Unlike Sony or Pioneer, who declare their allegiance to one side or the other in the LCD vs. plasma conflict, Samsung plays on both sides of the border. The 42-inch Samsung HP-S4253 plasma stands as a good counterpoint to big-screen LCDs, such as the Samsung LN-S4051D we recently reviewed, and sells for a few hundred dollars less. The HP-S4253 plasma boasts a glossy black exterior and hidden speakers, and its feature set is anchored by excellent connectivity. Its image quality doesn't measure up to that of the best plasmas, however, and it costs a bit too much to compete against the most aggressively priced bargain models. Samsung has apparently made a conscious decision to make its LCDs look more attractive than its plasmas. Flat-panel LCD models such as the Samsung LN-S4051D, visible in hyperbole-filled advertisements everywhere, have a friendly yet stylish, rounded-off appearance, an oval base, and a wide V shape along the bottom. The HP-S4253 plasma, on the other hand, is the standard sharp-cornered rectangle atop a nonswiveling stand. It shares its swankier brand mate's glossy black finish and concealed speakers, which are stashed inside the angled opening along the bottom of the cabinet. This plasma's relatively thick frame contributes to bigger dimensions compared to many plasmas; the HP-S4253 measures 41.5 by 30 by 13.5 inches and weighs 88 pounds including the stand, while the panel itself is 3.8 inches deep.
The company revamped its remote, improving the new model with a smarter button layout, better differentiation between the keys, and a longer, easier-to-hold shape. Although it still lacks backlighting, we appreciate its ability to control four other devices. Samsung's internal menu system looks the same as ever. We found it intuitive to navigate and appreciated the ability to choose and rename inputs from the menu, as well as the helpful information explaining various menu items.Like most 42-inch high-resolution plasmas, the Samsung HP-S4253 has a native resolution of 1,024x768 pixels. While that's not quite enough resolution to display every pixel of HDTV sources, no other like-size plasma can make that claim either. All sources, including HDTV, DVD, standard TV, and computers, are scaled to fit the pixels.
The Samsung HP-S4253 has all the conveniences we expected, including an ATSC tuner to receive over-the-air digital and HDTV stations, although it lacks CableCard--no big loss in our book. There's a picture-in-picture option with side-by-side and inset views; an average selection of aspect-ratio controls (four for standard-def and two for HD sources); and a freeze feature to capture onscreen phone numbers, for example.
We also appreciate the solid selection of picture-affecting features, although we would have preferred the Samsung HP-S4253 to have true independent input memories. However, there are four adjustable picture modes: Dynamic, Movie, Standard, and Custom. Since the set reverts to the last selected picture mode when you switch inputs, it's possible to set up four of the TV's inputs separately for different sources. Samsung includes a separate game mode, which increases color saturation, edge enhancement, and overall brightness for a more vibrant, less realistic look that some gamers might prefer. Fortunately, Samsung's DNIe processing, which introduces more edge enhancement, is defeatable (in Movie mode, you can't even turn it on), whereas with the LN-S4051D, you can't turn it off. The company also includes noise reduction and 2:3 pull-down circuits (see Performance for more).
Although burn-in is generally not a problem with plasmas used in the home, we like the fact that Samsung offers three methods of protection: pixel shift, which moves the image slightly over time around the screen; a scrolling white-to-black ramp; and a full white field. There are also two energy-saving modes: one that adjusts the brightness according to room lighting and another that limits peak brightness.
The Samsung HP-S4253 offers one of the most comprehensive input bays we've seen yet on a plasma at this price. While the LN-S4051D LCD sacrificed a component-video for a second HDMI port, the HP-S4253 plasma has two of each. It also boasts a dedicated VGA-style PC input (1,024x768 is the recommended resolution); one A/V input with S-Video on the front and the right side, along with a headphone jack; two RF antenna inputs; and both coaxial and optical digital audio outputs for use with the ATSC tuner.After testing, we determined that the Samsung HP-S4253 is an average performer among plasmas we've reviewed, although it turned in better picture quality than last year's HP-R4252.
Our first step was to tune the HP-S4253's picture by adjusting its controls and performing a full grayscale calibration, after which we checked out some program material. To see how the Samsung handled difficult darker scenes, we slid Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith into our DVD player. We were quickly struck by the prevalence of low-level video noise in the near-black areas. As the opening Star Wars logo receded into the background, for example, small greenish motes appeared among the stars where there should be black space.
We turned down the brightness control, and the motes disappeared but at the expense of shadow detail; the instruments in the cockpit behind Obi-Wan's head, for example, appeared less distinct as they faded into the background. We still saw excessive green-tinged noise in some shadowy areas, however, such as the front of Senator Palpatine's robe as he addresses Anakin in his chambers.