The Big TV, Part Two

Yesterday, I wrote about big TVs in general. Today, it’s the specific–the 60-inch screen that we now watch every day. It’s a Samsung plasma screen with many of the latest features.

The most important feature is, of course, the screen itself. It’s extraordinary. Great color, great detail, wonderful contrast, never a ghost image, rarely any digital lag (sometimes a concern with fast-moving sporting events and slower-moving processors).

Second most important is sound. As I’ve written previously, most large TVs are made with the assumption that an external system will be added. This particular TV is fine, but on some frequencies, there’s a bit of distortion. Doesn’t happen often. Shouldn’t happen at all. A common problem, but it goes away with an external sound system. (Note the loudspeakers below.)

Samsung-2013-interfaceThird most important feature is the interface–the ways that we interact with the TV set. This requires some explanation.

Mostly, we work with two remote controls. One is used to switch the cable channels, a feature we’ve never quite mastered within the Samsung interface, so we simply switch the channel on our original cable remote and put it aside. The main remote is the Samsung, and like most TV remotes, it takes a bit to understand most of the features, and, like most remotes, it contains buttons and features that I will never take the time to comprehend. Mostly, it’s useful for volume up-down, and for maneuvering a cursor around the on-screen interface.

This interface is a point-and-click design, limited in its alphanumeric capabilities. Mostly, we select an app from the Smart TV interface, then scroll through a series of visual menus to find the movie or TV show that we want to watch. There’s an Amazon Prime app that we’ve used to watch every episode of “Arrested Development” at no additional charge, and there’s a Netflix app that we use to watch “House of Cards” and the strange assortment of movies and documentaries that is rich in niche material and (happily!) lacking in major mainstream movies. These work well enough, but everything falls apart with the oh-so-promising YouTube app–no fault of Samsung here, for YouTube develops its own software. It’s one of those circa-1983 interfaces where you must use the up-down-left-right arrows on the remote in order to choose each individual character, each space, each deletion of an error. For YouTube, with its many idiosyncratic titles, it’s simply dreadful.

There are some other useful apps–one to watch TED Talks videos, another to check the weather, another which provides access to what may be the slowest internet web browser I have ever encountered. In truth, these criticisms are beginning to melt away because each year’s models tend to improve upon the (few) weaknesses of predecessors, and here, I’m discussing a 2012 TV set, ancient in current technology terms.

If you look closely at the above picture, you’ll see that the 2013 Samsung interface is clean, easy to use, and features a tremendous number of apps (you can add or delete them at will). You are, of course, looking at the future of TV on this screen. There’s an app for YouTube and CNBC, another for USA Today and TED, one for HBO GO, and one for Netflix. Each of these is an independent experience essentially unaffiliated with Samsung, but it’s all here, all easily accessible in its “am I a TV channel or a web site? glory? There is so much video, so many images, so much text to be read on a screen that offers abundant clarity and contrast. It is now reasonable to read the Sunday paper on your TV set, stopping to check in, via Skype, with relatives calling from far away, checking email, doing all of that. At long last, we have arrived in the future, and so far, it seems to work pretty well. (See my comments about processing power in the yesterday’s post.)

And then, there’s 3D. This mystifies me. Yes, there are 3D glasses. Yes, they feel really silly. Yes, the effect is still that vaguely grainy, slightly out-of-phase experience. No, I have not felt much of a need to watch anything in 3D for anything more than a family demonstration. Maybe some time in the future.

How much does all of this cost? Less than $2,000, even for a larger screen.

So what else is new? The answer is clearly articulated, with only a modest amount of marketing-speak, on this page from Samsung’s website.

The Big TV, Part One


That’s the word we used when we first watched a 60-inch television set take over our family room.

No way would this TV set remain in the room. We had made a dreadful mistake. Living with this monster, even for a week, was simply unacceptable.

And then, we watched. Watching favorite movies, we noticed details in the background that we had never seen before. We’d darken the room and the experience felt superior to all but the best motion picture theaters. For the first time, we could clearly read every closed-caption, every sports score. In short, the experience was far better than we could have imagined.

Of course, the 60-inch TV set is not going anywhere. We’ve explored slightly smaller alternatives, but none offers the satisfying experience of the sheer size, scale and impact of the 60-inch screen.

Figuring out which screen type, which manufacturer, which features–all of that was useful research. Here’s the rundown.

Given the choice of plasma or LED technology, my eyes prefer plasma. I find the LED color palette to be too vivid, less lifelike, too difficult to adjust to my liking. Others may feel differently. During the inevitable research phase–which is not easy to do in the likes of Best Buy, but instead, far more successfully done in small, specialist shops because the sets are properly tuned and aren’t fighting big box store lighting–I found myself drawn to the plasma screens. Their reputation for greater power consumption, heat, reflectance and a darker room has proven to be a non-issue in our setup, which is, already, slightly darker than other rooms in the house. We have not noticed any change in our electric bill. If there is any substantial heat being generated, we simply haven’t noticed it.

Once the plasma decision was made, the choice of manufacturer became much easier. There’s a website that keeps up with the somewhat limited plasma industry, and apparently, there are just three companies in the consumer game: Samsung, LG, and Panasonic. The links in the previous sentence turn out to be quite useful. Each of these manufacturers offers their plasma wares in series form: the higher-end series include more features (3D, smart interfaces, etc.) and the lower-end series offer remarkably good image quality but less of the newest technology (improved black levels are a good example of what the higher priced devices offer that the lower priced models do not).


“Smart TV” brands Samsung’s interface and feature package. Other manufacturers offer a similar suite of enhanced features. Buying a large-screen TV also involves selecting the best feature package for your needs. This can be complicated, but CNET and other specialist websites can simply the process. Often, reliable journalistic websites offer better, more up-to-date advice than you will find in a large retail store. Smaller specialty stores offer a better combination of well-trained sales personnel and a more home-like viewing environment.

In truth, the image quality on all of these plasma television sets is so extraordinary that individual reviews or product tests can describe only incremental differences. The details available on a true HDTV set are extraordinary, and the color rendition, especially on the plasma models, given proper adjustment, are just terrific.

The sound quality is a different matter. This is the one place where the beautiful, giant TV sets fall short. The reason, usually, is speakers that point in the wrong direction (down toward the floor or cabinet, not toward the listener) and are also too smaller to provide the fidelity that should be commensurate with the picture experience. (For more about this, see my previous blog post about audio systems for big screens–some of the specific products may no longer be current, but it’s easy enough to research newer models.)

None of these sets are easy to set up. They are all large, and require great care. A professional installer is recommended, especially for a set as large as 50 or 60 inches (remember, the measurement is on the diagonal). They are very well-made, but you want to be very careful about twisting or torquing the screen (or dropping it!).

Available as an accessory, the Samsung television keyboard serves as both a remote control and an input device with full alphanumeric entry. It also includes a touch pad. When the Bluetooth connection works properly, this is a wonderful addition to a smart television viewing experience.

Available as an accessory, the Samsung television keyboard serves as both a remote control and an input device with full alphanumeric entry. It also includes a touch pad. When the Bluetooth connection works properly, this is a wonderful addition to a smart television viewing experience.

Back to set-up. Each of these sets is a sophisticated computer and a TV set, and each offers a remarkable range of software features. The interface relies upon a fairly traditional TV remote control, and, increasingly, upon a screen interface that is navigated, mostly, by up, down, left and right arrows, or entry of numbers. This is a woefully inadequate way to control a device with so many features.  A touch-pad is a far better idea, and, in fact, a full wireless keyboard is an even better idea–when the Bluetooth feature works well enough to enable flawless communication between the TV set and what amounts to a rather large remote control.

Set-up also requires a level of coordination with other devices, including a DVD player,  an audio system, your wireless network, and, in the most-likely-t0-be-troublesome department, the cable box that is not specifically designed for use with such a modern TV set.

Of course, our original intention was simply to watch TV on a larger, prettier screen. We, like so many other consumers, were so self-assured when we insisted that the extra features were completely unnecessary, not at all interesting. Naturally, we spend nearly all of our viewing time with those special features. For the most part, they are the television equivalent of the iPad’s apps, but in the smart television world of 2013, those apps are, in essence, video-on-demand channels that provide access to a stunning amount of movies, television programs, and much more. These apps are also available on the newest Blu-Ray DVD players, game systems, and on other devices. On TV sets, the critical factor is the computer processing power built into the TV set. As a matter of common practice, TV manufacturers do not provide sufficient processing power to allow the apps to operate quickly and efficiently, so performance is often adequate, but could be so much better with only a small incremental price adjustment. The newer videogame systems offer both the same apps and also the increased processing power. Of course, you can plug any of those systems into the big TV and bypass the built-in apps entirely. Apple TV, which costs $100, serves the same purpose; similar products from Roku are also low-cost solutions.

So what’s it like to watch such a big TV? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s show, er, blog article.

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