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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. Click here for more information.
When it was announced at CES 2009, the LG PS80 series of plasma TVs earned one of our three nominations for Best of CES in the TV category. We've already reviewed the other two sets--Panasonic's G10 plasmas and Vizio's VF551XVT LED-based LCD--and both scored higher than the PS80. It's not that we're disappointed in the interactive features that originally caused us to nominate the LG. Those include built-in Netflix streaming, which is still an LG exclusive (at least until Sony turns its own version on, or Samsung or Vizio step up), Yahoo Widgets, and YouTube capability. LG has also added the high-definition eye candy of Vudu's on-demand video rental service. Those interactive add-ons work great, and combine with LG's customary picture adjustment prowess they comprise the most impressive features list seen on any plasma this year.
Unfortunately for the PS80, its picture quality impressed us less. Its lighter black levels are the main culprit, abetted by it below-par video processing and even minor image retention--all areas that other plasma TVs outperform the LG. On the other hand, its color accuracy is still very good, and of course, it has the off-angle fidelity of plasma that easily trounces any LCD. Armed with superb style and that stellar features list, the LG PS80 might still appeal to people willing to focus less on picture quality than on built-in content options.
We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 50-inch LG 50PS80, but this review also applies to the 60-inch LG 60PS80. The two share identical specs aside from screen size and should exhibit very similar picture quality.
Editors' note: Many of the Design and Features elements are identical between the PS80 series and the LH50 series we reviewed, so readers of the earlier review may experience some deja vu when reading some sections of this review.
Trailing only the ultrathin, premium-priced models available from other TV makers, namely the Panasonic Z1 and the Samsung PNB850/860, the LG PS80 series takes a respectable bronze medal in plasma styling this year. Its coolest exterior characteristic, a single pane of glass that covers the entire screen and extends a fraction of an inch beyond the top and sides, unifies the whole design in a way that easily out-sleeks the similarly single-paned Panasonic TC-PV10 series. It has an extremely subtle, transparent blue coloring and thin chrome colored strip along the bottom, hidden speakers, a glossy black frame, and a matching chrome-and-black stand (yes, it swivels) complete the LG's uncannily futuristic look.
LG's remote control is relatively disappointing. We found the cluster of similar buttons around the cursor control difficult to differentiate without constantly having to look 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, Vudu, YouTube, Yahoo Widgets, and home network content) and Widgets (for Yahoo widgets, again), and there's another prominent button labeled "Energy Saving" that directly accesses the control and a little energy saving graphic to provide enviro-geeks a warm fuzzy feeling. The remote can't control other brands of gear directly with infrared commands.
The menu system is quite extensive, so the easy-access quick menu for aspect ratio, picture and sound modes, the timer, and other oft-used functions, is welcome. The main menu is laid out the same as last year with the addition of a new onscreen "simple manual" that provides basic setup and function information. One miscue: we'd really like to see explanations of menu items appear onscreen, too--especially since many of them are so advanced.
Interactive capability: At the time of writing this review, the PS80 plasma and LH50 LCD series by LG are the only TVs on the market with built-in Netflix streaming. Of course, you can get the service on other external devices such as the Xbox 360, TiVo HD, Roku player, and a few Blu-ray players, but these LG sets build it right in.
For the uninitiated, Netflix "Watch Instantly" video streaming lets Netflix subscribers immediately watch movies and TV shows from the service's catalog for no additional fees. Its selection of titles is more restricted than the normal mail-order service and generally excludes new, major name releases; however, there are still thousands of titles available to watch. You must select titles to watch 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. It flawlessly loaded our Watch Instantly queue from the Netflix Web site, and when we selected new movies and TV shows for our queue, the titles would appear almost instantly for access on the TV.
As usual, streaming 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 doesn't let you adjust any of the picture parameters beyond the presets for the various picture modes. In other words, you can select the Expert 1 mode, but can't adjust it beyond the presets. That said, you still get more control of the picture than you do on Yahoo Widgets' current video players, such as YouTube, 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 added access to Vudu's library of video-on-demand titles. Vudu's claim to fame is high-definition, and in our tests, its picture quality was indeed superb--much better than anything on Netflix, for example. We compared the Blu-ray Disc of "The Orphan" with the HDX rental version on Vudu and it was difficult to tell the difference. With the Vudu version, we saw slightly softer details in some areas, such as the woven pattern on the back of the chairs in the nun's office, and the face of Max as she greets her parents upon their return from the orphanage, but we had to look hard to find it. Vudu's picture adjustment limitations are the same as for Netflix, and we like that the Vudu service was a cinch to use.
Of course, Vudu's downside is cost: "Orphan," typical of new releases on Vudu, costs $5.99 to rent the HDX version for 24 hours, $4.99 for the lower-quality high-definition version, and $3.99 for the standard-definition version. Buying the right to watch it anytime costs $19.99. Prices vary between $1 and $6 for other TV shows and movies, and it's all a-la-carte at the moment. Given the service's great video quality, we'd love to see some kind of subscription pricing.
For more information, check out the review of the Vudu set-top box. It behaves like the service on the LG aside from one important difference: videos are streamed to the TV, whereas the box has a hard drive that downloads them beforehand, eliminating any potential network hiccups. To get the most out of Vudu on your LG TV, we definitely recommend a reliable, fast Internet connection.
LG also packs in its own version of YouTube client that's similar to the Yahoo Widget available on Samsung TVs, not to mention the proprietary clients developed by Sony and Panasonic. You can sign into your YouTube account; browse most recent, most viewed, and top rated videos; search via an onscreen 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'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, but in generally we really liked LG's YouTube implementation. Check out our look at YouTube on TV for more information.
The LG TV also includes Yahoo Widgets. At the time of testing, it offered fewer widgets than Samsung sets, but has significantly more than Sony, although we expect those differences to even out in time (but naturally we don't expect LG to get the YouTube widget, for example, since the company built its own client). The PS80's complement includes Yahoo's original news, weather, finance, and Flickr widgets, Yahoo video, Yahoo sports, USA Today sports, Twitter, and the of Quizzmaster, Sudoku, and Texas Hold 'em.
LG's implementation of Yahoo Widgets was 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 PS80 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.
Finally, like many current TVs, the LG PS80 can stream photos, music, and video from networked PCs in the home as well as from thumbdrives connected to its USB port. We didn't test this feature.
It's notable that the PS80, like other interactive TVs, doesn't include a wireless capability; if you want to clip the Ethernet cable, you'll have to add your own wireless bridge.
Other features: Among all of those interactive options, it's worth remembering that the PS80 is also a full-featured HDTV. However, notably missing is the capability to consistently reproduce the proper cadence 1080p/24 content, a capability found on the Panasonic V10 plasmas and all of the Samsung plasmas this year (as well as numerous 120Hz and 240Hz LCD screens). See the performance section for details.
The picture controls on the PS80 series surpass most of the competition. LG included even more adjustments than last year, starting with a well thought out Picture Wizard that uses internal test patterns to help you perform basic calibrations of the controls for brightness, contrast, color, tint, horizontal and vertical sharpness, and backlight. Once you've finished, your settings are saved to the Expert1 picture memory slot for your choice of inputs.
The PS80 series includes a THX picture preset not available on lower-end models. Unlike THX on Panasonic TVs such as the TC-PV10 series, the THX settings on the LG cannot be adjusted at all. Each of the other six picture modes slots is adjustable independent per input, and we appreciated that all of them, aside from the two Expert slots, indicate whether they're in the default settings. Advanced controls abound in even the nonexpert modes, with three color temperature presets, settings for dynamic contrast and color, noise reduction, three levels of gamma, a black level control, wide and standard color spaces and a film mode setting to control 2:3 pull-down detection.
Those Expert modes, which bear the logo and the input of the Imaging Science Foundation, offer scads of additional controls. The most remarkable, introduced by LG last year and still exclusive to the company, is a 20-point white balance system (with twice as many adjustments as LG's other sets--although the word "overkill" seems appropriate in this case) designed to help get a more accurate grayscale. Unfortunately, in the case of the PS80 the system didn't work well enough to be useful, so we ended up using the standard two-point system instead (see Performance).
The company includes internal test patterns and even color filters for blue-only, green-only, and red-only to help set color balance. A full color management system is also on-tap, and we love the capability apply Expert settings to all inputs or just one at a time. Of course, most of these settings will appeal only to pro calibrators and HDTV geeks; but either way, LG's 2009 models offer the most complete suite of user-menu picture adjustments we've seen on any HDTV to date.
LG's green energy saving button, prominently placed at the top of the remote, provides quick access to the three power saver modes that step down the set's maximum light output to save power, and a fourth that incorporates a room lighting sensor that adjusts output depending on ambient light.
The PS80 series is missing a picture-in-picture feature, but does provide plenty of aspect-ratio control, including five modes or use with HD sources and four with standard-def. Two modes are adjustable zooms, and there's a "set by program" mode designed to automatically choose the correct aspect ratio setting based on the signal. We recommend using the Just Scan mode with 1080i and 1080p material, which assures zero overscan and proper 1:1 pixel matching for this 1080p display.
LG also throws in a few ways to combat temporary image retention or burn-in, which it calls "image sticking." There's a pixel orbiter that moves the entire image slightly over time, as well as two modes--one that whites out the screen and one that alternates white and color--to remove image sticking should it occur. These modes could prove useful if you encounter the same kind of retention we did.
Connectivity options are fairly extensive on the PS80, beginning with four total HDMI ports, three on the back and one on the side. The back panel also offers two component-video inputs, an AV input with composite video, a RF input for antenna or cable, an RGB-style analog PC input, an optical digital audio output, and an RS-232 port for custom installations. In addition to the fourth HDMI port, the side panel has a second AV input with composite video and a USB port for display of digital photos and playback of MP3 music files. Our one connectivity complaint is its lack of S-Video inputs.
While its image quality has a few strengths, namely in the color category, the LG PS80 series fell short of the high bar set by other plasmas this year. It lacks the deep black levels and 1080p/24 compatibility seen on other plasma TVs, and exhibited the kind of image retention we rarely see anymore.
As we mentioned, when we attempted our standard calibration with the 20-point IRE system, it didn't work as well as it has in the past. The main problem we observed was that TV's color temperature fluctuated more than normal, swinging as much as a few hundred Kelvin in darker areas, so homing in on a target using the 20-point system's myriad controls was extremely frustrating and ultimately fruitless. Perhaps color temperature would stabilize if we left it running for a hundred hours or so during a break-in period, but an extended break-in is not currently part of our testing regimen.
In the end, we decided to calibrate using the less accurate two-point system that improved on the default settings, but still was not as accurate as what we've achieved on past LG models. The PS80's grayscale after calibration was less flat than we'd like, tending toward green in midbright areas for example, and we would have loved to use the more-exact system to tune it further. The two-point system also couldn't improve gamma much beyond the 2.05 of default Expert; we ended up at 2.08 versus the ideal of 2.2.
We also checked out the Picture Wizard and after we completed the onscreen prompts, we ended up with settings that came quite close to the default for Expert mode. However, those settings did not translate perfectly according to our external test patterns--black level was too high. Still, the wizard can provide a good education to viewers unfamiliar with the basic functions of picture controls.
For our comparison, we lined up the LG PS80 next to competing plasmas such as the Panasonic TC-P50V10, the Samsung PN50B650, along with our reference Pioneer PRO-111FD. We also incorporated a couple of LCDs, namely the Samsung LN52B750, the Sony KDL-52XBR9, and the LG 47LH50. For the majority of our image quality tests, we checked out "Orphan" on Blu-ray Disc.
Black levels: Compared with most of the other TVs in our lineup, the 50PS80 produced a more washed out shade of black. In very dark scenes, such as the beginning of Chapter 20 when Esther enters the workshop to put her arm in the vice, the black areas and shadows appeared lighter than on any of the other sets aside from LG's LH50 LCD. The difference was also clearly visible in mixed scenes, such as Chapter 5 with the walls of the dark orphanage visible against the brighter light outside, and as usual became less obvious in predominantly bright scenes. In the PS80's favor, its blacks remained steady regardless of changes in brightness in the rest of the image.
The LG's shadow detail didn't obscure any dim objects, but was a bit less-realistic than on the other displays. Details were a bit brighter than on our reference, for example, an issue we attribute to the LG's lighter gamma in dark scenes.
Color accuracy: While not quite in the same league as other LG HDTVs we've tested recently, the PS80 fared well in color accuracy tests and remained among the more accurate sets in our lineup. Skin tones, such as the pale faces of Esther and Kate as they meet for the first time, looked natural and not too rosy-cheeked. The slight green we measured in the LG's grayscale didn't impinge on the warmth of skin tones and other delicate colors in most scenes. As usual, we noticed that lighter black levels hurt saturation somewhat, although bright colors on the LG, such as Chapter 9 with Esther and Katz in the garden, still appeared relatively lush, if not as good as on the other plasma sets.
Primary and secondary colors were superb, as evinced by the green and yellow of the garden plants and the reddish-orange of the steps. We also appreciated that the dark areas of the LG's picture appeared relatively neutral, as opposed to bluish like the LCD screens.
Video processing: The PS80 fell short of the competition in this arena. As we mentioned at the top it couldn't consistently pass our test for proper handling of 1080p/24 sources. That test consists of watching the helicopter flyover of the Intrepid from "I Am Legend," which should pass under the camera smoothly yet with the steady cadence of film. Instead, we occasionally saw the characteristic halting cadence indicative of 2:3 pull-down. Of the four times we performed the test, the LG passed twice and failed twice. Suffice to say it can neither match the consistency of the other 24p-capable plasmas we've tested this year, nor similar 120Hz and 240Hz LCD models.
According to LG's Web site, its plasmas use "600Hz subfield driving," which sounds like the 600Hz subfield drive used by Panasonic on its plasma TV, but the two didn't give the same results in our test. The LG delivered between 800 lines and 900 lines of resolution, which is similar to what we saw on the Samsung plasma but less than on the Panasonic TV--which resolved the full 1080 lines. However, LG's number is still very good, and, as usual, we suspect that even the most blur-sensitive viewers won't notice a difference with regular program material. The PS80 series properly deinterlaced both video- and film-based material, although the latter required us to turn on the set's film mode.
Uniformity: We normally skip this section with plasma TVs, since they most always have perfect screen uniformity and off-angle viewing characteristics. The PS80 did as well, aside from its higher incidence of temporary image retention, aka burn-in, compared with other plasma TVs we've tested this year. When we left an image paused onscreen for 30 seconds or more, we could often observe trace signs of it immediately afterward, especially in flat fields. On the other hand, the traces disappeared quickly in every case, even extended, paused test patterns, so we don't consider it a deal-breaker.
Bright lighting: Under strong overhead lights and with bright windows facing the screen, the LG PS80 was among the worse performers in our lineup. It didn't attenu