With the exit of heavy-hitter Pioneer from the plasma racket, just three major makers remain: Panasonic, Samsung, and LG. The latter two offer significantly more models of LCD TVs than of plasma, however, and seemed more focused on LCD technology. Nonetheless Samsung's 2009 plasmas, if the PNB650 series is any indication, are nearly the match of Panasonic's best. The model we tested delivered superb black-level performance--significantly better than past Samsung plasmas--and the company's traditional accurate color. Samsung has also kept up with Panasonic on the feature front and delivers more picture adjustments, although we prefer Panasonic's VieraCast to Samsung's sluggish Yahoo Widgets when it comes to interactive features. Regardless, the superb overall package delivered by the PNB650 series once again poses a difficult decision for plasma HDTV buyers.
Sleek, minimalist looks define the Samsung PNB650 plasma. The company has scaled back the prominence of its "Touch of Color" design, so the hint of red in the frame along the top and bottom is even subtler--and more acceptable in our opinion--than before. It's still there, however, and may bug viewers with sensitive decor tastes. Glossy black is the panel's other major color, edged by Samsung's trademark clear coating on all sides of the frame. The black portion curves slightly along the bottom but the clear edge remains straight, becoming a bit wider in the corners than the middle. We like the overall looks of the panel, albeit not as much as the one-sheet-of-glass design of the smaller Panasonic V10 models.
We appreciated that the see-through stalk that supports the panel above the stand also lets it swivel to either side. The glass-topped stand matches the panel perfectly, down to the subtle red Touch and clear edging.
The remote control is the same as last year too, and we're definitely fans--especially since Samsung ditched the rotating scroll wheel. The buttons are big, backlit, and easily differentiated by size and shape, and we liked the dedicated "Tools" key that offers quick access to picture and sound modes, the sleep timer, and the picture-in-picture controls. However, we didn't like the remote's glossy black finish, which picked up more than its share of dulling fingerprints after a few minutes.
The PNB650 series offers very good connectivity, although it does follow the recent trend of spurning S-Video inputs--not one is to be found on this TV. The back panel sprouts three HDMI ports, two component-video inputs (one of which can be sacrificed for composite-video, if you need it), one VGA-style PC input, one RF input for cable and satellite, the Ethernet port, and one stereo analog and one optical digital audio output.
Samsung used the same menu system as last year, this time with matching red borders, and we still think it's one of the best in the business. Big, highly legible text is set against transparent backgrounds that occupy almost the whole screen. Getting around is easy and there's helpful explanatory text along the bottom to describe the different selections.
While Panasonic has VieraCast on its higher-end plasmas, Samsung's main interactive capability is supplied by Yahoo widgets. The system gathers Internet-powered information nodules, called "snippets," into a bar along the bottom of the screen. The model we reviewed came with widgets for stocks, weather, news and Flickr photos, plus Yahoo video, sports scores, poker, trivia and Twitter--and more are sure to appear in the near future. For more information, check out our full review of Yahoo widgets. That review was based on our experiences with a Samsung UN46B7000, and our impressions of the system on the PNB650 are mostly the same, including its sluggish response time. Mainly for that reason, we prefer VieraCast to Yahoo Widgets.
There are five color temperature presets augmented by the capability to adjust each via a custom white balance menu; three levels of noise reduction, including an automatic setting; a film mode to engage 2:3 pull-down (it also works with 1080i sources) or take advantage of 1080p/24 sources; a seven-position gamma control that affects the TV's progression from dark to light; a dynamic contrast control that adjusts the picture on the fly; a "black tone" control that affects shadow detail; and a color space control that lets you tweak the Samsung's color gamut.
The Samsung PNB650 series delivers excellent overall picture quality, surpassing the color accuracy of the superb Panasonic V10 series and also delivering an arguably better picture in a bright room. The Panasonic delivers deeper black levels, however, and a video processing glitch we encountered with the Samsung's 1080p/24 mode also gave us pause.
We did encounter one significant black level snafu. When we engaged the "Cinema Smooth" mode in the Film Mode menu, which is designed to help preserve the correct frame rate of film with 1080p/24 sources, black levels rose significantly. It was as if the TV had switched to another, uncalibrated picture mode. Switching Film Mode back to Off didn't return the black levels to their correct, calibrated state; to do so we had to stop playback entirely, which sent a normal 1080p/60 source to the TV and disengaged Cinema Smooth. Needless to say this is unusual behavior, and we'll update this review when Samsung has an explanation (and hopefully a fix). In the meantime, we recommend not using Cinema Smooth with our picture settings.