400 lines, regardless of whether we engaged LED motion plus. As usual it was difficult to spot the effects of this improved motion resolution in normal program material, despite the large numeric differences seen in specialized test patterns.
Like other Samsung displays, the 8500 also includes customizable dejudder processing, and as usual it works great. We set the Judder Reduction slider under the Custom setting to 0, leaving Blur Reduction at 10, and the 24-frame look of our 1080p/24 source came through correctly. We tested both "Watchmen," during the scene when Osterman locks himself in the intrinsic field chamber in Chapter 19, and our standard "I Am Legend," where the camera flies over an aircraft carrier. In both cases the proper rate of film was preserved, without undue smoothing or the hitching motion of 2:3 pull-down.
Undue smoothing was introduced when we increased the Judder Reduction slider or selected either the Standard or the Smooth presets. Some viewers might like the effect but we didn't, and in most cases it made the film appear too much like video. We compared the Sony and Samsung's Standard modes, along with the LG's Low setting, during the camera movement at the beginning of Chapter 19, and as usual we preferred the Sony's Standard to that of the other two, mainly because it preserved some judder. Of course, the Samsung's slider lets you dial in exactly how much you want, which is a great option for tweakers who are particular about their judder.
Uniformity: The biggest weakness of LED-based LCDs comes in the arena of off-angle viewing, and the 8500 follows suit. When we moved just one couch cushion to either side, the blacks lightened considerably, becoming brighter, more washed-out, and less realistic, and taking the rest of the image quality down with them.
Even when in the sweet spot, simply hard leaning to either side caused the far edge of the screen, especially letterbox bars and other d