There was a time when LCD TVs had a very distinct and clear lead over plasma TVs. Happily Pioneer and Panasonic have done a massive amount to improve plasma technology over the last two years, and the problems of the past -- daft panel resolutions, murky blacks, nasty sparkles on dark areas -- have either been reduced to virtually nothing or banished totally.
So when LG offered to send its new 50-inch plasma, we were very interested. At £1,000 it's considerably cheaper than the Pioneer of the same size, and is a decent saving on the Panasonic, especially when you consider that the LG includes a Freeview+ PVR (formerly known as Freeview Playback). Let's take a closer look at the TV, its features and how it performs and decide if it's worth the cash.
First off, the LG is a lovely looking TV. The front is finished with a large panel of plastic that covers the whole screen. The plasma panel itself is recessed slightly and when the TV is off, the whole thing looks like one big slab of darkness. It's very cool indeed, and the TV itself is incredibly thin, too. The only distractions on the front of the TV are the power button and LG logo -- there are no other connections or hidden flaps, and there aren't even any visible speakers.
The remote control is one of the newer models, meaning it's pleasant to look at and easy to use. Getting around the TVs menu system is easy, and all of the buttons are a decent size, so those with larger fingers will get on fine.
At the back of the TV there is, as you'd imagine, a good selection of inputs including two HDMI sockets -- a third is located about an inch away on the side of the TV. You also get component, VGA and a pair of Scart sockets. For audio you get an optical digital output, which can obviously be connected to an AV receiver, sound bar or 2.1 system.
The whole shebang comes on a weighty stand, but obviously wall mounting is an option too, as long as you've got walls made out of something real -- no plywood or cardboard-based materials, please.
Admittedly, this TV doesn't have a 1080p panel, which means if you're only interested in the latest and greatest this won't be for you. That said, we maintain that you can get a staggeringly good picture from a 720p set, and if you're looking to save a few quid you would probably be very happy with a good HD-ready TV.
What this TV loses in resolution it makes up for with its main selling point: the built-in Freeview+ recorder, which has 160GB of storage -- more than enough to record plenty of your favourite TV programmes. Of course there are advantages and disadvantages to built-in recorders. The most obvious downside is that if it breaks, you're going to be in a tricky position. On the plus side, though, it saves power, reduces clutter and makes recording programmes incredibly simple.
The first time we turned on the TV we reset it to factory conditions and re-tuned the digital channels. Our first impression of the picture quality was disappointing. The Freeivew picture was awful -- far too bright and with colours that might look okay in a cartoon, but in no way accurately reflect real life.
Luckily some tweaking improved the situation considerably. Switching from the dreaded 'dynamic' mode -- when has that setting ever not been trouble? -- soon made us happier. Colours were more natural and brightness was reduced to a level that ensured our corneas would live to see another day.
We also want to note at this point that the 50PG6900 retains an image rather too easily. We left the TV on a channel with an interactive banner showing. When we returned there was a silhouette of the box left on the screen. Although image retention is no problem long-term, it's still annoying when you're trying to watch something, and it does raise questions about the screen's ability to resist permanent burn in.
Freeview suffered a lot of noise -- of course we aren't pretending that the Freeview signal looks great on any large TV, but other TVs, such as our reference Pioneer PDP-LX5090 do a much better job of processing the signal and smoothing out the rough edges. The LG struggles with MPEG artefacts and random noise. On areas of solid colour we noticed that the TV made the picture look very blocky. Also, there were distinct solarisation artefacts that made the picture look like it had been altered in Photoshop by someone who had just found the effects palette.
Plugging in our PS3 yielded a surprise though. Games such as Ridge Racer 7 looked incredibly detailed with wonderful, vivid colours and decent motion with minimal blur. We suspect that the same thing that makes Freeview unbearable is what gives games that ultra-bright and colourful look, making them look wonderful.
HD material from Blu-ray did look very good. 21, the remarkable movie about blackjack, was stuffed full of detail, proving that you don't have to buy a 1080p TV to see movies in amazing quality. We noticed there was some noise on the panel and sometimes we noticed that skin tones looked unnatural and had some faint solarisation artefacts.
One point of interest is that this TV uses LG's older menu system, which is neither as pretty nor as simple to use as the one on newer sets. It's a small point, but the new look and feel would have improved this set, especially considering the Freeview recorder functionality, which feels almost sidelined as a result of bad user interface design.
We'll end our look over this TV with some real praise. The built-in Freeview+ system is really very good. Recording a programme is as simple as pressing the right button while you're browsing through the EPG. We programmed ten recordings in about a minute and when we came back to the TV the next day, everything was recorded perfectly. Watching recordings was simply a matter of entering the menu and selecting the show we wanted to view.
The built-in PVR is great, the HD picture quality is decent and the black levels are very impressive indeed. Sadly the picture on Freeview is awful most of the time, and there are enough picture distortions to make watching things on this screen anything but ideal.
You don't have to spend a lot more than £1,000 to get a good plasma TV. You might have to drop some inches, but take a look at Panasonic's whole PDP line-up -- all of the screens from the low-end 720p models up to the 1080p freesat models are brilliant performers, and sensibly priced.
Edited by Marian Smith