Who makes the best HDTV: LG or Samsung? Samsung or Sony? Toshiba or Panasonic? We hear these questions all the time. So, if those questions are so common, why are the answers so uncommon? Well, the trouble is that such queries are extremely broad. Answer one way or the other and you can count on getting branded as a fanboy. You can’t just say “brand X is the best.” That’s ridiculous. The best at what? Everything? We don’t think so.
But we recognize that anyone asking these questions clearly needs some kind of nudge in one direction or the other, or maybe just some guidance with their research. With that in mind, we’ve decided to pit one brand against another in an ongoing series until we’ve exhausted as many variations as possible; because the truth is, different brands do exhibit distinct characteristics and understanding those characteristics can help make a buying decision easier. Here we go.
Sony vs. Samsung
Sony was once the undisputed king of televisions; its older Trinitron and newer Bravia series are often regarded as synonymous with the concept of a premium TV. But then along came a little South Korean company called Samsung, which has worked its way up to become the number one TV manufacturer in the world, snatching a little over 26 percent market share.
Just because you’re the biggest doesn’t necessarily make you the best, though. While Samsung may be a TV titan, Sony hasn’t lost its chops, and over the past few years, its prices have come down a little. Aside from all that, these two companies make very different products. Let’s take a closer look at what differentiates the two.
Samsung has a sort of obsession with making the thinnest possible TVs with the thinnest possible bezels. The company’s F8000 LED/LCD televisions are virtually bezel-free, and, with an average depth of just 5/8-inch, they are about as thin as you can get. This changes some as you move down Samsung’s line-up, but you can usually count on Samsung to deliver a smallest-in-class bezel and cabinet depth. That doesn’t always play to Samsung’s advantage, however. We’ve seen some of the company’s mid-level televisions showing more edge light bloom because of their skimpy bezels.
Sony makes a sexy TV, but it tends to show a lot less skin than Samsung does. Put another way: If Sony’s top-level TV’s wear miniskirts, then Samsung’s wear microskirts. Take a look at Sony’s W900, for example. Some might argue that a half-inch of difference in bezel width is splitting hairs, and we might tend to agree. For most, the bezel on Sony’s is plenty slim, and we’ve found that as you move down Sony’s line, the small amount of additional bezel can help hide some edge-light blooming.
When it comes to the TV’s stands, we’ve become indifferent. It used to be that we preferred Sony’s to Samsung’s considerably because Sony supplied higher-quality glass stands with its top-tier models. Now, both companies tend to use chromed-up plastic stands in various swooping shapes. Meh.
For LED LCD televisions:
This would be so much easier if we were only comparing the aforementioned top-of-the-line models from the two manufacturers. In that sort of head-to-head, we would praise Sony for its outstanding color accuracy, but give a nod to Samsung for its above-par black levels. The thing is, the outstanding black level the F8000 achieves is thanks to an advanced local dimming technology that you don’t get with lesser models. And although Samsung’s black levels tend to be very good from model to model, the difference between it and Sony is much less stark without the local dimming involved.
We will say this: Sony’s televisions have always had a certain look to them that is distinctly Sony, and a lot of folks love that look. If you’re one of those people that’s always loved the look of a Sony TV, then you should know that Sony’s still got it.
On the other hand, Samsung makes TVs that can get exceptionally bright, and sometimes that brightness is necessary to combat lots of ambient sunlight. If you need an eyeball-scorching TV, Samsung’s LED backlit sets will usually do the trick.
For plasma televisions:
Sony does not make a plasma TV anymore; it quit the plasma biz in 2006. That being the case, Samsung wins this battle by default. In terms of picture quality, plasma absolutely dominates LED/LCD technology. As a bonus, it’s less expensive, too. Side note: Samsung’s F8500 plasma is one of the five best TVs you can buy this year.
We’re going to give this category to Samsung. Sony’s smart TV interface is mostly centered around the Sony Entertainment Network interface. You can access some more popular VOD apps such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Instant from a more simplified app menu, but actually using these apps will require that you register your device with Sony, and that means a trip to Sony’s website. It may sound like a little thing, but we’ve always found it to be a hassle. Also, Sony’s smart TV’s don’t support some key apps, such as VUDU. Oddly enough, Sony’s Blu-ray players support apps that its TVs do not – VUDU being one of them.
Samsung, on the other hand, has put a ton of effort into its smart TV interface, and it shows. Year after year, the visual aspect of the interface gets better, as do its app offerings (even though you won’t use half of them…ever). Also, Samsung offers a universal search option to help you find content across all available VOD apps (the downside is that you must use voice search) and it includes a recommendation engine which some find helpful in discovering new content.
Not only does the user interface vary from tier to tier within each manufacturer’s line-up, but the term user interface is itself very broad. So, for the sake of this piece, let’s say the user interface has to do with the experience of navigating through a TV’s various menus in order to make changes to the settings. In that regard, the contest is a draw. Both companies provide a menu navigation experience that is intuitive enough to get through, and both leave something to be desired in terms of explaining what certain menu options actually do. Neither has reached perfection, but considering how complex these TVs can get, we’d have to say both brands have done a decent job. There are some manufacturers with pretty lame user interfaces, and we’ll be getting to them later in this series.
Unfortunately, this category gets decided on which remote we dislike the least. That’s right, if we’re to pick the lesser of two evils, we’re going to pick Sony and its remote controls. To be fair, this would be a draw, but Samsung decided go with this whole trackpad remote approach for its upper-tier televisions. And while we acknowledge it as being a very forward-thinking idea, it doesn’t work for us in practice.
The remote is also light on buttons, leaving most of the TV’s functions to be accessed with a virtual remote pad on the TV. Maybe we’re just old school, but we’ll take a wand loaded with buttons any day. And while we’re expressing our preferences, let us once again state for the record that all remote controls should be backlit. This is the 21st century; there are no excuses.
At this point, both Ethernet and Wi-Fi connections are standard on both Sony and Samsung Smart TVs. This really shouldn’t be a consideration.
Now go look at some TVs, will ya?
We hope you’ll walk away from reading this with some sense of how Sony and Samsung compare with each other. But we think the most valuable takeaway here is that you get out there and go put your hands on a TV and its remote for a while to get the feel of things. In our home-theater crash course, we suggest you forget about the sales guys on the floor and just start playing around. That’s what those TV displays are for. And if you want a more complete guide to buying a TV, be sure to check out our comprehensive TV buying guide. Have fun!