(Pocket-lint) - It can take quite a lot for a TV to stand-out from the crowd. Philips' approach? Plonk some LED lights around all four sides of its rear - aka Ambilight, used to real-time project coloured lighting in sync with the image on screen - and, no doubt, you've got one stand-out 4K UHD telly in the PUS8601.
But is it all just a bit of a gimmick? Or perhaps there to distract you from picture blemishes? Some may think it's one, other, or both. But over the years, as we've watched Ambilight progress, we find it a real lure - especially if you live in some arty chateau where you can wall-mount a giant screen against your turn-of-the-century chimney stack (we, for the record, don't have such a space; try a terraced maisonette where even this TV's feet are too wide-apart to fit on our standard TV stand, hence having it floor level for most of this review).
Philips has been learning and progressing too. From the days of its ill-equipped 4K TVs, which lacked future-proofing, the PUS8601 is now up-to-date (i.e. there are two HDCP 2.2 certified HDMI ports, alongside two non-compliant ones), runs an Android operating system, will update in the future to support high dynamic range (HDR; although to what brightness is unclear - it won't be Ultra HD Premium certified anyway), and looks generally rather awesome. It's £1,700 in this 55-inch form, too, so it's well set to rival even the likes of the Panasonic CX802.
The name is still fairly ridiculous though. The grand title of "Philips 4K UHD Razor Slim TV powered by Android" alongside our "with 4-sided Ambilight" in the head might sound overly pompous, but it's keen to point out all its high points. Of which there are plenty. Here's what we have to make of the 55PUS8601 after living with it for a week.
Philips PUS8601 4K TV review: Design
As we alluded to above, the feet of this TV are really wide-apart - a trait that seems increasingly common in recent tellies. It makes for a hot look, if, of course, you can get it to sit on your TV stand. Which we couldn't. The TV's front measures 127cm across, with speakers included, but you'll need a stand no less than 134cm wide to accommodate the feet.
Instead, we suspect, this is the ideal TV for wall-mounters, because with 4-sided Ambilight you'll get a wonderful protrusion of colour from all sides, giving a real additional quality to the viewing experience. However, there's no wall-mount included in the box, so you'll have to buy that separately if you choose - which is more than fair.
It's a slim set too, hence the "Razor Slim" pomp on the 8601's official sales page. The top, most visible, edge is 17mm deep, but as the processor and other gubbins need to be held within there's an extra 30mm to the rear, totalling 47mm. Still, a TV that's under 50mm thick all-in? Not bad, not bad at all.
Interestingly Philips has separated out the sound, with two-built in woofers to the back handling bass, and two side-mounted magnetic clip-on speakers to the left and right side for a wide stereo field.
These two additions clip on with ease, each plugging in discreetly via dedicated 3.5mm audio jacks. If you don't want them because you're using a separate system for output, you can easily remove them and live without - the choice is yours, unlike with Sony's recent TVs that have giant eye-sore (but decent-sounding) speakers all over the shop.
Philips PUS8601 4K TV review: Ambilight
Now Ambilight is the real calling card for this TV. Not that you have to use it: you can switch it off entirely, opt for picture- or sound-led real-time motion, or even fix it to a single roughly-wall-matched colour (full palette visible in our gallery of screens) to give a bold and quite beautiful glow behind the picture.
Whatever you choose, the vividness can be adjusted in terms of saturation, while the bottom edge can be separately output-adjusted compared to the other three - essential given how stand-mounted sets will appear brighter to this edge without some adjustment (as you can see in our lead picture, our bad for not adjusting quite right, but it still looks cool). Shame there's no individual control of each edge, just in case you mount high up a wall or have a near-side wall closer to one edge.
If you're a Philips Hue user (that's the app-controlled colour- and brightness-adjustable lighting system for your home - click for our full system review) then the PUS8601 can even become a commander for that setup. We've seen Philips demo this in action on older TV sets, and it works a bit like "surround lighting" (rather than surround sound) if you have a bunch of additional Hue light sources around the room. Rather good fun. However the TV can't be treated as an additional light source when on or off, it doesn't connect to the Hue app in that way (we've not directly tested this at home, as we don't operate Hue in this house, but have queried this with Philips directly).
So the big question: is Ambilight a gimmick or distraction? Different people will respond differently to this, but we really don't think it's either. Having spent much of the last week digging into Life Is Strange on the PS4 we've found that Ambilight has, if anything, made the experience even more immersive and magical. It's a talking point, it's a stand-out point - and it doesn't really cost any more to have it now, which is a plus.
Philips PUS8601 4K TV review: Picture quality
Not that the PUS8601 has the very best image quality we've ever seen. Don't get us wrong, it's great - and far brighter than our standard set (so we'll be interested to see how bright HDR is, which is incoming via an update) - but with OLED panels pushing forward, an LED edge-illuminated LCD panel (i.e. this one) tends to have its work cut out.
The main downer is some clouding that seems most prominent towards the outer edges in this panel. Edge-illumination rather than local dimming also misses class-leading black levels, but there's still a great richness to them. And with Ambilight doing its thing it helps negate any visual lows from being apparent, pretty much entirely.
There are a whole bunch of other positives. Philips has used a 10-bit panel, which is important for 4K colour. And while the 8601 can't muster the fullest colour gamut compared to some of the competition, most eyes aren't going to see a huge difference. In isolation, as you can see from our review images, there's plenty of punch to colour; it's a rather sumptuous looking screen without being over-saturated (and if it does look a bit too much then you can tweak the settings anyway).
There are a lot of customisation options to get the picture pretty much exactly as you want too. The first thing to do is switch off the majority of motion-handling technologies which "smooth" motion to excess: Perfect Natural Motion being the main culprit. No soap opera effect thanks very much.
To really get the most out of the image you want 4K content, of which there's not much - not Philips' fault, per se, just the industry norm. However, there is Netflix available in 4K from the off (well, some of its shows) via a direct app, plus some YouTube content is available in 4K too, which is where the 8601's UHD resolution shows its worth. Upscaled content is fine, but, and like with earlier Philips sets, go easy on the sharpness to avoid things looking too jaggied.
Philips PUS8601 4K TV review: Android at the controls
Which leads us neatly into the operating system. Philips has adopted Android OS, which will help it jump into the latest supported applications rather than having to wait around for an age. Netflix and YouTube are two prime examples, with BBC iPlayer also on offer, but with others lacking for the time being (that's system wide, irrelevant of manufacturer). Amazon is promised via a future update too, but when we don't know.
As an operating system we don't find Android our favourite TV OS. That gong goes to LG's webOS 2.0, which consolidates inputs in a neater manner in the one place. Plus LG is making some stunning TVs, such as the EF950V OLED.
Instead Android works on a large scrollable palette, i.e. a single screen, with different sections introducing apps, sources and other inputs. You can move things around, but it's just not quite as neat and organised as some other systems in our view. It's way better than Philips' setup of old though.
To guide through all of this is the included Philips TV remote. Great for its full keyboard on the rear, but a bit over-sensitive when using its four-way control pad, which has some trackpad-like sensitivity that can be confusing in use - especially when it gets stuck in a scroll for no apparent reason. We want it to work like, say, a Mac trackpad with finger gestures in addition to the physical clicks, but it's not that advanced.
Some of the quick-access shortcuts also don't reveal the full spectrum of information. For example there's an Ambilight button top left of the controller, but you can only do so much from the menu it provides - for a full breakdown you'll instead need to go Home and scroll all the way to the bottom to access Settings and pick things up from there instead. We get that trying to trim some of the fat should make a quicker user experience, but finding different menus and settings about the same subject in two different areas feels convoluted.
Still, that's to nitpick. You don't really buy a TV for its operating system, you buy it for its picture, sound and, in the case of 4K, guarantee of future-proofing. And with four HDMI ports (two of which are HDCP 2.2 compliant) you'll be able to receive broadcast 4K as and when (and if?) that becomes a standard.
If you want a 4K TV to stand-out from the crowd then Amblight is one surefire way to do it, especially if you can wall-mount it. Plus the Philips PUS8601 does a grand job at looking elegant even when it's switched off, and it always sounds great too.
Does it offer the very best picture quality out there? Not quite, but then at £1,700 for the 55-inch set it's not quite up there with the uber-cinema-chin-stroker tellies that cost upwards of £4k. It's not going to be Ultra HD Premium certified, but that's arguably a confusing/wishy-washy concept anyway (Sony isn't playing ball with that certification, for example), and remains competitive against the likes of the Panasonic CX802 (both in price and ability).
You'll know if you think Ambilight is gimmicky or not and that, realistically, is likely to dictate whether this TV is for you. When we buy that (imaginary) arty chateau in the hills we'd be tempted to opt for this talking point TV beyond some of its peers, because it's a design delight that, finally, shows Philips has caught up with where it needs to be in terms of 4K.