The Samsung BD-E8500A offers smooth TV and disc video performance with perhaps the best set of "smart" features available
Samsung's BD-A8500A delivers movies from disc, but also incorporates a 500GB twin tuner PVR. It's well built — weighing a decent 3.2 kilograms, and its design quite attractive.
It has a perfectly adequate remote for normal use, but as a smart unit, it may be better suited to homes that are largely in the Android eco-system — specifically the Samsung one — rather than in iOS. For example, there are features that are simply too much of a pain to use without a better interface than what is provided by the standard remote control, and while there is an Android app, there appears to be none for iOS.
The output facilities are basic, as is the norm these days. Just the barest minimum of analog (stereo audio and composite video) and one HDMI. But new media is supported with front and rear USB sockets. The manual, weirdly, says that you need to use the front USB for persistent storage for BD-Live operation. That's wrong. A 2GB space is reserved on the hard disk for this purpose.
For Blu-rays and DVDs, the unit is practical and fast. It uses a slot type disc loader, which seemed to grab the disc gently, but firmly, and was quick to eject it again when you hit the button. There is a row of touch sensitive spots on the front panel for control.
The picture quality was generally very good, but not state of the art. No problems with regular Blu-ray discs, but some content on 1080i50 movie discs and on Australian DVDs tricked the processing into thinking it was video-sourced rather than film-sourced, generating visual artefacts. You can set the film/video detection to video or to auto, but not to film, which would have overcome this.
Still, most discs played without this visual problem, and it is so common anyway that many viewers are inured to it.
Samsung's “Smart Hub” page is the centrepiece of its internet-based functions. A few things are installed on this, but you can add many more via the ”Samsung Apps” page. This is divided into categories, all of which are reasonably well populated. For example, under ”Sports” there are seven apps.
There are kids' games, Twitter and Facebook (although, I couldn't get that one to work), Samsung's music player, which provides access to lots of music for free — so long as you only want to hear the first thirty seconds of each track. There are about 30 video-streaming apps, including YouTube, Vimeo, BBC News and so on, plus ABC iView, and SBS On Demand for catch-up, but there is no catch-up service for commercial Australian TV stations yet. Though, these things are being updated all the time.
As a test, we downloaded one of the two Australian-focused sports apps: the BigPond NRL Game Analyser (replace NRL with AFL for the other one). When you're doing this, a ”Memory Usage” bar on the screen shows that a total memory of a little under 800MB was available. This app uses about 3.5MB. Facebook uses 6.7MB.
The app allows you to jump to all the highlights (scoring plays, errors, fouls, penalties and so on) shown in streaming video (you can select one of three qualities, depending on your connection). It covers all games in four competitions (including State of Origin) for 2010, 2011 and 2012, and will work for 2013 and on as they are played. When people talk about interactive TV — this is the real deal.
Use of Bigpond apps is unmetered for those who use Bigpond as their ISP. Likewise, Bigpond Movies — which isn't cheap to watch streamed — is unmetered. If you prefer, you can sign up with Quickflix for its pay-per-view service.
While we whinged before about lack of support for iOS, you can use features that require text entry quite easily by just plugging in a cheap USB keyboard.
The biggie feature in this unit is the twin tuner PVR. There really isn't a lot to say about this. It worked, it worked smoothly and the quality was fine. And with a 500GB hard disk, you ought to have plenty of capacity.
If we were in charge of Samsung, we'd make two small changes. First, the unit should ask for confirmation before stopping recording when you hit the Stop button. Second, it'd be nice if the unit could be set to buffer whatever video you're watching continuously, rather than having to be invoked (by pressing the Pause key.) If you do remember to hit Pause and then Play, then at any time, you can rewind live TV up to 90 minutes.
The unit supports DLNA media from your network and also plays media from USB. It covers lots of formats, but is a little tricky. It happily supported some high resolution FLAC music files, but internally, it converted 96kHz and 192kHz sample rates down to 44.1kHz (which is CD standard). If you want a real high resolution audio player, this isn't it. (Note: we switched off PCM downsampling in the menus, and it did deliver two channel 96kHz PCM from DVD without alteration).
The best thing about this unit is that it did all it was supposed to do quite quickly and smoothly, with no sense of gears grinding away beneath the surface. Our only real reservation is that it's a couple of hundred dollars more expensive than some competing devices.