While plasma picture quality overall has improved steadily every year, there's still a lot of difference between the performance of different makes of plasma TVs. Samsung's 42-inch HP-R4252, second from the top of its 2005 plasma lineup, is a good example. This stylish set looks as good any of its competition on paper, but its image quality has some serious issues, especially during darker scenes that demand solid black-level performance. That's unfortunate, because at this late stage in the HP-R4252's lifespan, it can be found online for prices commensurate with some better-performing plasmas. The Samsung HP-R4252 has a clean, two-tone design with a large black border around the screen and a silver finish on the bottom portion of the chassis where the nondetachable stereo speakers are housed. We liked the look, although we could have done without the big blue LED ring on the front and the geeky, 1980s-video-game-sounding start-up chime -- you can disable the chime, but not the LED. The table stand, which can be removed for wall-mounting, is also finished in silver; when it's attached, the display measures 41.7 by 30.7 by 13.4 inches (HWD) and weighs 98 pounds.
The remote is the same design that Samsung has been using for all of its HDTVs over the last couple of years. It is a bland, medium-size gray rectangle with no flair whatsoever--and no illumination. We did find it logically laid out, with most of the commonly used keys within easy thumb reach. However, a few important keys, such as the one to change aspect-ratio mode, are inconveniently hidden beneath a sliding door. The internal menu system is unchanged from previous Samsung HDTV models over the last several years and is also fairly straightforward and intuitive to navigate. Like most other high-resolution 42-inch plasmas available today, the Samsung HP-R4252 has a native resolution of 1,024x768 pixels. While that's technically not enough to resolve every detail of 720p or 1080i HDTV sources, no other 42-inch plasma can do that either. All sources, including HDTV, DVD, computers, and standard television, are scaled to fit the pixels.
The feature package on the HP-R4252 is adequate if not overly generous, and it includes conveniences such as an ATSC tuner, CableCard, and picture-in-picture. Of the five aspect-ratio selections available with standard-def sources, only two can be accessed when you're watching HD material.
Otherwise, we're happy with the level of adjustability that the HP-R4252 provides. Preset picture modes include Dynamic, Standard, Movie, and Custom, all of which can be adjusted and remain different for each input. That's the equivalent of having four independent memories for each input, a real boon since there's only one HDMI connection. If you're using an HDMI-switching receiver to connect more than one HDMI source, for example, you can program a different picture mode for each source. Samsung has always offered more color-temperature selections than most other manufacturers. On the HP-R4252, you get five: Cool I, Cool II, Normal, Warm 1, and Warm 2, the last of which comes closest to the broadcast-standard color temperature of 6,500 Kelvin.
The My Color feature, on the other hand, doesn't seem to do much of anything. When it's selected, a split screen comes up with two identical images side by side, and you can then supposedly adjust red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, yellow, and white levels. When we tested this feature by swinging the first three colors through their entire range, we saw no change in the HP-R4252's picture whatsoever. What we would like to see is a color-management system that would actually help correct the primary and secondary colors (see Performance), similar to Fujitsu's Color Focus feature, which actually does work.
The Samsung HP-R4252's connectivity options are just adequate. We were disappointed to find only one HDMI input. Today, we need a minimum of two with all the digital video sources that are either currently available or on their way to market, such as Blu-ray and HD-DVD. There are also two component-video inputs; an A/V input that give you the choice of S-Video or composite video; one 15-pin VGA input for PC use (as high as 1,024x768 resolution); and both coaxial and optical digital audio outputs. Finally, there are two RF inputs for antenna and cable connections. Overall, we were disappointed by the Samsung HP-R4252's out-of-the-box performance, and there's nothing we could do in the user menu to improve the issues we saw. While we did find ways to fix many of the problems via service menu-level calibration, that's not all that helpful to most users, who'd rather not delve into service menus or pay for professional tweaking.
One of the biggest issues with picture performance we saw was the panel's inability to hold a stable level of black independent of the content in the picture. In other words, black floated, becoming noticeably brighter as other areas of the picture brightened, an effect that sacrifices contrast ratio and shadow detail. The HP-R4252 evinced the worst case of improper black-level retention we've seen in a long time. The wild swings in black were accompanied by an extremely green grayscale in the darkest area, which came across in regular program material; for example, greenish shadows. We saw these issues via the HDMI input; the component video input had similar problems but did not have as green of a grayscale. We managed to fix the floating black problem and correct the grayscale via calibration.
Blacks on the Samsung HP-R4252 were reasonably deep and rich after the fix, but the gamma was still far from perfect. Improper gamma caused the panel to come out of black much too quickly, which again makes dark material that's just brighter than black appear much too bright. We could see the effect in shadowy areas, where subtle transitions from one level of gray to another are lost. This robs the set of much of the shadow detail it should be capable of reproducing.
The color decoding on the HP-R4252 is reasonably good with only a slight hint of red push, but green is definitely off. In terms of primary color accuracy, red was reasonably good, green was downright horrendous, and blue was pretty close (see the Geek box below for more). The color resolution, a.k.a. chroma frequency response, was also down from where it should be, which made the color look a bit washed out.
After examining the test patterns and calibrating the TV for DVD via HDMI, we checked out some program material. The opening chapters of the Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith DVD, which mostly take place in space, revealed reasonably deep blacks. We did have to drop brightness another two clicks lower than the ideal however, to prevent the star fields from taking on a distinct magenta cast. Moving on to the opening scenes of the Superbit DVD of The Fifth Element, which has space shots in the asteroid field and just above Earth, we saw visible false-contouring artifacts and more traces of that magenta cast. The magenta is again due to poor gamma implementation and makes watching dark scenes such as this very difficult indeed.
Dark material in HD from our DirecTV HD satellite feed had similar problems with dark material. Even in a relatively bright scene, we saw more noise--for example, floating in one man's black shirt--than on many other plasmas we've tested. As is usually the case, however, brighter scenes fared much better overall.
|Before color temp (20/80)||6,600/7,275K||Good|
|After color temp||6,575/6,475K||Good|
|Before grayscale variation||± 678K||Average|
|After grayscale variation||± 222K||Average|
|Color of red (x/y)||0.663/0.329||Average|
|Color of green||0.236/0.694||Poor|
|Color of blue||0.147/0.065||Good|
|Black-level retention||No stable pattern||Poor|
|2:3 pull-down, 24fps||Yes||Good|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||Yes||Good|