Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
The midrange of a product line is sometimes where bargains meet high-performance, and that describes the LNA550 series of LCDs from Samsung quite well. The company's entry-level 1080p resolution models, represented in this review by the LN46A550, lack the fancy "touch of color" styling, Internet-connectivity, and 120Hz processing of their step-up brothers in the company's A650 and A750 series, but keep the superb picture-quality basics of black-level performance and color accuracy. We also appreciated that, unlike the glossy screen on flashier high-end models, the A550's screen doesn't reflect ambient light like a mirror. If you can stand to lose a few features and style points, the LN46A550 looks like a great choice among midrange LCDs.
Basic, glossy black defines the LN46A550's look. A relatively thick swath of fingerprint-attracting, black plastic borders the sides and top, while an even thicker black plastic strip is nestled along the bottom of the screen. The very bottom edge of the cabinet receives a thin strip of accent chrome, from the center of which peeks a blue accent light, which, thankfully, can be turned off. The downward-firing speakers are completely hidden from sight. The overall look will blend well into many rooms and retains the element of classiness imparted by glossy piano black.
Including the matching swivel stand, the LN46A550 measures 44.4-inches wide by 30.2 inches high by 11 inches deep, but removing the stand brings the panel down to 44.4 inches wide by 27.6 inches high by 3.9 inches deep.
We're fans of Samsung's 2008 TV remote. The buttons are nice and big and backlit, 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 last year's and blessed with a 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 pops 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).
As we mentioned above the LN46A550 lacks many of the more esoteric, often less useful, features found on step-up models. Like most other LCD and plasma TV models on sale in 2008, however, it does have a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels (aka 1080p), although at this screen size those extra pixels don't translate to any appreciable increase in detail over lower-resolution televisions.
The LN46A550 offers all of the control over the picture found on more expensive Samsungs. It 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," which 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 nonadjustable, 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.
Other 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. (Phew!)
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 LN46A550 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 fact that, much like Panasonic's plasmas, 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 and compatibility with the company's forthcoming digital media adapter.
The connectivity of the LN46A550 is one minor weakness. Its three total HDMI inputs, two on the back and one on the side, may not be enough for the some gear-heavy home theaters, but it's still plenty for most people. Two component-video inputs, a VGA-style RGB input (1,920x1,080p maximum resolution), an RF input for antenna and cable, an optical digital audio output, and a stereo audio output round out the back-panel connectivity. We'd like to see a standard AV output with composite and S-Video on the back panel, but the sole such input available on this TV is located on the side. A side USB port allows the TV to handle digital photos and MP3 music. We also liked the inclusion of a headphone jack.