LG presents one of its new range of plasma TVs, and we're very excited indeed. The 50-inch, 1080p 50PK590 has a waifer-thin bezel to accentuate the qualities of its screen -- and what a screen. Pictures from the built-in Freeview HD are stunning, and it has plenty more to offer too in terms of features
Before 1995, when LG was known as 'GoldStar', it wasn't exactly famed for making high-end products. Its rebranding as LG has seen it produce equipment of a much higher standard, but it still frequently takes us by surprise with how good many of its products are.
Now LG's presented us with one of its new range of plasma TVs, and we're very excited indeed. LG, you see, is one of only three companies making plasma TVs these days, and we're suckers for this technology. It offers deeper black levels and more modest brightness than LCD technology, and generally strong handling of standard-definition TV. The question is: does the 50-inch, 1080p 50PK590 have anything new to add to last year's model? It's available now for around £1,000.
Beauty and the bezel
After taking the 50PK590 out of the box, the first thing you notice is that it's quite heavy. A fairly weak adult male can lift it with few problems, but not very far. This is becoming unusual in TVs, which are generally getting lighter and lighter. The 50PK590 doesn't come with its stand attached, but it takes no time at all to knock it up yourself. There are just seven screws to fix, and you're ready to go.
The styling of the TV is a lovely surprise. LG has undertaken considerable work to reduce the size of the bezel surrounding the screen. Especially on the left and right of the screen, it's now down to waifer-thin proportions. Slim bezels really make a TV look fabulous, making the picture so much more prominent. We're thrilled to see LG continuing to improve on previous designs, because we understand it's quite an engineering challenge. LG calls this a 'Razor frame', and we heartily approve.
Scart dying a slow death
Turn the TV around, and you'll see the standard four HDMI sockets. You'll also notice the 50PK590 has only one Scart socket. It's good that this nasty, clunky port is being phased out, but if you have plenty of legacy equipment knocking around, it might inconvenience you. That said, if you're spending a grand on a TV and are still using VHS, you should probably reassess your priorities.
Lack of twin Scart sockets aside, there are component and VGA inputs to hook up computers and other high-definition analogue sources. There's also a digital audio out, for connecting the TV to your AV system, which we'll come back to.
THX for calibrating my TV
The nuts and bolts of this TV are, fortunately, amazing too -- we hate pretty TVs that don't have the performance to back it up. Firstly, the 50PK590 screen is THX-certified. That means it's been calibrated to get the most out of movies, and ensure the picture quality is as the director intended. Some claim it's not worth the hassle, but we welcome it, if only because it gives users a mode that will increase picture quality over and above the default. Also, anything that steers people away from using the 'dynamic' mode is a good thing.
The THX mode has two options -- either the standard 'movie' mode for the evening, or a setting that optimises the TV for bright rooms in daytime. If the THX mode doesn't impress you, the TV can be calibrated by an engineer certified by the Imaging Science Foundation. This will set you back about £200 and results in an image calibrated to your specific room -- something no default setting can offer. This is probably more worthwhile on a mid-range TV, such as this, than a higher-end set with better defaults, but you should weigh it up.
Fuss-free Freeview HD
Freeview HD is now officially launched and should be available for around 50 per cent of the country by the time the World Cup kicks off in June. The 50PK590 is one of the new models rushing on to the market with a built-in DVB-T2 tuner. Not much fuss is made about it, though -- the TV simply tunes itself in, and then, when you browse the channel list, you'll see BBC HD on channel 50, ITV1 HD on 51, and 4HD on 52.
The addition of Freeview HD makes the digital audio output we mentioned earlier even more important. Because HD channels can carry 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound, it would be a terrible shame if this TV couldn't send them to an amp to be decoded and passed to some decent speakers. Happily it can, and this feature is also useful for media playback, which we'll come to shortly.
Superior media support
Noticing the 50PK590's USB socket, we popped in our 8GB flash memory stick, pre-loaded with a variety of test clips. We were surpised to see almost all of them played flawlessly, including the MKV files with 720p and 1080p MPEG-4 video contained within them. The picture quality was good, and navigating through the files was as slick and speedy an experience as we've ever enjoyed -- even on stand-alone media players.
The TV can handle Dolby Digital audio with no problems at all, but it's not able to decode DTS sound, or the new lossless audio you might find on Blu-ray discs. That said, the vast majority of material out there uses Dolby Digital anyway.
As a feature we weren't really expecting, this is incredibly welcome, and it performs very well indeed. The TV can even handle video with a fairly high bit rate, which we've seen confuse the hell out of other similarly equipped media-playback devices. All in all, this handy feature gets a big thumbs up.
During our tests, we noticed there was plenty of impulse noise interference when watching Freeview. We don't know the cause, but it's not something that affected the Panasonic Viera TX-P37X20B Freeview HD TV we tested recently. It's possible this TV isn't as well insulated as the TX-P37X20B, or perhaps it's not as good in a low-signal area. Whatever the cause, we saw quite a few picture break-ups, which was irritating.
If you live in a low-signal area, you might want to invest in a signal booster or a new roof-top aerial before buying this TV.
For the most part, the 50PK590's audio was great -- comparitively. We have to attach our usual rider at this point, because bass is non-existent. This TV simply can't produce low-frequency sound at all, and any attempt to do so usually ends in tears. Our tears.
Still, we've said it a hundred times before. Don't buy a flat-panel TV for more than a grand without investing in your audio system. Even connecting up a TV to a stereo amp and speakers can yield some really amazing quality improvements. Give it a go, because built-in speakers are woeful, and we've heard that they make kittens cry.
We weren't sure we were going to like the picture quality of this TV. About 35 seconds into testing it however, we realised it was considerably better than we were expecting. Like most LG plasmas, there's a decent amount of pixel noise if you get really close to the screen. This is a plasma trait, in the same way poor black levels are associated with LCDs. In fact, noise like this doesn't have much of an impact on the picture quality at distances over a metre anyway.
We found the Freeview HD performance of this TV to be utterly superb. We loved the sharpness, which got the balance between nasty soft images and hideous over-sharpened nonsense just about right. Standard-def Freeview looked very good too, offering as much detail as the TV could possibly be expected to rescue from the low-quality broadcast images.
Blu-ray movies such as Casino Royale and District 9 looked totally stunning on this TV. We used the THX movie mode for most film viewing, and liked it a great deal. The colours are a little muted, as you generally find with movie modes, but the detail was stunning, and the images still looked wonderfully vivid.
What are you still doing sitting there? If this TV is on your shortlist, and you're here to find out if we think you should buy one, the answer is a resounding yes. This is a terrific piece of hardware, and we've utterly loved our time with it. It's good value, at around £1,000 online, and we think it's one of the best TVs we've seen this year. Top-notch work from LG.
Edited by Nick Hide