Philips 7800 Series 55-inch 4K TV review

We knew that the price of 4K TVs would continue to drop, but the Philips 55PUS7089 makes it look like the market has crashed in through the roof. A 55-inch Ultra-HD telly for under £1,500 sounds like a right bargain - one that's perhaps too good to be true?

There is a catch: the 7800 series isn't able to decode the HEVC format and there's no HDMI 2.0. And before you switch off at the fear of an acronym snoozefest review, it's something you need to know about because Netflix uses HEVC to stream its 4K content. In short the 7800 has a 4K resolution panel but, in most cases, won't be able to natively utilise it, instead simply upscaling lower-resolution content.

However, as a large-screen smart TV the 7809 sets out its stall: big size, great for upscaling and 3D, with two-sided Ambilight technology and that affordable price. Does this Philips fill a gap in the market or does its unconventional position see it disappear into a void all of its own making?

Current 4K standing

Right now 4K is a new consumer technology that's still finding its footing. Sure, plenty of Hollywood movies have been captured in 4K or even greater resolutions for a number of years, which is great for cinema projection, but has had little standing in commercially available TVs because of lack of format support right now.

The first UHD TVs to hit the market weren't able to handle frame rates beyond 30 frames per second at the maximum resolution (HDMI 2.0 can cater for 4K at 60fps) or decode the HEVC/H.265 format. Panasonic was the first to deal with the HDMI 2.0 issue for high frame rates, while Sony is now at the forefront of delivering UHD tellies with HEVC decoders built-in to handle the streaming of compatible 4K content.

Ticking these boxes is all well and good for those forerunners, but other than Netflix 4K streaming (limited to House of Cards series 2 and Breaking Bad for the time being, both of which are amazing) the lack of 4K support is vast. No UK broadcasters currently offer it (and when they do nobody knows exactly how it'll be delivered), there's no 4K Blu-ray spec (not even the sketching of one - it might not even happen), and in the case of the latter even if there was then the cinematic 24fps standard would mean 60fps capability would be of little consequence. Other than The Hobbit (the HFR version is 48fps), very little cinema content is captured at high frame rates.

So on the one hand the Philips is as good in many areas as other UHD TVs right now because of the current state of 4K content delivery - or the lack of it. But the TV lacks any kind of future-proofing, so when the content does begin to arrive in more formats the PUS7089 won't be able to catch up. In essence it's a panel for upscaling content and giving the perception of greater resolution or displaying native 4K content from relevant sources. Still images look amazing, for example, but that's as far as we've got as even 4K MP4 files captured from the Galaxy Note 3 smartphone won't play (H.264 format at 30fps).

Design

Anyway, that brief overview out of the way - and you've probably already decided if this TV makes sense - let's focus on the actual Philips 55PUS7809 proper. If you've got an older TV then the modern design of this 4K-er is the first thing that stands out, because it looks great.

There's a finger-width black border around the majority of the panel, which is slightly smaller on the bottom edge due to a larger silver/grey edging and pinched Philips logo section. The other three sides are encased by a more fingernail-width silver edging that looks very smart. It's a neat and tidy looking beast with the focus on letting the picture dominate.

The stand was a doddle to attach using a few screws and can swivel horizontally for adjustment - useful for when leaning around the back to plug in a USB or new device via HDMI (there are two USB and four HDMI ports). It's a heavyweight metal stand too, the bowed sideways-rudder-shape metal foot a subtle slice of elegant design.

Principal to many Philips TVs is what the company calls Ambilight. This technology introduces coloured LED lights to the edges of the TV to project on to surrounding rear surfaces, giving the image illumination beyond the frame of the TV. It's something we've come to love with previous generation Philips TVs, but for whatever reason - cost, we would suspect - the 55PUS7809 opts for just two-sided Ambilight. Given that the Philips Elevation model offers four-sided and plenty of other models deliver three-sided, it feels like a step backwards here. Shame really.

Picture

Central to any television is just how good picture quality is. We've already outlined a general lack of native 4K media, as is the case for the majority of devices, but ignoring that and the quality of HD channels via Freesat and upscaled Blu-ray via PS4 looks great on the PUS7809. The upscaling avoids nasty jaggies with a decent input signal, and we didn't spot problematic processing artefacts either. There are various detailed controls for reducing image noise and artefacts available too.

Just like all Philips TVs we've ever used the 7800 series delivers its best results after some tinkering. There are various Picture Styles - Vivid, Natural, Standard, Movie, Photo and ISF Day and Night options - which do the trick for most conditions, but it's the Personal option that goes the furthest. Within the more detailed menus it's possible to tweak colour, contrast and sharpness to optimise this setting.

If you want to go deeper still then the advanced settings has a whole lot more on offer. Many things like brightness, dynamic contrast, video brightness, gamma and the auto-light sensor need to be treated delicately. As these might be over-cranked by default, a deft eye will be able to get the image to look a whole lot better. We've been tweaking, re-tweaking and after a few weeks of daytime and night viewing we've got it as good as can be.

From the off the Philips panel delivers a sharp image and while clouding isn't 100 per cent absent, it isn't so prominent that it distracts from the viewing experience too much. On our set there's a slightly lighter cloudy patches towards the top, just off centre, but it's not present in daylight viewing or for brighter images. We only really spotted it in truly dark scenes, in particular when watching Utopia irrelevant of the preset selected.

Overall we've seen deeper blacks from TVs than this Philips offers, but at night with the blinds down the right presets will deliver a rich enough viewing experience. Again, take note of the price: for £1500 PUS7809 produces a decent enough picture, even though it won't challenge the best in class sets which cost far more.

Motion is well handled thanks to the 600Hz panel, but with the default Perfect Natural Motion option switched on it's from its "perfect" description as it makes everything look over-smooth and hyper-real. Turn that off and your movies will look just as they should or, as we've been watching the Commonwealth Games, the speedy athletes look more human rather than Pixar animations. That's a case for all modern TVs and not just this particular Philips though and is easily adjusted.

Sound

If there's one thing that Philips knows how to handle it's sound. The 25W output from the PUS7809's speakers delivers a balanced output that doesn't sound muted like some of the competitors we've handled over the years.

A peek around the back and there's a visible driver that handles the bass well. There's enough thump by default without overdoing things, and it doesn't cause any rumble or distortion.

Glance at the front of the TV and there's a sort-of disguised front-facing grille to the bottom left corner to ensure the high frequencies get pushed out and reach your ears at optimum quality.

A soundbar would give more oomph overall, but we didn't feel the need to consider one in this particular setup as it sounds decent straight out the box. If the default setting isn't to your liking then, and just like with picture settings, there are loads of presets and adjustments available too. From movie to music and game to news, or select personal and adjust the bass and treble. If you're using a separate system then HDMI ARC, audio out delay, and stereo/multichannel output options are also there for the taking.

Smart TV

Philips isn't exactly renowned for being the best Smart TV maker out there, but its offerings have improved with each release iteration, thanks to the inclusion of more relevant apps. A single button press of the Smart TV button whisks you to the relevant section, which includes BBC iPlayer, Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, Blinkbox and more.

There are gaps in some of these services though. Blinkbox, the movie rental on demand service, can deliver HD quality to tablet devices, but it's limited to standard definition only and that, in our view, sees it approaching pointless on a 4K panel. YouTube videos looked decent, but the lack of VP9 decoding - something that lacks on all UHD TVs for now - means upscaled 1080p is what it shows at best.

Smart TV is something of an oddity because not that many people use the actual TV as a main hub. From Virgin to Sky boxes, YouView to Freesat, or PlayStation 3 and Xbox One, there are all kinds of better equipped media servers available and many households will already have and use one of those. As a result we only used the Philips Smart TV section for the purposes of this review, otherwise everything ran from our Freesat box and PlayStations.

Verdict

The last top-end Philips TV that we saw (the PFL9708, which includes the architecture to upgrade at a later date) we loved. But that was then, and this is now. In the case of the PUS7809 we are less enamoured for one main reason: the 4K world is moving on, but this Philips hasn't. We're fine without HDMI 2.0 because high frame rate 4K isn't of much use just yet, but the lack of HEVC support simply means this model isn't future-proofed by any stretch.

But the 7800 Series is about showing what can be done on a budget. For £1500 it's knocking on the door of standard HD TV price territory, despite its 4K credentials. In that regard it's a decent stab at a UHD TV: great design, quality sound, and plenty of picture settings to get the image just as you like it. Even the two-sided Ambilight gives it another point of distinction, although we're sad it's not a more immersive three- or four-sided solution.

Overall the Philips 55PUS7809 lives in a strange place; a segment of the market that has been carved out all by itself as, in general, other 2014 UHD TV makers are focusing on the pricier but more comprehensive future-proofed solutions. That said, for the sake of a quality upscaled image and 55-inch panel you're not going to find anything more affordable and in our weeks of use we've found the general quality of this Philips to be a step beyond our older stand-in TV. It has a valid place, but for how much longer is the bigger question.