Editors' note (March 4, 2010): The rating on this product has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace, including the release of 2010 models. The review has not otherwise been modified..
In the battle between plasma and LCD, the former generally comes out ahead in most areas of our picture quality tests, while the latter has dominated the less-important, but somehow costlier, dimension of depth. LCDs like the Samsung and Sony edge-lit models, and the Hitachi UT37X902 cost a hefty premium for their manufacturers knocking an inch or two from the standard panel's thickness. Now plasma makers want in on that premium, and PNB850 and PNB860 series represent Samsung's less-depth-for-more-money gambit.
Like the company's thicker, less expensive PNB650 series, the PNB850/860 series offers excellent picture quality with accurate color, deep black levels--albeit not as deep as the best plasmas and LCDs--and solid video processing. In fact, we awarded the two Samsung plasmas the same Performance score, although the PNB850/860 gets the nod in Design. If you can stomach the higher price and like the thin profile, however, the PNB850/860 makes a compelling option.
We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 50-inch Samsung PN50B850, but this review also applies to the 58-inch member of the series, model PN58B850, as well as to the two models in the PNB860 series: the 50-inch PN50B860 and the 58-inch PN58B860. According to Samsung, the only difference between all four models, aside from screen size, is the presence in the 860 models of a manual option for 1080p/24 processing and an extra calibration mode (see below for details). For that reason, we expect the picture quality of all four models to be very similar.
Editors' note: Some of the Design and Features elements are identical between the Samsung PNB850/860 series and the Samsung PNB650 series we reviewed, so readers of the earlier review may experience some deja vu when reading the same sections below.
The PNB850/860 series is commendably sleek and high-tech, even by Samsung's standards, and is easily the coolest looking plasma HDTV we've seen this year. Its principal design trait is the thin depth--just 1.2 inches thick--which out-thins every plasma on the market except for Panasonic's ultra-expensive Z1. Here's where we mention that we don't really consider the 3- to 4-inch depths of standard flat-panel TVs anything to sneeze at, but if you want that razor-thin look from the side, the 850/860 series is your only somewhat reasonably priced plasma option.
Other exterior characteristics include hidden speakers and a glossy black frame that's equal in width on all four sides. It lacks the "one sheet of glass" design of Panasonic's V10 series, but the frame is a bit slimmer around the sides, which terminate in a transparent edge that lends a high-tech luster. Samsung's trademark transparent stalk is also in evidence, which allows the panel to swivel atop the substantial, stainless steel-colored metal base.
Samsung used the same menu system as last year and we still think it's one of the best in the business. Big, highly legible text is set against transparent backgrounds that occupy almost the whole screen. Getting around is easy and there's helpful explanatory text along the bottom to describe the different selections.
The remote control is similar to last year too, aside from a sort of fin added to the back that keeps it stable on a flat surface, and we're definitely fans. The buttons are big, backlit, and easily differentiated by size and shape, and we liked the dedicated "Tools" key that offers quick access to picture and sound modes, the sleep timer, and the picture-in-picture controls. However, we didn't like the remote's glossy black finish that picked up more than its share of dulling fingerprints after a few minutes.
The PNB850/850 series has the numerous features we'd expect in a flagship plasma. Samsung and Panasonic share many spec sheet bullet points, including "600Hz" panels that are said to improve motion resolution/reduce blur. The best thing we can say about this feature is to ignore it; the number was created in response to the 120Hz and 240Hz refresh rates of LCDs. Plasma technology is inherently less subject to blurring than LCD, and in any case it's really hard to see any difference with real material.
Like Panasonic, Samsung can also properly deal with 1080p/24 sources. The main difference between the PNB850 series and the PNB860 series concerns the options available with those sources. On the B860 models, there's a Cinema Smooth option in the Film Mode menu that let you manually turn on or off the 96Hz refresh rate that allows proper display of 24p signals (however, it does not introduce dejudder processing). The B850 models lack that manual setting and simply switch automatically to the proper 96Hz refresh rate when you input a 24p signal. See performance for more details.
Samsung's main interactive capability is supplied by Yahoo! widgets. The system gathers Internet-powered information nodules, called "snippets," into a bar along the bottom of the screen. The model we reviewed came with widgets for stocks, weather, news, and Flickr photos, plus YouTube, Yahoo video, sports scores, games and, Twitter--and more are sure to appear in the near future. For more information, check out our full review of Yahoo widgets. That review is based on our experiences with a Samsung UN46B7000, and our impressions of the system on the PNB850/860 are mostly the same, including its relatively sluggish response time. Mainly for that reason, we still prefer VieraCast to Yahoo Widgets.
Other interactive features on this set abound. Unlike the Panasonic, it can stream videos, photos, and music from DLNA-certified devices via the network connection, as well from its USB ports--that can connect to MP3 players, USB thumbdrives, and digital cameras (we didn't test this capability). There's also built-in "content," such as recipes, games, workout guides, and a slide show of high-definition art and photos with music. We went into depth discussing the underwhelming content features last year, which are similar this time around, so if you're interested check out the Interactive section of the 2008 Samsung LN46A750 review.
Like other Samsung sets the PNB850/860 series offers numerous picture tweaks, starting with four adjustable picture modes that are all independent per input. One of these modes is called "Eco" but, aside from its slightly lower default light output and consequent power savings, it's no different from the other three.
There are five color temperature presets augmented by the capability to adjust each via a custom white balance menu; three levels of noise reduction, including an automatic setting; a film mode to engage 2:3 pull-down (it also works with 1080i sources) or, on the 860 models, manually take advantage of 1080p/24 sources with the CinemaSmooth setting; 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 tone" control that affects shadow detail; and a color space control that lets you tweak the Samsung's color gamut.
It's also worth mentioning that the B860 models have a Night/Day mode, intended for professional calibrations, that must be activated via the service menu. In addition to Cinema Smooth, it's the only difference between the 850 and the 860 models.
You can choose from four aspect ratio modes for HD sources, two of which let you move the whole image across the screen horizontally and vertically. As we'd expect from a 1080p TV, one of those modes, called Screen Fit, lets the PNB850/860 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.