Is the superior contrast of plasma worth the extra purchase price? The Series 9 may solve that argument.
To understand why plasma has a higher contrast and better blacks than LCD you need to know a little about how both technologies work. In a plasma screen, each individual pixel is effectively a single small light, capable of emitting red, green or blue at a range of intensities to create billions of colour combinations. To display black, the TV simply turns the light off.
An LCD however produces no light of its own, and is instead lit from behind in order to display an image. An entirely black image is displayed by turning the crystals opaque, white by making them transparent. The downside of this is that even when the crystals are entirely opaque, some light leaks through, so an image is never a true black.
Several different technologies are employed to backlight the screen. The most common of these is Cold Cathode Fluorescent Lamps (or CCFL) arranged around the edge of the panel.
While CCFL provides an even spread of light at low cost, it’s not perfect for television displays. The colour gamut – the number of different displayable shades – is limited, reducing the colour accuracy of skin tones and shadows. As a result, light emitting diodes (LEDs) are starting to replace CCFLs. LED backlighting uses lights around the edge of the panel, as CCFL does, but it requires much less energy to generate better colour accuracy and a wider colour gamut. Unfortunately, as with CCFL, LED still ‘bleeds’ through the screen on dark images.
Recently, manufacturers have tried to solve the backlight bleed problem by introducing Dynamic Contrast, whereby the overall brightness of the screen is adjusted for light and dark scenes. To adjust the overall brightness, the monitor has to analyse the image brightness level. That takes time, and creates a delay between when the image is displayed and when the backlight is adjusted. The change is visible as fading, flashing or stuttering. The other flaw is that in high contrast scenes, such as a lit window in a shadowy room, the dynamic contrast can’t effectively judge overall brightness.
The Series 9 is different. Samsung has broken with tradition and designed a new lighting system. Rather than illuminating the entire panel from the edges, the backlight LEDs are positioned behind the pixels, individually controlled to the optimal brightness for the colour being displayed.
This shift in thinking means that the Series 9 now has the best of both worlds – you get the excellent image quality of plasma without spending a fortune.
For our review model – one of the first using the new technology – you get an excellent, well-rounded package. There are plenty of inputs, with a particular feature being 4 HDMI 1.3 connectors. The legacy ports are accounted for as well, with VGA, composite, S-video and two component ports. Also included is a USB 2.0 Port for playback of MP3, MPEG and JPEG files directly. While this offers a lot of promise, we had trouble getting it to detect our devices, but this can most likely be put down to our unit being an early-production model. Outputs are fewer: a lonely optical audio connector completes the roster.
The panel driving the Series 9 is Full HD 1080p capable and runs at up to 120Hz. Samsung’s Auto Motion Plus processing can be used to smooth out movement by interpolating between video frames. While the smoothing process isn’t perfect, when compared side-by-side it’s still quite impressive.
Samsung has included the new Yahoo widgets channel, which offers little gadgets that can tell you the weather, read stocks, check for new mail, play basic games and a plethora of other simple tasks, not unlike the Windows Sidebar or Mac OS X Dashboard. The widgets access data from the internet via either an Ethernet or optional Wi-Fi connection. The interface for Yahoo Widgets is currently primitive and slow, but with speed and interface improvements, it’s certainly something worth keeping an eye on in future. The Series 9 supports in-place software upgrades, so the problems we saw might be fixed by the time you read this.
Both HD digital and analogue tuners are integrated, and broadcast TV looks stunning. Despite testing from a basement level in a valley, we were still able to maintain a continuous signal with a standard portable antenna.
Sound from the integrated speakers is impressive. While ideally you would connect an external amplifier and speakers, the internal ones are good enough to use them alone.
The set itself looks great; the grey-on-black finish is a marked improvement over the burnt orange of the Series 8. It also ships with two remotes — one fully featured device capable of navigating to the moon, and a stripped back ‘pebble’ remote with just five buttons.
On the whole, the Series 9 is an excellent HDTV. While its standard features make a strong case, the new backlighting tech seals the deal. It is a bit pricey, but a pleasure to use.