Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered and its Editors' Choice award removed because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
Samsung's LN52A650 dares to be different. In a world of me-too, glossy black flat-panel HDTVs, no few of which may bear the company's own logo, this 52-inch LCD is dressed in red. Like many radical design choices, you'll either love it or hate it, and we didn't love it. But before you write off this red TV, we recommend you check it out in person--the product shots here and elsewhere on the Web just don't capture the red tint of the frame properly. Aside from design, we found plenty to like about the higher-end LN52A650, and it produces arguably the best picture of any LCD TV we've tested so far, although it doesn't quite beat the quality of the best plasma.
Samsung's LNA650 series incorporates the company's Touch of Color design scheme. Instead of the standard glossy black frame, the LN52A650 sports dark-red accents that suffuse the entire frame, but are most prominent along the top and bottom edge and either side. Other eye-catching elements include a layer of transparent plastic, which is visible along the extreme edges on all sides, and Samsung's trademark shiny screen (more on that below). The Touch definitely creates a unique look, but call us traditionalists: we didn't really like it. The photos above just can't capture how red the Touch makes the frame appear, especially in bright rooms, and if red isn't your favorite color, you're out of luck--no other colors have been confirmed for this year, despite the company touting a veritable rainbow at CES. In its favor, the red frame didn't really detract from the color fidelity of the picture.
Including the standard-issue pedestal swivel stand, the LN52A650 measures 50.2 inches wide by 34.1 inches tall by 12.8 inches deep and weighs 76.7 pounds. Without the stand, it comes in at 50.2 inches wide by 31.7 inches tall by 4.1 inches deep and 64.6 pounds.
The remote differs from the one included on the Samsung PN50A550 because it uses a rotating, clickable wheel, similar to an iPod scroll wheel, for menu navigation, as opposed to the standard, four-way directional keys. The wheel would be a cool idea if it was more responsive, but with the brief delay between moving the wheel and seeing the results on the screen, we found ourselves more than a bit annoyed by it. The rest of the remote's buttons are nice and big and backlit (the backlighting engages automatically when the remote is picked up, something we've never seen on a remote included with a TV), and we liked the dedicated "Tools" button that offered quick access to picture and sound modes, the sleep timer, and the picture-in-picture controls. We didn't like the clicker's glossy black finish, however, which picked up more than its share of dulling fingerprints after a few minutes.
Samsung's new menu system is sleeker than before and blessed with big, highly legible text set against transparent backgrounds that occupy almost the whole screen. Getting around is easy; there's helpful explanatory text along the bottom, and we dug the context-sensitive menu that would pop up occasionally to provide more options. Overall, it's one of the best-designed and most-attractive menu systems we've seen on any HDTV, and it really makes setup a breeze--except for the confusing picture mode arrangement (see below).
The LN52A650 has a 120Hz refresh rate, which allows it to cut down on blur and to affect judder in motion with a video-processing mode Samsung calls "Auto Motion Plus." Check out David Carnoy's Fully Equipped column for an in-depth discussion of 120Hz, and the performance section of this review for details on how it's implemented on the LN52A650. Like most other LCD and plasma TV models on sale in 2008, the LN52A650 also has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 (aka 1080p).
New for 2008, the 650 series also includes an Ethernet port, which allows the TV to access the Internet to display news, stock ticker information, and local weather. We liked the easy-to-read font in normal and large sizes, as well as the intuitive controls. USA Today provides the newsfeed, which can sit in the corner of the screen like a ticker (turn Desperate Housewives into Fox News!), or be expanded to allow you to read numerous top stories in a variety of topics. One annoying quirk was that we couldn't remove the Setup screen easily--hitting "return," as the manual suggested, merely turned off the whole service. Also, we'd really appreciate if the port allowed the TV to access firmware updates, but according to Samsung that's not in the cards. A USB-to-Wi-Fi dongle that allows the TV to connect to a wireless network (model WIS-08BGX, $34.99) is also available.
The LN52A650 has three adjustable picture modes that are each independent per input. That's great, but in addition there are three more picture presets, called "Entertainment Modes," that cannot be adjusted and are accessible via a separate key on the remote and the Setup menu. This arrangement is unnecessarily confusing on a TV with so many settings anyway; we'd prefer to have all of the picture modes, both adjustable and non-adjustable, be accessible together from a single key on the remote and one area of the Picture menu. Also, if you're in Entertainment mode, you're prevented from making picture adjustments, or even selecting one of the adjustable picture modes, until you actively cancel an Entertainment mode by navigating to the Setup menu (which the onscreen instructions suggest) or toggling the mode to "Off" using the remote. That's an awkward hitch in an otherwise smooth menu design.
Others picture controls include five color temperature presets along with the ability to fine-tune color using the white balance menu; three varieties of noise reduction, including an automatic setting; a film mode to engage 2:3 pulldown (it also works with 1080i 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 adjust" control that affects shadow detail; and a new color space control that lets you tweak the Samsung's color gamut.
You can choose from four aspect ratio modes for HD sources, two of which allow you to move the whole image across the screen horizontally and/or vertically. As we'd expect from a 1080p TV, one of those modes, called Just Scan, lets the LN52A650 scale 1080i and 1080p sources directly to the panel's pixels with no overscan--the best option unless you see interference along the edge of the screen, as can be the case with some channels or programs. There are also four modes available with standard-def sources.
We appreciated the three power-saver modes and the singular fact that, unlike most other manufacturers, this year Samsung did not use the brightest picture mode as its default. Instead, the default picture mode for Home use is Standard, which saves a lot of energy compared with the much brighter Dynamic. Check out the Juice Box below for details on the set's energy use. As far as other conveniences, Samsung throws in picture-in-picture along with a USB port that can connect to thumb drives to play back digital photos and MP3 music. The LN52A650 is also compatible with the company's forthcoming digital media adapter.