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Editors' note (March 4, 2010): The rating on this product has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace, including the release of 2010 models. The review has not otherwise been modified. Click here for more information.
As HDTVs become more common--some would say commoditized--TV makers go to greater lengths to justify higher price tags. Nobody is going as far as Samsung this year. The company is the only one thus far to announce a full lineup of edge-lit LED-based LCDs, which cost a mint yet offer the most advanced technology and design you can get--at least until OLED comes along.
Each model among the three series of Samsung's edge-lit LED-based LCD lineup measures just 1.2 inches thick, thanks to that LED lighting system, which is also responsible for the TVs' excellent energy efficiency. The UNB7000 series is the middle child in terms of price and features of the three; yet, it includes buckets of add-ons, many of them interactive, along with extensive picture adjustments including a cool new tweakable dejudder mode. In our performance testing, we encountered some picture quality trade-offs caused by the LED system, namely less-than-perfect uniformity and off-angle viewing, along with the backlights' somewhat distracting fluctuations. These issues keep the UNB7000 series from earning our highest accolades for performance, but in terms of design and features, the expensive televisions set a standard that will be tough to beat.
We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 46-inch UN46B7000 ($2,999 list price), but this review also applies to the 40-inch UN40B7000 ($2,399) and the 55-inch UN55B7000 ($3,799). All three sizes share identical features and specifications. Samsung also has a retailer-specific series currently exclusive to Best Buy, the UNB7100 models, that are identical but for gray coloring, as opposed to red, and with overall cosmetics similar to the step-up UNB8000 series.
Did we mention these TVs are really thin? The UNB7000 measures just 1.2 inches deep at its thickest point, and tapers even thinner toward the edges of the panel. Samsung offers a special flush wall mount, and if you decide to keep the TV on its stand, the thin panel will look equally impressive from the side. From the front the set is no slouch either; a slim, subtle red border edges all four sides of the panel, while the outer transparent edge lends a jewel-like look. On the downside, you can't get it in any color but red, aside from the gray 7100 series.
The matching stand is also edged in red, and a unique transparent pedestal keeps the thin panel gracefully suspended above its surface. We appreciate that the stand lets the TV swivel to either side.
Aside from the obvious thinness, the LEDs allow for a couple of other design bonuses. The UNB7000 runs a lot cooler than other LCD and plasma displays producing a similar amount of light, and the panel itself weighs less than other models.
Samsung used the same menu system as last year, albeit with red borders to match the TV itself, and we still think it's one of the best in the business. Big, highly legible text is set against transparent backgrounds that occupy almost the whole screen. Getting around is easy, there's helpful explanatory text along the bottom, and we dug the context-sensitive menu that would pop up occasionally to provide more options. One cool extra reserved is a built-in "product guide" that takes you through the TV's myriad features.
The remote control is basically the same as last year, aside from a new protrusion on the rear that keeps the clicker stable on a flat surface, and we're definitely fans--especially since Samsung ditched the rotating scroll wheel. The buttons are big, backlit, and easily differentiated by size and shape, and we liked the dedicated "Tools" key that offers quick access to the E-manual (see below), 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 company also includes a small, nearly useless hockey-puck-style remote that only controls channel, volume, and power.
Edge-lit LED backlighting heads the UNB7000's feature set. Samsung calls these sets "LED TVs," but it's important to remember they're actually otherwise normal liquid-crystal display TVs that use light-emitting diodes instead of the standard fluorescent backlights--check out the slideshow for more information.
We've reviewed LED-based LCD screens before, most recently the Sony KDL-55XBR8 and Samsung LN46A950, which both use local dimming technology; groups of LEDs behind the screen can be dimmed or turned off to achieve those deep, inky blacks we all love so much. None of Samsung's edge-lit LED-based LCDs use local dimming, which might be one reason they didn't perform as well as those local dimming displays (see Performance section for details).
New for 2009, Samsung has added Yahoo widgets to its higher-end sets including the UNB7000 series. The system gathers Internet-powered information modules, called "snippets," into a bar along the bottom of the screen, and each can be activated to reveal the full-fledged widget. The model we reviewed came with widgets for stocks, weather, news, and access to Flickr photos, and we expect more widgets to be available shortly. Check out our full review of Yahoo widgets for more information.
Other interactive features on this set abound. It can stream videos, photos, and music from DLNA-certified devices via the network connection, as well from its USB ports, which can connect to MP3 players, USB thumbdrives, and digital cameras (we haven't tested this capability yet, but will update this review when we do). There's also built-in "content" such as recipes, games, workout guides, and a slideshow of high-definition art and photos with music. We went into depth discussing the content features last year, which are similar this time around, so for more details check out the Interactive section of the 2008 Samsung LN46A750 review.
Samsung's panoply of picture-affecting features starts with a 120Hz refresh rate and dejudder processing, the latter with more adjustments than we've seen on any such display so far. We also liked the myriad conventional picture adjustments, starting with four adjustable picture modes that are all independent per input. There are five color temperature presets that are augmented by the capability to adjust each via a custom white balance menu; three varieties of noise reduction, including 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 UNB7000 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.
We appreciate 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 thumbdrive, and even 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, unique among HDTVs, to download firmware directly to the TV, rather than making you go to the Web site, as was the case before.
The UNB7000 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. If you need to connect more than one analog device, you'll need to use a switcher or an AV receiver.
In sum, the UNB7000 series delivered a very good picture, but a few flaws prevented it from matching the best models we've tested, including local dimming-equipped LED-based LCDs. Despite its relatively deep black levels, the UNB7000's variable backlight impaired performance in very dark scenes. We also noticed some uniformity issues, primarily in dark scenes as well, that are probably caused by the edge-lit LED system. That said, we really appreciate the set's accurate color and the Custom setting of its dejudder processing.
Our calibration for a dark room involved making a few key changes to the default Movie picture mode. The largest was raising the gamma control from zero to +3, which improved shadow detail significantly and ameliorated some of the worst effects of the variable backlight (see below), but caused overall average gamma to worsen, from 2.25 to about 2.0 (the ideal is 2.2). Gamma was still too dark in near-black areas, and became too bright in brighter ones, but the sacrifice was worth it in our opinion. We also tweaked the grayscale a bit to closer approach the D65 standard, used the great blue-only mode to set color and reduced overall light output significantly from Movie's default of 60 footlamberts to a more comfortable 40.
Check out this post for our complete picture settings and for details on how to use the blue-only mode to set color.
For comparison purposes, we have a good selection of high-end HDTVs on-hand, including the LED-powered Samsung LN46A950 and Sony KDL-55XBR8, the standard Samsung LN52A650 LCD, and a pair of plasmas, the Panasonic TC-46PG10 and our reference Pioneer PRO-111FD. This time, we used "The Day the Earth Stood Still" on Blu-ray for most of our image quality tests.
Black level: Overall, the Samsung UNB7000 didn't do as well in this category as most of the other displays in our comparison. That's mainly because the LEDs along the edges of the display, which we'll refer to as its "backlight" to avoid confusion, fluctuated depending on the overall brightness of the scene. In very dark scenes, the entire backlight, and thus the letterbox bars and shadows, would dim, while in brighter scenes it would become brighter. Other displays do similar things, but on the 7000 series it was more noticeable and affected more than just completely black screens.
In very dark scenes, the UNB7000 delivered a deep shade of black, deeper than any of our comparison sets aside from the Pioneer, to the point of fading completely into darkness between scenes. In brighter scenes its black levels rose slightly--darker still than the A950 and A650, but not as inky as the Pioneer, Sony XBR8 or Panasonic.
The backlight fluctuation caused brighter areas to darken during dark scenes, which was the worst downside to the variable backlight. In the opening credits, for example, the moon and the text such as "Keanu Reeves," as well as the stars in the night sky, all appeared dimmer than on the other displays in our comparison, despite the fact that we had equalized their light output for comparison. The effect was so pronounced that far fewer stars were visible on the UNB7000 than on the other displays, and definitely impaired the contrast ratio and "pop" of the scene.
We also noticed the fluctuation in one of our favorite test scenes from "I Am Legend" when Will Smith locks up his townhouse for the night at the beginning of Chapter 4. At the very beginning of the chapter, the UNB7000's screen goes completely black, then abruptly brighter.
That said, in most dark scenes the backlight was not distracting. A good example is when Smith goes after his dog in the warehouse at the end of Chapter 8; watching this entire 5-minute sequence, which occurs mostly in the dark, it was free of noticeable fluctuations. The same went for the nighttime scene at the beginning of Chapter 3 in "Earth" when Jennifer Connelly approaches the military academy. In both of these scenes, shadow detail and black levels were very good; better than the A650 and generally equal to the other LED-based LCDs, albeit not to the two plasmas.
Color accuracy: The Samsung UNB7000 scored well in this category, with excellent primary colors and color decoding, along with a solid grayscale that only lost accuracy in very dark areas. Connelly's skin under the hospital lights or the glare of the alien ball, for example, looked suitably pale and not overly ruddy or tinged with yellow green, while under the natural light inside her house it also looked relatively good. However, skin tones in bright areas were a bit flatter and seemingly less-saturated than on the other displays, which may be an issue with the improper gamma at the upper end--a necessary sacrifice to prevent dark areas from being too dark.
Like many LCD-based screens, the UNB7000 also suffered from a bluish tinge in blacks and near-black shades. The issue was visible in letterbox bars, the nighttime skies and Connelly's raven hair, for example.
Video processing: In addition to the three preset strengths of its Auto Motion Plus dejudder processing, called Clear, Standard, and Smooth, Samsung added a Custom mode this year, and its adjustability makes it the best implementation of a dejudder we've seen so far. Custom offers two sliders, one called Blur reduction that affects video-based sources and one called Judder reduction that affects only film-based sources. In our motion resolution tests, it was obvious that Blur reduction was doing exactly that: as we increased the slider from 0 to 10, the lines on the motion resolution pattern became more distinct and less apt to blur together, and the pattern looked best at 10. In that video-based pattern, playing with the Judder reduction setting had no effect.
The key is that with Blur reduction set to 10 and judder reduction set to 0, the cadence of film can be preserved while the blurring some viewers see with LCD (we don't notice it, but that's another story) can be largely reduced. We confirmed this by feeding the Samsung 1080p/24 content during the flyover of the Intrepid from "Legend," where the characteristic judder appeared more and more obvious as we decreased the judder reduction slider.
As usual, increasing judder reduction and thus apparent smoothness with film-based material also increased the incidence of unwelcome artifacts. In Chapter 11 when the camera follows Kathy Bates around the command post, for example, we saw the tell-tale halo-like distortion in the background near the edge of her body with judder reduction maxed out, while distortions largely disappeared when we reduced that control to the halfway point.
In resolution tests the UNB7000 performed well, delivering every line of 1080i and 1080p sources with still patterns, correctly deinterlacing 1080i material (note that we had to set Film Mode to Auto1, not the default of Auto2, to get this to work) and delivering between 600 and 700 lines of resolution in all of the AMP settings (note that reducing the Blur reduction lower than 10 decreased motion resolution on our test pattern). Plasma displays like the Panasonic and the Pioneer, by comparison, score 900 lines and above on this test, as did the Sony XBR8, KDL-52-XBR7 and Samsung A950 displays. As we've noted before, we find it tough to appreciate the benefits of any of these resolution characteristics in program material as opposed to test patterns.
Uniformity: The Samsung UNB7000 exhibited worse uniformity across the screen than the other flat-panel displays in our comparison--although it was better than the edge-lit Sony's KLV-40ZX1M. We noticed a brighter area along the bottom-left of the screen, as well as in the corners, that showed up in letterbox bars and darker scenes, such as the star field behind the opening credits, the interior of Keanu's tent and the dark lecture hall in Chapter 3. We also noticed that in brighter, flat fields such as the all-white of alien ball in Chapter 5, the left side of the screen appeared slightly darker than the rest.
In gray fields (from 10-70 IRE on our Sencore test pattern generator), we noticed more brightness variations across the screen, including a darker area across the top and subtle brighter splotches elsewhere. We didn't notice these variations much during program material, but they were more noticeable in test patterns than on any of the other displays in our test. It's worth noting that these issues can vary more than others from review sample to review sample.
When seen from off-angle, the UNB7000 also looked worse than any of the other displays in our comparison. Dark areas quickly washed out and became bluer, while brightness variations intensified, as we moved to either side of the sweet spot in the middle of the couch. The UNB7000 did seem to preserve its vertical viewing angle a bit better than the Sony or the Samsung A950, but both beat the UNB7000 in horizontal viewing angle.
Bright lighting: Samsung used the same sort of glossy screen as last year, and we're not its biggest fans. In bright lighting, with windows facing the screen and overhead lights turned on, the screen does a very good job of preserving black levels in dark areas. However, the trade-off is overly bright reflections from those light sources and from other bright objects in the room, such as this reviewer's light gray shirt. These reflections were much less bothersome during bright scenes, of course, but in darker scenes they proved distracting.
Standard-definition: On the off chance you do connect a standard-definition source to the Samsung, you find generally solid picture quality. According to our tests, the display handled every line of a DVD source and the shots of grass and steps from the detail test looked good. The set eliminated jaggies from video-based sources well, and its noise reduction cleaned up the lowest-quality shots of skies and sunset with aplomb. Finally, the UNB7000 passed 2:3 pull-down test by eliminating moire from the stands behind the racecar.
PC: As expected, the UNB7000 series delivered excellent performance with both VGA and HDMI sources from computers. It resolved every line of a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution image with no overscan or edge enhancement.
|Before color temp (20/80)||6223/6689||Good|
|After color temp||6563/6499||Good|
|Before grayscale variation||198||Good|
|After grayscale variation||69||Good|
|Color of red (x/y)||0.6397/0.3344||Good|
|Color of green||0.3068/0.5897||Good|
|Color of blue||0.1556/0.0645||Good|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||Y||Good|
|480i 2:3 pull-down, 24 fps||Pass||Good|
|1080i video resolution||Pass||Good|
|1080i film resolution||Pass||Good|
Testing was only performed on the 46-inch UN46B7000, not on the 55-inch UN55B7000. For details, see the power consumption section of the UN46B7000 review.