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..
With the exit of heavy-hitter Pioneer from the plasma racket, just three major makers remain: Panasonic, Samsung, and LG. The latter two offer significantly more models of LCD TVs than of plasma, however, and seemed more focused on LCD technology. Nonetheless Samsung's 2009 plasmas, if the PNB650 series is any indication, are nearly the match of Panasonic's best. The model we tested delivered superb black-level performance--significantly better than past Samsung plasmas--and the company's traditional accurate color. Samsung has also kept up with Panasonic on the feature front and delivers more picture adjustments, although we prefer Panasonic's VieraCast to Samsung's sluggish Yahoo Widgets when it comes to interactive features. Regardless, the superb overall package delivered by the PNB650 series once again poses a difficult decision for plasma HDTV buyers.
We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 50-inch Samsung PN50B650, but this review also applies to the 58-inch Samsung PN58B650. The two have identical specifications aside from screen size, and should deliver very similar picture quality.
Editors' note: Some of the Design and Features elements are identical between the Samsung PNB650 series and the Samsung LNB750 series we reviewed earlier, so readers of the earlier review may experience some deja vu when reading the same sections below.
Sleek, minimalist looks define the Samsung PNB650 plasma. The company has scaled back the prominence of its "Touch of Color" design, so the hint of red in the frame along the top and bottom is even subtler--and more acceptable in our opinion--than before. It's still there, however, and may bug viewers with sensitive decor tastes. Glossy black is the panel's other major color, edged by Samsung's trademark clear coating on all sides of the frame. The black portion curves slightly along the bottom but the clear edge remains straight, becoming a bit wider in the corners than the middle. We like the overall looks of the panel, albeit not as much as the one-sheet-of-glass design of the smaller Panasonic V10 models.
We appreciated that the see-through stalk that supports the panel above the stand also allows it to swivel to either side. The glass-topped stand matches the panel perfectly, down to the subtle red Touch and clear edging.
Samsung used the same menu system as last year, this time with matching red borders, 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 the same as last year too, and we're definitely fans--especially since Samsung ditched the rotating scroll wheel. 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, which picked up more than its share of dulling fingerprints after a few minutes.
Samsung and Panasonic share a lot of features in their plasma TVs, including "600Hz" panels that are said to improve motion resolution to 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 also includes a mode to properly deal with 1080p/24 sources, although engaging it did cause a strange glitch. See performance for more details.
While Panasonic has VieraCast on its higher-end plasmas, 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 Yahoo video, sports scores, poker, trivia 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 was based on our experiences with a Samsung UN46B7000, and our impressions of the system on the PNB650 are mostly the same, including its sluggish response time. Mainly for that reason, we 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, which 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 PNB650 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 take advantage of 1080p/24 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 tone" control that affects shadow detail; and a 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 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 PNB650 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.
We appreciated the three power-saver modes (not to be confused with the Eco picture mode), which further reduce energy use. Samsung also throws in picture-in-picture, an "E-manual" on a USB stick and even a customer care screen that includes the firmware version for when you need to call the company. We're also big fans of the new-for-2009 capability, unique among HDTVs, to get firmware updates via an online download, rather than making you go to the Web site, as was the case before.