Samsung has its fingers in all kinds of TV technology pies, and although it's better known as a purveyor of DLP- and LCD-based HDTVs, the company still sells a tremendous number of plasmas. The HP-S5053 is the company's entry-level 50-inch flat-panel plasma, and if recent trends are any indication, it may prove just as popular--if not more so--than its 42-inch brother, the Samsung HP-S4253, which we reviewed in May. This 50-inch plasma is priced to compete with models such as the Panasonic TH-50PX60U, costs a few hundred bucks more than sets such as the LG 50PC3D and significantly more than the Vizio P50HDM, putting it into somewhat of a middle ground price-wise.
The Samsung HP-S5053's look can definitely turn heads when turned off, and its comprehensive collection of inputs will appeal to folks with lots of gear, but its image quality, despite delivering excellent black levels, isn't quite up to the state of the plasma art. That said, if you tend to watch your movies with the lights on or you sit far enough back to overlook a few artifacts, you'll probably have few complaints. The Samsung HP-S5053 looks exactly like the 42-inch HP-S4253, just bigger, and in person, it has a sleek, high-tech appeal that ranks up with the snazziest panels out there. Its large 50-inch screen is surrounded on all sides by glossy black cabinetry that measures 2.25 inches from the edge of the glass to the edge of the panel along the top and sides. The clean look extends a few more inches below the screen until it hits an angled strip of burnished silver. In a move sure to be imitated by other flat-panel TV makers, Samsung's designers hid the speakers above the angled section of the cabinet, rendering them completely invisible.
A glossy finish also coats the included, nonswiveling black stand. All told, the Samsung HP-S5053 measures 48.4 by 33.6 by 13.5 inches (HWD) atop the stand and weighs 96 pounds. Should you opt to wall-mount the panel, you'll want to know that its depth of 3.75 inches sans stand is about average, but since its inputs face straight back, it can't mount flush against the wall, unlike panels whose inputs face downward.
Samsung's remote is the same as those of other 2006 HDTVs, and it's an improvement over last year's controller. It offers a smarter button layout, better differentiation between the keys, and a longer, easier to hold shape. Although it still lacks backlighting, we appreciate its ability to control four other devices. The internal menu system looks the same on its other flat-panels. Although not as slick as the menu system from the company's 2006 DLPs, it's intuitive enough to navigate. We appreciated the ability to choose and rename inputs from the menu, as well as the helpful information explaining various menu items. Like most other 50-inch plasmas available today, the Samsung HP-S5043 has a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels. That's enough to display every detail of incoming 720p HDTV programs. All signals, whether HDTV, standard-definition TV, DVD, or computer, are scaled to fit the native resolution.
Samsung equipped its baseline 50-inch plasma with just about every feature you're likely to want, starting with picture-in-picture. Unlike some televisions, however, the HP-S5053's PIP only lets you watch the AV1 input when you have a PC as the main source, and it doesn't let you watch two HDMI sources simultaneously. The company did include an ATSC tuner for grabbing over-the-air high-def and digital TV stations, although like many TV manufacturers, this year it didn't include CableCard--we don't consider that a big loss.
Aspect-ratio selections range from just two choices with HDTV to four with standard-def--nothing spectacular, although we like that both extra standard-def ratios are zooms that let you adjust their vertical position on the screen, to make subtitles visible for example. There's also a function that freezes the whole screen.
The Samsung HP-S5043's array of picture controls is fine for a big-screen plasma, although we would have preferred it to have true independent input memories. However, there are four adjustable picture modes: Dynamic, Movie, Standard, and Custom. Since the set reverts to the last selected picture mode when you switch inputs, it's possible to set up four of the TV's inputs separately for different sources. Samsung includes a separate game mode, which increases color saturation, edge enhancement, and overall brightness for a more vibrant, less realistic look that some gamers might prefer. Fortunately, Samsung's DNIe processing, which introduces more edge enhancement, is defeatable (in Movie mode, you can't even turn it on). The company also includes noise-reduction and 2:3 pull-down circuits (see Performance for more).
Although burn-in is generally not a problem with plasmas used in the home, we like the fact that Samsung provides three methods of protection: pixel shift, which moves the image slightly over time around the screen; a scrolling white-to-black ramp; and a full white field. There are also two energy-saving modes: one that adjusts the brightness according to room lighting and another that limits peak brightness.
The Samsung HP-S5053 packs enough connectivity to satisfy just about anybody, starting with a pair of HDMI inputs and two component-video inputs. It also boasts a dedicated VGA-style PC input (1,360x768 is the recommended resolution); one A/V input with S-Video on the back and a second on the right side, along with a headphone jack; two RF antenna inputs; and both coaxial and optical digital audio outputs for use with the ATSC tuner. All told, we liked many aspects of the Samsung HP-S5053's image quality, including its excellent black levels and accurate color decoding, but its tendency to introduce too much noise and false contouring into many scenes was difficult to overlook.
One of the most impressive characteristics of the HP-S5053's picture is the depth of black it can achieve. We saw evidence of this when watching The Bourne Supremacy HD-DVD from our Toshiba HA-A1. When Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) walks out onto his Goa rooftop at night, the shadows in the distance, the night sky, and the letterbox bars all looked as inky as we've seen on any plasma, and deeper than on any other kind of non-CRT-based television we've reviewed in a long time.