Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
Plasma HDTVs seem almost passe these days, but in our experience they still produce generally better images than LCDs. The mid-price 50-inch Samsung PN50A550 reviewed here provides a typical example of what plasma can do right. Its color accuracy is superb, it produces a very clean image, and like all plasmas, its picture is much more uniform than that of any LCD. Home theater sticklers seeking the darkest black levels available will probably want to look at another plasma model, but for those whose hearts aren't set on LCD, the Samsung PN50A550 will definitely satisfy.
The classically attractive PN50A550 looks almost exactly like last year's FP-T5084, although it's a tiny bit taller and narrower overall due to the sliverlike hidden speakers mounted along the bottom of the panel as opposed to the sides. The frame is entirely gloss-black, about average thickness for a plasma (heavier plasmas can't achieve the thin bezels found on lighter LCDs), and there's a defeatable blue accent light below the Samsung logo. The pedestal stand allows a modest swivel range.
Including the stand, the Samsung PN50A550 measures 48.5 inches wide by 32.7 inches tall by 12.6 inches deep and weighs 91.3 pounds, while when divested of stand it comes in at 48.5 by 30.3 by 3.8 inches and 82.5 pounds. It's compatible with the company's motorized, articulated wall-mount, model PN50A550S1F ($1,999 list), as well as third-party mounts.
Samsung redesigned its remotes for 2008, and for the most part we like the new clicker better. The buttons are larger and every one is backlit, and we like the dedicated Tools menu that offers quick access to picture and sound modes, the sleep timer, and the picture-in-picture controls. We're not so fond of the glossy black finish, however, which became a grimy fingerprint magnet after a few minutes in our (admittedly grimy) hands.
The redesign extended to the menu system, which 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 the confusing picture mode arrangement (see below).
The P50A550 has one of the more-complete feature sets available today among plasma TVs. A native resolution of 1,920x1,080 (aka 1080p) distinguishes the PN50A550 from a few of the less-expensive 50-inch plasmas out there, but in 2008 this feature is just about standard. Not that it matters; even at 50 inches, it's nearly impossible to appreciate the difference between 1080p and lesser resolutions (see Performance).
Samsung added a few more picture tweaks to its already large selection, but we'll start with the basics. The PN50A550 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 a zillion 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.
In addition to the standard picture controls, there's an additional one called Cell Light that affects overall light output. It seems superfluous to add yet another control, especially since Contrast can serve the same purpose, and unlike the backlight control on an LCD, Cell Light does not affect black-level performance. Others 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 pull-down (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. See the Performance section below for more details.
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 PN50A550P 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.
Like all plasmas, the PN50A550 can be subject to burn-in under certain conditions, and Samsung includes a rash of features designed to address that issue. There's an adjustable pixel shift, which moves the image slowly and imperceptibly around the screen; a choice between light and dark sidebars for 4:3 programs (light is better for preventing burn-in); and a pair of settings, one that scrolls gray bars across the screen and one that simply fills it with a white field, available to address burn-in in the unlikely event that it does occur.
We appreciated the three power-saver modes, which did cut down on the PN50A550's prodigious energy consumption (see the Juice Box). As far as conveniences, Samsung throws in picture-in-picture as well as a USB port that can connect to thumbdrives to play back digital photos and MP3 music.