Technology

Samsung's Series 8: A Step Up


0205_samsung_ln46a850
Editor's Rating: star rating

With its slimmed-down design, terrific picture, and wealth of features, the Series 8 is a definite improvement over its predecessor

I'm always suspicious when companies name their products using the good-better-best numbering convention used by BMW. Too often, features added to the base model are simply too marginal to justify the additional cost.

Samsung, which uses this numbering system it its line of HD televisions, shipped me its 46-inch Series 8 high-definition LCD television not long after I reviewed the Series 6. At the outset, the Series 6 was $400 to $500 cheaper. It boasts a 52-inch screen and ranked among my best reviewed products of the year. The bar was high, but the Series 8 largely met my expectations.

A Stunning Picture in a Svelte Frame

The biggest difference between the Series 8 and other models in amsung lineup is the thickness of the frame when viewed from the side. It drops to 1.9 inches from the previous version's 3.9 inches. The Series 8 model also features a more severe cut to the angle at the edges, making the 46-lb. unit more suitable for hanging on the wall. For the extra money, Samsung also includes a second remote about the size of a garage door clicker that handles some of the set's basic functions.

Like the earlier version, the LN46A850 infuses hints of red in the black bezel surrounding the screen, though the effect was not nearly as noticeable as with the Series 6, perhaps because the smaller screen does not reflect as much light. Those who dislike Samsung's "Touch of Color" will rejoice. But for me, the reds in the Series 6 pop, while the Series 8 looks more utilitarian.

Like all its large-screen sets, Samsung's Series 8 delivers a stunning picture with a native resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 progressive. That means it is capable of delivering "full HD" 1080p technology offered with Blu-ray movies and Sony's (SNE) PlayStation 3. No television shows are currently broadcast at 1080p, but Samsung uses processors to upconvert the picture to the set's native resolution.

Makers of LCD TVs use so-called dynamic contrast ratio to create rich, dark, multifaceted darks and nuanced, white whites. Samsung's Series 8 does this through a relatively high 50,000-to-1 ratio that handles video with ease. In one of my favorite test scenes from the movie There Will Be Blood, where the oil well blows and becomes a raging inferno, the 850 delivers all the shadowy detail in the dark areas while making the fire appear almost three-dimensional. And the gloomy but richly detailed depiction of Victorian London in the Blu-ray version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was as glorious on the small screen as in the theater.

Though I would have preferred a set with a larger screen size, sports broadcasts look positively stunning even on the 46-incher. Samsung's video processing engine at times can make other television shows look somewhat severe because of its crispness, but that same engineering choice makes watching college football and other sports a joy. Like many newer LCD sets on the market, the Series 8 includes technology that doubles the screen refresh rate and helps prevent motion blur in fast-moving scenes.

Plug in Everything, Including Internet

With the Series 8, you can attach a cable, satellite, or TiVo (TIVO) set-top box, PlayStation 3, and standalone Blu-ray player with plenty of inputs to spare. There are three HD multimedia (HDMI) inputs on the back, and another on the panel's left side. There's also a pair of component-video inputs; a single RF input for cable and antenna; and a VGA input for computers. The side panel also sports an additional input with S-Video and composite video, a headphone jack, and a USB port for displaying pictures off flash drives or cameras.

On the back, Samsung also includes an Ethernet port. Connect it via a cable to the Internet, and USA Today RSS feeds pop up on the set, from which you can download the latest news, stock ticker information, and localized weather. It's a very rudimentary implementation of Internet TV, but no doubt will improve as the service is expanded to offer direct video downloads of movies and other software.

Another enhancement on Samsung televisions, beginning with the Series 7, is the Samsung Content Library. It comes preloaded with games, recipes, fitness programs, and a slide show of high-definition art and music that can be played while entertaining guests. It's interesting, but has little initial appeal. Samsung says it will be making more content available to its Web site, which can be downloaded via computer to a USB memory drive and transferred to the television.

One of my favorite accompaniments to this year's crop of Samsung Touch of Color televisions is the svelte master remote. Featuring back-lit keys for operation in darkened rooms, it fits nicely in the hand and incorporates a scroll wheel for menu navigation. It's a nice touch, letting the user change settings by feel alone, instead of forcing you to squint or hold it close to see what you're doing. Samsung simplifies the on-screen menu system by opting for iconic representations of settings. To adjust individual picture settings, for instance, you select a picture of a TV with color bars. Once there, plenty of options await both novices and pros.

Even if the new features didn't justify a higher price (they do), the Series 8 is nevertheless worth consideration for the very fact that HDTV prices are falling fast. Now, the 850 can be found online for about $1,800. That means you can pick up the Series 8 with its additional features and ultraslim design at less than the cost for which the Series 6 retailed a few months ago. So choosing between one series and the next becomes less a matter of price, and more about the features you crave.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau.

Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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