If it’s true that any press is good press, Samsung’s newest Smart TVs are certainly basking in a spotlight of sorts lately, despite the fact that some of their features—the facial recognition and voice recognition capabilities, specially—have the more paranoid members of our consumer electronics journalism family shaking in their wee boots. The buildup has been huge. The speculation has been rampant.
But now the dust is settling, and the TVs are showing up on test benches, and to me, at least, in retrospect all the brouhaha seems sort of silly.
The model in particular that showed up on HomeTechTell’s test bench is the top-of-the-line (for its size, anyway) UN55ES8000F, which boasts a dual core processor, the latest iteration of the company’s Smart Hub, an expansion port for the future Evolution Kit (which will keep Smart Hub up to date with more processing power and additional features, as Samsung’s software services continue to expand), a new Ultimate version of Micro Dimming (which allows for more zones of backlight dimming and fewer halos), and yes, the voice and gesture control that has caused so much consternation as of late.
Let’s go ahead and address that last point first, since that’s probably what you’re most curious about. First, I have to say, almost any and all privacy concerns you may have about the UN55ES8000F’s built-in camera and microphone are addressed during setup itself. When you capture your image for the facial recognition feature—which allows you and other family members to log in separately to the Smart Hub and access a more personalized GUI—it’s pretty clearly spelled out that this image is stored on the TV itself, and not uploaded to a server somewhere. Privacy policies also abound. So, no, Samsung is not Big Brother. Let’s just go ahead and lay that one to rest.
Does it work, though? Actually, yes, the facial recognition works brilliantly. It makes signing into your own personalized Smart Hub a snap. It’s a feature you do have to enable, though, and you can (almost) just as easily access your own account with a login and password.
The camera is also the central component of Samsung’s Gesture Control for this year’s higher-end models, which, for all the clamor, ended up being my least favorite aspect of the experience as a whole. I won’t call it disappointing, since gesture control just isn’t something I’m interesting in using, but on the whole, when I did play around with it, I found it frustrating. Upon voicing my general meh attitude about the whole gesture control thing, Samsung representatives gave me a few tips and tricks, and sent along a couple of videos that demonstrate how to get the most from the feature—all of which ironically sort of reinforced my complete and utter mehness. I’m not saying Samsung should have left Gesture Control out of the equation. I’m not saying it won’t be really cool when more app developers start taking advantage of the capabilities. I’m just saying that, for now, as a method for controlling the TV, it just isn’t worth the hassle. For me, at least.
The voice control, though? Wow. Love. I expected to be just as meh about talking to my TV as I was about waving at it—and my recent experience with the VOCO multiroom audio system did nothing to help that—but this has turned out to be one of my favorite features of the set. For one thing, it’s incredibly intuitive. Say either “Hi, TV” or “Smart TV” (you can switch between the two options in the setup menu), and a little taskbar of potential control phrases pops up on the bottom of the screen. There’s no guessing about which commands will work and which won’t at any given time. You can also say “more commands,” and it takes you to a fuller menu with all of the different avenues your voice can take you down. Not once in the weeks that I’ve been testing it has the system misunderstood me. There’s no Siri-like “I’m sorry, what?”
There have been a few, tiny, forgivable hiccups with the voice recognition, but only two worth mentioning. First, when I had the trigger phrase set to “Hi, TV,” I found that certain dialogue spoken by onscreen characters could be mistaken for such, and the voice menu would pop up when it wasn’t wanted. A switch to “Smart TV” almost completely fixed that, although on one occasion it did mistake a “Smooshy puppy face!” on my part for a call to action.
It should be pointed out, though, that my media room has really good acoustics, by which I mean that first reflection points are absorbed, and there’s a good balance of overall absorption and diffusion throughout the room. If your room isn’t equally well-damped and diffused, you might find that by the time your voice gets to the mics on the front of the TV, it’s too echo-y to register correctly.
Thankfully, Samsung foresaw this issue, and has included a second remote control with a built-in mic, which activates with a button press instead of a trigger word, and works like a charm overall. Said second remote also includes a laptop-style touchpad for scrolling and navigation when appropriate—the web browser, for example, and many of Smart Hub’s awesome apps—which more than makes up for the issues I’ve had with the Gesture Control.
Speaking of control, you can also mate the TV with any Bluetooth keyboard. That’s very handy for web browsing (especially since neither of the included remotes features a built-in keyboard anymore. Good riddance, I say). There’s also a very PlayStation-esque joystick on the bottom right back corner of the set, which you operate by gripping the edge of the TV like a Vita. It makes navigation very easy when you’re up close and personal and don’t want to use the remote, and is a great alternative to the old routine of pressing either volume up/down for up and down and channel up/down for left and right, or vice versa.
Also in the control department, I have one… not necessarily what I’d call a complaint, but more of a suggestion for improvement in next year’s models. The IR sensor for the remote is placed up near the camera and mics on top of the TV, which makes running an IR repeater to it a bit of an inconvenience. There’s also the potential for an IR repeater to partially block one of the microphones. An IR input port on the back would be a big help for those of us with IR-based advanced remote control systems. There is a minijack input labeled EX-Link, which can be configured for RS-232 control, and who knows? It might even be possible for Samsung engineers to patch it to allow IR input. If not, though, that would be a nice addition when Samsung starts working on upgrades for next year’s models.
Let’s not forget about the picture, though! This is a TV review, after all. I find that most of the things I said about last year’s 7000 Series LED holds true here. Check out that review for more pedantic analysis, but in short: colors (in Movie Mode, at least) are spectacularly accurate; black levels and contrasts are pretty great for a non-Sharp Elite LED (although they prove to be equally difficult to measure objectively, since the LED edge lights completely cut off in the presence of a pure black signal); Auto Motion Plus, in its “Clear” setting, again makes LCD motion issues non-existent without making me nauseous in the way so many frame-rate-boosting motion-interpolation mechanisms do; and overall, the picture is bright, vibrant, deliciously detailed and delivers a stunningly film-like image even in a very bright room.
There are a few key differences worth noting, though. Firstly, the slight darkening around the edges of the image of the UN46D7000 is all but nonexistent with the UN55ES8000. Furthermore, the intensity of the light spill from the edge lights is greatly diminished. Conversely, though, the area of light spill is a little larger (and differently shaped), so in very, very dark scenes with very bright areas in the center (credits sequences, particularly, but many the Mines of Moria sequence from Fellowship of the Ring again proves useful as a test chapter), there are four ever-so-slightly brighter ovals toward the corners of the image, especially when you first turn the TV on. Warming up the set helps a bit, as do the black enhancement features in the setup menus. I found that Dynamic Contrast also toned down these bright spots even more, but I cannot recommend using it, since at any setting it crushes blacks and robs the image of much of its natural splendor. Really, the only solution that would nip this completely in the bud would be back-lighting the set instead of edge-lighting it. Given that stores (and consumers) are all demanding increased energy efficiency year by year, though, that simply isn’t an option anymore for most TVs.
The other difference worth nothing between this year’s model and last is 3D performance. It’s flawless. I really don’t need to say much more than that.
Okay, I’ll say more than that. I’ve thrown every single difficult 3D scene I can think of at this TV, and it hasn’t flinched once. Crosstalk is gone. Kaput. At no point, with any 3D material, could I detect even the slightest amount of crosstalk. With the glasses on, that very slight amount of light spill I mentioned above is also entirely invisible. Samsung has a reputation for making vast improvements in 3D performance every year, but I think that trend stops with the UN55ES8000. I just cannot imagine how things could improve in that department. The TV also comes with four pairs of glasses, for free. So, yeah, that’s going to be tough to top.
The one other personal experience worth mentioning regarding the video is the fact that, unlike the UN46D7000, I installed the UN55ES8000 in my vampire friendly main media room. In this darker environment, the brightness shifts (that is to say times when the LEDs completely turn off and turn back on) really bothered my wife, who complained that the picture “isn’t as good as the last LED you reviewed.” No amount of explanation on my part could convince her that it was actually a slightly better image, objectively speaking, and that she didn’t notice the brightness shifts in the 7000 Series because it was installed in a room that doubles as a fully furnished tanning bed. Which hammers home the point that it’s all about the environment. In the bright bedroom, this set would excel in nearly all respects. In the vampire cave? Maybe not so much.
Conversely, though, anytime my draperies part to let the slightest sliver of sunlight into the media room, when my plasma is on I find myself jumping out of my seat to seal them with the sort of urgency found only in mothers running for falling babies. With the UN55ES8000 in the room, such invasions of sunlight garner a reaction that’s more along the lines of, “Eh, I need to remember to shut the drapes next time I’m up for an oat soda.”
The one thing I think no one can argue is that the set itself is absolutely gorgeous. We’re talking Apple-level industrial design here. I’m a big proponent of wall mounting in most cases, but with the UN55ES8000 I think taking it off its gorgeous curvilinear stand would almost be a sin. Plus, for a company who loves to tout its thinner and thinner bezels every year, I think Samsung may have backed itself into a corner here. There’s practically no bezel. The image very nearly floats in the room.
So, there are ups and downs, pluses and minuses, strikes and gutters. It’s the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself. The UN55ES8000 isn’t the perfect TV, because no such beast exists. But it may be the perfect TV for your environment, and the way you watch TV. You may not love the voice control half as much as I do. Then again, you may not be nearly as apathetic about gesture control as I am. You may not find the itsy bitsy bit of light spill as forgivable as I do. Or, in your room (especially if you watch a lot of 3D), it may be a complete non-issue.
The one thing I can say for sure, without a bit of wishy-waffling, is that if you’re in the market for a new LED TV, the UN55ES8000 should certainly have a spot near the top of your short list of options.
Samsung UN55ES8000 55-Inch 1080p 240 Hz 3D Slim LED HDTV (Silver)