Last year's five-star rated Samsung D8000 was a thing of beauty. It was the first time I'd seen a TV with such a thin bezel, and ignoring its excellent picture quality, it could have won CNET UK's Editors' Choice award on design alone.
But Samsung knows that a thin bezel isn't enough for this year's follow-up, so it's gone one step further with the UE55ES8000. For an eye-popping £2,500, this 55-inch 3D TV can be controlled by your voice and hands, offering the promise that you will never have to hunt for a remote again.
The model I tested was a few weeks away from being completely finished, so there were some glitches and things that I couldn't test properly. But it was ready enough for me to get a clear enough idea of its strengths and weaknesses, and for Samsung to be happy for me to review it. The company said that picture quality was as it would be in the final version, so I have given the TV a score.
Should I buy the Samsung UE55ES8000?
This TV is beautiful, it's incredibly powerful and has loads of features, but it's insanely complicated. There are six ways to control it. Six. No piece of consumer electronics should have that many ways of controlling it. It feels like Samsung's design committee couldn't agree what to do for the best, so it decided to put everything in, because it could.
That would be fine, but the voice and gesture controls still feel like a work in progress. Add that to the complicated Smart TV software and I can't help but feel that you'd be better off waiting until next year's model if you wanted a voice-controlled TV.
Then again, if you view the voice and gesture stuff as a gimmick anyway, this set's picture quality is mostly great, and the built-in camera works well with Skype. So if you're not bothered about the rest of it, spend away and you won't be disappointed.
The most interesting control method is voice. LG and Sony will also be releasing voice-controlled TVs this year, but Samsung's is the most adventurous. This is the only set that you can control by yelling at it, rather than talking into a remote control. I really like this idea, but in practice it's patchy.
To start controlling the TV, you have to say "Hello TV". That temporarily made me feel like Scotty in Star Trek IV, but then I just felt like an idiot. A shouting idiot. But it's for a good reason -- there needs to be a trigger phrase to activate the voice control, or it will start responding to whatever is playing on the TV. I want to be able to change the trigger phrase to one of my choosing, so I can break out my best William Shatner impression and yell "Khaaan", but unfortunately the TV doesn't support that. You can choose "Smart TV" as the trigger instead but that's not as much fun.
Sometimes the TV didn't hear me, and the louder I turned the volume up, the less my voice could cut through the noise. Sometimes it would spontaneously react to something being played on the TV, which it isn't supposed to do.
A more reliable way of using voice control is with the included touch remote. Hold down a button and speak into the microphone at the top, and it transmits your voice to the TV over Bluetooth.
Once I had mastered that, I found I couldn't actually control that much with my voice. I could do things like change the volume, start a particular app (such as Skype) and switch the channel, providing I knew the channel number. What I wanted to be able to do was to say "watch More4", but it doesn't understand that, just "channel 104".
The other area in which voice would have been really useful is anywhere I needed to type something in, such as when I was searching for on-demand TV. But I couldn't just say "watch Mad Men" and have the TV go off and find it for me. Instead, I needed to open the on-demand video app and type it in myself. Boo.
Weirdly, although I couldn't use voice to search the on-demand content, in some areas of the TV I could use voice to fill in text boxes. Checking with Samsung, this is how the final version will be when it hits the shops.
One of the coolest things about this TV is the built-in camera. That means you can make Skype calls (more on that later), but it also means you can control the TV with your hands. It's similar to Microsoft Kinect, if you've ever used that. Place your palm out flat in front of the TV and move your arms to shift a cursor around the screen. To select something, you close your hand into a fist. To go back, make a swooping motion with your hands.
Provided the room is bright enough, it mostly works, although sometimes I would have to wave at the TV fairly frantically to get it to recognise that I was trying to control it. If you like to keep the lights low when you're watching a movie though, it will be less effective. When it's working, it's very sensitive, so you only need to make tiny movements for the cursor to travel a long way. Perhaps after a few weeks I would get used to it, but I much preferred the remote for controlling the TV.
Touch remote and web browser
Did I mention there are two remote controls in the box that are completely different from each other? Well, there are. One is a normal remote for people that want familiarity, and the other is the touch remote with a microphone built in that I mentioned earlier.
Samsung says that its touch remote is way more intuitive to use than the normal one, but for the most part, it's wrong. For example, if I want to look at the electronic programme guide (EPG), on the normal remote I simply press one button. On the touch remote, I have to press a button, swipe around a bit then select an icon on the screen. More button presses to do the same thing isn't progress in my book. The one thing the touch remote is useful for is the web browser -- it's a lot easier to slide around a web page than with the normal remote.
Speaking of the web browser, it's pretty good. Websites are never going to look that great on a TV unless they are designed for their resolutions, but this TV did a good job of rendering the sites I looked at. It's also the first TV web browser I've seen that supports Adobe Flash, so most video you stumble across online should work. The TV dealt with the Flash videos on CNET UK with no problems, and could play them full-screen. Whether it will work for you will depend on the site you're looking at.
In case you lose both remotes or they run out of battery, there are some controls on the back of the set you can use, which work pretty well.
Smart TV software and EPG
This sort of TV isn't really a TV at all -- it's more like a computer with an unfamiliar operating system. One you'll need to spend some time with before it makes sense. Samsung is a leader in Smart TVs and this set is no exception, but although it can do a lot of things, sometimes it's not the easiest to use.
One thing that does work well is its EPG. That's laid out well and is easy to navigate, with a look that takes advantage of the high-definition display.
Often, however, the user's journey hasn't been very well thought through. For example, there is a potentially useful app called Your Video, which you can use to watch on-demand videos.
Or at least, that's what I thought it would do. It's actually an aggregation app that pulls together feeds from companies like Acetrax. That means that once I'd clicked on a film I wanted to watch, instead of it playing, I was directed to download the Acetrax app. It was only a problem the first time I used it, but I can't help thinking that there should be a more elegant way of doing it.
Inside the TV is a dual-core processor running at 900MHz that, I am told, allows for multi-tasking and generally speedy performance. The first time I loaded up an app, it seemed pretty sluggish to me. But once it had been loaded once, things were a lot faster.
One of the benefits of the built-in camera is that you can make video calls over Skype without buying any extra equipment. This worked really well for me in my tests. You can angle the camera up and down using a wheel at the back. If you want to turn it left and right, you'll need to twist the actual TV, so it's best to be sat in front of the screen than off to the side.
Once I had signed in to my account, it worked pretty much like Skype on a computer, except I got to see a huge picture. Video quality is no better than normal Skype, so it looks slightly ropey on such a large screen, but that's not Samsung's fault. In my tests, the person I was calling could hear me clearly using the TV's built-in microphone. It made me think that I'd love something like this in my front room.
Fitness, Family Story and Kids
Three new apps are pre-loaded, the best of which is called 'Fitness'. This displayed an exercise video next to a picture of me working out taken with the TV's camera so I could see how I compared.
It's a bit of fun, and there's a quasi-science element to it too -- give the app your vital statistics and it stores your progress on the TV over time, so you can see how you've performed. The videos are low quality but effective. As with the on-demand video, you also need to download a separate app to get it to work, which is annoying. The stats bit wasn't finished on my sample so it didn't work.
The other new ones weren't finished enough for me to test properly, but one is called Family Story, which I am told allows you to communicate with other Samsung TV owners.
The other is called Kids and contains a mixture of on-demand videos aimed at, you guessed it, children. It also has a virtual sticker book -- the idea with that is that you can reward your little ones for good deeds around the house or for completing their homework.
They wouldn't install on my test TV, but I am told by Samsung that iPlayer, Lovefilm and Demand 5 will work at launch -- check in the shop before you buy.
Picture quality and 3D glasses
I'll make this simple. This TV costs £2,500. It's Samsung's top-of-the-range model. Of course the picture looks great. A good test of this is whether there is any evidence of double-imaging when watching 3D video, also known as crosstalk. I had a thorough watch of a couple of 3D Blu-rays that are known to cause it, including the titles for Alice in Wonderland and the Golden Gate Bridge scene in Monsters vs Aliens. With the latter, I was suitably impressed to see a single line on, say, the struts of the bridge where some TVs would show two.
Blacks looked pretty black to me. I compared it to the winner of CNET UK's TV of 2011, the Panasonic Viera VT30, which is famed for its black reproduction. I have to say I struggled to notice the difference. The Panasonic picture felt slightly more cinematic, producing the sort of images that a home cinema purist would be happy with. But for me, at least, the overall quality of the Samsung was close enough to think the average buyer wouldn't notice much difference between the two.
One thing that stood out when comparing 3D on both sets is that this Samsung is about as bright as a thousand suns. That's important when you're watching 3D through 3D glasses, because the lenses significantly reduce the brightness of the image. The active 3D glasses are more comfortable than most, much lighter than the early models you might have tried in the shops, and are powered by a standard watch battery. There are two pairs in the box.
One bad thing about the Samsung's picture was the hint of a white glow along the vertical edges of the TV. It's very slight and only really noticeable when the lights are low and you're watching a film that's letterboxed, but it would be enough to annoy someone that simply wants the very best picture quality.
Connections and TV tuners
At the back of the TV are three HDMI ports (one fewer than I'm happy with), three USB ports, an optical audio out, a headphone jack, component video, Ethernet and a port for the included Scart adaptor. There's Wi-Fi built in to the TV and it has both Freesat and Freeview HD tuners. All of that should keep most people happy.
Considering the TV's slim design, the sound is pretty good. That's really another way of saying it sounds terrible, but so do the slim TVs from all the other manufacturers. There's just not enough room in the slim set to fit anything that might approach a decent sound. That's not meant as a criticism as much as a friendly piece of advice that you shouldn't spend a small fortune on a TV like this and forget to buy a decent surround sound system or high-end sound bar to go with it.
One of the unusual things about this TV is the promise that you can upgrade it in the future. Samsung says that you will be able to insert something into a slot in the back to give this year's TV some or all of the features from 2013. Details are sketchy, so until Samsung says exactly how it will work, I'm going to treat this with a healthy dose of scepticism.
If you want a stylish, super-thin TV with great picture quality that has built-in Skype, this is the TV for you. But it's not worth buying for the voice or gesture functions alone, and some of the smart features could do with more thinking through. I'd say you're probably better off buying something cheaper, possibly Samsung's ES7000, which has the slim bezel that's so striking on the ES8000, but which has fewer features.