A superb bit of TV design that makes finding something to watch a cinch
Wireless dongle costs extra
Off-axis clarity is limited
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It's hard to see what new facilities could be added to a TV. Lately, refresh rates have already multiplied – to 100 and 200Hz; light-emitting diodes have started to take over backlighting duties; and Freesat tuners have been integrated. However, you can always rely on Samsung to come up with something new. The company's LE40B650.
It's the UK's first LAN-equipped, wireless-ready TV to offer web 'widgets' as an additional calling-card – but is this a killer app, or just a gormless gimmick?
The LE40B650 is a glossy, glass-fronted set with a rotating clear pedestal and 'invisible' speakers. It's branded 'True HD', which just means it's got a 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution, and features Samsung's proprietary Ultra Clear panel.
Power, Channel, Volume and Source controls are almost invisible touch-panels on the bezel. Side inputs include twin USBs and an HDMI; while on the back are three more HDMIs, PC D-Sub, component video input, two Scarts, and analogue/optical in/outs. Finally, there's the all-important LAN socket to connect the TV to your home network, either directly to the internet or to a PC.
The TV's onscreen menus are clear, unfussy, and react quickly. The first page is Picture, for which there are four basic modes. Other parameters are as expected; backlight level, contrast, brightness, sharpness, colour level, tint, and Advanced Settings.
The latter includes black tone; dynamic contrast; gamma level; colourspace; white balance (with a full range of R/G/B offset and gain adjustments); flesh tone, and edge enhancement. There's also a Picture Options menu with a range of colour tone presets, screen size settings, DNR options and 100Hz Motion levels for blur and judder reduction. I can't think of any important picture features that are absent, so this is an ideal set for enthusiastic tweakers.
The Setup menu offers options such as Game Mode, Picture-In- Picture, Energy Saving and the like. This is also where you configure your TV to work with your network, entering the TCP/IP parameters such as IP address, subnet mask, gateway and DNS server. In the input menu, sources can be assigned and named.
The final menu is Application, which is where the Samsung starts to get clever.
On the menu
The Media Play menu gives you access to music, picture and video files stored on external USB devices such as memory sticks or portable hard drives. Options include a DivX video-on-demand activation routine; using external media as a screen saver; and the Anynet option, for HDMI-CEC communication with compatible equipment.
Next up is Samsung's Content Library. This consists of built-in media such as pictures, games, recipes, fitness advice, children's stories and so on. You can delete unwanted material and add to it via USB.
The most impressive function of this set, though, is its internet use. It's clearly intended for people who want to access some of the more useful bits of the web without coping with Windows and wading through thousands of pop-ups.
Having made a connection, the LE40B650 presents you with a selection of widgets in a dock at the bottom of the screen. When you select a widget it opens up on the left of the screen, on top of the main picture, which you can resize to fit the remaining space.
At present, the widgets include Yahoo Finance, Yahoo News, and Yahoo Weather and some more fun things such as Flickr, the online image gallery, and YouTube.
Web content such as news and weather is tailored to your location, but you can add and delete options such as weather info for different cities, selected financial indexes, and so on. More widgets will be made available all the time, some through Samsung and others through external providers. And different users can log onto the widgets functions with different passwords, and arrange their own selection.
The set can also function as a home network centre, a hub for other devices connected to your network. You can route messages or media from other devices to the TV.
An optional extra with the LE40B650 is a £50 wireless dongle, which looks like a USB memory stick. Plug it into the USB 2.0 socket and you can forget about having to run a LAN cable to your TV, you can just configure it to use your wireless network. You have to use this specific dongle as it comes pre-installed with the necessary drivers.
So do this set's internet functions add up to a unique selling point? Definitely, if you think of it as a sort of super-Teletext. Of course, it's no substitute for having full Windows functionality and a web-browser, but I can see this becoming a major feature of all TVs in the near future.
As for performance, while the LCD technology in this set is not new, Samsung has spent millions developing scaling processors for this range – you should bear in mind, though, that this Samsung is designed to descale any upscaled material, then upscale it again using its own technology.
For example, I used an Oppo upscaling player to test DVD material, and switching the Oppo's own scaling on and off didn't appear to make any difference to the picture. Presumably, the Samsung must have been doing its job effectively.
BBC HD pictures from Freesat looked gorgeous: colours are delightfully true and full without any exaggeration of flesh tones; detail is pin-sharp and grainless. With standard-definition material, the Samsung does an excellent job of tidying up Freesat/Freeview channels with a low bitrate. Fiddling with the 100Hz mode sets it to an effective level without introducing unwanted artefacts.
Not only is blocking minimal, but dot crawl and grain seems to be significantly reduced; this Samsung seems to be the video equivalent of Retinol – it plasters over the cracks very effectively.
With BD material, I started to have some reservations. With no LED-backlighting, blacks didn't appear as deep as I would have liked, and no amount of twiddling with contrast would improve the situation; the picture seemed grainy, and I had to reduce sharpness and switch off edge enhancement to make it more watchable. It's great when you do.
My only other reservation is with off-axis viewing; the image starts to 'grey out' at relatively shallow angles.
Samsung's LE40B650 is a set which will probably stand or fall on its internet capabilities, which in some ways is a pity, because it's a fine TV even without them, capable of producing decent pictures and offering a full range of user parameters. But if you are taken with the 'net abilities (like the HCC team is) this could be the start of a whole new way of relating to your TV.
You can vote for the Samsung LE40B650 in the T3 Gadget Awards now.