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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

HDTV Spotlight: What Makes the Samsung F8500 Plasma TV So Special?

At CES this year, while 4K and OLED were the talk of the town, it was a couple of more traditional HDTVs that caught our eye, one of which was Samsung's F8500 series plasma TV. Referred to by Samsung as the "Ultimate Contrast" television, the F8500 features improvements in overall brightness as well as deeper blacks compared to its predecessors. Put together, this means the set offers impressive contrast and can perform well even in brightly lit rooms.

We were able to spend some quality time with the F8500 this week at a private Samsung event in downtown Manhattan and found out a little bit about what makes this marvel of technology tick. The brightness (luminance) enhancement comes primarily from a reduction in thickness of the plasma cell wall which surrounds each of the three sub-pixels (yellow, green and blue). The subpixels make up each of the 2 million plus pixels on the TV. Because there is less of a gap between each sub-pixel, this means each sub-pixel can be larger and can generate more light. This feature is exclusive to the F8500 series.

As for the black level improvements, Samsung engineers attribute this to the newly enhanced "carbon nano" filter called "Real Black Pro" which coats the glass of the plasma screen. This isn't simple "window tint" that makes everything darker, but a specially designed formula and screen structure which passes light outward from the TV transparently while absorbing ambient light in the room. This allows the blacks to stay dark without being washed out by ambient room lighting. If you have bright lights directly behind your viewing area you will see some light reflected by the screen but it's fairly diffuse and greatly minimized compared to a plain glass screen. While some other 2013 plasma models include this filter, the version in the F8500 is an enhanced version (hence the "Pro" designation) making this another feature unique to the F8500

On the processing side, the F8500 plasma offers a new "Black Enhancement" mode. This feature can stretch the set's brightest white from 235 to 255 (on a brightness scale of 0 to 255). Why would this matter? Although most content created for HDTV today is encoded with brightness values between 16 and 235 (darkest black to whitest white), some content can actually go higher than 235 with dynamic headroom. So a set that just clips white at that 235 value may be unable to get as bright as it needs to. But also, if you are viewing the set in a brighter room, that 235 value may not be bright enough to compete with ambient room light. So the F8500 has the ability to dynamically adjust the brightness values based on a user setting and still get deliver fine shadow detail and brightness gradation even in a bright room. You can set it to "bright room," "dark room" or "automatic" which uses an ambient light sensor on the TV to make the adjustments. Of course, for the purist, there is also an "off" setting.

Celebrities Flo-Rida, Kate Upton and Eli Manning joined Samsung executives at the 2013 TV launch event in downtown Manhattan on March 20, 2013.

For further picture quality improvements, the F8500 series gets Samsung's new "Intelligent Viewing" mode, which optimizes the picture processing for the content. In other words, if you're viewing a low quality streaming source like a YouTube video, the set will adjust its noise reduction and scaling algorithm to squeeze more detail out of the image and minimize artifacts. However, if you switch over to a high quality source like a Blu-ray Disc, the set automatically minimizes the processing to let that high quality 1080p image shine through. As with the Black Enhancement function, "Intelligence Viewing" can be turned off if desired.

In terms of content and operation, the F8500 gets Samsung's new improved Smart Hub. Streaming content and apps are now laid out more logically than in earlier models, grouped by category on separate pages with a new gesture-based remote that enables quick intuitive navigation. And now a unified search function allows you to search for programs across multiple sources (e.g., Netflix, Amazon VOD, TV listings, etc.). Enhancement have also been made to the F8500's voice-controlled operation so you can just ask the TV for recommendations on what to watch and it will make suggestions based on based on your previous viewing history.

The F8500 plasma's Real Black Pro filter minimizes light reflection on the screen.

At the event, Samsung also revealed pricing and availability of its 2013 PDP line-up, including the F8500 series. The F8500 plasma is expected to begin shipping in late March in 51-inch, 60-inch and 64-inch screen sizes priced from $2,199 to $3,699.  Samsung reps said that the distribution channels for the F8500 would be "limited" but no additional details were available on which dealers would get them.

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