Hands on: Samsung 2019 4K QLED review

The as-yet unnamed Q9FN replacement could well be an OLED-beater

What is a hands on review?
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For

  • OLED-like viewing angles
  • Even more vibrant than before
  • Better backlighting
  • Clever upscaling

Against

  • Thicker than an OLED

While Samsung isn’t yet ready to reveal the name of its 2019 range of 4K QLED TVs, it has given us a sneak peak at the flagship model, which will replace the excellent Q9FN.

Truth be told, the changes don’t sound huge, with Samsung clearly focused on fixing a couple of key criticisms aimed at its QLED TVs compared to their OLED rivals while refining the presentation and adding features first seen in the Q900R 8K models.

The good new is that, having seen the new model in action, it clearly offers a greater step-up in performance than the list of changes suggests - and looks like a very credible threat to OLED’s current dominance.

(Note: Samsung couldn’t be persuaded to allow us to photograph the prototype samples, so apologies for the generic pictures used throughout this hands-on)

Picture

Samsung QE65Q9FN: Samsung is focused on improving the viewing angles of this 2018 set for the new model

Samsung QE65Q9FN: Samsung is focused on improving the viewing angles of this 2018 set for the new model

The main criticism of the Q9FN (and QLED as a whole), particularly in comparison to its OLED rivals, is viewing angles. It’s no surprise, then, that Samsung has prioritised trying to solve this particular problem - and it looks as if it’s succeeded.

Referred to as Q Wide Angle with Light Control (though the name could change) Samsung’s new viewing angle-improving feature involves extra layers on the panel that reduce light leakage and spread light uniformity. The result in the demonstrations is excellent, near-flawless viewing angles. Even at the widest angles colours remain vibrant and blacks remain pure. This no longer appears to be an advantage of OLED, and that’s a huge step for Samsung.

Other differences are individually more subtle but collectively amount to a noticeably improved picture. With both TVs playing the Deadpool 2 4K Blu-ray and set to the HDR Movie mode, the new model is clearly more vibrant in its colours, purer in its blacks and punchier in its whites. It’s an astonishingly dynamic, exciting picture, but one packed with detail and nuance.

And, thanks to those flawless viewing angles, the 2019 4K QLED still looks better at a wide angle than the Q9FN does when viewed straight-on.

The number of backlight dimming zones is unchanged from last year, so is in the region of 500, and peak brightness remains the same at a still unbeaten (except by Samsung’s own 8K models) 2000 nits. But Samsung appears to have more confidence in its backlight this year.

When the Q9FN is asked to display a relatively small, bright object on an otherwise pure, black background, it often holds back a little, presumably to avoid producing a noticeable bloom of light around the object. That no longer appears to be a concern, with the white text of Deadpool 2 shining awesomely brightly against the black around it - and with no discernible blooming.

Samsung has also gone to great lengths to improve dark detail, which it demonstrates with a switch to the final Harry Potter film. As Voldemort’s army of black-clad baddies amass on the cliffs above Hogwarts, the 2019 QLED reveals detail we’d genuinely not previously seen and that the Q9FN, and rival OLED TVs supplied by Samsung as comparison, miss.

To be clear, this is not artificial revelation - there’s no greying of the scene or light being added where there should be none - this is detail that’s placed there for dramatic effect, and that the new model ensures that you see.

The AI upscaling that Samsung recently introduced with its 8K models will also filter down to the 2019 4K QLEDs, and it looks impressive in action, reducing noise and increasing sharpness over last year’s models. Even the standard-def content we saw was markedly improved compared to last year’s set. What’s most impressive about the new AI upscaling is that it looks less obviously enhanced and much more natural.

Samsung’s also continuing with its laudable dedication to gaming by adding two new gaming-specific features: Game Enhancer and Dynamic Black Equalizer. The first boosts colours and contrast and, in a demo of FIFA 19, made the grass more lush and the kits more vibrant, while the second reveals detail in the dark areas of the picture. It will be interesting to test these features more when the 2019 4K QLED comes in for its full review, because while both looked good in the demos we’ve got slight concerns that they may look a little inauthentic. The good news is that if they do turn out to be worth using, they won’t impact input lag, which was measured at just 13.4ms during the demo.

One aspect of the new model’s performance that we’ve not yet been able to assess is its motion processing, which hasn’t really been tested in the demo clips shown so far. Perhaps the fact that Samsung hasn’t shown off the motion processing suggests that it’s not really changed for 2019. That would be a shame, because while the company’s 2018 sets were better in that regard than its previous models, they were still behind what Sony’s capable of.

Sound

Could Samsung utilise its recently acquired Harman brands for the sound of its future TVs?

Could Samsung utilise its recently acquired Harman brands for the sound of its future TVs?

While the physical make-up of the 2019 4K QLED’s speaker system hasn’t yet been disclosed, Samsung is talking up its new AI Sound feature. This is essentially a further development of last year’s Optimized sound mode, which altered the sonic presentation based on the metadata of what you were watching.

The difference here is that the TV is constantly analysing what’s being played and adjusting the sound in real time. It also uses microphones built into the set to tailor the sound to your room.

It’s clever stuff, and sounded really good in the first of the two demos we were treated to, which was footage from an international football match. Switching the AI Sound mode on made the audio vastly more open and spacious, and projected it into and around the room far more effectively. It worked particularly well with the crowd noise, generating an extra layer of atmosphere.

The second of the two demos was a little less convincing, though. This was a music clip featuring a chap on the piano, and it felt as though the piano was being opened up and spread out when it should have remained central and direct. We suspect that had there also been a vocal it would have sounded more correct, but as this was an instrumental piece the piano should have been given more focus. It seems the algorithm could do with just a little tweaking.

Features

Samsung's Ambient mode will be expanded for its 2019 4K QLED TVs

Samsung's Ambient mode will be expanded for its 2019 4K QLED TVs

Samsung’s TV operating system is already one of, if not the, best around, but the company is clearly keen to push things on in 2019. One of the focuses appears to be content discovery, with the new TVs offering Universal Guide (essentially the amalgamation of content from various sources into one menu) and AI-based recommendations.

That sounds great in theory, but as we’ve come to realise, this sort of thing only works if every content provider makes its programming available. A universal search and recommendation engine is worthless if its missing any of the big providers, such as Netflix, Amazon Video or BBC iPlayer. No other manufacturer has managed to properly crack it yet, so while Samsung is making the right noises, we’ll believe it when we see it.

Samsung is also looking to push-on its voice control by upgrading its smart assistant, Bixby, to 2.0 form. The TV is always listening, via a microphone in the remote (wouldn’t it have been more sensible to put the mic in the frame of the TV?), and you can issue commands at a distance by starting with “Hi Bixby”.

The voice control of the new TVs is said to be more responsive than before and now has what Samsung refers to as ‘conversation drivers’, which allow you to issue context-sensitive follow-up commands. The demonstration was quite a simple one, to be honest - “Hi Bixby - show Star Wars”, followed by “only TV shows” - but it shows the direction in which Samsung is heading.

The 2019 QLEDs also bring with them the second-generation version of Samsung’s Ambient mode, designed to make use of the TV when it’s not being used for traditional viewing.

Here, the TV can blend in to the wall upon which it’s mounted just as before, but it now requires just one photo from your phone in order to copy the pattern and colours. Alternatively you can choose from the selection of Ambient modes, which has increased from 10 to 50. Our demo included a couple of really nice examples, including one that saw petals falling across the display while the background blended into the wall behind, and another that featured silhouettes of leaves blowing in the wind, with the movement dictated dynamically by the outside wind speed. You can now tweak colours, too, choosing to match the shade of your curtains or sofa, for example.

It’s even possible to use the new QLED TV as a light source, with a number of customisable light grid patterns available. You can choose romantic lighting, for example, or a party mode pattern. It looks really nice, but whether anyone will use it in real life is another question.

We reckon buyers are far more likely to use Ambient 2.0 to display their own photos, for which there are now lots more layouts and styles, or the new selection of professional landscape photographs that come built into the TV.

Design

Samsung is sticking with its One Connect concept for the 2019 4K QLEDs

Samsung is sticking with its One Connect concept for the 2019 4K QLEDs

The design of the 2019 4K QLEDs isn’t final, hence Samsung's reluctance to allow photography, but the prototype we saw largely looked very similar to the Q9FN, with the sharp, angular design and pointy corners seemingly unchanged.

The flagship model does, though, appear to get a new pedestal stand that angles out from the back of the TV before smoothly bending back underneath it, forming a thin, flat platform with a fairly big gap to the bottom of the TV itself. This design looks clearly intended to host a soundbar

We also got a very fleeting glimpse of the new One Connect box, and could swear it’s a little more compact than that of the Q9FN. We’d need a closer look to be sure, though, and there’s every chance its design could change a little before launch anyway.

Samsung 2019 4K QLED initial verdict

The 2019 Samsung 4K QLED looks set to take the fight to its OLED rivals

The 2019 Samsung 4K QLED looks set to take the fight to its OLED rivals

Last year’s Q9FN was an exceptional TV, but one that was prevented from winning one of our Awards by a couple of minor shortcomings when compared to the best OLEDs. For Samsung, that’s simply not good enough, which is why it’s sought to do what many people considered impossible and beat OLED at its own game.

The result is a QLED TV that appears to go as black as an OLED and has OLED-like viewing angles, while still boasting the qualities we love about last year’s models, such as the exceptional brightness and colour vibrancy.

In short, the 2019 4K QLED looks like an OLED, but brighter and more exciting. From what we’ve seen so far, there really doesn’t appear to be a downside.

That said, our impressions so far have been entirely formed in controlled, Samsung-led demos using prototype samples. Whether the final retail version is as good when we get it into our test rooms remains to be seen but, if it is, 2019 could be a great year for Samsung.

MORE:

5 key highlights from Samsung at CES 2019

What is Micro LED? And is it actually any good?

What is OLED? The tech, the benefits, the best OLED TVs and OLED phones

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view.