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Reports of pops, peeling on Samsung plasmas explored (update)

An artifact known as "brightness pops" exists on Samsung's PND7000 and PND8000 plasma TVs, and reports of peeling abound, but neither is a big enough deal to spoil our recommendation.

Samsung's PND7000 received our Editors' Choice Award in October 2011.
Sarah Tew/CNET

Update Feb 3, 2012: In early January Samsung told me of a firmware update that addresses the brightness pops in both the D7000 and D8000 plasmas (I was also told that 2012 versions wouldn't suffer this issue), but since that time the company has not given me any additional information despite repeated inquiries. Meanwhile multiple CNET readers have told me how they have contacted Samsung customer service (in one case via chat), described the "pops" and been sent updated firmware on a USB stick (version 1024.8). The effectiveness of the new firmware varies according to reports on avsforum, however, and in some cases there's no improvement. Currently Samsung's web site does not have this version of the firmware (the latest is 1024.3), leading me to believe that the company is still working on the issue. If you experience the pops and want to try the new firmware, my advice is to contact Samsung and try it yourself (you can always revert back). I won't be testing any firmware that's not official or widely available, however.

The remainder of this article is unchanged from the original publication on November 7, 2011.

Since I gave the Samsung PND7000 and PND8000 plasma TVs excellent reviews, I've seen questions and comments referring to a pair of widely reported issues with the TVs: brightness pops and screen peeling.

I don't consider either issue a big enough deal to spoil my initial excellent impressions of these TVs, and here's why.

What's the deal with brightness pops?
One of the reasons I liked those TVs so much is their excellent black-level performance--they can produce a nice, deep shade of black, an integral ingredient in picture quality.

Think of black as the canvas upon which a TV's picture is painted. A lighter black level can "show through" the colors of the image, washing them all out, while a darker black enables richer color and more natural representation of dark scenes.

Ideally a TV's level of "black" stays stable, but in reality, on most TVs it becomes brighter as the image brightens. This increase is usually too gradual to be distracting, but if I notice it I'll point it out and, if it's distracting enough, it will influence the review in a negative way.

In my initial reviews of the PND7000 and PND8000 I looked specifically for--but never noticed--any fluctuation in black level. After those pieces published, however, I started seeing complaints about "brightness pops," which seemed to me to describe fluctuating black level. I rewatched the Blu-rays I'd cited in the reviews and used the TVs in numerous comparisons, but I never saw the "pops" in person.

Then a reader, concerned by popping he saw on his PN64D8000, cited two specific Blu-ray discs, "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." I checked them out last week, in a lineup with the two Samsungs and three other plasmas as a control group: the Panasonic VT30 and ST30, and a Pioneer Kuro. At first, what I saw was enough to make me question whether I'd made a mistake in lauding these TVs so highly.

Yes Virginia, there are brightness pops
"Dracula" was the worst. I first saw the level of black in a silhouette abruptly get slightly brighter at the 2:01 mark. A bit later, at 2:24, Dracula's shadowed shoulder abruptly brightened. The next "pop" came at 5:07, where the entire screen got a notch brighter as Dracula lifted the flagon to his lips.

Strangely, I saw this last pop on the PND8000 but not on the PND7000, perhaps because the two TVs had different picture settings. The first two appeared on both but their exact timing varied slightly.

In "Harry Potter" at 0:25 the letterbox bars abruptly got brighter. Later, at 0:49, they darkened.

I'd qualify all of these "pops" as noticeable and distracting. It's a safe bet that similar variations in black level occur at other points in these two movies, and almost certainly in other material. So I spent the rest of the day hunting for them.

I watched dark and mid-dark scenes from a selection of Blu-rays, namely "Tron: Legacy," "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1," "The Watchmen," "Batman Begins," "Good Night and Good Luck," and "Star Trek."

The only time I saw any change in brightness that looked like the "pops" I saw on the first two discs was at the 20:25 mark in "Star Trek," when the letterbox bars on the bottom got slightly brighter and then darker as Kirk leaned forward at the bar. The change was more subtle than before, and if I hadn't been looking specifically, I probably would have have missed it.

Pops are not a deal breaker for me
I consider myself relatively picky when it comes to picture quality. And for me, the main criteria of whether a product gets an Editors' Choice is whether I'd buy it myself. I gave the PND7000 that award last month, so the question I asked myself is whether I would still buy one over any other 2011 TV after seeing the pops.

Yes, I would.

From my survey, the incidence of "pops" is pretty uncommon. I also saw numerous incidents of what I originally thought were "pops"--flashes in the crowd during a hockey game and flicker in the candlelight of Dracula's castle, for example--that either turned out to be part of the program material and not the fault of the Samsungs, or not repeatable to the extent that I trusted that they had actually occurred. It's also worth noting that, when watching film-based Blu-ray discs, you can engage CinemaSmooth mode to eliminate the pops, albeit at the expense of some black-level performance.

That said, I've always considered the Panasonic VT30 series a better all-around performer than the Samsungs, if only by a nose. That nose is a bit longer now that I've seen the pops, but not enough to drop the Samsungs down below a "9" in picture quality--or enough to make me willing to pay more for the VT30 series, my runner-up Editors' Choice. So despite the pops, my Samsung reviews' ratings and the PND7000's EC award are not changing.

I could be wrong, and maybe the pops are prevalent and distracting enough that I would eventually hate my PND7000. I doubt it, but I really don't know, and at this point I feel I've given the issue a fair shake. Spending hours more searching for pops becomes ultimately unfair to Samsung since I didn't subject other TVs to the same treatment over other issues I've heard about and not seen myself--such as "fluctuating brightness" or "floating blacks" on the Panasonic ST30 and VT30.

For what it's worth I contacted Samsung and received nothing substantive by press time. If I do, for example if the company issues a firmware update to address this issue, I'll update this post.

P.S.: Peeling screen
The second widely reported issue with these Samsung TVs is a "peeling screen." On affected TVs, the transparent top layer of the screen begins peeling away, beginning with slight bubblelike effects in the upper corner on photos I've seen.

That seems pretty bad, but it wouldn't stop me from buying one of these TVs. Samsung told me it would repair all peeling screens, and I have run both the PND7000 and PND8000 around 2,000 hours each as part of long-term testing and haven't seen any evidence of peeling.

As always, I'd love to hear your feedback in the comments, especially if you happen to own one of these TVs.