Panasonic and Samsung plasma TVs have run very close in our comparisons this year, with a slight advantage in picture quality going to team Panasonic, and a slight features advantage to camp Samsung. That's again the case in the midrange category, where the 3D- and Smart TV-equipped Samsung PNE550 series faces off directly against the similarly specced and priced Panasonic TC-PUT50 series.
I give the nod to the Panasonic by virtue of its deeper black levels and slightly better bright-room picture, but the Samsung has its own advantages. It gains an edge in the sophistication of its Smart TV platform -- especially if you don't mind sacrificing Amazon video for HBO Go -- and its inclusion of two pairs of 3D glasses. If you're like me you'll value the UT50's merits a bit more, but the Samsung E550 is still a very good television that should please plenty of plasma fans.
Not much separates the unadorned PNE550 from the ranks of me-too black-clad TVs out there, but the accents it offers are tasteful enough to place it in the same league as the Panasonic UT50, if a notch below Samsung's higher-end plasmas like the PNE6500.
Compared with the PNE6500's thinner textured charcoal bezel, the glossy frame around the E550's screen seems plain and slightly chunky, although the strip of transparent edging, echoed by the glass top of the stand, lends minor panache.
Like all Samsung 3D models, and unlike other major-brand TVs that use active 3D technology, the PNE550 actually comes with 3D glasses. Two pairs are packed into every box. They're the SSG-3050GBs from 2011, not the newer Samsung SSG-4100GBs from 2012. Both retail for a scant $20 and they look exactly the same -- the main difference is that the 2012 glasses support the universal standard, so they work with universal-certified 3D TVs like 2012 Panasonics. Check out my 2012 3D glasses comparison for more information.
The fit of the SSG-3050GB glasses included with this TV is pretty bad. The glasses didn't grip my head firmly when used with my prescription lenses, and even when I removed my regular glasses I found they admitted more ambient light than any of the others. Yes, they are among the lightest active glasses I've tried, but that's about all I can say that's positive. At least they're free.
Samsung's remote is not among my favorites. The tight grid of buttons lacks sufficient visual differentiation, less important keys like "search" and "MTS" are too prominent, and the central Smart Hub button is annoyingly just a logo.
Samsung's Smart Hub interface tends toward crowded and overwhelming. You can only customize the bottom half, and even then many of the icons can't be deleted. While response time could be speedy, I occasionally encountered hitches and balkiness (in my experience the dual-core Samsung sets aren't much better). I prefer the simpler look and customization of Panasonic's interface, for example, but there's no denying that Samsung's is more advanced.
With the exception of Google TV, Samsung's Smart TV platform is the most content-rich and capable on the market. Its big Achilles' heel, aside from its cluttered interface, is lack of Amazon Instant, a service found on Panasonic, Sony, and Vizio TVs, but not LG's this year. Otherwise the available content is superb.
The big standout is HBO Go, available on no other TV so far. It launched in early August for 2012 models, so this is the first chance I've had to test it. In short, it's great. The video quality was excellent over my Wi-Fi connection in the lab, with sharp details and very few compression artifacts visible in the shadowy areas and gradations from an episode of "Game of Thrones," for example. As with all video-streaming apps, Samsung allows full picture adjustment.
Samsung's HBO Go interface improves upon Roku's. It's designed around persistent vertical menus to the left of "pages" as you delve into the content. The search function is appropriately prominent, and browsing long lists is easier since the layout relies less on big thumbnails and clicking through. I'm not as familiar with the HBO Go app on the Xbox 360, but my CNET colleague Jeff Balakar's quick impression was that he liked Samsung's app better than Xbox's, lauding its improved speed and intuitive navigation.
Samsung offers just about every other mainstream non-Amazon video service, as well as numerous niche video options like TMZ, The Daily, AOL On, Digital Theatre, Demand the Outdoors, Samsung's MediaHub, and a 3D-specific app (the latter two with little worthwhile content compared with mainstream options). We're also happy to see the newly added vTuner Internet radio app join Pandora and subscription music via Mog.
Other offerings include a 3D photos app, images from National Geographic, MTV Music Meter, and ESPN ScoreCenter, as well as umpteen less-impressive paid and free games, educational apps, screensavers, and so on. The E550 lacks the cloud gaming app (currently in closed beta) found on higher-end Samsungs.
Samsung also has a few relatively rich proprietary apps, like Family Story, which is a way to "share photos, memos, and family events stored in the cloud," Fitness and Kids (both with custom VOD), and a Social TV app combining Facebook, Twitter, and Google Talk in a bar alongside live TV. There's also an AllShare Play app that manages DLNA and USB media files and can also grab files from the cloud.
Our favorite proprietary app is Your Video, because it features a cross-app search that can now hit Netflix in addition to Vudu and CinemaNow (it also works with the keyboard, unlike the native Netflix app).
There's a separate "search all" option that hits local files (DLNA/AllShare), Your Video, YouTube, Facebook, Samsung Apps, history, and the Web browser -- and happily you can disable any of those search targets.
Samsung still boasts the best browser I've tested on any TV, although it's slower and more frustrating to use than the browser on a laptop, tablet, or phone. That's partly because it depends on the TV's standard remote control; when I tried it with Samsung's Bluetooth keyboard the experience improved immensely. If you're thinking of getting the keyboard, be aware that its alphanumeric keys didn't work with the apps I tried (HBO Go, Netflix, Hulu Plus and YouTube) so it won't help ease searches much there.
Although very good overall, especially compared with just about every 2012 LED TV, the images produced by the PNE550 can't quite beat those of its closest plasma competition, Panasonic's UT50 and U50 televisions. Its black levels are solid but not in the same league as the Panasonics, and unlike the UT50 it can't properly convey 1080p/24 film cadence. Color is its strongest suit while bright-room picture is weakest, and its mediocre 3D picture won't distinguish it much in this category.