If the Internet is the future of television, then LG's LH50 series hails from the day after tomorrow. This flat-panel LCD is the first to offer Netflix streaming, which allows instant, free-to-subscribers access to an all-you-can watch menu of thousands of movies and TV shows without having to connect another box. Sure, Sony has already announced the service for its own compatible TVs later this fall, and we expect Netflix to make its way to Yahoo widget-equipped TVs from Samsung (and perhaps others) sometime later this year, but for now the LH50 holds exclusive claim to Netflix. Speaking of Yahoo widgets, the LH50 delivers that feature, too, and better than other TVs we've tested, and also includes its own YouTube client and network streaming to boot.
On the other hand, the LH50 costs a good couple hundred more than its non-Web-enabled cousin in the company's line--easily enough to buy an external Netflix device and then some. Its performance wasn't as good as some of the better LCDs we've tested, albeit still decent enough to pass most viewers' muster, especially in terms of color accuracy. For fans of Internet video who don't want one more box, however, those issues might be worth the sacrifice for the LG LH50, which for now is the most well-featured Interactive HDTV available.
For the uninitiated, Netflix streaming, called "Watch Instantly" by the company, lets Netflix subscribers immediately watch free movies and TV shows from the service's catalog. The selection of titles is more restricted than the normal mail order service and generally excludes new, major name releases, but there are still thousands of titles. You must select titles to watch instantly using a PC; you can't browse and choose titles directly on the TV, although that restriction may be lifted in a future update.
In our testing the Netflix streaming worked as well as it has in other such devices, and it was exceedingly easy to use, interfacing flawlessly with our Watch Instantly queue on the Netflix Web site. As usual video quality depends a lot on your Internet connection. In the best-case scenario, with "full bars," the so-called HD videos looked a bit better than DVD, although the frame rate still seemed too slow, creating a stuttering effect in pans and other camera movement that dejudder didn't address (to be fair, all Netflix devices suffer from this artifact). The main difference, and it's a potentially big one for videophiles, is that LG's built-in Netflix service doesn't allow you to adjust any of the picture parameters beyond the presets for the various picture modes. You can choose from among the modes via the quick menu, but main menu access isn't available, so you can't tweak any of the modes. That said, you still get more control of the picture than you do on Yahoo widgets' current video players, for example, and choosing from among eight modes will be plenty for most viewers. Our Roku review has more details on Netflix streaming.
Aside from Netflix the LG offers its own flavor of YouTube client that's superior to the Yahoo widget available on Samsung TVs, not to mention the other proprietary clients developed by Sony and Panasonic, but basically offers the same functionality. You can sign into your YouTube account, brose most recent, most viewed and top rated videos, search via an on-screen virtual keyboard using the TV remote (auto-fill of popular search terms is supported, thankfully) and sort by date. Like on those other TV clients, YouTube.com's "HD" category is absent and video quality is significantly worse, even with higher-quality non-HD videos, than on the web site. Unlike those clients no "continuous play" option is available to automatically move on to the next video in a category. Check out our look at YouTube on TV for more information.
The LG implementation of Yahoo widgets was much more responsive than on the Samsung and Sony TV's we've reviewed, even after we had downloaded all of the available widgets into the dock. Moving between snippets on the dock, navigating among individual widgets, and even loading the widget engine in the first place all moved much faster on the LH50 series than any of the four Samsung TVs we had on-hand. For that reason we found it the best widget experience we've tested so far. Check out our full review of Yahoo widgets for more information.
LG's remote is relatively disappointing. We found the cluster of similar buttons around the cursor control difficult to differentiate without constantly having to look down at them. A little illumination would have gone a long way. On the plus side it's easy to find the different-colored buttons for "Netcast" (for Netflix, YouTube, Yahoo widgets, and local photos and music streaming) and Widgets (for Yahoo widgets, again), and there's another prominent button labeled "Energy Saving" that directly accesses said control and a little energy saving graphic to provide enviro-geeks a warm fuzzy. The remote can't control other brands of gear directly with infrared commands.
The LG LH50 lacks any overt, eye-catching styling cues to set off its glossy black sheen. Its most remarkable external feature consists of the thin, transparent strip along the left and right edges of the frame. That frame rounds slightly along the top edge and is thicker below than above. A bump on the bottom right edge houses the blue-lit power indicator. The stand swivels and matches the panel with its glossy black.
LG's dejudder processing, called TruMotion by the company, is similar to past 120Hz and 240Hz displays, which force you to engage the smoothing effect of dejudder if you want to enjoy the benefits of reduced blurring. The 2009 models from Samsung and Toshiba, on the other hand, allow you to separate the two functions, an option we really prefer to have. The LH50 series offers two strengths of dejudder, Low and High, and also offers a separate "Real Cinema" function designed to work with 1080p/24 sources--although in our experience it was basically unwatchable.
Our favorite Expert option, first introduced by LG last year and still exclusive to the company, is a 10-point white-balance system that can really help get a more accurate grayscale. The company upped the ante for 2009, adding the capability to target a 2.2 gamma and internal test patterns.
Overall the LG LH50 series delivered solid picture quality, anchored by excellent color, but it fell short in the all-important black-level category. We also encountered a video processing issue that prevented the LG from properly handling 1080p/24 sources.