Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
Samsung makes so many different varieties of flat-panel HDTVs, sometimes it's difficult to keep up. This particular plasma, the 50-inch PN50A650, was released in the spring of 2008 right around the same time as the slightly less expensive PN50A550, which we reviewed way back then. We really like both of these displays, and both exhibit the same fundamentals: good but not great black levels and highly accurate color. The more expensive version adds more color of its own, in the form of the company's trademark reddish-tinted frame, and if you appreciate the styling, the PN50A650 proves a worthy entrant in the tight 50-inch plasma race.
The biggest differentiator between the PN50A550 we reviewed earlier this year and the PN50A650 is Touch of Color, Samsung's name for the reddish tinge of the television's frame. This TV isn't available in any other color, so if red doesn't work for your room, tough luck. The Touch is subtle enough in person, however, that most viewers probably won't find it objectionable, and if you've grown tired of the parade of glossy black HDTV cabinets, it might be for you. For us, we prefer the standard black of models like the A550, although the A650's other design elements, including a slick clear coating over the frame, hidden speakers and nicely rounded corners, combine for an attractive look.
We really liked the narrow pedestal of the included swivel stand, which lends the TV another dose of attractiveness. The frame around the screen is a bit thicker than on some 50-inch plasmas, and brings the HDTV's overall dimensions to 48.8 inches wide by 32.9 inches high by 12.6 inches deep including stand. Remove the stand and the panel by itself measures 48.8 by 30.2 by 3.8 inches.
Samsung redesigned its remotes for 2008, and for the most part we prefer the new clicker. 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 don't like the glossy black finish, however, which became a grimy fingerprint magnet after a few minutes.
The redesign extends to the menu system, which is 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 dig the context-sensitive menu that pop ups 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 Samsung PN50A650 has one of the more complete feature sets available today among plasma TVs. A native resolution of 1,920x1,080 (aka 1080p) distinguishes it 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 PN0A650 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 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 PN50A650 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 PN50A650 can be subject to burn-in under certain conditions, so 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 PN50A650's prodigious energy consumption (see the Juice Box). As far as conveniences, Samsung throws in picture-in-picture, a USB port that can connect to thumb drives to play back digital photos and MP3 music, and compatibility with the company's Digital Media Adapter.