You may recall that I had a lot of nice things to say about Samsung’s flagship 55-inch UN55F9000AF Ultra HD display last year. I loved its screen uniformity. I loved its rich blacks and vivid whites. I loved the fact that it’s 4K upscaling did more to improve the look of 1080p Blu-rays than 1080p upscaling ever did for my old standard-def DVDs. And yet, in the end, the F9000 probably wasn’t the right TV for me, for my home theater habits, for my ultra-dark viewing environs. The biggest issue I had with the F9000? The stuttering choppiness I experienced with video games like Grand Theft Auto V, as well as certain TV shows like the egregiously awful-looking Grey’s Anatomy. Deal breakers? Absolutely not. But those things did make it a little easier to box up the F9000 and send it back once my evaluation was finished. Samsung’s new UN65HU8550FXZA (HU8550 for short), though, is going to be a little harder to let go of.
The HU8550 isn’t at the top of this year’s Samsung lineup. That distinction goes to the HU9000 series, which—in addition to having a curved screen—boasts a number of upgraded features over the 8550. The 8550 lacks the 9000′s MHL input capabilities, its Auto Depth Enhancer technology, its PurColor processing, and its built-in camera and microphone. The latter means that it doesn’t support arm-waving gesture controls out of the box (unless you opt for the optional $99 add-on camera), and that you have to press a button on the remote if you want to talk to your TV. Personally, I think this is a welcomed move, in that it allows you, the consumer, a little more choice over whether or not you want to spend the extra coin on these features.
Let’s back up a moment, though, because there are a few things that stand out about the HU8550 from the moment you pull it out of the box. For one thing, Samsung has redesigned the TV’s pedestal yet again, moving back to a small, solid rectangular base reminiscent of my beloved 2010-model C8000 plasma. While last year’s wide curved base was lovely, it did mean that you needed a TV stand wider than the display itself. This year, you have much more flexibility in terms of pedestal positioning.
That’s assuming, of course, that you don’t want to wall-mount the TV. If you do opt for wall mounting, there are a few things to consider. The HU8550 doesn’t come with a One Connect box, so all of the connections are on the display itself. It does feature a One Connect port, so you’ll be able to upgrade it next year with the latest in connectivity and smart TV features, but for now the AV, Control, and Ethernet ports are on the back of the display. Most of them are recessed and connect parallel to the display itself. Oddly, though, the HDMI port that supports Audio Return Channel (which you’ll need to use if you want to send the sound from the display’s apps and streaming services to your home theater system) sticks straight out the back, as does the Ethernet port. So if you’re wall-mounting, you or your home tech specialist will need to use an L-adapter for the HDMI cable, and you’ll need to use some pretty flexible Ethernet cable, unless you opt for the TV’s built-in WiFi capabilities.
Given all of the HU8550′s streaming capabilities, though, I think it’s better not to rely on WiFi unless you simply have no other options. Especially given the amount of bandwidth eaten up by something like 4K streaming via Netflix. Yes, the new Samsung supports 4K Netflix, and it does so beautifully. I spent a couple of hours streaming Breaking Bad and the 4K demo clips available on the service (including one rendered at 60 frames per second) and never had a bit of trouble. No buffering issues, no drops in resolution, no other annoyances.
Samsung has done a wonderful job this year of improving the integration of the Smart TV features of the HU8550 with other sources. The Smart Hub interface hasn’t evolved as much this year as it did last year, but it’s more seamless, has better S Recommendation functionality and better navigation overall. I only ran into a few problems overall with the Smart Hub interface. A few apps didn’t work at all. A few download and booted up okay, but didn’t function as intended. I downloaded the WeatherNation TV app, which I watch quite frequently on my Roku as a way to avoid the egregious reality TV shows on The Weather Channel. I was looking forward to Samsung’s implementation of the app, since it features an improved interface and enhanced graphics over the Roku version, but unfortunately I couldn’t get past the screen where you enter your location. In fact, it wouldn’t accept any location at all.
That’s the exception rather than the rule. Most apps work great, and there’s even a dedicated section for games this time around. As I said above, you won’t have gesture recognition unless you opt for the add-on camera, and to use voice recognition you have to press a button on the HU8550′s small companion remote (which also doubles as a motion controller, similar to the Wii Remote Controller).
But, I found myself using the little Smart Remote Control, as it’s called, quite frequently, even though I had the TV connected to my Control4 system (via an IR repeater aimed at the IR receiver buried next to the TV’s eco sensor again; there still isn’t an IR port on the back, and the TV cannot be controlled with advanced control systems via IP). When you touch the navigation button on the Smart Remote, it creates a little Tinkerbell-like circle of light onscreen that can easily be moved around to touch different app icons or select inputs or what have you. I found the visual feedback, combined with the quick motion controls, to be an incredibly intuitive way to get around this TV’s wealth of features.
Getting back to the 4K thing for a moment, Netflix isn’t, of course, the only source of UHD content available to those who buy the HU8550. I also got to sample Samsung’s UHD video pack, a proprietary hard drive that connects to the USB 3.0 input on the back of the TV and comes with several Hollywood films in Ultra HD resolution—The Counselor, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Night at the Museum, World War Z, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine—as well as three documentaries: The Last Reef, Grand Canyon Adventure, and Garden of the Gods Cappadocia. Some look better than others, but all go a long way toward spotlighting the advantages of 4K, not only in terms of the extra detail, but mostly just in how close you can sit to the screen without noticing pixels.
That does bring up an interesting point, though: we’re in a situation now similar to the one we found ourselves in back in the early part of the century, with new, higher-resolution displays and a little bit of content designed to exploit that higher resolution, but tons of legacy content that has to be upscaled. Pretty much everything I said about the upscaling capabilities of last year’s F9000 remains true about the HU8550, so I won’t rehash it all here. It’s sufficient to say that virtually all 1080p video I fed the TV was delivered back to me with improved clarity and less pixelation, and although a few shows (like FX’s Fargo) did reveal a few artifacts in their title sequences, I didn’t have any trouble with stuttering motion.
Overall, I found myself able to sit much, much closer to the display than I can with my 58-inch plasma (all the more noteworthy given that the HU8550 I reviewed is the 65-inch model), and in the end I zeroed in on a seating distance of about five feet to give me the best balance between appreciating the extra resolution and minimizing the roughness that comes with some broadcast channels (and again, FX tended to be the worst offender here). But even from 7 feet away I still found that I could appreciate the extra pixels that UHD delivers.
At the other extreme, when I fired up Grand Theft Auto V and Gran Turismo 6, I found myself sitting as close as 3 feet away from the screen, which gave me a staggering 75+ degree field-of-view. And again, absolutely none of the stuttering or frame lag that diminished my gaming experience last year on the F9000 was in evidence with the HU8550. And no, I didn’t turn engage the Video Game mode (which disables pretty much all image processing) during any of my playing sessions, but still found that the response time of the HU8550 was excellent, even with the most twitch-dependent games.
Some of that may have to do with the extra processing power of this year’s displays. Some of it may have to do with improvements to Auto Motion Plus (which, in its various settings, reduces either judder or blur or both.) Unlike previous Samsung displays, which always seemed to work best for me on the Clear setting, this year I found that a custom setting with full blur reduction and no judder reduction worked best for me—clearing up the smearing that bothers me on LCD displays, but without the soap opera effect, which make me nauseated. I also found that enabling LED Clear Motion went a long way toward making the display perform more like my beloved plasma TV.
In fact, “nearly plasma-like” is a pretty good way to sum up the HU8550′s picture quality, at least when viewed on-axis. It’s a lot brighter than a plasma, of course (which I was able to tame with a combination of the LED Clear Motion and lowering the backlight level), but it sports wonderful black levels, excellent contrasts, and, with a bit of tweaking in the service menus, great color reproduction. It’s also worth nothing that the HU8550 doesn’t exhibit one of the bad habits that has often bothered me the most about LED/LCD displays in the past. Many LCD displays, when presented with a fade to black, seem to turn off entirely, but when any part of that image lights up, the black background instantly becomes a deep, dark gray be comparison. The HU8550 does not do this. The transition between fully black and 99 percent black images is smooth and seamless.
Screen uniformity, while perhaps not quite as good as last year’s flagship, remains incredible for an LED/LCD. Gone are the days of spotlights shining from the edge of the screen when there’s a mostly dark image with one bright spot in the middle. I didn’t notice any halos or bands of light even with letterboxed movies or dark screens with bright logos in the middle. The only thing I noticed was a very slight, very subtle brightening at the very edges of the image when I was looking for it. But when I got lost in a movie or TV show, even that didn’t bother me. Overall, I would say Samsung has just about perfected the whole local dimming thing. The only thing that did bother me was the loss of contrast and lightening of black levels when I sat in my wife’s usual seat, which is presently about 25 degrees off-axis.
I have a habit of wrapping up reviews of LED/LCD displays by saying that they’re an excellent choice if you have a brightly lit room. But with the HU8550, when viewed straight on, I found myself loving it even in my pitch-black home theater. And that’s good, because with the death of plasma (whine!) and the seeming stagnation of its successor—OLED—LED-lit LCD displays are pretty much your only choice.
That isn’t to say, of course, that the HU8550 is your only choice among the available UHD TVs. But I think it’s a very good one. What do other reviewers think? Adrienne Maxwell of Home Theater Review also recently wrapped up her assessment of the UN65HU8550, which she praised for its “Outstanding detail, excellent image contrast, great shadow detail,” but she seemed more troubled than I was by the slight inconsistencies in brightness uniformity at the edges of the screen. In the end, she gave the display itself 4 stars, and in a separate review of this year’s Smart TV platform, she gave it 4.5 stars.
If I were in the habit of handing out star ratings here at HDLiving, I would probably flip those around and give the display 4.5 and the Smart TV interface a 4. And I would bump that up to a solid 4.5 as well, if I could only get the WeatherNation app to work.