Which is the best Samsung Plasma HDTV Set for 2012?

Samsung HDTVs have always been in demand by serious users looking for style, features, and picture quality. Whether it is a plasma or an LED TV, if you are after the best features and performance, Samsung is always in the equation.

The Samsung plasma HDTV lineup for 2012 is no exception, with mid- to top-tier plasma HDTVs delivering solid picture, excellent styling, and enhanced features. And when it comes to features, it is Samsung’s E8000 the most feature-rich HDTVs even though some of the features seem half-baked. Yet the real problem with the E8000 is not a poorly implemented feature set inasmuch as too high a price for its suite of premium features. It is true that E8000 HDTVs also enjoys excellent styling and supports a superior picture quality that is in line with that of the Panasonic VT50 flagship series, but…

Is it possible to enjoy the same picture quality and Samsung’s excellent styling while trading the not so useful ‘premium features’ found on the flagship, for a more affordable plasma HDTV from within the same Samsung lineup?

We analyze Samsung’s upper tier plasma HDTVs to discover more.

Introducing the new 2012 Samsung plasma HDTV lineup

For 2012, Samsung is offering seven different series with a total of 16 models, twelve of which are 3D HDTVs; screen sizes range form 51-inch to 64-inch.

At the top of the list, there is the E8000 flagship series with its advanced feature set, followed by the E7000 premium series. Both series feature 51-inch, 60-inch, and 64-inch sets. Further down the line is the mid-tier E6500, a series that trades the more extravagant non-picture related features of the more expenses series for a more affordable price tag. This is also the only series from within the upper tier that comes in two screen sizes only, 51-inch and 60-inch.

Directly associated with the E6500 is the E550 step-up series; it is very similar to the E6500 but comes with a reduced feature set, missing the more refined styling and some of the more advanced user-adjustable picture settings, like Samsung’s color management system.

However, one major difference between the E550 and the upper-tier HDTV series is the display panel. E550 HDTVs come with Samsung Real Black panel while E6500, E7000 and E8000 HDTVs make use of Samsung’s improved Real Black PRO panel. However, the real Black panel is still a capable performer and E550 HDTVs still deliver solid overall TV picture, one that makes the E550 Series a great budget-class HDTV proposal for home entertainment, delivering a more than adequate feature set at a price that is some $200 cheaper (at the 60-inch screen size) than a corresponding E6500 Samsung plasma HDTV. It is no wonder therefore that sets such as the 60-inch PN60E550 are among the best-selling budget-class big screen HDTVs irrespective of display technology or TV brand; this is also the best-selling 60-inch Samsung plasma HDTV for 2012 despite that Samsung has a cheaper 60-inch E530 model in its lineup.

The problem with E530 HDTVs, like the remaining E490 and E450 series within the Samsung lineup, is that these are entry-level bare-bones HDTVs designed mainly to deliver the largest screen for your money — without much of the features many expect today for serious home entertainment. Instead, E550 Samsung plasma HDTVs have been positioned just at the right spot within the features list while still remaining extremely affordable.

However, E550 HDTVs lack the videophile-grade picture of the more expensive Samsung plasma HDTVs. If that is what you are after, you have to move on to the E6500 series. It is the presence of the improved Real Black PRO panel and the more advanced user adjustable picture settings on E6500 Samsung plasma HDTVs that enables the latter to achieve superior picture quality, one that is practically the same as that of the more expensive E7000 and E8000 plasma TVs. You would not enjoy the same features as premium and flagship HDTVs but you still get the most important deliverable of any TV, namely that of a superb picture.

Speaking of picture performance, it is the new Samsung Real Black Pro panel the main reason behind the more than ‘just incremental’ improvement registered in picture quality by 2012 Samsung plasma HDTVs. This new panel makes use of a new advanced panel structure coupled with an improved video engine to deliver deeper blacks, richer and more accurate colors, higher contrast, and balanced grayscale response. The result is exceptional overall picture  one that makes it possible even for affordable mid-tier E6500 series HDTVs to deliver a superior picture quality that is on par with that of 2011 Panasonic VT30 flagship HDTVs.

Unique for 2012 is the new Samsung Smart Interaction feature found on the E8000 (apart from Samsung’s premium and flagship LED TVs), with voice and gesture control, and face detection.

This means that the TV uses the built-in camera and microphone to enable the user to control the TV through voice commands and the movement of hands. The TV also comes with the convenience of automatically logging the viewer onto the respective Samsung’s app account by recognizing the viewer’s face through the use of advanced face detection software.

But apart from being half-baked, this much-touted feature by Samsung does not add any real value to your TV experience except for a $300 premium over corresponding E7000 Samsung plasma HDTVs! You see, controlling the TV by waving your hands and ‘shouting’ at your TV is not more convenient than using a standard TV remote.

More of substance is the new expanded Smart TV platform with its Smart Hub. Samsung Smart Hub comes with an easy to use interface, though a bit cluttered compared to Panasonic’s VieraConnect.

The Samsung suite enjoys one of the best content lineups that build on last year by adding one of the biggest apps stores, a fully functional web browser, and Skype-ready when used with the optional Skype camera kit. The Samsung TV browser is one of the best but is mainly suitable for basic web browsing especially when controlling the TV browser via the standard TV remote. Samsung provides an optional wireless Bluetooth-enabled full QWERTY keyboard for use with its Smart TVs that makes TV web browsing much easier.

Samsung’s Smart Hub is available on all series including the E550, except entry-level HDTVs. However, there is one important difference between premium/flagship series and the rest of the Samsung plasma HDTV lineup with the Smart TV suite. E8000 and E70000 HDTVs come with dual-core processing; this helps make the Smart TV experience more intuitive and enjoyable thanks to the reduced app load times while allowing for multi-tasking, like downloading while using another app.

However, as is the case with the dual-core processor feature on Panasonic GT50 and VT50 series, the presence of dual-core processing on Samsung’s premium plasma HDTVs does not lead to any improved picture quality, thus explaining why E6500 picture performance is practically the same as that of the more expensive upper-tier Samsung plasma HDTVs.

Mid-tier, Premium, and Flagship Samsung Plasma HDTVs
in detail

As stated earlier on in this discussion, it is the upper tier lineup of Samsung plasma HDTVs for 2012 that is of real interest if a videophile-grade picture is your priority. These HDTV lineups support superior picture quality and come with an extensive suite of user picture controls. We analyze each of these series in detail below.

The E6500 Samsung Plasma HDTV Series: A mid-tier series with a flagship performance

Many in the market for an HDTV for serious home entertainment use often disregard mid-tier series completely. This partly explains why these are often among the HDTVs that do not feature well in HDTV sales. This holds true even for the Samsung E6500 series, with the more expensive E7000 plasma HDTVs doing considerably better.

This is unfortunate because the E6500 Samsung plasma HDTV series has al lot to offer in terms of features; it also supports practically the same picture performance as that of the more expensive E7000 and E8000 HDTVs.

The E6500 comes in two screen sizes, the 51-inch and the 60-inch; best-selling model within the series is the 60-inch PN60E6500 which at $1,600 is selling at some $100 cheaper than the 60-inch ST50 Panasonic equivalent.

The E6500 series features an excellent design, one that is almost identical to that of the more expensive series, characterized by a thin bezel with a brushed metallic black finish and a sleek transparent edge for a most stylish look. The panel rests over a swivel black four-legged stand.

Design and Features:

The thin bezel forms part of the latest +1″ Design which reduces the frame width for a larger viewing area without increasing the TV’s outside dimensions. This explains the new 51″ and 60″ screen sizes instead of the more common 50″ and 59″ we were accustomed to with Samsung plasma HDTVs.

Panel depth on the E6500 stands at 2.2-inches, just 0.3-inch more than E7000 and E8000 HDTVs.

This mid-tier Samsung plasma HDTV series comes accompanied with a re-designed backlit standard TV remote, characterized by a convenient three-color Smart Hub access button. Unfortunate the Samsung remote lacks the desired differentiation between the different button categories as instead is the case with the Panasonic clicker.

Main features on the E6500 apart from the Black Panel Pro and the Smart TV suite already discussed above, include Samsung’s Wide Color Enhancer Plus for a wider color gamut, Built-in Wi-Fi, and Samsung’s AllShare Play for DLNA network connectivity supporting photo, movie and music playback.

Picture settings remain one of the key strongholds of Samsung HDTVs. Samsung offers four main picture modes: Dynamic — the brightest of all, Standard — too dim for the average home environment, Relax — said to help reduce eye strain by delivering a more natural picture, and Movie — for watching movies in a darkened room. Each of these picture modes supports basic picture adjustments.

In addition, Standard and Movie modes support a number of advanced picture settings; these include 2-point and 10-point white balance settings but that are not as responsive as in previous years, a solid color management system, gamma adjustment control, color space settings, and digital/MPEG noise reduction.

Included under the Film mode is Samsung’s Cinema Smooth for the optimized playback of 24p movie content from an HDMI connected source, without the jerky movement typical of 24p playback over a 60Hz refresh rate.

As with the rest of the Samsung plasma HDTV lineup, the E6500 series active 3D glasses technology supports the Full HD 3D glasses universal standard, meaning you are can use any third-party glasses even though Samsung’s active 3D glasses come relatively cheap compared with those from Panasonic. This universal standard uses Bluetooth rather than Infrared, leading to a more stable and precise operation of the active 3D glasses for improved 3D performance.

One main difference between Samsung and the other plasma TV makers is that Samsung is including two free pairs of active 3D glasses with all its 3D-enabled plasma HDTVs. The included 3D glasses with these HDTVs provide a good fit and feel relatively comfortable but only as long as you leave your prescription glasses off; if you need your prescription glasses, you will have to either wear contact lenses or invest in a different 3D pair.

TV Sound on E6500 Samsung plasma HDTVs is the typical sound of a flat-panel HDTV, delivering 10W-rms over the set two-channel stereo down-firing speakers. Sound features include Dolby Digital Plus and SRS TheaterSound HD; the latter delivers a simulated surround sound experience via the set built-in stereo speakers.

Connectivity on the mid-tier series features three HDMI inputs like its ST50 Panasonic counterpart; that’s one less than most HDTVs within this price bracket. Other connections include two USB ports, a combined composite/component video input that uses standard RCA connectors rather than the typical breakout cable adapter found on most slim flat-panel HDTVs, and an Ethernet connection with built-in Wi-Fi.

One major difference between E7000/E8000 Samsung plasma HDTVs and the E6500 connection panel is that the ports on the back panel are rear-facing rather than down or side facing. This means that it may not be possible to use a low profile TV wall mount if you need to make use of some of the rear facing ports.

The E7000 Samsung Plasma HDTV Series: A flagship equivalent but without Smart Interaction

As expressed in our introduction, the E7000 premium series of Samsung plasma HDTVs is basically the flagship series but without Samsung’s Clear Image panel technology and the much touted Smart Interaction. In terms of features, the E7000 series is Samsung’s equivalent to the Panasonic GT50 plasma HDTVs.

E7000 Samsung plasma HDTVs come in three screen sizes, the 51-inch, the 60-inch, and the 64-inch. Prices range from $1,350 for the 51-inch to $2,600 for the 64-inch. These prices render the Panasonic GT50 HDTVs somewhat more expensive than the Samsung E7000 series, with the largest difference in price being at the 60-inch screen size, where the best-selling model within the series, the 60-inch PN60E7000, is selling at almost $300 cheaper than the TC-P60GT50 Panasonic equivalent.

The only significant feature upgrade over the cheaper E6500 series is the presence of a dual-core processor which as explained earlier on, does not lead to an improved picture quality but only to an improved Smart TV experience. Other feature differences between E6500 and E7000 plasma HDTVs are minor and include the ultra-slim profile with a panel thickness of 1.9-inches (that’s just 0.3-inch less than the E6500), and the presence of Samsung’s Digital Natural Sound engine, or DNSe, instead of the SRS TheaterSound HD found on the E6500 series. DNSe has been specifically designed to optimize the sound of ultra-slim flat panel HDTVs.

All other features, connectivity, and set design features on E6500 and E7000 Samsung plasma HDTVs are exactly the same apart from a different finish applied to the TV base. The similarity in the features also explains why E7000 and E6500 Samsung plasma HDTVs share practically the same picture performance – with only a few minor differences.

What we find disappointing with E7000 Samsung plasma HDTVs  is that even at this price level, Samsung is including only three HDMI inputs, one less than most of the competition. Even 2010 and 2011 mid-tier and premium Samsung plasma HDTVs came with four HDMI inputs! On a mid-tier level series such as the E6500, this is excusable, but not on a premium HDTV series.

The E8000 Samsung Plasma HDTV Series: The most featured HDTVs presently available for home entertainment

There is no doubt that if what you are after is superb picture quality, Samsung’s flagship E8000 plasma HDTVs represent one of the best options for serious videophiles and home theater enthusiasts. It is also a flagship HDTV option that comes significantly cheaper than Panasonic VT50 flagship plasma HDTVs. It is true that if you are after the ultimate in picture quality, nothings beats the Panasonic but the difference between the two would surface only in a side-by-side comparison through the use of special test instrumentation and only in a darkened test environment.

Instead, what really differentiate the Samsung plasma HDTV flagship from the Panasonic is the feature set. It is the Samsung the most-featured HDTV series presently available on the market. It is true that at times, some of the feature feel half-baked and poorly implemented. But there is a lot to like about E8000 Samsung plasma HDTVs; their only real problem is the relatively expensive price tag with respect to what you get with the less expensive Samsung series.

Samsung E8000 HDTVs come in three screen sizes, the 51-inch, the 60-inch, and the 64-inch. Prices range from $1,600 for the 51-inch to just less than $2,900 for the 64-inch. As with the E6500 and E7000, the best-selling E8000 HDTV is the 60-inch PN60E8000, which at $2,100 represents a relatively ‘affordable’ flagship HDTV option that is some $150 cheaper than a 55-inch VT50 Panasonic plasma HDTV!

Design and Features:

The E8000 design follows on the footsteps of the other upper tier series, with Samsung’s ultra slim design, a thin bezel finished in brushed metallic black finish and a chrome-plated four-legged swivel stand.

We find the chrome finish on the TV stand rather distracting while in our opinion, the four-leg design does not do justice to the rest of the set aesthetics; but then this is more of a like-it-or-hate-it feature.

As has been the latest trend with flagship sets, E8000 HDTVs come with two remotes, the standard clicker as found on the less expensive series, and a rather unique touch pad remote control complete with microphone (for use with voice control), called Smart Touch remote.

Apart from the Smart Interaction feature already referred to earlier on in this Samsung plasma HDTV review, the Smart Touch pad remote represents the second major upgrade for the E8000 over E7000 series HDTVs.

This second remote is designed to complement Samsung Smart TV feature by supposedly providing enhanced navigation. But the lack of basic control buttons and its unresponsive nature would probably mean it will end up collecting dust. More responsive instead is the touch pad on the optional VG-KBD1500 full-QWERTY Wireless Keyboard.

Samsung Smart TV platform is the same as that found on the less expensive series; the main difference between the E8000 and E7000/E6500 HDTVs is that on the E8000, Skype makes use of the built-in camera and microphone instead of the optional Skype camera kit.

We have already stated that Samsung’s Smart TV suite is one of the best, with one of the best content lineups albeit it’s cluttered interface and missing Amazon Instant. Samsung’s TV apps store is also one of the biggest available.

Directly related with Samsung Smart TV are the new Signature Services like Family Story which gives you a quick way to upload and share family photos, and Kids Story which combines kids entertainment and education.

Unique for the E8000 is what Samsung calls Clear Image Panel, a new filter technology and panel structure designed to eliminate the appearance of layered images for a clearer image from almost every angle. This represents the only picture quality related feature difference between E8000 and the less expensive E7000/E6500 Samsung plasma HDTVs.

The E8000 flagship series also comes with what Samsung is referring to as Evolution Kit. This will enable owners to update their Smart TV with the latest technology by replacing the Smart TV hardware and software without replacing the whole TV. In theory, this sounds great since it will effectively increase the usability of your TV. Samsung is saying that the first evolution kit will be out in 2013.

We just hope this evolution feature is not some other sales-pitch as instead was the case with the first 3D-enabled Samsung DLP rear projection TVs from 2007 and 2008. These never saw any follow up even when the first 3D Blu-ray content became available.

All other audio and video features are the same as those found on the less expensive E7000/E6500 HDTVs; these include a dual-core processor as found on the E7000 series and free 3D glasses as supplied with all 3D Samsung plasma HDTVs.

As with the rest of the Samsung HDTV series under review, E8000 Samsung plasma HDTVs come with possibly the best suite of user-adjustable Picture settings. We have already pointed to some of the highlights in this suite of picture controls earlier on in this review such as the 10-point white balance setting, gamma control, Samsung’s excellent color management system, and Samsung Cinema Smooth among others.

Interesting to note that unlike previous years, activating the Cinema Smooth in Film mode does not lead to any loss of blacks as instead had been the case with previous years, nor does it suffer from any image flicker. In this respect, the Cinema Smooth feature on 2012 Samsung plasma HDTVs is one of the best.

Connectivity on E8000 Samsung plasma HDTVs is no better than that on the less expensive series. This means that you still get three HDMI inputs, one less than the mainstream; we would have expected better on an expensive flagship model. There is also no VGA-style PC input; you will have to make use of one of the HDMI inputs for PC connectivity.

On a positive note, the combined composite video/component video input uses standard RCA connectors, meaning there is no need for breakout cables. Equally important, unlike the cheaper series, E8000 Samsung plasma HDTVs come with side-facing connections rather than rear-facing; this facilitates connectivity with a wall-mounting installation while still allowing the use of a low-profile HDTV wall-mount bracket without blocking any of the available inputs.

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