Samsung took people by surprise with its ambitious voice- and motion-controlled ES8000 and ES7000 TVs, even if we found the results to be a bit mixed. Perhaps the most off-putting thing about those two sets however, were their high prices, as they were around £500 more expensive than their main competitors like Sony's HX853 TVs.
The UE46ES6800 is a much cheaper proposition from Samsung, costing around £999 online. It dumps the slightly gimmicky voice and gesture control, but retains many of the high-end models' best features, and so looks like a tempting option if you're after a feature-packed family TV.
User interface and EPG
Over the last few years Samsung has done more than any other manufacturer to raise the standard of user interfaces on our TVs. The one on the UE46ES6800 looks identical to what you would find on the company's high-end models. It's beautifully presented, with lush graphics and slick transitions between different menu screens.
The main menu gives you lots of control over the set's key features, with comprehensive picture and audio tweaking options. Most screens have an information box too, which gives you a description of what the selected sliders or buttons do -- something that rival models lack, so it's good to see it included here.
All is not completely hunky-dory however, as the main home screen -- which acts as a portal into all of the TV's features, from Smart TV services, to media streaming, picture controls and even input selection -- is overly busy, making it a daunting prospect to navigate.
The interface also often offers a multitude of different ways of completing the same task. You can playback media files either by selecting a DLNA server as the source in the AV input list, for example, or by choosing AllShare Play from the main home screen. They both do pretty much the same thing, so this repetition only serves to make the interface more complicated than is necessary.
On the plus side, the set uses a dual-core processor so the menus are pretty zippy to navigate, and the Smart TV apps are fast to load and use compared to those on many competitors' models. We're not talking iPad or Android tablet speeds here -- the current generation of Smart TV systems are all on the clunky side -- but compared to what else is available on the market, they're pretty good.
As the TV has both Freeview and Freesat tuners it's actually got two separate electronic programming guides. Freesat tightly controls the look and feel of its guide, so the one here is identical to what you'd find on other Freesat TVs and set-top boxes. I've always found it annoying that when you open the Freesat guide you don't go directly to the list of channels, but instead find yourself at a channel genre selection screen, but it’s the Freesat way and Samsung isn't to blame for this.
Naturally, Samsung has more control over its own Freeview guide, and here it's done an excellent
job.The guide is beautifully presented and is speedy when
scrolling through the channels.
The EPG has a video thumbnail window so you can keep tabs on the programme you're watching
while also flicking through the guide.
Smart TV features
Crucial to this model's appeal are its Smart TV features. Put simply, Samsung's offering is the best there is on the market at the moment, even if it still has some weaknesses. The main benefit of Samsung's offering is the sheer amount of content available on the system. The set of course supports BBC iPlayer, but it's also got ITV Player on-board, something you just won't find on other manufacturers' TVs at the moment.
On the movie-streaming front it supports both the Netflix and Lovefilm services, and there's Curzon On Demand and Knowhow Movies for premium film rentals. You get a wealth of news, weather and information apps too, including BBC News and Sport. That said, there are plenty of fillers, including a load of iffy apps that you're likely to download, try once and then delete. This could also be said to be true for most of the apps that populate Smart TV systems at the moment.
As the TV uses a dual-core processor it can manage multi-tasking with smart apps. This means that when you want to switch from iPlayer to ITV Player, for example, as long as you have them both loaded you can just hit the History button on the remote and jump between them, rather than having to constantly exit one, return to the Smart Hub and load the other. It's not true multi-tasking as you still have to wait for the previous app to reload, but it's useful nonetheless. Panasonic has a similar system, but it's only available on its high-end sets, so it's good to see it included on a mid-range remodel like this one.
Like many of today's mid- and high-end models you can also record directly from the Freeview or Freesat tuners to USB memory keys or drive. You can only record the channel you're actually tuned to, however, so it's no replacement for a PVR.
Naturally, it has media playback and streaming features too. Samsung TVs usually have very good format support, but this model was mixed in this regard. Although it would happily play HD MKV files from USB drives, it failed to play the format when asked to stream it over a network from my Iomega NAS drive. Nevertheless, it did play ball with HD MP4 files, as well as videos in DivX and Xvid.
Design and connections
The UE46ES6800 isn't quite as stunning as the ES7000 and ES8000 models, mainly because it doesn't have such super-slim bezels. That said, it's still a very good looking TV, especially for a mid-range offering. The design is actually closer to what we saw on last year's D8000 range, with the slightly wider black bezel around the display giving way to a transparent Perspex lip. All this sits on a cross-shaped stand with a chrome finish, which looks very futuristic, even if it's not quite as pretty as the sweeping U-shaped pedestal that the ES8000 sits upon.
On the connectivity front Samsung has rather let the side down. The main issue is that it lacks a VGA input and only has three HDMI ports. VGA sockets may be going the way of the dodo, but the lack of an extra HDMI port is puzzling as most 46-inch sets from other manufacturers now have four HDMI sockets.
Elsewhere though, there are some real surprises. This model has both Freeview and Freesat HD tuners, something that other manufacturers only offer on their top-end models. Along with Ethernet and Wi-Fi, there's also Bluetooth built-in too. Using the TV's AllShare feature you can connect it to a soundbar or speaker dock without having to hook up any cables, which is pretty neat.
There are also three USB ports, along with an optical audio-out and full-sized component sockets. The set comes with a mini adaptor cable for hooking up Scart devices to its RGB extension socket too.
In the past audio has been a bit hit and miss on Samsung's sets, but the good news is that the UE46ES6800 is no slouch in the sound department. Super-slim screens like this one are rarely able to pump out convincing bass frequencies, but this model doesn’t disgrace itself in this area, even if the bass can sometimes be a tad wooden.
The small 10W speakers do a good job of spreading the audio out around the room, and dialogue in movies is nicely anchored to the centre of the screen. By the admittedly rather mixed standards of slim LED TVs, this telly's sound quality is up there with the best.
2D picture quality
Like a lot of Samsung TVs, this one needs a little bit of work on the user's part to get the best out of it, mainly because its picture presets are so poor. There are two main problems with the presets -- the first being that they generally leave the backlight levels set far too high, and the second, that they tend to have too much processing enabled. The result is that images are overly garish and so silky smooth that they look fake.
Thankfully, you can get rid of pretty much all of these problems by delving into the set's picture menu and simply dialling down the offending settings. Once you do, the set's strengths start to reveal themselves, as it has pretty good colour handling, producing natural and realistic blends of different hues.
The TV's contrast levels are good too, and it does a sterling job of balancing out darker and brighter areas in the same picture. Its black levels, however, don't seem to be quite as deep as those of rivals like the Sony HX753, and even when you crank down the backlight setting you still get some clouding in the corners of the display.
Motion handling is a plus point though, as long as you racket it down to the Clear or Standard settings, with the former preferable for movie watching and the latter more acceptable for standard TV fare and sports broadcasts. Its HD pictures are razor sharp too, and while its standard definition performance isn’t as strong as the ES7000, it certainly doesn’t embarrass itself either.
If you predominantly watch movies at night with the lights turned down low then it's not the best choice of TV out there due to its backlight issues. You'd be better off with the likes of Sony's HX753 if that's your bag. For more general family use though, its pictures are among the strongest out there at this price.
3D picture quality
This is a fun set to watch 3D movies on, especially some of the higher quality 3D releases now appearing, such as Martin Scorsese's Hugo. The TV's strongest element in 3D is the sheer brightness of its pictures. Plasmas are traditionally the benchmark for 3D picture performance and rightly so, however they generally lack a bit of punch in the brightness department, and this is something that's further emphasised by the dimming effect of 3D glasses.
The UE46ES68000 in contrast, has bags of brightness at its disposal and so easily counteracts the slight dimming effect from its 3D specs. As a result, 3D movies look much punchier. Colours retain a searing intensity too, and even darker areas of 3D images have plenty of presence and definition.
Like all Samsung TVs this model uses active specs, and while a lot of manufacturers now no longer bundle 3D glasses with their TVs in order to keep the price as low as possible, Samsung is bucking this trend and includes two pairs in the box. Samsung's new specs are extremely light -- in fact they're not much heavier than the passive specs used for passive 3D TVs.
While Samsung has managed to pretty much eliminate crosstalk on its ES8000 and ES7000 models however, the ES6800 isn't quite as immune to it. If you look hard you'll see a little bit creeping in here and there, especially on bright white lines against dark backgrounds. You do have to search for it, so it's not intrusive and certainly doesn’t spoil the overall 3D experience.
The UE46ES6800 is a great all-rounder and would make an excellent choice for most families thanks to its impressive online features, punchy 2D and 3D pictures and attractive design. It also helps that it's much more affordable than Samsung's high-end ES7000 and ES8000 models. In fact, only the poor picture presets and some backlight inconsistencies stop it from achieving top marks.