Until about five minutes ago, Panasonic was the undisputed leader of plasma after inheriting the mantle from the dearly departed Pioneer. While companies like LG and Samsung have always produced TVs based on the technology, they haven't been any threat to their almighty competitors. But fresh from testing Samsung's 59-inch D8000, we think that Panasonic's dominance is no longer assured.
This is the second year that Samsung has used brushed-metal finishes after last year's highly desirable C9000 LCD. While the 9000 was completely coated in brushed stainless steel, the D8000 plasma uses a much more modest, though still striking, finish. In fact, you can only tell the brushed-metallic finish is plastic by touching it.
At a 59-inch diagonal, the TV is impressively large, though with its slightly thicker bezel it's not as entrancing as the "barely there" D7000 LCD. The TV retains the same octopus-footed stand as the D7000, but as the TV is a lot heavier at over 30kg, we found that we needed three people to help attach it.
The TV comes with two remote controls: a standard Samsung model and a reversible QWERTY design. The QWERTY remote consists of a conventional, backlit side, and the underside features a full keyboard with an unlit LCD keyboard. The directional pad on the QWERTY side is a little awkward, though, and we found that it's very easy to accidentally hit the Exit button.
The Samsung PS59D8000 is the company's 55-inch plasma flagship, and offers a rich number of features in addition to a whole lot of processing grunt. Being a plasma, it lacks a "100Hz mode" to make images smoother, but it is able to process images at a high speed via a different system: a 600Hz sub-field drive. The TV boasts a Real Black Filter that its makers claim gives it a preposterously high 20 million-to-one dynamic contrast.
Like most high flyers, the TV also supports 3D, and ships with a single set of lightweight shutter glasses (they are sold for AU$149 separately).
Over half of Samsung's 2011 televisions are Smart TVs. The big additions to last year's models, which already included video-on-demand and social media, are apps, integrated search and a web browser helped enormously by the QWERTY remote. All of the many functions are bundled into a new home screen called "Smart Hub", and most of the TV's functions can be accessed from there.
As a part of Smart TV, IPTV is a focus of the Samsung, with a handful of BigPond TV channels and BigPond movies-on-demand. At the moment, no free-to-air channels offer catch-up services via Samsung, though the ABC is reportedly in the final stages of adding iView. Telstra also includes its AFL and NRL Game Analysers, enabling sports fans to watch full games played in the past year or so; tennis is also on the way.
Like a number of recent televisions, the D8000 offers a cut-down USB Personal Video Recorder with a built-in Electronic Program Guide (EPG).
Connections are a highlight of this television, with an almost unheard of three USB ports, in addition to four 3D-ready HDMI slots. Also, you'll receive a combined component/composite adapter, but you'll need to push it in very firmly to get it to work. Finally, internet connectivity is provided courtesy of an Ethernet port and on-board Wi-Fi.
We loved the D7000, but had some misgivings about the picture quality — especially when viewing standard-definition content. Having spent some time with the plasma flagship, though, we can say that so far in 2011 we've yet to see a better plasma. (But check back with us soon, as this will probably change.)
The image quality of the D8000 is of a very high standard, and it's almost a Photoshop studio in itself! The television has a beautiful noise reduction circuit that cleans up all sources — even a supremely noisy DVD copy of Withnail & I that looks like it's been transferred from VHS.
Colours were natural, motion was smooth and free of moire effects, and contrast levels were very high. While LCD can now do deep blacks, it struggles with contrast. The Samsung plasma is able to match the best models for dynamic, contrast-rich pictures. It was also free of some of the plasma tropes such as reproducing clouds as "stepped" images instead of fluid ones, and so it performed admirably. However, compared to the best plasmas, it did show a tendency for large blocks of colour to disintegrate into small, spotty patches when viewed up close.
When compared side by side against our current plasma fave, the Panasonic VT20, it was neck-and-neck for outright performance. While the Samsung did some things well, particularly black levels, it wasn't able to match the Panasonic for detail, especially on movement. The Samsung couldn't hold onto moving figures in a way that the Panasonic could, especially with Blu-ray content. While the Samsung's 24p support was decent, the Panasonic was smoother and more detailed overall.
In one telling noise-reduction test of a flock of birds flying across a sunset, both TVs captured the colours naturally, but the Samsung left a black vapour trail in the birds' wake. The Samsung's overzealousness is only an issue if you want to turn it off — which you can't.
While we're on the topic of picture engine strangeness, the contrast control on our unit didn't seem to work that well, and simply cycled through a series of off-blues and -pinks before becoming quite bright at about 98. We've had "floating blacks" before; is this a case of "floating whites"?
We next evaluated a selection of the TV's different features, including 3D and smart TV. Since the Smart Hub interface and functionality of the D8000 is very similar to that of the D7000 "LED", you can see our detailed thoughts on that here.
Meanwhile, we did try signing up for BigPond Movies on the TV, but found that you can't do it. The sign-up window is a pop-over, and the screen won't scroll down to the "sign me up" part. Watching the free movie selection instead, we found that Ferris Bueller's Day Off had a good level of detail, none of the digital compression errors that you typically see on IPTV services and natural colours.
Switching to 3D, we found the Samsung to be one of the best systems that we've seen yet; the glasses are lightweight and the images that the system produces are largely crosstalk-free. In comparison to the images produced by the LG LW6500 passive TV, the trade-off is a noticeable drop in brightness.
Lastly, the on-board sound system is lively and able to reproduce a fairly wide dynamic range — for a TV, that is. We found that it performed best with dialogue, so it's great for watching the news or a drama when you don't want to use a separate sound system.
Although the TV has a couple of foibles, the Samsung D8000 demonstrates that the once-clear gap between Panasonic and the rest of the world has closed. This TV is an attractively polished and high-performing all-rounder, and would make an excellent upgrade to any TV of Kuro-age (though not the Pioneer specifically) or older.