Samsung, even more so than Sony, has products for every corner of the home, every aspect of your life, and Benjamin Braun, Samsung’s European Marketing Officer, thinks they’re all brilliant. It’s his favourite phrase. “You know how you put the laundry on and then find one sock you missed?” he asked the crowd crammed into the press conference at IFA 2019, though many of them were influencer types who looked as if they wouldn’t be seen dead wearing anything so old-fashioned as a sock. “Our washing machine has a hatch you can open to drop it in later. It’s brilliant!”
Samsung is a mere no. 2 in the world for washing machines, according to Mr Braun, but it’s no.1 for televisions, it’s no.1 for phones, it’s “aiming for No.1” in fridges. “We do what no one else has been able to do, we solve everyday issues with technology”, enthused Braun. At one point we thought he had coined the word “innovasive”, but that may have been a stumble; we didn’t turn around to the giant autocues in time to check. We plan to start using it anyway. Samsung would be against innovasive products, indeed it is out to disguise the most invasive of them all, the giant TVs which are, as Braun noted, getting bigger and bigger. Samsung is out to hide them in cunning ways.
One is to disguise them as a painting: you’ve likely seen the company’s The Frame, which does a fine job of being a TV when it’s on but becoming an artwork when it’s off, and very effectively too, thanks to its use of a light sensor to pitch the brightness at a level that almost removes the impression of backlighting to yield something like a genuine passive artwork, albeit one which requires power.
Even better, the TVs can blend in by mimicking your wall colour, even your wallpaper pattern (top image above). “It’s brilliant!”, Mr Braun thought, though it doesn't do it magically with cameras; you’ll be the one in charge of taking the required picture of your wall at sufficiently high quality, and before drilling holes and mounting the TV, of course.
Going slightly against this notion of blending in is the Serif TV, originally launched last year, and so named because from the side it looks like a letter I in a serif font. These sit on an easel-like stand out in the open, taking up more room space than a benched or wallmounted TV, so about as unblended as one can imagine. But Samsung is now letting you match your decor by choosing from a new series of colour TVs — the 'colour' referring not to the QLED panels but to the outer casings, which will be available in multiple colours for both the Serif and The Frame, which is always a nice little stock-control nightmare for distributors (sorry madam, we only have that left in Ivy Green). Samsung is crowd-sourcing preferences at IFA by asking people to Insta their favourite colour. Our pick was the burgundy red, even though it didn’t look very burgundy to us (below).
They’ve also come up with customisable colours for fridges, as modelled below by Ms IFA and friends. There’s a suspiciously teal microwave in that image too, but they didn’t mention those.
Once the brilliant Mr Braun was done, he handed us to European Product Director Nathan Sheffield, who dug deeper into the TV tech, notably 8K. The first QLED 8K sets had been previewed at IFA 2018 and were back this year in sizes up to 85 inches. The bigger the screen, the fuller the experience, as Mr Sheffield said, citing research that revealed four out of five Europeans found that large TVs improved their experience (and we’d guess the other one was lying).
Just to cover the bases, however, a 55-inch 8K model will be available in more than 30 countries this year, presumably so that everyone can see how pointless such a resolution is on a screen that size, unless you sit with your nose against the screen (gamers may rejoice).
We thought his comments on 8K content to be a little optimistic as well.
“The volume of 8K content is growing” he said, mentioning that NHK has announced that the Rugby World Cup will be broadcast in 8K (but not mentioning that this will be only in Japan; everyone else gets a maximum of 4K), and in 2020 the Olympics (so far as we’ve heard, only Japan and Italy plan coverage in 8K).
But there’s more — consumers will soon (by the end of the year) be able to stream 8K content with Chili (currently available only in the UK, Italy, Germany, Austria and Poland) and The Explorers (eco-friendly nature documentaries worth checking out, though as we’re writing this in Berlin we had trouble working out if it will serve to Australia; update to come).
Also to come in 8K from Chili in collaboration with Samsung is Lunar City, a film by Alexander Bollevini made in collaboration with NASA. We watched the official trailer later (above) and it is dominated by NASA images of the Apollo missions, back when Samsung was just releasing its very first black and white TV, so we suspect there might just be some upscaling involved there, and perhaps even on the new footage given the asterisk in this Italian press release which notes “via 8K AI Upscaling technology. Samsung did not produce any content related to the landing in native 8K resolution”. (For a more realistic view on the future of 8K content, see our interview with IHS Market’s Paul Gray, here.)
Talking of AI upscaling, this Samsung innovation inside its latest TVs is going to bugger up our ability to review them, as Samsung’s embedded AI not only optimises the images in real time, they claim it learns while it does it, so “the more you watch, the better it gets”. When first announced it was compared with neural networking, a comparison to the way the brain locks in connections that are more regularly used and sidelines the lesser used ones. This is fascinating if genuinely so, and contrasts with, say, LG’s claims of AI in their picture processing, which when pressed they admitted was all done during development and ‘burned in’ to the TVs before release, with only firmware updates able to improve performance subsequently.
When we later looked around Samsung’s vast white Cube of a stand at IFA 2019, there were several opportunities to see this AI processing in operation by pressing a button to view with or without the AI effect. The demonstration was unbelievably effective at revealing detail when we pressed the button. And we do mean unbelievable.
Samsung TVs can also combat ambient light, said Mr Sheffield, citing anti-reflective screen surfaces, and mentioning the spectacular figure of 5000 nits (Mr Braun should have reappeared at this point to say ‘Now THAT’s brilliant’). The mention of this extraordinary brightness level certainly had us blinking; Samsung later confirmed to us that this refers only to the 98-inch 8K QLED model, presumably this Q900R, which is unpriced on Samsung's Australia site but goes for US$70,000 in the States, which comparative pricing indicates might place it somewhere around $150,000 Australian. With that size of screen chucking out 5000 nits, you'd better also budget for some good sunglasses.
Apple is a notorious no-show at IFA, and it was perhaps a surprise to have the fruity Cupertino logo splashed up all over Samsung’s launch platform given their competition in other sectors, but this was to announce that Samsung is proud to be the first to integrate the AppleTV app on its smart TV platform. This is currently just old-school buying and renting of movies, and will likely duplicate other apps and services available to you, but the app will also support AppleTV+ when it launches with proper streaming. Also of note is the inclusion of AirPlay 2 so you have screen mirroring (not strictly casting) from Apple devices, along with some level of Siri voice control. The Samsung TVs also support Google and Alexa, so you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to voice control.
Talking of Amazon, Mr Sheffield announced that lucky folks in the UK will be soon be able to watch certain Premier League soccer games in 4K on Amazon Prime. They’ll stream in 4K, he said, but the Samsung 8K TVs will upscale them to 8K. Well they’d have to, really, otherwise they’d only fill a quarter of the screen.
Mind you, if that screen was Samsung’s The Wall, a quarter of it might be quite enough; the examples of this modular MicroLED screen at IFA were hypnotically large, and that was far from their limit, since they clip together “like Lego”, said Mr Sheffield, so that if you want a 292-inch 8K television, Samsung can provide. Go on, you know you want one. It’s all an impressively long way from another TV mentioned at the launch — that black-and-white TV from 1969, Samsung Electronics’ first-ever product (Samsung itself started back in 1938 in groceries).
We may have poked things a little in this report — there wasn’t much at Samsung’s event that was genuinely newly announced, so we’ve had to work around the edges of the information provided. The one gasp from the crowd came when it was announced that the Galaxy Fold would be on sale the next day in South Korea and on September 18 in France, Germany, the UK and Singapore, with the US to follow… and 5G ready in certain markets. All folding issues presumably now solved (sadly nobody inserted a "We've cracked it!" joke), as there were dozens, possibly hundreds of them on the stand at IFA, all displaying a colourful graphic of — was it a butterfly? Or one of those Rorschach psychological ink-blot tests? If the latter, we should turn ourselves in for thinking they reminded us most of Gerald Scarfe’s floral vaginas in The Wall. (That's the Pink Floyd The Wall, not the Samsung The Wall.) Shades of MOMA in Hobart? Perhaps we’d better stop it there...