Samsung's Pretty, Pricey Picture
The Good: Impressive black levels, color detail, and connectivity options
The Bad: High price, glare from the shiny screen in bright rooms, and so-so up-conversion of analog TV to HD
The Bottom Line: Samsung's bet on LED technology puts this LCD set on par with the best of its LCD and plasma rivals
In the competitive flat-panel TV business, manufacturers often are forced to skimp on certain features to keep their prices as consumer-friendly as possible. That's not the case with Samsung's LN-T4681F, and that's a good thing.
This Samsung set exploits light-emitting diode (LED) technology to backlight the screen, setting a new standard for rich, detailed black levels in LCD TVs. I'll talk more on that in a bit, but rest assured—this pricey $3,299 set makes good on its promise of delivering great high-definition TV to the home.
Samsung has loaded this set up with cool features, such as touch-sensitive TV controls on a gray metal strip to the right of the screen. As with other Samsung models, there's also a touch-sensitive power control below the screen (with a blue light that thankfully can be turned off via an on-screen menu).
The side-mounted speakers are cleverly hidden by clear acrylic strips that add a touch of flair and help direct the sound outward. While I generally prefer bottom-mounted speakers to nonremovable side speakers, which add width and tend to be more conspicuous, the unique accents on the LN-T4681F's speakers make an elegant statement. With them, however, the set measures 48.4 inches across, which could present a problem in tight quarters.
Ready for Your Inputs
For those who choose not to mount it on a wall, the TV sits on a swivel stand that makes it easier to get to the rear input jacks. And this Samsung set has plenty of input jacks: The back of the TV offers two HD multimedia inputs (HDMI) for connecting a Blu-ray player, Sony (SNE) PlayStation 3, or Microsoft (MSFT) Xbox 360 Elite game console. There are two component inputs for adding cable boxes and additional HD gear; one composite input and S-Video input for older equipment such as VCRs; a VGA connector for hooking up a computer; and digital and analog audio output for playing the sound on an external stereo system. There also are two inputs for a direct cable feed and an antenna for over-the-air HD broadcasts.
There also are additional ports behind the left side of the screen for quick connections to gear that you might hook up only occasionally. These include a third HDMI input; a second port for either a composite or S-Video connection; and a USB port for hooking up a thumb drive. While many high-end sets are starting to add a fourth HDMI connector, this set's three should be adequate for most users.
Great connectivity, of course, is pointless without great image technology. In a truly dark room with no picture on the screen, this TV is nearly impossible to see—a testament to Samsung's excellent filtering technology, which prevents light from "leaking" through. Many users may be less thrilled, however, in brightly lit rooms since the shiny screen is prone to glare and dilutes the picture clarity when viewed from an angle.
In terms of black levels, the Samsung set goes toe-to-toe with Pioneer's Elite Kuro, which in a recent review I proclaimed the best TV on the market today (BusinessWeek.com 12/21/07). The Samsung boasts an outsize contrast ratio (the difference between the blackest blacks and whitest whites) of 500,000 to 1. It shows: When I watched some of the gritty scenes in Transformers and 300 on a Toshiba HD-DVD player, the Samsung unit offered deep, inky colors with detailed gradations that made some images appear almost three-dimensional. The color accuracy was also good, especially with flesh tones and reds, though I felt the greens looked a little flat, especially when compared with the deeper saturation levels offered by plasma sets.
I was also less impressed was the TV's "up-conversion" of analog video to high definition, often a distinguishing factor among the multitude of sets available today. (Sony's XBR4 is one of the best LCD performers in this regard.) Although the issue will become less prevalent when analog broadcasts are phased out early next year, I found it less enjoyable watching non-HD shows in the Samsung set's 1,080 progressive resolution
Poetry in Motion
The Samsung also lacks 120-hertz screen refresh, one of the top new technologies introduced last year. When properly implemented, 120-hertz technology doubles the screen-refresh rate to reduce or eliminate motion blur on LCD sets. Likewise, the Samsung set's screen response time of 8 milliseconds to receive and process a signal doesn't come close to the 4-millisecond speeds that rivals such as Sharp offer.
But despite these two apparent shortcomings, the Samsung didn't suffer the motion blurs and ghosting you might expect with action footage. In fact, it passed with flying colors. During the opening scene of Will Smith's I Am Legend, where he's in a Ford (F) Mustang chasing a herd of deer through the deserted streets of Manhattan, the set faithfully rendered the Blu-ray HD images with no discernible blur.
Those who might be disappointed by the 120-hertz omission can take solace in the set's so-called LED Motion Plus feature, which syncs the LEDs with the screen-refresh rate to minimize stray light that might illuminate the liquid crystals at the wrong time. But since I was happy with the set's performance without turning this feature on, I didn't even try it.
Plenty to Satisfy
As with most of the latest sets, Samsung offers a wealth of picture adjustments to make the most discerning videophile fairly happy. There are three picture modes—movie, dynamic, and standard—with customizable color, contrast, and brightness settings. In addition, the movie mode allows full adjustment of characteristics such as color tone and white balance, as well as the overall light output of the TV. Since Samsung generally sets its backlighting relatively bright to stand out on the showroom floor, adding user control is a welcome feature (though users will want to set the LED backlighting as bright as possible).
Overall, Samsung's LN-T4681F does a good job of standing out in a very crowded field. Because of its high price, though, you won't see it on display at many big-box retailers. Instead, you can find it at specialty shops such as Magnolia and Crutchfield, where you're not likely to get a bargain price. Even so, the HD fanatic will likely be quite happy with the purchase.