Panasonic and Samsung plasma TVs have run very close in our comparisons this year, with a slight advantage in picture quality going to team Panasonic, and a slight features advantage to camp Samsung. That's again the case in the midrange category, where the 3D- and Smart TV-equipped Samsung PNE550 series faces off directly against the similarly specced and priced Panasonic TC-PUT50 series.
I give the nod to the Panasonic by virtue of its deeper black levels and slightly better bright-room picture, but the Samsung has its own advantages. It gains an edge in the sophistication of its Smart TV platform -- especially if you don't mind sacrificing Amazon video for HBO Go -- and its inclusion of two pairs of 3D glasses. If you're like me you'll value the UT50's merits a bit more, but the Samsung E550 is still a very good television that should please plenty of plasma fans.
Samsung's Smart Hub interface tends toward crowded and overwhelming. You can only customize the bottom half, and even then many of the icons can't be deleted. While response time could be speedy, I occasionally encountered hitches and balkiness (in my experience the dual-core Samsung sets aren't much better). I prefer the simpler look and customization of Panasonic's interface, for example, but there's no denying that Samsung's is more advanced.
With the exception of Google TV, Samsung's Smart TV platform is the most content-rich and capable on the market. Its big Achilles' heel, aside from its cluttered interface, is lack of Amazon Instant, a service found on Panasonic, Sony, and Vizio TVs, but not LG's this year. Otherwise the available content is superb.
Samsung offers just about every other mainstream non-Amazon video service, as well as numerous niche video options like TMZ, The Daily, AOL On, Digital Theatre, Demand the Outdoors, Samsung's MediaHub, and a 3D-specific app (the latter two with little worthwhile content compared with mainstream options). We're also happy to see the newly added vTuner Internet radio app join Pandora and subscription music via Mog.
Other offerings include a 3D photos app, images from National Geographic, MTV Music Meter, and ESPN ScoreCenter, as well as umpteen less-impressive paid and free games, educational apps, screensavers, and so on. The E550 lacks the cloud gaming app (currently in closed beta) found on higher-end Samsungs.
Samsung also has a few relatively rich proprietary apps, like Family Story, which is a way to "share photos, memos, and family events stored in the cloud," Fitness and Kids (both with custom VOD), and a Social TV app combining Facebook, Twitter, and Google Talk in a bar alongside live TV. There's also an AllShare Play app that manages DLNA and USB media files and can also grab files from the cloud.
Although very good overall, especially compared with just about every 2012 LED TV, the images produced by the PNE550 can't quite beat those of its closest plasma competition, Panasonic's UT50 and U50 televisions. Its black levels are solid but not in the same league as the Panasonics, and unlike the UT50 it can't properly convey 1080p/24 film cadence. Color is its strongest suit while bright-room picture is weakest, and its mediocre 3D picture won't distinguish it much in this category.