Samsung's daunting lineup of flat-panel HDTVs includes seemingly endless permutations of sizes, resolutions, and styles, but the LN-S4096D is near the top in terms of price, features, and specs. This 40-inch set boasts a native resolution of 1080p, the highest available today, and its other features and overall appearance are likewise upper-crust. For the most part its image quality lives up to its high-end billing, and although it doesn't quite eclipse that of the best flat-panel LCDs we've tested, it's still among the best LCDs we've seen yet. The Samsung LN-S4096D looks slick and high-tech with its rectangular glossy-black frame. Unlike its step-down brother, the LN-S4051D, the 96D's frame is standard rectangular fare, although the snazzy stand adds some zing with its oblong shape and narrow-waist post. While we like the swivel, our favorite design element is the clear plastic strip hung below the frame and running the width of the panel. It not only lends a subtle classiness to the TV, it serves a practical purpose by deflecting sound from the bottom-mounted, tastefully concealed speakers out into the room.
Mounted atop the stand, which allows the set to swivel 20 degrees in either direction, the LN-S4096D measures 39.1 by 12.8 by 27.4 inches (WHD) and weighs 24.5 pounds. The panel itself measures a svelte 3.6 inches deep.
The remote is the same as those of other Samsung TVs we've reviewed this year. The midsize black wand lacks any kind of illumination and looks unremarkable, although we found the major controls easy enough to manipulate. We also like the ability to control other devices but expect many users to replace this staid clicker with a universal model.
The LN-S4096D gets the same well-designed albeit poky menu system found on the HL-S5679W. It's oriented along the bottom, as opposed to taking up the middle of the screen, and options pop up in various categories--picture, sound, and so on--when you move over them. Make a selection, and text appears in the upper-left corner of the screen explaining the item's function. The best part is the menu map, which places all of the menu items on one page for easy lookup. We also like the ability to rename inputs. Unfortunately, the menu responds relatively sluggishly. It probably won't be an issue under most circumstances, but if you're making a lot of adjustments, it can become frustrating. The Samsung LN-S4096D separates itself from other 40-something flat-panel LCDs, such as the company's own LN-S4051D, by virtue of its 1,920x1,080 native resolution, which qualifies it as a 1080p display. All those pixels enable it to display every detail of 1080i and 1080p sources. All other sources, including DVD, standard-def TV, and computers, are scaled to fit the native resolution.
Conveniences abound on this top-of-the-line LCD, beginning with its picture-in-picture option. If you want to skip the cable box, this set is equipped with a CableCard slot, although you'll also miss the box's amenities, which usually include an EPG and often a DVR (the Samsung lacks a third-party EPG such as TV Guide). There's also the requisite ATSC tuner for receiving over-the-air HDTV. Other conveniences include freeze-frame and a USB port on the side panel for displaying JPEG digital photos and playing MP3 music from thumbdrives.
The LN-S4096D offers a solid array of picture tweaks, too, beginning with its four picture presets (Movie, as usual, offered the best home-theater image quality) that can all be adjusted. We were disappointed that you can't make different adjustments to the modes for each input, however; the contrast setting will be the same for HDMI1 as it is for HDMI2 in Movie mode, for example. There are five color temperature presets, with Warm coming closest to the broadcast standard; a DNiE setting that we preferred to leave off; a noise reduction circuit that did an average job of cleaning up low-quality sources; and a Film Mode that successfully implemented 2:3 pull-down detection. The setup menu also contains a few picture-affecting items, including a four-step Energy Saver mode that controls the backlight (see below) and a Game Mode designed to eliminate the possibility of delay between a game controller and the onscreen action. It also made the picture look less realistic to our eyes.
On the back of the LN-S4096D you'll find one of the more complete input bays available in an LCD. Two HDMI inputs head up the list, and they could both accept 1080p/60 signals from our Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray player, although not the much less common 1080p/24 signals from our HD signal generator. There's also a pair of component-video inputs, as well as a VGA-style PC input that accepts up to 1,920x1,080 resolution. A pair of IEEE-1394 ports is available as well, although there are few devices that take advantage of them--namely D-VHS decks and some set-top boxes. There's a pair of RF inputs for cable and antenna sources, one A/V input with composite and S-video, and an A/V output with composite video only. The side panel incorporates the USB port as well as a second A/V input with composite and S-Video. Overall the LN-S4096D delivered very good performance for an LCD, although not quite as good as the best we've seen so far, Sony's KDS-40XBR2. The Samsung's black-level performance was outstanding after proper adjustment, and colors were fairly accurate, although inconsistent grayscale tracking and improper green color decoding are among its flaws.
Before watching settling in to watch a movie, we set up the Samsung LN-S4096D for viewing in a darkened room, and as usual during the course of tweaking the picture, we noticed a few things. First off, the Energy Saver control in the Setup menu acts as a backlight control, just like with the LN-S4051D and the LN-S3251D we reviewed earlier. In the case of the LN-S4096D, we found that taking the backlight all the way down, which translates to setting Energy Saver to High, improved black-level performance significantly and still kept enough light output (around 33 footlamberts) for our tastes and viewing environment. We also noticed that even in the ideal Movie mode/Warm color temperature setting, the Samsung's grayscale was very inconsistent, tending toward not enough green in light and dark areas and too much green in the middle. We calibrated it using the service menu, but the results were still disappointing (see the geek box below). For our full user-menu settings, click the Tips & Tricks tab above.