There’s something decidedly low-rent about the word “combi”, but this two-into-one effort from Samsung is most definitely upmarket. Costing a whopping £380, it darn well should be, but wait until you see what it can do: 3D Blu-ray playback, Freeview HD viewing and recording, and BBC iPlayer. It can even transform 2D into 3D, and stream files across a home network.
That’s some combination, though it does have a major drawback - the D8500 is a beastly 430 x 60 x 299mm, though the design is otherwise a pleasant combination of touch-sensitive controls above the disc inlet. It’s a clean look; a Common Interface slot and a USB port are cleverly hidden behind an invisible flap. It’s far more cluttered on the rear, but that a good thing; there you’ll find a HDMI output (1.4, so capable of 3D) alongside RF aerial, Ethernet LAN (though Wi-Fi is also included), optical digital audio, analogue audio, Composite video and Component video. The latter is fast disappearing from AV kit as a genre will cease altogether in 2012 at the insistence of Hollywood studios. Note that there are no multichannel outputs for 7.1 sound, so fans of lossless movie soundtracks from Blu-ray will need to pair the D8500 with a HDMI-equipped AV amplifier.
First, let’s take a look at the Freeview HD functionality. The D8500 is fitted with dual tuners and a 500GB hard disk for pausing/rewinding live TV and making recordings (somewhere in the region of 250 hours of SD channels and 125 hours of HD). The 8-day electronic programme guide is pin-sharp and gorgeous, with a thumbnail screen showing (and playing audio) of the channel you're currently tuned to. The EPG shows information for six channels over 2 hours, though scrolling down to other channels is a tad slower than we’d like. Ditto recording; a press of the red record button on the cluttered remote control brought up a “preparing for live TV recording” message for 10 seconds. Hardly the instant recording we’d presumed. Live programmes selected for recording aren’t highlighted, but a red blob appears next to the channel name on the EPG. More usefully, recordings can be scheduled from the EPG days in advance and, better still, if you select a programme that’s part of a series the D8500 will tell you so and invite you to set a series link. Scheduled recordings receive a red clock icon.
Recordings - critically from just one channel at a time, severely limiting the usefulness of this feature when compared to a Sky or (especially) Virgin Media box - can be accessed on the HDD from the home screen. Thumbnails are presented for each recordings, though in our tests the menus were sluggish.
In other tests the sole USB slot on the machine’s front managed to deal in DivX HD (MKV), DivX (AVI), MP4, MPEG and WMV video files, while JPEG, PNG and GIF photos, MP3 and WMA music files played without problems. Networking, known as AllShare by Samsung, is similarly impressive.
Also benefitting from Wi-Fi is Samsung’s latest attempt at an online content service - SmartHub. Accessed from the pretty new onscreen menus (that are less a step forward compared to previous efforts, and more a slight change in aesthetics - unlike the remote, which is identical to Samsung’s 2010 TV and Blu-ray products), SmartHub’s highlight is BBC iPlayer, which has just been added in its “usual” design (it automatically downloaded to the D8500 the second we navigated to the SmartHub).
It’s joined by typical services on such online hubs, including social networking from Facebook and Twitter, the puzzling Google Maps (on a TV? Really?) and access to videos on YouTube, Muzu.TV, Box Office 365, Lovefilm and Dailymotion. News comes from USA Today, though there’s no sport apps whatsoever. Other niche options include AccuWeather, Rovi TV listings, This Day In History (by The History Channel), Picasa and a plethora of games such as Mahjong Fruits, Chess and Sudoku.
Those video services seem pencilled-in for expansion on SmartHub since Samsung has also included a “Your Video” area where it’s possible to search using free text (albeit through a painful predictive text-style onscreen keyboard that you’d do well to use without screaming for more than 10 seconds) across all available movie streaming services. Showing IMBD-style info about films available on the Lovefilm and Acetrax services, Your Video learns which films you have been watching and makes recommendations based on your history. There's also a "search all" function that trawls apps, USB sticks and the internet based on free text input.
The D8500 excels on picture quality. Standard definition Freeview pictures are highly watchable but do have a sheen of softness across them, unlike HD channels, which are a huge improvements. Standard Blu-ray discs shine, too, with Samsung’s Hyper Real Video Engine offering-up immense detail that proved more than enough for watching the Ghibli classic Laputa Castle In The Sky on Blu-ray through a home cinema projector. Converting 2D into 3D can only be done with Blu-ray discs, not Freeview channels, but this feature doesn’t add much to proceedings. Test it out, of course, but don't expect to watch more than the first 10 minutes of a movie before you decide that the flicker and uncomfortable 3D glasses just isn't worth it.
The high price and heavyweight size will put many off, but this 3D Blu-ray player-cum-HDD recorder’s combination of unusual features make it a niche product extraordinaire. Top quality 3D is the icing on an enticing high-end package that marries BBC iPlayer and comprehensive digital file playback via USB or DLNA to Freeview HD and a huge hard disk. Aside from a few onscreen menu niggles, our main criticism is that only one channel can be recorded.
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