Posts Tagged ‘Samsung’

DEG Cranks Up The 3D Hype Machine

Last Tuesday, the Digital Entertainment Group, an advocacy group comprised of CE manufacturers and Hollywood content producers, released a study conducted by research firm SmithGeiger that claims 3D TV owners are overwhelmingly happy with their purchases.

This is hardly earth-shaking news, considering the source. The DEG’s job is to promote things like 3D and the Blu-ray optical disc format. Both are key parts of the revenue stream for TV manufacturers and movie studios.

The survey, which you can read here, does reveal many interesting ‘a-has!’ if you read carefully between the lines. Let’s take them in order.

Quote: “Of those who view programming in 3D, an overwhelming 88 percent rated the 3D picture quality positively, compared to 91 percent for their 2D picture quality.” Really? Why didn’t 3D picture quality rate as high as or higher than 2D picture quality? Wasn’t that a key consideration in buying a 3D TV in the first place?

Quote: “And, 24 percent of those who view 3D at home reported watching more television – in 2D and 3D – since purchasing their new 3D TV.” OK, can we break that down a bit further? How much more TV were they watching, on average? 10% more? 50%? 75%? We don’t know. And what’s the breakdown between increased 3D and 2D viewing? Again, we don’t know.

Here’s what I found much more interesting: 75% of the people in the DEG study who bought a new 3D TV did NOT report watching more 2D or 3D programming after their purchase, while 1% are actually watching less TV. Why? Because there wasn’t enough 3D programming to watch?

Does ‘watching more television’ include DVDs and Blu-ray movies? We just don’t have enough details here, so the ‘24% reported watching more TV’ claim is statistically meaningless without context. (And what about that 1% who are now watching less TV? Interesting…)

Quote: “Also, 85 percent of 3D TV owners surveyed would prefer to watch half, most, or all of their programs in 3D.” Looking at the tables actually provided by DEG, 14% said they’d watch most programs in 2D. But the group that said “it would be an even split” (using the report’s own wording) came to 23%, and a group that is stuck at 50-50 clearly does not favor either side – even though the DEG counted this group in the 85%.

I read the results this way: 62% of respondents clearly would watch everything or most programming in 3D, while 23% don’t lean either way and 14% prefer 2D. If you are trying to make a case that there is a clear preference for 3D, the numbers presented say that 37% of the sample group does not prefer to ‘watch most or all programming in 3D.’ While that still presents a 2:1 ratio favorable to 3D viewing, it is quite different from the 85% figure claimed by the DEG.

Quote: “Of the 3,100 3D TV owners surveyed, only a handful experienced any discomfort when using active shutter 3D glasses.” All right, I’m intrigued – what is “a handful?” Read further into the report and you will see that (a) 18% of respondents “never feel like I fully adjust to the glasses” while an additional 8% state that, “it takes several minutes for me to adjust to the glasses.” That is a total of 26% respondents who either have on-going problems with 3D glasses or take a long time to get used to 3D eyewear.

And the DEG survey numbers are in line with research done in human vision response by several universities and the American Optometrists Association. At the ADA/3D@Home conference in New York City a couple of months ago, the estimates I heard were that as much as 25% of the general population cannot see 3D correctly.

If the DEG thinks 26% is “a handful,” they are delusional.

Quote: “With an average of 2.38 pairs of glasses at home, it is clear that 3D TV owners are actively using their 3D TVs for viewing 3D.” If I had drawn that conclusion from the statistics presented in this survey, I would have gotten a big, fat “F” from my statistics professor at Syracuse University, not to mention my logic professor at Seton Hall!

Here’s what he would have said to me: Make sure you have all of the facts before you draw any conclusions! Facts such as: Anyone who bought a Samsung 3DTV in the past year got 2 pairs of glasses with it as part of a 3D starter kit. Did you buy an LG Infinia 3D TV bundle last fall? You got four pairs of glasses with it.

In fact, so many promotions bundled two or more pairs of glasses with the purchases of a 3D TV that the fact that the average home had 2.38 pairs doesn’t mean very much at all. Nor does it allow us to draw any definitive conclusions about how often viewers are using their TVs to watch 3D. All it means is that the average 3D TV owner has about 2 pairs of 3D glasses.

Quote: “More than 7 out of 10 of those surveyed use a Blu-ray 3D or 3D-capable player.” For what purpose, exactly? The survey question is incomplete, as it doesn’t ask specifically whether respondents “use a Blu-ray 3D or 3D-capable player” to watch 3D, a mix of 3D and 2D content, or mostly 2D content?

Here’s my question: How many of those Blu-ray players are mostly being used to watch Netflix streaming, and how often?

The accompanying chart shows that 87% use a cable or satellite set-top box, while 71% use a Blu-ray or other 3D-capable player (not a PlayStation 3), and 61% use a DVR or TiVo.

But the chart also says that 28% of respondents use a standard-definition DVD player. Why include that number, as it’s not relevant to 3D content playback? 34% of respondents have a Nintendo Wii (as I do), and it’s not a 3D delivery platform, either.

The survey goes on to mention that that “44 percent of 3D TV owners purchased their Blu-ray player bundle with their TV.” If these purchases really were 3D TV bundle deals, then 44% of 3D TV owners actually got a free Blu-ray player as part of their TV bundle. That was made quite clear in the advertising and marketing for various 3D TV bundle packages. Maybe the DEG isn’t quite clear on the meaning of the words “free” or “bundle?”

At the May 24 Connected TV and 3D event in New York City, DEG president Ron Sanders (also president of Warner Home Video) stated,  “The results of this landmark study clearly show that 3D TV owners are overwhelmingly happy with their 3D experience…this bodes well for the future of the Home 3D category.”

Really? My statistics professor would have been ROFL at hearing that. Here’s what my conclusions are.

(1) 75% of the survey respondents who bought a new 3D TV aren’t watching any more TV as a result of that purchase. That could mean they aren’t that enthusiastic about 3D, or that they just bought the TV as an upgrade and made sure it had 3D capability in it that they may or may not use. We don’t know enough to say – SmithGeiger didn’t ask.

(2) About two-thirds of the respondents want to watch most if not all of their programming in 3D. That is an interesting number and one which should be re-sampled a year from now.

(3) 26% of the respondents either cannot use 3D glasses at all or have measurable difficulty in adapting to 3D eyewear. That’s right in line with educated estimates and is a substantial impediment to widespread 3D TV adoption.

(4) The average number of pairs of 3D glasses in survey households is not substantially higher than the number of free glasses given away in 3D TV bundles. And we have NO idea how often they are being used, as SmithGeiger never bothered to ask.

(5) We know that 7 out of 10 respondents have Blu-ray players. We also know that many respondents have cable and satellite boxes. There are more of the latter than of the former. (Stop the presses!) What we DON’T know is how often those Blu-ray players and set-top boxes are being used to watch 3D content.

In fact, it’s mind-boggling that SmithGeiger didn’t ask any questions respondents about the number of hours per day, week, and month they actually spend watching 3D content!

Other fun tidbits:

(6) 78% of PlayStation 3 owners have upgraded their consoles for viewing 3D Blu-ray movies, and 76% of PS3 owners upgraded to play 3D games. Yet the following chart in the DEG study shows that only 7% of PS3 owners play 75 to 100% of their games in 3D, while 59% (by far the largest group) said that 25% or less of their game-playing is in 3D. There’s a disconnect here.

(7) 55% of 3D TV owners “would definitely” buy a 3D TV again. What – only half? I thought 88% of them loved their 3D TV picture quality! 25% of respondents said they “would probably” buy another 3D TV, while 14% said they “might or might not.” 7% said they “probably would not or definitely would not” buy a 3D TV again.

I interpret those numbers to mean that roughly half of the survey respondents are either (a) lukewarm about, (b) indifferent to, or (c) opposed to buying a 3D TV again.

That hardly constitutes a ringing endorsement for 3D TV, so it’s surprising that SmithGeiger didn’t ask the logical follow-up question: “Please list the reasons why you would buy or not buy a 3D TV again?”

Given the DEG’s position as industry cheerleader for 3D and Blu-ray, I’m not at all surprised in the way the survey results were stated. There is clearly a need for objective, in-depth analysis of why people have purchased 3D TVs, how they use them, and what their like and dislikes about 3D TV are.

But this survey and report doesn’t do the job. It’s clearly presented as more ‘spin’ that fact. There are too many holes in its methodology and flaws in its results  to be taken seriously as an objective analysis of the trends in 3D TV adoption rates and the factors that drive them.

One Size Fits All

Yesterday, Panasonic and XPand announced that they have developed M-3DI, which is intended to be a new interoperability standard for active shutter 3D glasses.

 

M-3DI is actually a communications protocol used to signal and sequence the glasses in step with the rapid flashing of left eye and right eye 3D images. Until now, you couldn’t use one manufacturer’s brand of active shutter glasses to view another manufacturer’s TV, due to different signaling codes. Panasonic AS glasses do work with 2010-vintage Samsung 3D TVs, but that was the exception.

 

This incompatibility problem was one of the reasons consumers cited for holding off on 3D TV purchases last year. It will still be an issue for Samsung TVs in 2011, as the new line employs the Bluetooth communications protocol instead of infrared linking.

XPand announced last year that they would come out with so-called “universal” active shutter glasses that could learn IR signaling codes, just like a universal TV remote control does. But this announcement takes things a step further by ensuring greater support among multiple manufacturers, including Changhong Electric Co., Ltd., FUNAI Electric Co., Ltd., Hisense Electric Co., Ltd., Hitachi Consumer Electronics Co., Ltd., Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, Seiko Epson Corporation, SIM2 Multimedia S.p.A. and ViewSonic Corporation.

 

What really caught my eye in the press release was this statement: “The technology will let consumers enjoy the immersive 3D experience across all types of compatible 3D displays as well as at movie theaters, with a single pair of 3D active-shutter eyewear.”

 

Currently, movie theaters do not use active shutter viewing systems as the cost of glasses would be prohibitive – and they’d break down pretty quickly. Apparently, Panasonic has plans to expand into that arena, possibly with their line of high-brightness digital cinema DLP projectors, but we’ve not heard any details previously.

 

The M-3DI standard will also cover active shutter eyewear for computer monitors and front projectors for home theater and commercial AV applications.  But the big question remains: Will the other major players in active shutter 3D (Samsung and Sony) come aboard?

 

Rumors have abounded that Sony may add passive 3D TVs to their product line in the near future, something that will no doubt be influenced by LG’s success – or lack of it – with their new passive Cinema 3D TV line.

 

Regardless, this announcement is long overdue. And Samsung and Sony really ought to join the parade if only to help 3D TV sales pick up some momentum.

Samsung’s 2011 Line Show: “The Edge Of Wonder”

On March 16, it was Samsung’s turn to show everyone just how clever their engineers are by filling the Samsung Experience at New York’s Time Warner building with TVs, tablets, smart phones, laptops, cameras, and major appliances.

If you can turn it on and watch it, you can connect to it (or connect it to something else).

If there was one unifying theme in this blizzard of products, it was ‘connected.’ Digital cameras streaming photos wirelessly to TVs. Laptops connecting wirelessly to docking stations. 3D active shutter glasses connecting over Bluetooth to 3D TVs. Smart phones controlling TVs and appliances. TVs streaming content in real time to tablets and smart phones. Blu-ray players streaming movies to TVs.

 

Oh, wait. They already do that last one. My bad!

 

For fans of the 1960s TV secret agent spoof Get Smart, yesterday’s event was right out of an episode with Agents 86 and 99 and all their cool gadgets. The only things missing were the Cone of Silence and the famous ‘shoe that is actually a telephone.’ (I’m sure Samsung’s working on both.)

 

Now, we did see some of Samsung’s goodies at CES. But it’s so noisy, so crowded, and so confusing out there that these line shows bring back necessary clarity and allow members of the press to more leisurely peruse the offerings to see what’s really hot.

 

Samsung’s president Tim Baxter has a new name for the massive cross-platform, ‘send anything anywhere’ approach that Samsung has adopted for 2011: The Nth-screen strategy.

 

And what exactly does THAT mean? To quote Baxter, “It means our devices work together to create new experiences, while letting people access content anywhere, anytime on any screen.” So there!

THis is where all the magic happens.

Once I navigated past an impressive display of ultra-thin TVs with minimal bezels floating in mid-air with Galaxy tablets and smart phones, I was able to zero on the TV, Blu-ray, and TV accessory products.  Of course, LCD TV is Samsung’s ‘bread-and-butter’ product, and there are 21 new models with LED backlights that range from 19 to 55 inches.

 

The big news in connected TVs is Smart Hub, which is a hybrid of keyword video search, Samsung Apps, and a full Web browser (apparently not Google TV). This new ‘find video wherever it is to be found’ control will be included on all premium models. It will be included on all TVs 40 inches and larger. The D8000 and D7000 LCD TVs will also have a full QWERTY keyboard for searching video.

 

Selected TVs can also share media with other connected devices (read: smart phones and tablets), and there’s a more user-friendly network setup and connection wizard. From a style standpoint, the bezels keep getting thinner – at this rate, they’ll soon be transparent – and power consumption has been cut back to meet Energy Star 5.1 standards.

 

Seven of the new LED LCD TVs support 3D playback (D8000, D7000, and D6400 series). The usual tweaks have been made (improved 2D to 3D, a new 3D auto contrast mode, 3D brightness peaking, and improved surround audio), but the biggest change is in the glasses. They’re still active shutter, but now use Bluetooth wireless instead of infrared to connect to the TV.

Do these 3D glasses rock the house, or what? (Sorry, they're not backwards-conpatible.)

That means, of course, that older Samsung 3D glasses will not work with 2011 TVs, nor will older TVs work with the new glasses. Speaking of those, they have an all-new design for 2011, with the battery compartment at the back of the temples. The temples themselves are curved and flexible and may just hold up better under normal use.

 

Prices have come WAY down on LED LCD TVs. The top-of-the-line UN55D8000, which is available now at retail, has an estimated selling price of $3,599. Except for three models, the rest of the line is priced under $2,300, with thirteen models retailing below $1,500.

 

The most bang for the buck will be the UN55D6000, which is ticketed at just $2,099 and should be well under $1,500 by September if past price trends are any indication. All models offer full 1080p resolution except for the 19”, 26”, and 32” D4000 series TVs.

 

Plasma is still very much a part of the story at Samsung and there are 15 new models to please you. I’m still a big fan of plasma, and Samsung has come a long way in PDP picture quality lately (see my current review of the UN50C8000 3D plasma TV).

OK, time to face facts: 3D just looks better on a plasma TV.

Like the LCD sets, the new plasma offerings have a super-thin bezel. Eight of the new models are just an inch-and-a-half thick, something that wowed us when Hitachi showed it three years ago at CES. Now, we journalists just expect it, I guess.

 

Smart Hub will be present on all of the D8000, D7000, and D6500 models, and all of the 3D goodies from the LED LCD line will also be included on all but a handful of 2011 plasma TVs. That includes the new active shutter glasses with Bluetooth. Other enhancements include that new deep black panel (which also cuts down on image brightness), a local contrast enhancement circuit – I’ll reserve judgment on that until I can test-drive it – and Cinema Black APL control.

 

I’m willing to bet Samsung has also been working on faster-decaying phosphors to minimize the yellow ‘smear’ sometimes seen with fast motion. Panasonic’s also been attacking this problem, and what one company does, the other invariably copies. I should mention that the new 3D starter kits for both LCD and plasma TVs include not only the Shrek portfolio of movies in 3D, but also a new 3D Blu-ray pressing of Megamind, along with two pairs of the ‘new’ glasses.

 

Plasma TVs have always represented a great value for top-notch performance. Samsung’s largest plasma, the 64-inch PN-64D8000, will set you back $3,799 and ships in April. There are also 55-inch and 51-inch models in the D8000 family (you read that correctly, champ – there are now 51-inch plasmas!), along with the same screen sizes in the D7000 line.

 

Ten plasma sets fall below $2,500, with four models under a kilobuck. You can get into 3D plasma pretty cheaply now, starting with the PN43D490 ($799) which happens to be a 720p HDTV. The lowest-priced 1080p plasma equipped with 3D is the PN51D550, and Samsung figures it will be advertised at $1,299 – still a bargain, and you know it will be in the $800 to $900 range before long.

How'd you like to play 3D games on this setup? It's made up of tiled 27-inch Samsung 3D LCD monitors.

How’s about playback hardware? Samsung has seven new Blu-ray players, four of which are 3D models. The top-line BD-D7500 carries a $350 tag (you know that will drop quickly) and is loaded for bear. Oddly, the lower-priced BD-6700 ($300) and BD-6500 (also $300) support DTS-HD High Resolution audio, which the more expensive BD-D7500 doesn’t (neither does the comparably-priced BD-D7000). The 6700 and 6500 players also have component video outputs, something that is rapidly disappearing from all DVD and Blu-ray players as we head into an ‘analog sunset.’

 

For bare-bones playback, you can pick up the BD-D5300 ($150). It’s got the same network connectivity features, but no component outputs and doesn’t support as many digital audio formats (Dolby only).  This player, and its sibling the BD-D5700, do not have ‘out of the box’ WiFi connectivity, as do the other new players. You’ll have to pick up a wireless LAN adapter to make that work.

 

Samsung has a new feature for all of its connected Blu-ray players. It works with a Samsung-branded router and is called One Foot. You simply place the player within one foot of the router, turn everything  on, and the router’s IP address is automatically configured (this is something Panasonic should also be doing!) and you’re good to go, no matter where you place that Blu-ray player afterwards.

A keyboard for your TV. Hmm, where have we seen that before? (Oh right, Web TV...)

There are also several new Blu-ray home entertainment systems, including the company’s first offering with 7.1 channel audio. The HW-D7000 supports 3D Blu-ray playback and Internet connectivity (along with all of those Smart Hub goodies), and there is a new 3D Sound Plus spatial surround system that claims to move sound waves along a z-axis – that is, towards and away from you. The HW-D7000 is ticketed at $599, while eight other models range in price from $350 (HW-D540) to $800 (HT-D6730W).

 

One interesting new app (HBO GO) lets you watch HBO programming on all new Smart TVs or through Smart Blu-ray players. If you are a current HBO subscriber, you get the app at no charge. I’m not sure what the picture quality will be like, as HBO HDTV movies and programs have high-quality production values that depend on high bit-rate speeds to look their best. Maybe better than Netflix? We’ll see.

 

I’ll wrap things up with a mention of the new Galaxy media players. These cuties measure 4 and 5 inches and run on the Android Froyo 2.2 OS. Both have 802.11n connectivity, front and rear cameras (shades of the new iPad), stereo speakers, and support for Flash 10.1. (Take that, Apple!) Skype comes loaded on the 4” model, and they can function as E-book readers with Noon and Kindle apps. Additional memory  can be loaded through a MicroSD card slot (maximum of 32 GB). No prices were announced at the event.

Here's how the new Galaxy media players (far right) compare in size to Galaxy tablets.

Product Review: Samsung PN50C8000 3D Plasma TV

Back in October, I had some time to test drive Samsung’s UN46C7000 3D LCD TV. Although it had many strong points, I’m just not a big fan of 3D over LCD, mostly because of the black level and viewing angle issues.

I figured plasma should be a better match to 3D, seeing as that it had the widest viewing angle, bright and contrasty colors, and no issues with the physics of light waves (when you watch 3D on an LCD TV, you are looking through as many as four different polarizers).

Samsung’s PN50C8000 ($2,599 list) showed up in early January for a round of testing and is one of the company’s top-line 3D plasma TVs. I paired it with the BD-C6800 Blu-ray player (MSRP $250), along with a copy of How to Train Your Dragon in 3D. (Thank God, as I was burned out after watching Monsters vs. Aliens umpteen-million times!)

 

OUT OF THE BOX

The PN50C8000 is remarkably similar to the UN46C7000 in design, except that it gets a much sturdier base. Once again, the finish around the bezel and on the stand is a shiny silvery color, while I still prefer darker bezels that are less distracting.

I will say that this is extremely lightweight plasma, tipping the scales at 63 pounds with the stand. It wasn’t that long ago that 50-inch plasmas weighed over 100 pounds, and that was without a stand! 63 pounds is well inside LCD TV country, so if you were hesitant to buy a plasma TV because of its weight, let that put your concerns to rest.

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.

There’s also a single analog component video (YPbPr) connection, the ‘Y’ (luminance) connection of which doubles as a composite video jack. Unlike the UN46C7000, the PN50C8000 uses full-sized RCA jacks for these two inputs. But there’s a catch – you need to chase down small-diameter RCA connectors to use these connections as they are so close to the rear wall of the plasma TV. The provided F-style RF connector is the normal, threaded type, so leave your adapters at home. There’s enough space around it to screw in a normal F plug.

 

Here's what the back end of the PN50C8000 looks like. All of the connectors are on the right side.

 

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. Samsung’s also included a Toslink output jack so you can feed digital audio from TV programs to your AV receiver, but you’ll need to come up with the cable. HDMI input #2 will also provide an audio return path to your receiver.

MENUS AND ADJUSTMENTS

Menu adjustments are very similar to those on the UN46C700, so I’ve retained those descriptions from my earlier review of the UN46C7000.

Samsung’s menus are easy to navigate.  There are six image presets, labeled Dynamic, Standard, Relax, Movie, ISF Day, and ISF Night. Stay away from 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. You’ll also find it to be one of the brighter modes. ISF Day and Night modes can’t be adjusted by the average user; only a calibrator can tweak those.

You can select from four different color temperature settings, five different aspect ratio settings, and a host of ‘green’ energy setting modes called Eco Solution. Seeing that this is a plasma TV, you can also adjust cell brightness (separate from black level and contrast) at levels from 0 to 20. Cell brightness has to do with how hard the plasma pixel are driven, and you will see a big change in overall brightness playing with this control. (I set it at 15.)

There is also a screen protection sub-menu that activates pixel orbiting at preset intervals. Or, you can turn on a scrolling feature to rid the screen of any ‘stuck’ images. (It’s just like an electronic Sham-Wow!)

There are other image ‘enhancements’ that Samsung has included, 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, particularly Black Tone and Auto Contrast.  Generally, these settings mess up gamma performance, and if you are into quality pictures, that’s a must to avoid.

For calibrators, 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. 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. As I’ve said before, HDTV doesn’t need enhancement!

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. For HD programs, you probably won’t need them, unless you happen to be one of those unfortunate subscribers to U-Verse (720p and 1080i HDTV @ 5 Mb/s looks pretty awful).

Samsung’s Auto Motion Plus corrects for 24-frame judder by pulling the frame rate up to multiples of 60 Hz. In the case of the PN50C8000, the corrected frame rate is probably close to 240 Hz, the same speed at which it operates in 3D mode. What this actually does to images is to make filmed content look like it is live, or shot at video rates.

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.

I’d be remiss here in not discussing any of the connected Samsung apps, which let you stream movies and TV shows directly from YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu Plus. While this is a handy feature, don’t expect picture quality to come anywhere close to that of a Blu-ray disc, or even an HDTV channel. Watching Netflix movies over the Internet is more akin to looking at VHS tapes, or composite video from DVDs – the resolution just isn’t there. So use these features more for their convenience than their quality. ESPN updates are also accessible, and if you are addicted to ‘tweeting’ and ‘friending,’ you also have one-touch access to Twitter and Facebook.

3D MENUS

Samsung 3D TVs automatically recognize the HDMI v1.4a frame packing format. This format, which delivers movies at 1920x1080p @24 Hz resolution, is so unique that if you start playing a 3D Blu-ray disc, the PN50C8000 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 PN50C8000’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) and top & bottom (720p), plus other formats. 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.

Samsung also has 2D to 3D conversion algorithm built-in to all of their 3D TVs. 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.

ON THE TEST BENCH

Unlike the UN46C7000 and its persistent auto-dimming feature, I was able to tune up the PN50C8000 quite nicely with basic menu adjustments, plus some assistance from the 10-point white balance menu. I used AccuPel HDG4000 test patterns and ColorFacts 7.5 to perform the measurements.

After my best calibration, I measured brightness in Movie mode at 80 nits (23.4 foot-Lamberts). That number didn’t vary by much, ranging from 73 nits in Relax mode to 83 nits in Movie mode with the Cell Light setting at maximum (20). Why so low?

 

After calibration, the PN50C8000 produced this beautiful 2.3 gamma curve.

 

Apparently this plasma TV employs a front-surface vertical polarizing filter to improve black levels and cancel out reflections. It’s an old trick – Pioneer KURO plasma TVs also used it – but it reduces the vertical viewing angle. You can verify this by walking right up to the TV and looking down at the screen; a you get closer, you’ll see image brightness drop off dramatically.

That additional polarizer (or patterned glass filter) reduces overall brightness, too. While 80 nits is plenty at night, it’s a little dim when viewing under high ambient lighting. But there’s only so far you can push image brightness on this TV.

Fortunately, image contrast doesn’t suffer from the additional filtering. ANSI (average) contrast measured 815:1 in Movie mode with cell light set at 15. Boosting cell light ‘to the max’ at 20 kicked that number up to 913:1. Peak contrast in normal cell mode was 939:1, while with maximum cell lighting, it was just shy of 1000:1 (991:1). Black levels measurements were impressive at .09 nits in Movie mode – that’s deep, bro.

White balance uniformity was outstanding. I measured a maximum color temperature shift of 215 degrees Kelvin across a full white field, which is reference monitor performance.  The PN50C8000 also tracks a rock-steady color of gray, varying by just 245 degrees from 20 to 100 IRE.

 

Color temperature tracking on the PN50C8000 is rock steady.

 

Gamma performance is also noteworthy. After some tune-up (and disabling auto contrast and black tone), I was able to come up with an almost-perfect 2.3 gamma curve, which emulates the classic CRT gamma response and provides great low-level shadow detail, except for some pulse-width modulation noise.

The RGB histogram shows why. Red, green, and blue track each other very closely from 20 IRE on up to full white, with most of the variation coming in the blue channel. I’ve seen this erratic blue tracking in Panasonic plasma TVs as well and it’s not anything you can correct easily – outboard color gamut and gamma correction hardware and software would run about $6,000, so don’t lose any sleep over it!

Like most plasma TVs, the PN50C8000 has two much cyan in its green phosphors, pulling the color space towards blue for a brighter image. The yellow and blue coordinates are on the money, while cyan is shifted too much towards blue (predictably) and red is a bit over-saturated when compared to the BT.709 standard gamut for HDTV signals.

 

Hre's how the PN50C8000's color gamut compares to the BT.709 HDTV color space (dark outline).

IMAGE QUALITY

It doesn’t matter whether you are watching 2D or 3D programming, you will find the pictures this TV produces very pleasing to the eye with excellent color shading and contrast. Those attributes come in real handy when viewing 3D content, especially if you are sitting off-axis. Interestingly, my calibration of the PN50C8000 was the brightest, not to mention very accurate. So I didn’t need to switch out of Movie mode to kick some more photons to the 3D glasses.

Watching How to Train Your Dragon in 3D is a real treat. I thought this was the best 3D movie of 2010, and it was evident that a lot of care went into designing and executing the 3D effects. The flying sequences are just amazing, particularly when Hiccup and Toothless the dragon are swooping and skimming above the ocean, dodging and twisting through rock formations and around cliffs.

In fact, I think it actually looked better on this TV than in the theater (Sony SXRD 4K projector and RealD glasses). Just for fun, I set the TV up in the concessions lobby at the Ambler Theater’s annual Oscars Party (Dragon was nominated for best animated feature and best score, two awards it should have walked away with IMHO) for the 400+ attendees to test-drive. Most of them were predictably wowed by the flying sequences in 3D.

As I mentioned in my review of the UN46C7000, the 3D experience using frame compatible formats isn’t quite as impactful as a 3D Blu-ray disc. 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, 3D coverage of sports and other programming – even movies – leaves a bit to be desired.

That unusual low gray noise I mentioned appears to be sub-field sampling noise. It’s evident when playing Blu-ray movies in low-level scenes and on  occasions it can be pretty distracting. Panasonic and LG plasma TVs also exhibit this pulse-width modulation (PWM) noise to varying degrees, but I didn’t notice it as quickly as I did on the PN50C8000. Apparently operating in 1080p/24 mode seems to aggravate it; I didn’t notice it much at all while watching prime time programs in the 720p and 1080i formats. If you spot it, make sure the sharpness control is set to near zero and experiment with the MPEG noise reduction, as that can help minimize this artifact.

My only other negative comment is that you will sometimes notice ghost images on the PN50C8000 after even short periods of operation. It doesn’t matter what brightness level you are running, or even if the display is calibrated – the ghost images still appear when you are showing a dark gray to 50% white screen.  What I’m seeing is not burn-in, as you can turn off the TV, turn it back on, play back different content, and observe an entirely different ghost image.

What I would suggest is to ‘wear in’ the TV when you first get it out of the box – leave a full white test pattern on screen for 200 hours, or use the internal scrolling pattern for the same length of time. That will ‘settle down’ the blue phosphors (which naturally age the fastest) and any subsequent calibration should hold nicely for a long time.

CONCLUSION

Samsung’s PN50C8000 is definitely on the cutting edge of plasma TV design. The performance of this TV (aside from the low-level PWM noise) approaches Pioneer’s late, lamented KURO sets. It is a strong performer with excellent color quality, grayscale shading, and color temperature tracking. You’ll have plenty of contrast and deep, rich black levels to enjoy, even if the overall brightness is on the low side for a consumer TV product.

As far as plasma goes, there’s simply nothing better for viewing 3D – no off-axis contrast flattening or color shift, no crosstalk (common on LCD TVs), and if your head isn’t perfectly level, don’t worry – you won’t see any double images. From my perspective, 3D on a plasma TV comes closest to watching 3D on a DLP Cinema projector of any home theater experience so far.

Full specifications and other product information are available here – http://www.samsung.com/us/video/tvs/PN50C8000YFXZA

Current MAP on this TV is $2,299 as of March 8, 2011.

Power consumption tests – Over an 8-hour period, the PN50C8000 consumed an average of 205 watts while in Movie mode with full-screen HD and SD content. Cell light was set to 15 and peak brightness was 85 nits.

Panasonic’s 2011 TV and Blu-ray Press Briefings

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, Panasonic held press briefings on its 2011 TV and accessory product line at the House of Glass on 25th Street in New York City. Good choice of venue, considering all of the plasma and LCD TVs that were set up for inspection in front of enormous floor-to-ceiling windows.

 

As usual, plasma still rules the roost at Panasonic, although LCD technology continues to make inroads. This year, you’ll find 19 new models of plasma TVs and a few new glass cut sizes, such as 55 inches (replaces the 54-inch size) and 60 inches (goodbye, 58 inches).

 

The line breaks down into three categories (and I’m using Panasonic’s descriptions here) – twelve Full HD (1080p) 3D plasma TVs, four 1080p FHD plasma sets, and three 720p plasma TVs. (Yes, there is still a market for 720p plasma.)

As usual, Panasonic's got 3D plasma covered.

The fact that almost two-thirds of all new Panasonic plasma TVs are 3D-ready reflects the market’s response to higher-priced 3D TVs in 2010: Consumers just weren’t interested in paying a premium for 3D. Now, you can get into a 3D plasma TV for as little as $1100 (TC-P42ST30), while a 50-inch set will cost you $1,500 (TC-P50ST30).

 

The top-of-the-line models carry the VT30 suffix and are being marketed in 65-inch and 55-inch sizes (TC-P65VT30, $4,300 and TC-P55VT30, $2,800). Readers may recall that Panasonic’s first 3D offering a year ago was a 50-inch plasma with two pairs of active shutter glasses for $2,800 through Best Buy, so you can appreciate just how much pricing has changed over time.

 

In addition to the pair of VT30 models, there are four GT30 plasma 3D TVs from 50 inches ($1,900) to 65 inches ($3,700), and four ST30 variations that also range from 50 inches ($1,500) to 65 inches ($3,300). In the non-3D 1080p (S30) plasma category, Panasonic has four choices from 42 inches ($800) to 60 inches ($1,900), while the three 720p sets are priced at $600 (TC-P42X3), $700 (TC-P64X3), and $800 (TC-P50X3).

 

Many of these sets offer the VIERA Connect feature, which provides a host of connected Internet TV channels and specialized apps. Like Samsung, Panasonic is also hosting a connected apps marketplace and will open its platform and middleware technology to third-party developers and manufacturers.

No matter what the technology is, everyone eventually finds a way to goof off with it.

Some of the more interesting apps that I saw included wellness and fitness apps from Body Media and ICON, one of which lets you track your weight on TV. (Somehow I think that’s not going to be very popular with couch potatoes.) Of course, Skype is ever-present, as are Twitter and Facebook apps and Hulu Plus. And it goes without saying that Netflix is also on all VIERA Connect TVs.

 

Over on the LCD side, Panasonic raised some eyebrows by unveiling two of the smallest 3D TVs I’ve seen to date. The TC-L37DT30 (37 inches, $1,300) and TC-L32DT30 (32 inches, $1,200) both use IPS (In Plane Switching) LCD glass, generally the better choice for TVs as it doesn’t have any off-axis color shift issues. And both TVs have LED backlights, which aren’t too common in this screen size.

 

I checked out some 3D content on both panels and it was surprisingly free of crosstalk, a problem that often pops up with LCD 3D TVs due to all of the polarizers in the optical path. Both models have the full VIERA Connect suite and also claim a 240 Hz refresh rate.

 

Panasonic also has three E3-series models (32, 37, and 42 inches) which also employ LED backlights and will sell for $700, $800, and $950, respectively. Instead of full VIERA Connect features, these models offer Easy IPTV (Netflix, Amazon, and CinemaNow, plus Napster, Pandora, and Facebook).  Another 42-inch LCD model (TC-L42E30) will ticket at $1,100 and adds easy IPTV plus LED backlighting and 120Hz processing, while the TC-L42D30 is a full 1080p LCD TV with VIERA Connect for $1,150.

Who knew there was a market for 32-inch 3D TVs? (Is there?)

What’s interesting is that Panasonic now has as many 42-inch LCD TVs in their line (3) as they do plasma (3). What does that say about the future of 42 inches as a plasma TV size for Panasonic? Company representatives replied that Samsung and LG also sell plasma, but those companies are known largely as LCD TV brands. In contrast, Panasonic built its rep on top-notch plasma picture quality. Is it a price point play? Could be, as the 42-inch LCD sets have higher MSRPs than the equivalent PDPs. Maybe we’re getting closer to the day where 42-inches will just become an LCD size.

 

Over in the Blu-ray department, Panasonic has four new models, one of which left me scratching my head. To set things up here, I should mention that Blu-ray player prices have taken precipitous drops in 2010, and that has resulted in an upwards spike in BD player sales. But I would venture – and so far, anecdotal evidence supports me – that consumers are buying Blu-ray players mostly for the connectivity features (spelled N-E-T-F-L-I-X).

 

Right now, you can buy several Blu-ray players now for less than $100, and more than one analyst firm predicts we’ll have $40 and $50 BD players by the end of 2011. Not surprisingly, the price premium assigned to 3D BD players has largely evaporated; I picked up a Samsung BDP-C6900 last fall for $244 and you can find them on line for about $170 now.

 

The ‘connectivity thing’ is clearly driving a majority of BD player sales. So it was a puzzler to see Panasonic’s new DMP-BD75 in the lineup, as this $99 2D player has no provision for WiFi connectivity; only a conventional RJ-45 Ethernet jack. Bad choice! Consumers don’t want to hard-wire Blu-ray players; they want to use a WiFi connection. But the DMP-BD75 doesn’t even have a WiFi dongle option. This product could be gone from the line as fast as it appeared.

Three of the four new Blu-ray players are 3D models.

The other three players make a lot more sense. The DMP-BD310 ($399) is the blue-chip model and comes with VIERA Cast and 2D to 3D conversion, plus built-in WiFi connectivity and dual HDMI outputs. Skype is also included, bringing conference calling and an answering machine to your TV. (What WILL they think of next?)

 

Stepping down, the DMP-BD210 is ticketed at $299 and has the same features, but only one HDMI output. Both models have touch-free drawer operation – simply wave your hand along the top cover and the disc drawer opens and closes automatically. (Kids are going to have a lot of fun with that!) The DMP-BD110 lops another few bucks off the price, but doesn’t have built-in WiFi or the ‘magic door’ option. A WiFi dongle is available as an option.

 

I should mention that WiFi setup and network configuration on all three 3D models is a quantum leap from 2010s models, which practically required you to have Microsoft network certification to complete the process. Now, it’s as easy as setting up a Cisco/Linksys Wireless-N router, which is to say that the BD player basically does all the work. ‘Bout time!

 

Panasonic also has a new portable Blu-ray player (DMP-BD200), a portable DVD player (DVD-LS92 -really? Who uses those anymore?), and believe it or not, two new DVD players. One has progressive scan, while the other is upconverting.

 

Given that progressive scan DVD players are selling for about $35 these days and upconverting models are around $50, you have to wonder why Panasonic even wants to play in that space anymore. I say, ditch the red laser format and just go blue – the players are certainly cheap enough…

CE Pro's editor Grant Clauser is suitably impresed with the new soundbar.

I also saw a few demonstrations of new soundbar technologies and home-theater-in-a-box (HTiB) products, three of which are built around Blu-ray playback and two around DVD playback. The most interesting product was the SC-HTB520 soundbar, which is packaged with a separate wireless subwoofer and sells for $400.

 

In the demos I sat through, this soundbar did a surprisingly good job creating a virtual surround sound field and would be of interest for folks who don’t have the space or inclination to set up six different speakers. I could see this soundbar installed with lots of family room TVs (like my 42-inch Panasonic plasma) to add a little spatial separation for prime time TVs shows and sports broadcasts.