Editors' note (March 4, 2010): The rating on this product has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace, including the release of 2010 models. The review has not otherwise been modified..
When it was announced at CES 2009, the LG PS80 series of plasma TVs earned one of our three nominations for Best of CES in the TV category. We've already reviewed the other two sets--Panasonic's G10 plasmas and Vizio's VF551XVT LED-based LCD--and both scored higher than the PS80. It's not that we're disappointed in the interactive features that originally caused us to nominate the LG. Those include built-in Netflix streaming, which is still an LG exclusive (at least until Sony turns its own version on, or Samsung or Vizio step up), Yahoo Widgets, and YouTube capability. LG has also added the high-definition eye candy of Vudu's on-demand video rental service. Those interactive add-ons work great, and combine with LG's customary picture adjustment prowess they comprise the most impressive features list seen on any plasma this year.
Unfortunately for the PS80, its picture quality impressed us less. Its lighter black levels are the main culprit, abetted by it below-par video processing and even minor image retention--all areas that other plasma TVs outperform the LG. On the other hand, its color accuracy is still very good, and of course, it has the off-angle fidelity of plasma that easily trounces any LCD. Armed with superb style and that stellar features list, the LG PS80 might still appeal to people willing to focus less on picture quality than on built-in content options.
We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 50-inch LG 50PS80, but this review also applies to the 60-inch LG 60PS80. The two share identical specs aside from screen size and should exhibit very similar picture quality.
Editors' note: Many of the Design and Features elements are identical between the PS80 series and the LH50 series we reviewed, so readers of the earlier review may experience some deja vu when reading some sections of this review.
Trailing only the ultrathin, premium-priced models available from other TV makers, namely the Panasonic Z1 and the Samsung PNB850/860, the LG PS80 series takes a respectable bronze medal in plasma styling this year. Its coolest exterior characteristic, a single pane of glass that covers the entire screen and extends a fraction of an inch beyond the top and sides, unifies the whole design in a way that easily out-sleeks the similarly single-paned Panasonic TC-PV10 series. It has an extremely subtle, transparent blue coloring and thin chrome colored strip along the bottom, hidden speakers, a glossy black frame, and a matching chrome-and-black stand (yes, it swivels) complete the LG's uncannily futuristic look.
LG's remote control is relatively disappointing. We found the cluster of similar buttons around the cursor control difficult to differentiate without constantly having to look at them. A little illumination would have gone a long way. On the plus side, it's easy to find the different-colored buttons for "Netcast" (for Netflix, Vudu, YouTube, Yahoo Widgets, and home network content) and Widgets (for Yahoo widgets, again), and there's another prominent button labeled "Energy Saving" that directly accesses the control and a little energy saving graphic to provide enviro-geeks a warm fuzzy feeling. The remote can't control other brands of gear directly with infrared commands.
The menu system is quite extensive, so the easy-access quick menu for aspect ratio, picture and sound modes, the timer, and other oft-used functions, is welcome. The main menu is laid out the same as last year with the addition of a new onscreen "simple manual" that provides basic setup and function information. One miscue: we'd really like to see explanations of menu items appear onscreen, too--especially since many of them are so advanced.
Interactive capability: At the time of writing this review, the PS80 plasma and LH50 LCD series by LG are the only TVs on the market with built-in Netflix streaming. Of course, you can get the service on other external devices such as the Xbox 360, TiVo HD, Roku player, and a few Blu-ray players, but these LG sets build it right in.
For the uninitiated, Netflix "Watch Instantly" video streaming lets Netflix subscribers immediately watch movies and TV shows from the service's catalog for no additional fees. Its selection of titles is more restricted than the normal mail-order service and generally excludes new, major name releases; however, there are still thousands of titles available to watch. You must select titles to watch using a PC; you can't browse and choose titles directly on the TV, although that restriction may be lifted in a future update.
In our testing, the Netflix streaming worked as well as it has in other such devices and it was exceedingly easy to use. It flawlessly loaded our Watch Instantly queue from the Netflix Web site, and when we selected new movies and TV shows for our queue, the titles would appear almost instantly for access on the TV.
As usual, streaming video quality depends a lot on your Internet connection. In the best-case scenario, with "full bars," the so-called HD videos looked a bit better than DVD, although the frame rate still seemed too slow, creating a stuttering effect in pans and other camera movement that dejudder didn't address (to be fair, all Netflix devices suffer from this artifact). The main difference, and it's a potentially big one for videophiles, is that LG doesn't let you adjust any of the picture parameters beyond the presets for the various picture modes. In other words, you can select the Expert 1 mode, but can't adjust it beyond the presets. That said, you still get more control of the picture than you do on Yahoo Widgets' current video players, such as YouTube, and choosing from among eight modes will be plenty for most viewers. Our Roku review has more details on Netflix streaming.
Aside from Netflix, the LG offers added access to Vudu's library of video-on-demand titles. Vudu's claim to fame is high-definition, and in our tests, its picture quality was indeed superb--much better than anything on Netflix, for example. We compared the Blu-ray Disc of "The Orphan" with the HDX rental version on Vudu and it was difficult to tell the difference. With the Vudu version, we saw slightly softer details in some areas, such as the woven pattern on the back of the chairs in the nun's office, and the face of Max as she greets her parents upon their return from the orphanage, but we had to look hard to find it. Vudu's picture adjustment limitations are the same as for Netflix, and we like that the Vudu service was a cinch to use.
Of course, Vudu's downside is cost: "Orphan," typical of new releases on Vudu, costs $5.99 to rent the HDX version for 24 hours, $4.99 for the lower-quality high-definition version, and $3.99 for the standard-definition version. Buying the right to watch it anytime costs $19.99. Prices vary between $1 and $6 for other TV shows and movies, and it's all a-la-carte at the moment. Given the service's great video quality, we'd love to see some kind of subscription pricing.
For more information, check out the review of the Vudu set-top box. It behaves like the service on the LG aside from one important difference: videos are streamed to the TV, whereas the box has a hard drive that downloads them beforehand, eliminating any potential network hiccups. To get the most out of Vudu on your LG TV, we definitely recommend a reliable, fast Internet connection.
LG also packs in its own version of YouTube client that's similar to the Yahoo Widget available on Samsung TVs, not to mention the proprietary clients developed by Sony and Panasonic. You can sign into your YouTube account; browse most recent, most viewed, and top rated videos; search via an onscreen virtual keyboard using the TV remote (auto-fill of popular search terms is supported, thankfully); and sort by date. Like on those other TV clients, YouTube's "HD" category is absent and video quality is significantly worse, even with higher-quality non-HD videos, than on the Web site. Unlike those clients, no "continuous play" option is available to automatically move on to the next video in a category, but in generally we really liked LG's YouTube implementation. Check out our look at YouTube on TV for more information.
The LG TV also includes Yahoo Widgets. At the time of testing, it offered fewer widgets than Samsung sets, but has significantly more than Sony, although we expect those differences to even out in time (but naturally we don't expect LG to get the YouTube widget, for example, since the company built its own client). The PS80's complement includes Yahoo's original news, weather, finance, and Flickr widgets, Yahoo video, Yahoo sports, USA Today sports, Twitter, and the of Quizzmaster, Sudoku, and Texas Hold 'em.
LG's implementation of Yahoo Widgets was more responsive than on the Samsung and Sony TV's we've reviewed, even after we had downloaded all of the available widgets into the dock. Moving between snippets on the dock, navigating among individual widgets, and even loading the widget engine in the first place all moved much faster on the PS80 series than any of the four Samsung TVs we had on-hand. For that reason, we found it the best widget experience we've tested so far. Check out our full review of Yahoo Widgets for more information.
Finally, like many current TVs, the LG PS80 can stream photos, music, and video from networked PCs in the home as well as from thumbdrives connected to its USB port. We didn't test this feature.
It's notable that the PS80, like other interactive TVs, doesn't include a wireless capability; if you want to clip the Ethernet cable, you'll have to add your own wireless bridge.