Samsung’s flagship plasma TV represents a delicious compromise. It’s got the second best online dimension, after Sony’s Bravia Internet Video platform, which is too often strapped to TVs with lacklustre 3D pictures. And the second best 3D performance, losing out to Panasonic’s plasmas, which are the best performers, but are blighted by a content-light online service.
We’ll leave this 51-inch plasma’s 3D dimension alone for a while - it’s an optional add-on, with no 3D glasses in the box - and concentrate first on why Smart Hub is becoming irresistible.
Interactive rules the roost
Highlights on the home screen include links to the BBC live streaming news channel, the BBC iPlayer and Lovefilm, the latter being especially good to see, despite the fact that the postal DVD service has yet to digitise many of its must-have titles. Kudos to Samsung’s software designers, who have somehow managed to squeeze not only a live TV preview box (complete with sound) and a video search facility that works independently of source, but also clickable shortcuts to some of the TVs other functions.
The lower half of the screen includes, by default, links to a list of TV programmes recorded to a HDD via USB, videos, photos, and music stored on a USB stick or a PC/Mac on the same home network, a dedicated AllShare button, the Freeview HD or Freesat HD tuners - it’s one of few TVs that have both the UK’s free-to-air tuners inside - and a web browser. That's quite some selection, and it sees Smart Hub growing from a separate interface for online video to full mastery of the TV’s functions as a whole. And we haven't even mentioned the second screen. Scroll across and you'll find links to Cartoon Network, Facebook, Google maps, Picture Box, Google Talk and Skype - though the latter requires a separate CY-STC1100/XC webcam accessory from Samsung, which costs around £100.
Something we did notice however, is that Twitter and YouTube are buried in a third screen, where they should really take the place of redundant apps earlier in the mix, such as Exercise TV, Samsung Imaging and Daily Motion. Samsung's interactive features are really only hampered by slow loading times.
Hardware-wise this 3D plasma is on the money. Four HDMI inputs nestle next to a brace of USB ports, one of which can be hooked-up to a hard drive for making recordings from either of the sets integrated TV tuners. The PS51D8000’s only compromises in terms of connectivity come from proprietary ports for both an RGB Scart and component video (and associated analogue audio inputs). Both are easy enough to hook up using supplied adaptors, and allow the connections panel to be especially well organised and above all slim enough to let the PS51D8000 compete with LED TVs in terms of its depth - remarkably it's only 37mm fat.
In terms of the plasma panel itself, the PS51D8000 comes replete with Real Black Filter, part of what Samsung calls its 3D Hyper Real picture processing engine, as well as a Cell Light tweaker.
We found the experience of manually attaching the TV to its stand fiddly and frustrating, but the rest of the process is pure plug and play.
Switch-on the PS51D8000 for the first time and we immediately enter the aptly-named Plug & Play menus, a carousel of dynamically designed black, blue and grey screens that take us joyfully through set-up of web services and AllShare DLNA as well as downloading any software upgrades that may have accumulated since you'll set was made.
Then it’s on to a simple selection between home or store as the location - the latter being an exceptionally bright set of picture parameters that help this plasma to compete in the brightness stakes with competitors’ (and Samsung’s) much more luminous LED TVs.
With analogue free-to-air signals switched-off in our area, and without a satellite dish nearby, we tuned in digital Freeview HD channels, which took around three minutes.
The business-like, but beautiful blend of nuanced, shadowed, and 3D sky-blue, yellow and white graphics look especially stunning on the jet black background - though the visually arresting plasma richness of the colours is certainly helped by the sheer size of the screen.
Picture and sound
After attaching a 3D Blu-ray player, the PS51D8000 prompts us to press the 3D button on the remote. What follows isn't reference-level 3D, but it’s darn good; stable, judder-free 3D that’s swimming in contrast, depth effects and detail without too many video nasties.
There’s a touch of crosstalk and double images crop-up, for sure, but it’s a good deal more impressive than most 3D TVs. Using Samsung’s Explore 3D app, we watched some awesome showcase 3D footage including Grand Canyon Adventure, Dinosaurs Alive!, The Ultimate Tahiti Wave and Niagara Falls, as well as a bevy of Red Bull-sponsored sporting events and a host of big name 3D movie clips and trailers. What a shame there are no 3D specs in the box.
Switch to 2D and the good work continues, but true black is suddenly nowhere to be seen, which takes the gloss off colour, too. Still, Freeview HD is still thoroughly impressive in terms of detail, and standard definition channels are always clean and watchable.
The PS51D8000’s viewing angle is a lot wider than most LED TVs we've tested of late, though its arguably even narrower if you view the screen from higher or lower up on the vertical axis - something that you'll only notice if you hang the TV too high on a wall, or position it too near the floor.
Those worried about screenburn can set this TV’s Pixel Shift feature to create a moving screensaver after as little as 10 minutes of a static image.
Sound, meanwhile, is a notch or two above most TVs, with some bass audible from the stero 10W speakers across the PS51D8000’s bottom.
Svelte and with decent audio and a versatility that extends even to impressive 3D, this 51-inch plasma makes for an excellent value home cinema screen. It might not be up there with the very best from Panasonic’s arsenal of 3D plasmas in terms of ultimate quality, but at this price nor should it be. And in other regards, like the often brilliant Smart Hub in particular, it appears the more polished affair.