Whether you love or hate Samsung's industrial design, you've got to admit it's distinctive. The LA40R81BD has the piano-black finish we've come to expect and a soft blue power light -- that, incidentally, you can turn off. The television is a lot more rounded than the upmarket (or just M8), but it certainly doesn't look tacky or cheap.
Turned off, the 40-inch screen lacks the glossy finish of other TVs in Samsung's canon but it also means it's less prone to glare and acting as a couch potato mirror.
It's obvious that a lot of thought has gone into the ergonomics and user-friendliness of this TV -- witness the side-mounted, touch-sensitive power and channel buttons, the manual swivel base, and the third HDMI port on the other side.
The Samsung LA40R81BD is a 40-inch TV with a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels and an 8ms response time. Like most TVs of its type it claims a 178 degree viewing angle, but if you have to watch any TV at that angle you're not going to get much out of it, and the same is true here. Contrast is fairly consistent at wider angles, though.
Many of the features of the flagship M8 TV are repeated here, and it's available for more than AU$1,000 less. Soon to be standard (we hope) on all TVs is the provision of three HDMI ports, and in combination with the two component connections you shouldn't be in need of an HD switchbox anytime soon.
Also like the M8, the R8 includes an onboard HD tuner, in addition to an analog model. And as you'll soon see, it's a corker.
Other features include picture doohickies including a Wide Colour Enhancer (for brighter blues and greens), a claimed 8,000:1 dynamic contrast, and the much-maligned Movie Plus Imaging Engine for reducing judder.
One of the most striking aspects of this television is how damn good the digital tuner is! Whether you're watching HD or standard def, the results are full of detail and plenty of contrast. It certainly put the M8 to shame on a side-by-side comparison, which is strange as the M8 supposedly has twice the contrast of the R8.
We mentioned that the Movie Plus Imaging Engine isn't the best regarded artefact remover, but while it's pretty horrible on all digital content (PAL and NTSC) it does work wonders on analog broadcasts.
We spun our favourite DVD test disk, King Kong, through the LA40R81BD and the results were unfortunately a little mixed. While detail and black levels were good, the results were missing some of the three-dimensionality and naturalness of other TVs in this price bracket including the. That said, this still boasts a very impressive picture for an LCD.
Watching a Blu-ray disc brought out a lot of the qualities we liked about the TV's tuner: bright, detailed images with plenty of contrast. There was a tendency for the M8 to push this detail to the point of digital noise, but the R8 rendered this perfectly. Size is obviously an issue -- you'll possibly see more detail on a larger screen depending on how far you sit from it.
Finally, we attached the Samsung to a PS3 and found it suited gaming very well -- for the full immersive experience big is always better, but for smaller rooms this screen should be perfect. Thirty-two-inch screens may have been the default size in the past, but with a greater adoption of HD devices such as PlayStation 3 consoles we'll see these bigger screens take a more significant hold.
The Samsung LA40R81BD may be missing the absolute blacks and full HD capability of its M8 bigger brother, but considering the price differential, this is the superior TV. The picture isn't as "three-dimensional" or as "black" as the M8, but in every other way it is exceptional. You'll get plenty of detail and a decent home theatre experience out of this TV, and without getting into the whole plasma versus LCD thing we can just say this is a very good example of either technology. Highly recommended.