Critics are unanimous: The Samsung PNF8500 is among the very best TVs you can buy this year ... and perhaps ever. It earns Editors' Choice or similar awards from a host of reviewers, including PCMag.com, Reviewed.com Televisions (formerly TelevisionInfo.com), Sound & Vision (which now includes Home Theater magazine), DigitalTrends.com and FlatPanelsHD.com. It also earns high ratings from other reviewers, including CNET and HDGuru.com (which gives it a perfect score).
In terms of the usual touchstones -- black levels and color performance -- that critics use to evaluate TVs, the Samsung PNF8500 is very impressive, but is actually outdone by the tiniest of margins by Panasonic's also very impressive TC-VT60 set (covered in our discussion of Best Panasonic Plasma TVs). Still, blacks are extremely deep, just a hair lighter than the TC-VT60 set and Pioneer's legendary and long-discontinued Kuro models. Likewise with color; experts say that accuracy is in the upper echelon of all TVs, even right out of the box -- close enough to perfection to please most, and tweakable to near-perfect for the obsessive.
But the ace that the Samsung PNF8500 holds is its contrast. To be sure, out-of-this-world contrast specifications are one of those bits of snake oil that should be completely ignored (or even made fun of) in most TV spec sheets. Here, however, it's the real deal. The result is incredible brightness for a plasma TV, delivering most of the pop of an LCD set, even in a room with high levels of light. That blows away one of the chief drawbacks to plasma technology -- the loss of apparent picture quality in rooms with more ambient light. Bright-room performance is also buttressed by a screen filter that does a great job of fighting off screen reflections. Like that of most plasma TVs, screen uniformity is top notch, and viewing angles are wide. There are some reports of a buzzing sound in bright scenes, only noticeable if you sit less than a few feet from the screen, but this is a common complaint with many plasma sets. Temporary image retention -- another typical plasma downside -- is well controlled.
If great picture quality matched with unprecedented brightness for a plasma set weren't enough to justify the PNF8500's admittedly very high price tag, the pot is sweetened a bit by what is the most extensive set of features in any HDTV -- plasma or LCD. Samsung's Featuritis, as CNET calls it, is legendary, and the PNF8500 has everything imaginable stuffed in. The company's Smart Hub offers an array of streaming features that's unsurpassed in terms of providers. An On TV home screen brings that content together with content from your cable/telco/satellite provider to help make finding programs to watch easier. There's also a recommendation engine to find additional programming based on your viewing habits. On TV and the recommendation engine are ambitious, and work ... mostly, as reviewers do find the occasional glitch.
Voice and gesture control are back and work better than last year, though reviewers still find that gesture control is more a gimmick than a useful add-on. Reviewers say that the included touchpad remote has some quirks and requires a learning curve to master. CNET doesn't mind, saying that despite this it's one of the best included remotes they've used. PCMag.com is not as impressed: "It takes some getting used to and is not the best control mechanism for children or anybody with limited patience."
There's active-shutter 3D (with four pairs of glasses included); reports vary as to 3D picture quality, but most say it's at least satisfactory for casual 3D viewing. More interesting is Smart Evolution Kit compatibility, which gives set owners the option to add future improvements to their TV. As an example, Samsung this year issued a Smart Evolution Kit that lets owners of compatible 2012 sets add 2013's Smart Hub functionality (including On TV and the recommendation engine) and a more powerful processor to their TV, at a cost of around $300.
Samsung offers other series of plasma TVs, but these are a substantial step below the flagship PNF8500 in terms of capabilities as well as pricing.
The best reviewed among those is the Samsung PNF5500. It sits right below the PNF8500 in Samsung's plasma lineup, though the sets could not be more different. Where the PNF8500 is a beacon of light, the PNF5500 is best watched in a dark cave. "It looks awful in anything other than a pitch-black room," says Lee Neikirk of Reviewed.com Televisions. But that's typical for old-school plasma TVs -- and most new-school plasma TVs. Measured against plasma TVs that aren't the PNF8500, things look better: "Time in our wine-dark lab revealed excellent total picture quality: a sincerely deep black level, detail retention during motion, and very impressive color integrity," adds Neikirk, who does grant this set an Editors' Choice award. CNET editors also note how quickly picture quality goes downhill under the lights, but aren't as forgiving in their review despite picture quality that's otherwise excellent. Users, most of whom we assume understand the trade-offs with a plasma TV, are largely pleased.
On the features front, there's no 3D or Smart Evolution Kit compatibility, and the processor driving the set is a little less powerful. However, Samsung's Smart Hub and On TV features are retained. Again, three screen sizes are available: the 64-inch Samsung PN64F5500 (Est. $1,800) , the 60-inch Samsung PN60F5500 (Est. $1,200) and the 51-inch Samsung PN51F5500 (Est. $850) .
If a plasma TV is for you, and you can live without smart features -- or any features, for that matter -- the step-down Samsung PNF5300 might be worth considering. The set earns generally positive user and professional reviews, including one Best Buy recommendation from an independent reviewer. Robert Wiley at PlasmaTVBuyingGuide.com pegs this set perfectly when he calls it a "value oriented plasma TV that provides excellent picture quality." Again, forget this TV if you intend to watch it in a room that's well lit, but in the darker rooms that plasma TV fans have come to accept, things look quite nice. There are three screen sizes offered: the 64-inch Samsung PN64F5300 (Est. $1,500) , the 60-inch Samsung PN60F5300 (Est. $950) and the 51-inch Samsung PN51F5300 (Est. $650) .
Rounding out the company's offerings for this year is its 720p budget set, the Samsung PNF4500. It's only available in smaller screen sizes -- the 43-inch Samsung PN43F4500 (Est. $400) and 51-inch Samsung PN51F4500 (Est. $500) . While the reduced resolution (all the Samsung plasma TVs above are 1080p) would be an issue in 60-inch or 64-inch sets, most experts say you can't see the difference in smaller-sized HDTVs at typical seating distances. One professional review we spotted was lukewarm regarding the TV: Picture quality (including good color and black levels) is held back by the dim picture brightness. Features are nonexistent and connectivity is skimpy -- just two HDMI inputs -- although users don't seem to care. At BestBuy.com, the PNF4500 earns impressive star ratings following hundreds of reviews of sets in both available screen sizes -- with at least 96 percent saying that they would recommend this TV to a friend.