Judging from the latest prices, 2006 looks like the year that plasmas will have to compete against LCDs on something other than cost. The Samsung LN-S4051D is the typical challenger from the LCD camp, with its 40-inch screen and a price commensurate with that of 42-inch plasmas. While the two flat-panel technologies each have their strengths and weaknesses, in general, we've found that the best plasmas outperform the best LCDs, and that maxim holds true for the Samsung LN-S4051D. However, this relatively well-featured panel still has a lot going for it, including one of the most stylish exteriors on the market. The Samsung LN-S4051D is without a doubt one of the most elegant-looking televisions we've seen. Samsung dressed its LCD entirely in glossy black, surrounding the wide screen with a 1.5-inch frame on all sides. In a unique touch, the top and side edges are rounded off, and the slick fuselage extends around to the back of the panel--this is one set that will look good from behind, too. Below the screen, Samsung kept the distinctive V shape, and the bottom lip of the V, colored a lighter shade of bluish-black, opens up subtly to allow audio from the hidden speakers to emanate into the room.
The included manual swivel stand is likewise finished in glossy black, and its oval shape lends the whole set another dose of distinction. The LN-S4051D measures 39 by 28 by 12.8 inches (WHD) and weighs 50 pounds with the stand attached; its depth is 3.42 inches without the stand.
Samsung finally updated its remote, and the 2006 model is a big improvement on its predecessor. While still not backlit, the thinner, longer, black-topped clicker has a well-thought-out button arrangement, with plenty of differentiation among the keys. The thumb falls naturally to the cursor control for navigating menus, and directly below are a few favorite shortcut keys--picture, sound, and aspect-ratio modes, plus the freeze command--in different colors. The remote can operate four other devices. The internal menu system looks the same as ever. We found it intuitive to navigate and appreciated the ability to choose inputs, as well as the helpful information explaining various menu items. As with most LCD TVs, the 40-inch Samsung LN-S4051D has a native resolution of 1,366x768, which is enough pixels to deliver every detail of 720p HDTV sources. All sources, including HDTV, DVD, standard TV, and computers, are scaled to fit the native resolution.
Well equipped as LCDs go, the Samsung has most of the important convenience features. There's an ATSC tuner onboard, although you'll need to step up to the LN-S4096D if you want CableCard. The picture-in-picture function offers both inset and side-by-side options, and while you can watch a couple of sources from the A/V inputs simultaneously with a PC source, many other combinations are forbidden. Aspect-ratio controls include four modes with standard-def sources, including an adjustable zoom, and just two (side-bar 4:3 and full-screen 16:9) with HD sources.
Picture-affecting features start with the four preset picture modes: Dynamic, Standard, Movie, and Custom, all of which can be adjusted. Unfortunately, despite what the manual says, the adjustments can't be keyed to different inputs--Movie's settings are the same on both HDMI 1 and HDMI 2, for example--so you can set up a total of only four modes for different sources. The LN-S4051D still allows a good deal of adjustment but not as much as if it had true independent input memories. Samsung also touts its Game mode for this year. This separate picture mode--located, for whatever reason, in the setup as opposed to the picture menu--increases light output, obscures shadow detail, oversaturates colors, and adds edge enhancement. These effects might please the eyes of some gamers, but they don't help the picture look more realistic.
The company got rid of its strange custom color mode from last year, sticking instead with the basics: a solid five color-temperature presets, a setting called Film mode that engages 2:3 pull-down detection, and a noise-reduction feature that didn't seem to clean up much noise at all during our tests. The company's DNIe processing doesn't seem as obnoxious as it did last year; you still can't turn it off, and it does appear to introduce edge enhancement but not as much as we expected. Finally, there's a setting to reduce energy consumption that actually controls the intensity of the backlight, which has a big effect on black level performance. We found the "high" setting produced the deepest level of black.
Around back, you'll find there's been a connectivity trade-off. While we welcome the pair of HDMI inputs, we couldn't help but notice that there's only one component-video input. We appreciated the dedicated VGA input for PCs (1,360x768 is the recommended resolution), which is joined by a single A/V input with S-Video. An additional A/V input with S-Video can be found on the side of the television.