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Samsung PNF8500 review: Power-packed plasma shines brighter

The fifth page is called "Social," and it's filled by default with YouTube clips. You can link it to Facebook, Twitter, and Skype accounts, which seems mildly interesting. When I did so, however, the only things that surfaced were "Friends' Pick" on Facebook, and there was no easy access to tweet or post status updates. As it stands, except for easy Skype access, this page is even more useless than I'd expect from "social" on a Smart TV.

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Apps and Web browser: Samsung's selection, available on the fifth page, is second to none, and it's still the only TV maker with HBO Go. Other notable apps among the hundreds available include Spotify, Fios TV, Amazon Cloud Player, a Camera app, and Samsung's "Explore 3D" app. There's a cool "Fitness VOD" app that you can use in conjunction with the camera to put yourself alongside a workout coach on screen, and many, many more.

The page design, which is basically a bunch of small icons again reminiscent of a smartphone, is much cleaner than before. "Recommended" apps appear above a large editable grid of "My Apps" in the bottom area. Most of the important apps come preinstalled, and the chaff is all happily hidden inside the Samsung Apps section one layer down.

The Web browser is the best I've used on any TV, thanks in large part to the touch pad remote. The scrollbars work as they should, the "Return" key is a handy shortcut for "Back," and the virtual keyboard makes entering URLs and search terms as easy as possible with its smart suggestions for letters, terms and sites. loaded quickly enough, including comments, and the browser passed this Flash support test.

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Of course, you'll experience even less frustration if you connect an external wireless keyboard. The TV can pair with a Bluetooth keyboard or mouse; I used two versions of the Samsung Wireless Keyboard (VG-KDB1000 and VG-KDB1500) that worked great, and the set should also work with newer KDB2000 models too. I was also able to use a cheaper wireless USB keyboard, the Logitech K400, whose touch pad worked just as well as the Samsungs'. It's true when they say that all functions might not work within all apps, however; I was unable to type search terms into Amazon Instant or Netflix using either keyboard (although arrow-key navigation and Enter worked fine, for example).

Voice and Gesture control: If you got this far expecting a thorough evaluation of what Samsung claims is new and improved control via voice and gestures, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I didn't test those features at all for this review, so I can't say one way or the other whether the F8500 improves on last year's effort. Stay tuned for that.

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Picture settings: In true Samsung tradition, there's plenty on tap here, including 2-point and 10-point grayscale control, an excellent color management system, and four picture presets. The company also includes a "Black Optimizer" setting that has a real effect on black levels, a Film Mode option that does as well, and, yes, a dejudder control to turn the Soap Opera Effect on or off. I can't really ask for anything more.

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Connectivity: Nothing major goes missing here. Four HDMI ports, three USB, and an optical digital output do the digital heavy lifting, while analog video is served by a single component-video port that's shared with composite video. There's no VGA-style PC input, but there is an RS-232 port for custom AV control systems, as well as port for the included wired IR blaster.

Picture quality

The F8500 deserves a spot in the upper echelon of TVs you can buy, and in a bright room it's the best plasma I've ever seen. In moderate rooms, it doesn't quite match up to the picture quality of the like-priced Panasonic TC-PVT60 series, and while I'd say it's a superior performer to the ST60 by a nose, they both earn the same 9 rating in this section.

This plasma manages to combine exceedingly deep black levels with the potential for whites brighter than any other high-performance plasma available. Color accuracy is superb, if not quite reference level, and of course it exhibits the perfect off-angle and picture uniformity characteristics of the breed. Its video processing unfortunately requires you to make a choice between correct 1080p/24 film cadence and the deepest black levels, however, something you won't have to do with other TVs. One tertiary weakness is sound quality, while its 3D picture quality, aided again by superior light output, was outstanding.

Click the image at the right to see the picture settings used in the review and to read more about how this TV's picture controls worked during calibration.

Comparison models (details)
Panasonic TC-P60VT60 60-inch plasma
Samsung PN60E8000 60-inch plasma
Panasonic TC-P65VT50 65-inch plasma
Panasonic TC-P55ST60 55-inch plasma
Sharp Elite PRO-60X5FD series 60-inch LED
Pioneer Elite Kuro PRO-111FD 50-inch plasma

Black level: The F8500 can produce some of the deepest levels of black of any display I've seen, beating the depth of all but the very best plasmas and local dimming LEDs. In our lineup, which includes the best flat-panel TVs we have available (and, I'd argue, most of the best ever made), it looked just a shade lighter than only the VT60, the Kuro, and the Elite in most dark and mixed scenes. In the very dark "Drive" Blu-ray, for example, the depth of the F8500's letterbox bars and black areas like Driver's car stereo and leather gloves (4:12) was superb. Even sitting right between the Kuro and the VT60, the F8500 looked almost as deep -- and made the VT50, ST60, and especially the E8000 seem slightly grayish as opposed to inky black.

Unfortunately, you do have to trade away true film cadence if you want the absolute deepest black levels the F8500 can deliver. When I switched the Film Mode setting from Off to Cinema Smooth, those inky blacks got slightly brighter, reaching about the level of the ST60 and the VT50 (from 0.002 fL to 0.004, if you're counting). That's not much of a jump, so film cadence purists might not mind making it. On the other hand, of course, all of the other sets delivered correct cadence without sacrificing black levels.

Shadow detail was another strong suit for the F8500. As Irene grasps Driver's hand under the vacillating light (30:29), all of the folds in his pants and jacket, along with the shadows along the steering column and door, looked correct, neither too bright nor too dim, and every detail was preserved. That said, I'd still give a slight advantage in most scenes to the Panasonics, particularly the VT60, where certain shadow details appeared just a bit more distinct, especially in areas very close to black. The walls during the slow pan over Driver's room (37:20) or, even better, the very deep shadows and gasses in the Creation sequence from "Tree of Life" (23:48), again showed the Panasonics' slight advantage. In any case the difference was very subtle, and it was tough to pick a clear winner between the F8500 and the three Panasonics, even with the benefit of side-by-side comparison. It was easier to see the F8500's superiority to the E8000 in this area.

I watched a lot of Drive as well dark parts of other films, and I didn't notice any instances of abrupt changes in overall black level -- aka "brightness pops." I also checked out the two pops tests that created the artifact in 2011 Samsung plasmas, in "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," but the F8500 didn't show the issue there either.

A strange image retention artifact did occur on the F8500 that I've never seen before. When I paused the image or the shot lingered for long enough on a dark stationary element, purplish noise would begin to gradually accumulate in shadowy areas. It happened in the upper-right of the screen on the beige car interior (between 4:14 and 4:19), for example, and became quite obvious if I paused. It wasn't overly distracting, and disappeared nearly immediately when the image changed, but it's still unusual and potentially distracting in certain stationary shots with near-black material. I also saw it during calibration (see the picture settings above for details), but in any case this issue doesn't spoil my recommendation.

Color accuracy: The colors on the F8500 are superb. The rich saturation imparted by its deep black levels combined with very low measured error levels to create a palate that stands against the lineup extremely well. The only flaw was a spike in blue in the middle of the grayscale that adjustment couldn't tame, an issue that perhaps manifested in slightly cooler skin tones in areas like the face of Irene in the restaurant (46:54).

On the other hand, the F8500 came closer than the others to the E8000 which, according to our measurements, has the best overall color in the lineup. It's difficult to say which was "better" -- the warmer Panasonic VTs or the slightly cooler Samsungs -- but to my eye the Panasonics did appear a bit more pleasing and saturated. Regardless, the F8500 looked slightly more accurate than the ST60, and significantly more accurate than the Kuro and the Sharp Elite.

The measurement of the F8500's near-black (5 percent) was also among the best I've ever seen, leading to pleasingly neutral dark areas and shadows. Of course, most of the others were also extremely good in this area, but the F8500 was just a bit better.

Video processing: As I mentioned above, this area is the F8500's only major stumbling block. The only way to achieve the correct film cadence of 1080p/24 sources, like most Blu-ray movies, is to engage the Cinema Smooth setting under Film Mode -- which lightens black levels somewhat. When I did so, I saw the nice, smooth-but-not-too-smooth movement in areas like the swinging camera in the grocery store in "Drive" (15:30) and of course even more clearly in my traditional such test, the pan over the aircraft carrier from "I Am Legend" (24:58).

Switching back to Off, which delivers the deepest black levels, caused the cadence to assume the characteristic, slightly hitching motion of 2:3 pull-down. It's a subtle difference, but videophiles will have to choose between correct cadence and the deepest blacks. I chose the latter, for what it's worth.

The F8500 offers two levels of dejudder that introduce the characteristic Soap Opera Effect. Even the weakest, Standard, produced an exceedingly smooth image that won't appeal to those who dislike that effect. Unlike Panasonic's plasmas, however, engaging dejudder did not affect my motion resolution measurements.

As with previous Samsungs, the default Auto2 Film Mode setting for 1080i sources didn't result in proper deinterlacing; I had to switch to Auto 1 to get the PNF8500 to pass that test.

Update: In Game mode the Samsung showed a relatively poor input lag measurement of 107.5ms. But there's a "trick" that allows it to achieve a much more respectable lag score of 53.1ms. To use it, select an HDMI input from the Input menu, go to the Options menu in the upper-right and rename the input "PC." Doing so allows it to achieve a better lag score.

Bright lighting: The performance of the F8500 in high ambient light is better than any other plasma I've tested, and in this lineup is second only to the Sharp Elite LED. Its largest advantage over the other plasmas came in the form of prodigious light output.

Compared directly to the also-60-inch VT60, the F8500 almost doubled its maximum light output; I measured a peak of 83 fL (footlambert) in Dynamic mode on the Samsung, compared to 49 in Vivid mode on the Panasonic using window patterns.

The F8500 also maintains higher light output with full-screen patterns, measuring 19.1 fL compared to just 9.8 on the Panasonic. Hockey or skiing, where much of the screen is occupied by white or very bright material, appears markedly brighter on the F8500 than on other plasmas this size, and other content is proportionately brighter too, depending on how much of the screen is occupied by white. Most content is more mixed between light and dark, however, making this F8500 advantage less important. It's also worth noting that most LEDs can maintain an even brighter image than the F8500 with near- or full-white content.

Speaking of importance, here's the part where I remind readers that 40 fL, the amount to which I calibrate, is plenty for a moderately lit room. But if you have an extremely bright room or just prefer watching an extremely bright picture (like Vivid or Dynamic on your current TV), the F8500 comes closer to the light output of an LED TV than any plasma I've tested. Of course an LED can get even brighter; the 60-inch Elite, for example, can achieve a scorching 300 (window) and 133 (full-screen) fL in certain settings.

The F8500 has an excellent screen filter to go along with its light output potential. It preserved black levels under bright overhead lighting better than any TV in my lineup aside from the Sharp, keeping the image punchy instead of washed out. All of the plasmas aside from the Kuro were quite close in this regard; the VT50 was actually second-best at preserving black, followed by the VT60 and then the ST60 and E8000.

The ability to reduce reflections is also very important, and while none of these displays can match a matte-screened LED/LCD in that area, the F8500 was one of the best. Again, its least wasn't much, but reflections were a bit brighter on the VT60.

Sound quality The F8500 was the worst-sounding TV in the lineup. Its audio was thin, bass was distorted, and the instruments of Nick Cave's band from our test track were less distinct. Dialogue during "Mission: Impossible 3" was also relatively muddy, and Ving Rhames' deep voice sounded like it was coming from another room. The ensuing explosions had little visceral feel, and details like breaking glass were nigh inaudible. The great-sounding VT60, in particular, trounced it, but the VT50 and ST60 also sounded better, as did last year's E8000.

3D: The F8500 is probably the best 3D performer of any plasma TV I've tested. Its image quality in the default settings for Cinema mode was better than what I saw on the VT60, mainly due to superior light output and better shadow detail. The latter difference can be equalized in calibration, perhaps (we don't calibrate for 3D), but the former is a distinct advantage.

In terms of crosstalk, the F8500 performed as well or better than any of the other plasmas, but not at the same level as my 3D reference, the LED-based UN55ES8000 -- which I subbed into the lineup in place of the 2D-only Kuro. Crosstalk is a bugaboo of 3D TVs that use active 3D technology, and appears as a ghostly double-image around many onscreen objects. During my favorite crosstalk tests from "Hugo," including Hugo's hand as it reached for the mouse (5:01), the tuning pegs on the guitar (7:49), and the face of the dog as it watches the inspector slide by (9:24), the F8500's crosstalk was quite dim and unobjectionable -- about the same level as the ST60 and VT60, and better than the E8000.

The image of the Samsung F8500 had more punch and impact, however, because it got substantially brighter. No, it didn't reach the same level as the LED ES8000, but it was still visibly superior to any of the plasmas, particularly in brighter scenes. Details in shadows, like the bulkhead at the beginning of Chapter 2, were also more distinct on the F8500, although black levels were a bit deeper on the VT60. Color also seemed a bit better on the F8500, with more neutral shadows compared to the bluer Panasonics.

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Panasonic's throw-in 3D glasses fit much better than Samsung's. The flimsy temples of the Samsung 5100GB's barely kept them secure on my head, especially when I wore my prescription glasses, and the design let in a substantial amount of light from the side. At least they were very light.

Power consumption: Light output is a major factor in how much juice a TV uses, so it stands to reason that the F8500 is more of a power hog in its brightest picture mode. Unlike other plasmas, its default picture mode, Standard, is quite bright (with the ambient light sensor disabled), clocking 82 fL and a correspondingly massive power drain. After calibration to a standard light level, however, it's right in line with what I'd expect from a 60-inch plasma.

The current Energy Star specification is still version 5.3, which still imposes a hard cap of 108 watts for any size of TV. According to Energy Star's April 2013 list of qualified TVs, no 1080p 2013 Samsung plasma earns the blue sticker, although its 43-inch 720p sets series do.

Editors' note: CNET has dropped TV power consumption testing for 60-inch or smaller LCD- and LED-based TVs because their power use, in terms of yearly cost, is negligible. We will continue to test the power use of larger LCD or LED models, as well as all plasma models.

Juice box
Samsung PN60F8500 Picture settings
Default Calibrated Power save
Picture on (watts) 455.92 275.95 188.35
Picture on (watts/sq. inch) 0.3 0.18 0.12
Standby (watts) 0.07 0.07 0.07
Cost per year $100.00 $60.55 41.35
Score (considering size) Average
Score (overall) Poor
Annual energy cost after calibration
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

GEEK BOX: Test Result Score
Black luminance (0%) 0.002 Good
Avg. gamma (10-100%) 2.29 Good
Avg. grayscale error (10-100%) 1.690 Good
Near-black error (5%) 0.231 Good
Dark gray error (20%) 0.345 Good
Bright gray error (70%) 0.631 Good
Avg. color error 1.891 Good
Red error 1.085 Good
Green error 1.129 Good
Blue error 4.22 Average
Cyan error 2.966 Good
Magenta error 0.973 Good
Yellow error 0.97 Good
1080p/24 Cadence (IAL) Pass Good
1080i De-interlacing (film) Pass Good
Motion resolution (max) 700 Average
Motion resolution (dejudder off) 700 Average
Input lag ("PC" rename trick) 53.1 Average

Samsung PN60F8500 CNET review calibration results

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