Posts Tagged ‘Blu-ray’

Product Review: Samsung UN46C7000 3D LCD TV

If you attended CES back in January, you couldn’t escape 3D. It was everywhere in every booth, staring down from plasma and LCD TVs, projected from hanging screens, and dazzling on super-thin OLED monitors.

There is no question that TV manufacturers put some heavy bets on 2010 being the year of 3D. And most of the heavy betting came from Samsung, who originally announced 19 different models of LCD and plasma 3D sets at their press conference.

As things played out, public reception to 3D TV has been mixed. Numerous surveys have been taken that show consumers think 3D is certainly cool, but not many of them plan to buy a 3D TV this year. Is it too early in the technology curve? Is the lingering recession keeping wallets shut? It’s hard to say, but the fact is that 3D is coming along slowly – perhaps more slowly than manufacturers would like.

No, those cute lil' monsters do NOT come with the TV.

Samsung’s UN-46C7000 ($2,599 list) is one of the smallest 3D TVs available. For this review, I purchased Samsung’s BD-C6900 3D Blu-ray player for $249 at Amazon.com, as it was difficult to procure a press sample. (You can now buy this player for $214 at several different online stores.) Of course, right after it shipped, Samsung’s PR agency sent me the new BD-C6800 player. Figures!

OUT OF THE BOX

The UN46C7000 is ready to rock and roll. You’ll spend a few minutes assembling the support stand and trying to figure out how to attach it to the back of the incredibly-thin TV (something Samsung’s lab folks have had to deal with, too).  The finish around the bezel and on the stand is a shiny silvery color, which I find a bit distracting. But it goes to the old saying that “televisions are furniture,” I guess.

Samsung has provided plenty of input connections on this TV. There are four HDMI inputs, all of them version 1.4a compatible. Input #1 also supports connections to a personal computer, while Input #2 is the audio return channel (ARC) connection for an external AV receiver.

Believe it or not, THOSE are the analog video connections, along with the antenna input (far left).

There’s also a single analog component video (YPbPr) connection, a sign of the times. How much longer before this connection goes away altogether?  Of course, composite video connections just WON’T go away, and there’s one of those, too. Note that all of these analog connections do not use conventional RCA jacks – there’s no room for ‘em.

Instead, Samsung provides special breakout cables for component and composite video, along with analog video hookups. The actual plugs are stereo mini types. The same space/size problem applies to the Antenna input – Samsung provides an adapter to go from the standard threaded F-connector to a mini slide-on coaxial connector.

All of the HDMI connections support CEC, so when you turn on your Blu-ray player, the TV also powers up and switches to that input automatically. Want to feed digital audio from TV programs to your AV receiver? Samsung’s gotcha covered with a Toslink output jack, but you’ll need to come up with the cable. And as I just mentioned, HDMI input #2 will provide an audio return path to your receiver.

Four HDMI inputs are arrayed vertically along the left side of the rear panel.

MENUS AND ADJUSTMENTS

Samsung’s menus haven’t changed much over the years.  There are four image presets, labeled Dynamic, Standard, Natural, and Movie. Suffice it to say that you won’t want to run the TV for very long in Dynamic mode, as the pictures are extremely bright and over-enhanced. Standard, Natural, and Movie modes all work well for everyday viewing, but if you are into calibration, you’ll need to use Movie mode.

In addition to the Big 5 adjustments, you can also select from four different color temperature settings, five different aspect ratio settings, and a host of ‘green’ energy setting modes called Eco Solution. There are five different settings for screen brightness – including one that turns the image off, but leaves the sound on – and there’s also an ‘Eco Sensor’ that adjusts picture brightness based on ambient room lighting conditions.

If you think all of these settings play havoc with gamma, you are correct! And there are other image ‘enhancements’ that Samsung has included that will also result in some strange gamma curves, including three different black levels, three settings for dynamic contrast, and a shadow detail enhance/reduce adjustment. My advice is to leave them all off.

Samsung's backlit remote controls have gotten pretty snazzy in recent years.

Thanks to former home theater magazine editor Mike Wood, who know runs Samsung’s test lab in Los Angeles, we’re seeing more calibrator-friendly adjustments in the image menu. There are two Expert Patterns (grayscale and color) for basic brightness, contrast, saturation, and hue calibrations. You can also select red, green, and blue-only modes, as well as Auto, Native, and Custom color spaces. The Custom mode lets you define your own x,y coordinates for primaries.

For color temperature calibration, Samsung provides two-point and ten-point RGB gain and offset adjustments. The theory is to do most of the calibration in two-point mode, then go back through a multi-step grayscale in ten-point mode for fine-tuning. (It almost worked for me, with one hiccup.)

Other adjustments include Flesh Tone enhance (leave it off), xvYCC mode (leave it off as well, no one currently supports extended color in packaged content), and the usual edge enhancement (peaking) stuff. (Remember, HDTV doesn’t need edge enhancement – it’s high-definition, savvy?)

There are a couple of noise filters that have some effect on image quality. The MPEG noise filter attempts to use low-pass filtering to get rid of mosquito noise and macroblock (excessive compression) artifacts. Be warned that low-pass filtering softens high-frequency image detail, so go easy on these controls. There’s only so much you can do to turn chicken turds into chicken salad, as my old college film professor used to say.

We’ll wrap things up with a discussion of Auto Motion Plus. This feature, which is pretty much de rigueur on all new LCD TVs, corrects for 24-frame judder by pulling the frame rate up to multiples of 60 Hz. In the case of the UN46C7000, the corrected frame rate is supposedly 240 Hz. What this actually does to images is to make filmed content look like it is live, or shot at video rates.

Whether this is esthetically a good thing to do is a matter of debate. The result is a very smooth presentation, free of flicker and judder, but it just doesn’t look the same as a movie. The motivation behind Auto Motion Plus (and every other TV manufacturers implementation of it) is to get rid of motion blur and smearing, something that all LCD TVs suffer from to various degrees. Try it – you may like it, you may hate it.

3D MENUS

Thought I’d forgotten about these, eh? Samsung 3D TVs are quite smart enough to recognize when 3D content is streaming through their inputs, unless it is encoded in the HDMI v1.4a frame packing format. This format, which delivers movies in the 1920x1080p @24 Hz format, is so unique that if you start playing a 3D Blu-ray disc, the UN46C7000 will automatically switch into 3D mode – no further adjustments required.

The two frame-compatible 3D formats (1080i side-by-side and 720p top+bottom) require some help from you to be shown correctly. Once you’ve established that you are indeed seeing the unprocessed 720p or 1080i 3D program from your content provider, go into the UN46C7000’s 3D menu and turn 3D mode ON.

Your will then be presented with a menu of 3D frame compatible formats to choose from, including side by side (1080i), top & bottom (720p), and several esoteric formats like line by line, vertical stripe, checkerboard (also known as quincunx), and frequency. That last format alternates full-frame left and right images in a similar manner to active shutter 3D, but at slower frame rates.

Aside from frame packing and side-by-side/top & bottom, you are most likely to run into the checkerboard format when playing back 3D games and other non-standard media. The other formats are not widely used, but you may come across them with Internet-delivered or broadcast content in the future.

Samsung also has a 2D to 3D conversion algorithm built-in to all of their 3D TVs. Try it – the effect is noticeable at times, but still doesn’t look quite right to me. My advice is not to try and add synthetic 3D effects to everyday TV shows and movies, but stick with content that has been specifically formatted for 3D. (Readers who saw Clash of the Titans in 3D know what I’m talking about.

ON THE TEST BENCH

Given all of the image enhancement adjustments present in this TV – and the auto-dimming circuitry that boosts black levels – it is difficult to get an accurate read on gamma performance and contrast. Nevertheless, I did run a basic set of test patterns and came up with some mostly-believable numbers, using 1920x1080p test patterns from an AccuPel HDG4000 generator and ColorFacts 7.5 calibration software.

After my best calibration, I measured brightness in Movie mode at 110 nits  (32 foot-Lamberts). That number ranged as high as 400 nits in Dynamic mode (tanning lamp mode), 201 nits in Standard mode, and 210 nits in Natural mode. ANSI (average) contrast was clocked at a respectable 621:1, with peak contrast from  checkerboard pattern at 722:1.

Because of the auto dimming feature with low-level content, peak contrast can reach amazingly high levels. In Movie mode, a sequential white/black measurement reached 20,567:1, and soared to 400,000:1 in Dynamic mode. (Not that your eye can actually see that level of contrast.)

It's kinda wobbly-looking, but this 2.44 gamma was the best I could pull from the TV.

White balance uniformity was respectable for an LCD TV. Maximum color temperature shift across a full white screen was 388 degrees Kelvin, while maximum color shift across a nine-step grayscale was 287 degrees Kelvin. During one of my ten-point calibrations, the gray pattern at 30 IRE shifted noticeably blue-green, resulting in a bump up to 7260K. I’m not sure why it happened – going back and recalibrating in two-point mode fixed the problem.

That's a pretty impressive grayscale track!

And here's the reason why - look at the RGB levels, which vary little from black to 100 IRE.

I mentioned the screwy gamma curve performance earlier. You’ll tear your hair out trying to get a consistent gamma on the UN46C7000, so you’ll just have to settle for your ‘best shot.’ That’s what I did with an effective but wobbly 2.44 gamma in what I called my ‘best’ calibration out of ten. Not satisfied, I came back and tried it again with a ‘final’ calibration and didn’t see a significant difference.

But both curves were a lot cleaner than what I started with, which was S-curve gamma response in almost every picture mode. The culprit? That doggone auto-dimming circuit that forces deep blacks when the on-screen content has low luminance levels. Needless to say, you don’t want to be using a TV like this as a reference-grade monitor.

The UN46C7000 has a surprisingly accurate color gamut when compared to the BT.709 standard color space for HDTV. It just comes up a bit short on red and is oversaturated with green and blue. You can fix this to some extent using the Custom color space control, but red, yellow, and green are then undersaturated as a result. Can win ‘em all…

 

Here's the UN46C7000's factory color gamut...

...and here's the corrected color gamut, albeit light on green, yellow, and red.

IMAGE QUALITY

Because this TV is primarily marketed for 3D use, I decided to make most of my image quality judgments based on 3D content.  Of course, that didn’t leave me a lot of options for programming as I could only choose from 3D sports on ESPN, or the sole 3D Blu-ray disc in my possession – Monsters Vs. Aliens.

My thoughts on 3D football have already been published and can be found here. As for image quality, I found myself switching to Natural or Standard mode to pick up the additional brightness I was losing through Samsung’s active shutter glasses – about 50%, according to the basic physics of light. Movie mode was not bright enough for viewing 3D unless I had all ambient room lighting dimmed and there was little or no outside light.

Of course, switching out of Movie mode when watching a 3D movie tosses all of your calibration efforts out the window. How’s that for a conundrum? Your best image quality isn’t bright enough for watching 3D movies. (I knew there was a catch to this 3D thing…)

Switching in and out of Auto Motion mode fixed up quite a few motion blur problems observed in ESPN’s 3D telecast of the Ohio State – Miami football game, which I also elected to watch in Standard mode so I could throw away 100 of those 200 nits, yet still have acceptable screen brightness. I didn’t have a chance to use it to watch conventional movies.

This is the 21st-century version of the old Indian chief test pattern.

The 3D experience using frame compatible formats isn’t quite the same as watching frame-packed 3D from a Blu-ray. The latter format has more detail, more contrast punch, and  is just a lot more satisfying to watch. Because the two frame-compatible formats are half-resolution, image detail on long and medium shots didn’t quite measure up to ‘straight’ HD as seen from ESPN’s 2D telecast of the same game on my adjacent Panasonic 42-inch 1080p plasma.

Monsters in 3D was a very enjoyable experience. I did observe a slight amount of crosstalk through Samsung’s glasses, mostly when bright or near-white objects were present in the frame, such as Dr. Cockroach’s white lab coat, or white text on signs. Auto Motion was disabled and I didn’t see much in the way of objectionable judder, although animated movies tend to be ‘cleaner’ in this regard than live action films.

In general, it’s tough to make critical observations about 3D image quality because the images are so much dimmer. And it is discouraging that the best calibrated mode was too dark for my liking, resulting in dull colors and lower contrast. But given the screwy gamma response I saw in all modes, maybe I should have just sat back and enjoyed whatever appeared on the screen.

2D was a different story. In Movie mode, images had saturated, accurate color, plenty of contrast pop, and more than enough brightness for everyday viewing. Once ambient room light levels get to a certain point, you don’t really see any elevated black level issues. But you will see a flattening of contrast and a drop in brightness as you move off the center axis, something all LCD TVs have to contend with.

CONCLUSION

Samsung’s UN46C7000 is representative of current 3D LCD TV technology, using edge LED backlighting, auto dimming, and a super-thin design.

In terms of 2D performance, it is a strong performer despite those issues relating to gamma performance. In fact, it’s one of the best ultra-thin LCD sets I’ve examined in recent years, even though the patterned vertical alignment (PVA) liquid crystal layer still has some problems with color shifts when viewed off-axis.But it is bright, the colors pop, and images are detailed and crisp, especially after you go through and disable all of the so-called enhancements. And as you can see from the charts, once you calibrate it, it stays tight when tracking a specific color temperature.

As a 3D set, it does a workmanlike job, but could use more help with critical adjustments at higher brightness levels. You can’t calibrate anything in any mode other than Movie, so your only option is to crank up the brightness and try to recapture some of the light lost in Samsung’s active shutter glasses. That may screw up the TV’s gamma response, through.

SAMSUNG BD-C6900/BD-C6800: Samsung’s 3D Blu-ray players are very easy to set up. Plug them in, power up, and the CEC sensor will automatically turn on the TV and switch to that input. Both players are WiFi enabled, and will prompt you for a connection to your home network using manually-configured IP setup or the default automatic (DHCP) configuration. If you don ‘t know much about TCP/IP configurations and addresses, use the automatic mode to set it and forget it.

Both players can stream content from Netflix and also from your home media servers, so you can watch video clips, look at digital photos, and listen to MP3 music files and Internet radio from Pandora. The players will automatically configure themselves to the 1080p/24 frame-packing format when a 3D Blu-ray disc is loaded, and the default output resolution is 1080p for Samsung LCD and plasma TVs.

Full specifications and other product information are available here – http://www.samsung.com/us/video/tvs/UN46C7000WFXZA

Current Web prices on this TV range from $1,370 to $2,200 as of November 10, 2010.

Power consumption tests – Over an 8-hour period, the UN46C7000 consumed an average of 106.4 watts while in Movie mode with full-screen content.

3CD: Well, that was fun. I’m bored. What’s next?

I stopped in at my local Best Buy this past Saturday (10/30) to look for an inexpensive upscaling DVD player (yeah, I know that’s redundant) for my in-laws.

While I was there, I wandered around the store to see what was being showcased in the store demos. 3D, which was a big thing back in April, had clearly fizzled out – at least, as far as store personnel were concerned.

Of four possible 3D demo stations, only one had any glasses – the Sony Bravia 3D demo in the Magnolia section. A nearby Panasonic 3D demo had clips from Avatar rolling in 3D on a plasma TV, but not a pair of glasses to be found.

At the entrance to the Magnolia store was a Samsung 55-inch LCD 3D demo. Trouble was, the channel was set to a 2D telecast of the Michigan State – Iowa college football game and no 3D glasses were anywhere to be seen.

Behind the service counter in the regular TV section was yet another 3D demo, this time featuring the 46-inch UN46C7000 Samsung LCD TV. And just like my last visit, the TV was showing Monsters vs. Aliens in 2D, again sans 3D glasses.

A possible fifth demo at the end of one of the aisles used to feature Panasonic’s 50VT20 plasma, but it had been taken down. This was the only demo that had any working 3D glasses a few months back.

So, what was all the  buzz about at BB this time? Why, Sony Internet TV, of course!

If you think TV remotes are complicated, wait until you try THIS keyboard!

Yep, it’s time to get out on the Internet and dig for content, using Google’s search engine and Sony’s incredibly small and dense keyboard. I didn’t see a single person attempt to use it during my 30 minute visit to the store.

In addition to Sony’s support for Google TV, Logitech has a new set-top box you can connect to the Ethernet port on your existing TV – or to the HDMI input.

Sony also showed a new “Internet TV Blu-ray Disc Player” that incorporates the Google interface. It’s the silvery box in the lower middle part of the photo, and encourages you to “take advantage of Full HD 1080p Blu-ray Disc Capabilities.” (???) No mention of 3D anywhere in the exhibit, so there may be a ‘separation of church and state’ thing going on as far as Sony is concerned.

Oh, and that inexpensive upscaling DVD player? I wound up going down the street to 6th Avenue Electronics and scoring a Panasonic DVD-S58PP-K with HDMI output and CEC for $50. Can’t beat that with a stick.

Blu-ray: Those hotcakes must be getting cold

Warner Brothers Entertainment recently expanded its DVD2Blu promotion to include any DVD of any movie or TV program – not just DVD releases of Warner titles.

For those readers who are not familiar with the program, DVD2Blu allowed anyone to trade in older WB movie titles on DVD and get a credit towards the purchase of a new Blu-ray version. The upgraded BD would cost about $8, including shipping.

Now, WB has expanded their program and will accept any professionally-produced DVD – movies, TV shows, sports, etc – towards the purchase of a WB Blu-ray movie or WB Television collection, with prices starting as low as $4.95. According to the ad, which is shown below and can be accessed at http://www.dvd2blu.com/ there are over 100 BD titles to choose from. Order more than $35 worth, and WB will throw in free shipping.

For Blu-ray fans, this is quite a promotion. You can send in DVDs you picked up at discount bins, discarded from libraries, or were given for Christmas presents. All you have to do is mail in the disc (not the packaging) and pay the discounted price, plus shipping (except where noted) to get new BDs for your collection.

From here, it seems like a desperate move by WB to thin out a backlog of BD titles that aren’t moving. Earlier this week, I wrote about the latest Digital Entertainment Group report that showed digital distribution of content is zooming ahead of physical distribution. The report also mentioned that tens of millions of BDs have been shipped to retail. Apparently tens of millions of BDs are still sitting at retail, too.

The costs of administering such a mail-in program aren’t cheap, either. All of the DVDs will have be disposed of, and there are the usual associated shipping and handling costs to deal with.

This move by WB is significant because they are one of the largest distributors of packaged media, along with Disney, who has yet to announce any type of redemption or discount program for their BD titles.

I recall a conversation with a Disney executive a few years back at the HPA Technology Retreat. His comment cut to the chase: “If the industry wants Blu-ray to be successful, they should just stop pressing regular DVDs and make Blu-ray the only optical disc format. That would do the trick!”

Of course, at the time, BD players were in the neighborhood of $500 – $700 dollars and largely ignored by the general public, who gravitated towards cheaper upscaling DVD players instead.

Times have changed. Nowadays, BD players can be had for as little as $80, and even 3D models are plummeting in  price – at least one is selling for less than $200, and a couple more are approaching that price point.

Given the slow but steady decline in overall sales of packaged media (DVD, BD, and the few VHS tapes that are still in circulation)  – down 8% this year over last – it’s time for Hollywood to ‘sink or swim’ by committing to the BD format and start making plans for the sunset of RL DVDs. Even Netflix has announced it will exit the DVD distribution business in the next five years and concentrate on its ‘bread-and-butter’ streaming offerings.

Wonder when the next round of BD fire sales will start?

The 3D Fire Sales have Begun

PriceSCAN has just released its latest 3D Blu-ray Player Index, and it’s a doozy.

The 3D BD Player Index is a composite of all models currently at retail, and the average price for those models has dropped by 26% in six months, with a 10.6% drop in just the past week.

PriceSCAN listed Sony’s BDP-S570 as a good example of aggressive discounting. This player, which required a firmware upgrade to support 3D playback, has fallen from a retail price of $250 to $170 since late February.

From my own experience, I was able to score Samsung’s BD-C6900 3D BD player for just $244 plus shipping from Amazon in early September. Its original list price was closer to $400 when unveiled shortly after CES.

These rapid drops in retail prices reflect the low level of enthusiasm for 3D TV that has been evidenced to date. In an earlier post, I referenced an NPD Group study that showed only 11% of respondents in a recent poll had any plans to buy a 3D TV in the near future, citing concerns about technology, cost issues, the lack of content, and the need to wear expensive, proprietary glasses.

Can prices on BD players and TVs drop low enough to overcome the other objections? Probably not, as the lack of content is still a big problem. There needs to be bucketloads of 3D content available to drive sales, and right now, we’re talking about glassfuls.

If you are thinking about taking the dive into 3D, you’d be best off sitting on your hands for a few more weeks. I have a feeling we’re going to see even deeper discounts on BD players and TVs, probably on the order of 30 – 40% by the time January rolls around.

Think I’m nuts? I just Googled retail prices for the BD-C6900, and it’s now down to $214 (plus shipping) at Amazon, Tiger Direct, PC Richard, Vann’s, and ABT.  (Buyer’s remorse alert – I bought one too soon!!)

It’s all in the Way You Spin the Numbers

Ahead of next week’s Blu-Con Blu-ray lovefest in Beverly Hills, the Digital Entertainment Group has just released its latest market analysis numbers for packaged media.

According to the DEG numbers, total consumer spending on packaged media through Q3 2010 came to $12.6B, a decline Y-Y of about 4%, while consumer transactions for home entertainment products were flat for the year. Digital distribution, which includes electronic sell-through (up 37% Y-Y) and video-on-demand (up 20% Y-Y), accounted for 13.5% of the total, totaling $1.7B.

Other interesting tidbits: Blu-ray saw its sell-through increase by 80% Y-Y to $1B. I’m not really sure what that number means, because overall packaged media (Blu-ray and conventional DVDs of movies, etc.) sell-through declined by 8% Y-Y, continued a slow and steady decline that started almost five years ago and has shown no signs of abetting.

The DEG states that Blu-ray hardware sales increased 104% Y-Y, with more than three million “set-top units” sold. According to DEG, this brings the installed base of Blu-ray disc playback devices to 21.2 million units in the USA.

Note that a “Blu-ray disc playback unit” obviously includes Sony PlayStation III consoles, but there’s no reliable way to tell how many of those are being used to watch Blu-ray movies.

Conventional packaged media is clearly in decline. Rentrak numbers show that spending on DVD and BD rentals was down 4.4% Y-Y to a total of $4.4B. That number would be a lot worse if not for Redbox and other kiosk rental operations, which saw an increase in revenue of 55% Y-Y.

DEG also went on to say that 98 million Blu-ray discs have shipped to retail so far this year, up 57% Y-Y. But that number doesn’t tell us anything about how many of them have actually sold. (It’s like the early days of DTV, when manufacturers quoted the numbers of TVs shipped to retail, and not the actual sales numbers.)

A few things can be divined from these numbers. First, as I just mentioned, the decline in packaged media sales shows no sign of slowing down, and the Blu-ray format is doing little to stem the tide. That’s been the case ever since the BD – HD DVD format wars were declared over, nearly three years ago.

Secondly, Hollywood may have some major bones to pick with Netflix’ and Redbox’ business models, but it’s these same two companies that are saving the studio’s chestnuts right now.  (Forget Blockbuster; they’re preoccupied with Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings and arranging temporary ‘debtor-in-possession’ financing just to keep their doors open.)

Finally, electronic sell-through is gaining momentum, even faster than video-on-demand. Customers like the idea of consuming entertainment at home through a high-speed broadband connection, feeding some sort of DVR or streaming in real time at lower resolution. They really don’t care whether they have a physical copy of the movie on a disc, as long as they can get it off a server someplace.

Home theater fans will argue that last point with me, but they’re automatically disqualified from the argument because they constitute a niche and a relatively small percentage of the population – a percentage that studios could never make a sustained living from.

No, the average viewer at home doesn’t care about squirreling away DVDs or BDs and hunting for them on movie night. And that’s been pretty clearly reflected in packaged media rental and sales trends for almost half a decade.

It’s all in how you spin the numbers.