If you liked the look of Samsung's F8000 range-topping LED TV, but balked at its bank balance-draining price tag, you've probably been looking down through the company's LED range puzzling over which model strikes a better balance between price and features.
Samsung's UE55F7000 has many of the same features, including voice and motion control, micro dimming and a touchpad controller. It saves you some cash compared to its range-topping sibling, however, as at around £2,100, it's roughly £300 cheaper than the F8000. I reviewed the 55-inch version, but it's also available in 40-, 46- and 60-inch models.
Like the F8000 LED and F8500 plasma I've already reviewed, the F7000 can be controlled in lots of different ways. You can use the traditional TV remote control or the touchpad remote that's also included in the box with the TV. Alternatively you can opt for the two more futuristic control methods of voice and motion gestures.
The voice-control option has undergone the biggest change from last year's models. Instead of being limited to just a few command phrases, the TV now tries to understand natural speech.
You can either just speak directly to the TV, in which case you first need to say a trigger phrase, such as 'Hi TV' to get it to start listening to you, or alternatively you can press the Mic button on the touchpad remote and speak into the remote. The latter is more reliable, but rather futile. If you've got the remote on your hand, why not just use the buttons for control instead?
Unfortunately the search only works with Samsung's own video service. The other problem is that the voice recognition is still very hit and miss. Generally it does a good job of recognising the words (it shows them onscreen once it's deciphered what you've said), but it then struggles to understand how it should respond. As a result, it often just offers to do a general Web search for you, which is next to useless.
Ultimately the voice recognition system isn't good enough to use on a regular basis. It's just too slow and too inaccurate to rely on. As a result you find yourself soon forgetting that the TV even has the feature.
As well as updating the voice features, Samsung has also tried to improve its motion-control system. This set uses a new, higher resolution 5-megapixel camera in an attempt to improve the tracking and low-light performance.
The camera is mounted at the top of the TV and can be pushed down into the chassis to hide it away when it's not in use, or if you just don't like the idea of having a camera pointing at you all the time while you watch TV. Unlike the camera on Panasonic's VT65 this one doesn't have an automatic release system to pop it back up when you want to use the motion features or do a video call on Skype, which is annoying.
To start up the motion feature you need to raise your hand with your palm open and wave it back and forth, which makes you feel a little like the Queen when she's waving to us plebs from the comfort of her golden chariot. A cursor then pops up onscreen that you control by just moving your open palm in the air. To select an option you close your palm into a fist. The TV now also supports two-handed tracking, so you can do stuff like zooming in and out of pictures by bring your two hands together or pulling them part.
On the whole the motion controls are still rather iffy. In low light the TV usually completely fails to recognise the waving motion to start up the whole motion-control system. Also, the fact remains that it's just much faster and more convenient to use the touchpad remote to control the TV than trying to use the motion system.
User interface and TV guide
Samsung's core menu system for controlling stuff like the set's picture and audio settings is little changed from what appeared on last year's models. I've got no problems with this, as the menus are still excellent. They're sensibly laid out, so it's quite easy to find the settings you want to get at, they give you plenty of control over the picture and audio settings (they include a full colour-management system) and they're easy on the eye.
For the most part the guide also looks very similar to the one used on last year's models. Its colourful, clean layout makes it easy to use and I like the fact it has an integrated video thumbnail to show the channel you're currently tuned to. Samsung has also added some integration between the guide and the smart TV system, so you're now given some suggestions on programmes you might want to watch.
Design and connections
In some ways the F7000 looks more traditional than the F8000 and as a result I think some people will actually prefer its overall design. It comes with a normal pedestal stand rather than the very wide arc stand used on the F8000, so your AV unit doesn't have to stretch to the whole width of the TV to comfortably accommodate it, unlike the high-end model.
It's very slim for a 55-inch model and the bezel around the screen is amazingly narrow too. The combination of the brushed metal and chrome used on the bezel and stand also help it look the business.
Samsung seems to have learned from last year's faux pas when it reduced the number of HDMI ports on its TVs. This year it's gone back to providing four HDMI ports. These are all mounted on a panel that faces out the right-hand side of the F7000. Above these sit three USB ports, while pointing down from the bottom of the panel you'll find a set of component inputs as well as the RF socket for the dual Freeview HD tuners and a pair of satellite inputs for the Freesat HD Tuners.
Wi-Fi is built-in, but there's also an Ethernet port if you'd prefer to use the wired connection, something that's often more reliable for media streaming. In fact, there really isn't much more you could ask for on the connectivity front.
Smart TV system
I'm not sold on Samsung's motion and voice controls, but there's no denying its new smart TV system is sheer class. It leads the TV pack by come considerable distance at the moment.
It's powered by the TV's quad-core processor and feels exceptionally quick and smooth to use. Samsung has split the system across multiple themed pages to make it easier to navigate.
The central page is the On TV screen. It has a video window showing the currently selected TV channel as well as six thumbnail images of programmes coming up that you might want to watch. It learns your viewing habits over time and adjusts these picks to suit your tastes, rather like TiVo.
If you jump right from On TV you'll find yourself at the Movie and TV screen. This shows recommendations for films and shows via video on demand services. Unfortunately it's limited to suggestions from Samsung's own Video Hub service, so it's not massively useful -- it can't search Netflix or Lovefilm, for example.
Move right again and you'll land on the Photos, Video and Music screen. This is essentially the TV's built-in media player that lets you play stuff from USB drives or stream content across a network from your PC or networked hard drive. The media player has improved -- folder navigation looks much classier and browsing through folders is faster. It now plays MKV HD files as well as Xvid and DivX videos.
The fast-forward and rewind controls only work when you're playing stuff from USB drives, however. They don't work when you're streaming video over a network, which is annoying.
Flicking back in the opposite direction from the On TV page takes you to the Apps page. Across the top there's a row of apps that have been preloaded on the TV by Samsung. These include BBC iPlayer and Netflix, while in a grid at the bottom you can add extra apps of your choosing from the app store. If you hop left again you'll land on the Social page, where you're shown recommended YouTube videos and other video your mates have posted on Facebook and Twitter.
Samsung's smart TV is hands down the best on the market right now. Not only does it have the slickest presentation and most accomplished feature set, but it also supports the widest range of on-demand services, as along with iPlayer it also supports ITV Player, Demand 5 and 4oD. You'll also find Netflix and Lovefilm onboard as well as a host of other services.
The only thing it's really missing is a proper tutorial to explain some of the more advanced features, especially as it's not immediately clear how the On TV recommendations and Social page work.
The F7000 has two 10W speakers onboard. These are down-firing rather than forward-firing, so they're mounted at the bottom of the chassis just behind the screen and face downwards. They're far from the worst I've heard, as they have good stereo separation and produce quite punchy and clean dialogue in movies.
The set lacks the two mini woofers that are included on the higher-end F8000 model and while the two 10W speakers are not totally lacking in low-end punch, bass is simply not as good as on its sibling or as on other sets with mini woofers onboard, such as Panasonic's WT65.
2D picture quality
Like pretty much all Samsung's TVs at the moment, the F7000 doesn't look great out of the box as its picture presets are quite poor. They've got far too much motion processing turned on, too much sharpness added into the picture and the backlight is set way too high. Most other manufacturers now include a pretty accurate movie mode on their TVs, but although Samsung does include one here it's not very good.
If you tweak the settings by turning off almost all of the processing, cranking down the backlight and easing off on the sharpening, it can put in quite a convincing picture performance. Even with the backlight turned down a tad, it's still incredibly bright and its pictures are shockingly crisp and detailed. Colours look warm and vivid too, but avoid the plasticky feel that you sometimes get on lesser LED screens.
Black levels look quite deep under normal lighting, especially if you use the Cinema Black feature to avoid the blotchiness from the backlight in the black bars when watching widescreen movies on Blu-ray or TV. This dims the backlighting around black bar areas to stop this from happening.
Annoyingly, the movie black feature doesn't work when you're using online streaming services such as 4oD and Netflix. The result is that dark scenes on streamed movies can look distractingly cloudy if you're watching them in the evening with the lights dimmed.
Another annoyance is that you have to manually turn on and off the Cinema Black feature when you're using it for TV or Blu-ray watching, whereas on a clever TV like this I would have expected it to be able to automatically detect the presence of black bars and react accordingly.
Also, as with the F8000 sample I had in for review, this F7000 model had a slight 'crease' at the edges of the picture. On some colour hues you could see a small difference in brightness extending from the edge to around 2mm into the picture. It was a little less obvious on this model than the F8000, but nonetheless it was still visible at times. Most people probably won't notice it, but I think it's worth pointing out, as it's not something I've seen on new LED TVs from other manufacturers.
3D picture quality
The F7000, like all of Samsung's 3D TVs, uses the active 3D system. It comes with two pairs of glasses in the box and extra pairs cost around £16 online. The glasses feel flimsy, but they're lighter than most other active glasses I've used and they're reasonably comfortable to wear for the length of a movie.
Active glasses always dim the image, but thanks to the F7000 being very bright, it's not much of an issue on this screen. It also means colours retain much of their punch and this helps to create a very strong sense of depth in 3D movies, especially as the set hardly suffers from 3D crosstalk.
Like the F8000, the F7000 seems to keep motion processing turned on when it's working in 3D mode, even if you've got it turned off in the settings menu. You can see this in the opening shot of Hugo. It's not a massive problem, but you should be able to turn it off completely.
Also, as with on-demand apps, the Cinema Black mode doesn't work in 3D. As a result, you can clearly see some backlight clouding in the corners and mid-sections of the screen during darker scenes if you're watching the TV with the lights turned low, which is distracting.
The F7000 benefits from Samsung's excellent smart TV system, which supports all the main on-demand video services. It also looks stylish thanks to its supremely slim design. But its picture quality lacks the finesse of the F8000, as it suffers from backlight bleed that stops it from delivering convincingly deep black levels.