Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
Plasma HDTVs seem almost passe these days, but in our experience they still produce generally better images than LCDs. The mid-price 50-inch Samsung PN50A550 reviewed here provides a typical example of what plasma can do right. Its color accuracy is superb, it produces a very clean image, and like all plasmas, its picture is much more uniform than that of any LCD. Home theater sticklers seeking the darkest black levels available will probably want to look at another plasma model, but for those whose hearts aren't set on LCD, the Samsung PN50A550 will definitely satisfy.
The classically attractive PN50A550 looks almost exactly like last year's FP-T5084, although it's a tiny bit taller and narrower overall due to the sliverlike hidden speakers mounted along the bottom of the panel as opposed to the sides. The frame is entirely gloss-black, about average thickness for a plasma (heavier plasmas can't achieve the thin bezels found on lighter LCDs), and there's a defeatable blue accent light below the Samsung logo. The pedestal stand allows a modest swivel range.
Including the stand, the Samsung PN50A550 measures 48.5 inches wide by 32.7 inches tall by 12.6 inches deep and weighs 91.3 pounds, while when divested of stand it comes in at 48.5 by 30.3 by 3.8 inches and 82.5 pounds. It's compatible with the company's motorized, articulated wall-mount, model PN50A550S1F ($1,999 list), as well as third-party mounts.
Samsung redesigned its remotes for 2008, and for the most part we like the new clicker better. The buttons are larger and every one is backlit, and we like the dedicated Tools menu that offers quick access to picture and sound modes, the sleep timer, and the picture-in-picture controls. We're not so fond of the glossy black finish, however, which became a grimy fingerprint magnet after a few minutes in our (admittedly grimy) hands.
The redesign extended to the menu system, which is sleeker than before and blessed with big, highly legible text set against transparent backgrounds that occupy almost the whole screen. Getting around is easy, there's helpful explanatory text along the bottom, and we dug the context-sensitive menu that would pop up occasionally to provide more options. Overall, it's one of the best-designed and most-attractive menu systems we've seen on any HDTV, and it really makes setup a breeze--except the confusing picture mode arrangement (see below).
The P50A550 has one of the more-complete feature sets available today among plasma TVs. A native resolution of 1,920x1,080 (aka 1080p) distinguishes the PN50A550 from a few of the less-expensive 50-inch plasmas out there, but in 2008 this feature is just about standard. Not that it matters; even at 50 inches, it's nearly impossible to appreciate the difference between 1080p and lesser resolutions (see Performance).
Samsung added a few more picture tweaks to its already large selection, but we'll start with the basics. The PN50A550 has three adjustable picture modes that are each independent per input. That's great, but in addition there are three more picture presets, called "Entertainment Modes," that cannot be adjusted and are accessible via a separate key on the remote and the Setup menu. This arrangement is unnecessarily confusing on a TV with a zillion settings anyway; we'd prefer to have all of the picture modes, both adjustable and nonadjustable, be accessible together from a single key on the remote and one area of the Picture menu. Also, if you're in Entertainment mode, you're prevented from making picture adjustments--or even selecting one of the adjustable picture modes--until you actively cancel an Entertainment mode by navigating to the setup menu (which the onscreen instructions suggest) or toggling the mode to Off using the remote. That's an awkward hitch in an otherwise smooth menu design.
In addition to the standard picture controls, there's an additional one called Cell Light that affects overall light output. It seems superfluous to add yet another control, especially since Contrast can serve the same purpose, and unlike the backlight control on an LCD, Cell Light does not affect black-level performance. Others include five color temperature presets along with the ability to fine-tune color using the white-balance menu; three varieties of noise reduction, including an automatic setting; a film mode to engage 2:3 pull-down (it also works with 1080i sources); a seven-position gamma control that affects the TV's progression from dark to light; a dynamic contrast control that adjusts the picture on the fly; a "black adjust" control that affects shadow detail; and a new color space control that lets you tweak the Samsung's color gamut. See the Performance section below for more details.
You can choose from four aspect-ratio modes for HD sources, two of which allow you to move the whole image across the screen horizontally and/or vertically. As we'd expect from a 1080p TV, one of those modes, called Just Scan, lets the PN50A550P scale 1080i and 1080p sources directly to the panel's pixels with no overscan--the best option unless you see interference along the edge of the screen, as can be the case with some channels or programs. There are also four modes available with standard-def sources.
Like all plasmas, the PN50A550 can be subject to burn-in under certain conditions, and Samsung includes a rash of features designed to address that issue. There's an adjustable pixel shift, which moves the image slowly and imperceptibly around the screen; a choice between light and dark sidebars for 4:3 programs (light is better for preventing burn-in); and a pair of settings, one that scrolls gray bars across the screen and one that simply fills it with a white field, available to address burn-in in the unlikely event that it does occur.
We appreciated the three power-saver modes, which did cut down on the PN50A550's prodigious energy consumption (see the Juice Box). As far as conveniences, Samsung throws in picture-in-picture as well as a USB port that can connect to thumbdrives to play back digital photos and MP3 music.
Samsung's connectivity suite is basically unchanged from 2007. Two HDMI inputs are available around back, while a third can be found in a recessed bay along the panel's left side. There's also a pair of component-video inputs; an AV input with S-Video and composite video; a single RF input for cable and antenna (the '07 models had two); and a VGA-style RGB input for computers (1,920x1,080 maximum resolution). That recessed bay offers an additional AV input with S-Video and composite video, a headphone jack, and the aforementioned USB port.
Overall, the Samsung PN50A550 produces an excellent picture, with highly accurate colors, very little noise, and solid processing. Its can deliver relatively deep blacks, although it can't muster quite the inkiness of Pioneer's Kuro sets or the latest generation of Panasonic plasmas. Our one gripe concerns its ineffective antireflective screen, which makes it less desirable in brightly lit conditions.
During calibration we took advantage of the PN50A550's numerous picture adjustments, although we didn't have to do much because the default Movie preset came very close to what we consider ideal anyway. We tweaked the white-balance control just a bit, set the gamma to achieve a shallower, more natural-seeming rise out of black while still preserving shadow detail, and utilized the great "blue-only" mode to adjust the color and tint controls without having to rely on a filter (see Tip No. 2 for details). We also tried to improve the already accurate primary and secondary colors using the Custom color space controls, and while they worked better than most other color management systems, they still necessitated compromises that made the default Auto setting a better choice. For our full picture settings, check out Tip No. 1.
For the majority of our image-quality tests we watched Live Free or Die Hard on Blu-ray, comparing the image of the Samsung PN50A550 directly to that of a Panasonic TH-46PZ85U as well as to our current reference HDTVs.
Black level: While the PN50A550 was able to muster a convincingly dark shade of black, better than either of our Sony reference displays, for example, it didn't get quite as dark as either the Panasonic or the Pioneer PDP-5080HD plasmas in our comparison. Blacks in the letterbox bars, shadows, and nighttime skies, for example, all appeared a bit lighter on the Samsung, although even in a side-by-side comparison the PN50A550 still held its own well. Details in shadows, such as the bricks and boards in a blown-out wall during an apartment firefight, looked as excellent as on the Pioneer, with a more-natural rise from black than the Panasonic exhibited.
Color accuracy: Here's where the Samsung shined. After calibration, the set's color temperature was quite close to the standard, leading to natural-looking skin tones and white areas, such as the overcast sky and the sides of the police cars during the helicopter assault. The Pioneer appeared a bit reddish and the Panasonic a bit more bluish in comparison in most areas. Primary and secondary colors were also right on, from the greens of the trees alongside the highway to the blue of the skies; the orange of the explosion from the VTOL jet fighter that follows Bruce Willis down the section of freeway looked closer to our reference on the Samsung than it did on the Panasonic. Color decoding was again very accurate, and we saw no red push, even in delicate skin tones such as the face of Lucy after her make-out session.
Video processing: Unlike most HDTVs we've tested, the Samsung PN50A550 was able to successfully de-interlace 1080i film-based material once Film Mode was engaged. It also handled video-based material well and, as expected, successfully displayed every pixel of both 1080i and 1080p sources. Not that it mattered much; as usual we found it nearly impossible to distinguish any difference in detail between the 1080p Samsung and the 720p Pioneer.
The Samsung did produce a cleaner, less-noisy image than either of the other plasmas. With all of the noise reduction controls turned off, they showed more dancing motes of "snow," and when we turned the Samsung's NR to Auto and the other plasmas' up all the way, the Samsung again looked cleanest. The difference wasn't drastic, especially between the Pioneer on High versus the Samsung on Auto (although the Samsung's High was cleanest of all), but people who are sensitive to video noise or sit relatively close to the screen may well appreciate it.
Uniformity: The PN50A550 appeared just about perfectly uniform across the screen and when seen from off-angle. We also noticed a bit less false contouring than on the Panasonic when looking at test patterns, and a bit more than the Pioneer, but during Die Hard we didn't see any contouring on any of the displays.
Bright lighting: Samsung has been working on its antireflective screens over the last couple of generations, but the one on this model, dubbed FilterBright, wasn't as effective as the screens on the other two plasmas in our comparison. The Pioneer and Panasonic both did a better job of reducing glare from the windows and bright overhead lights, and on both displays the dark areas stayed truer--they washed out a good deal more on the Samsung.
Standard-definition: On our standard-def tests, the P50N550's performance was about average. It displayed every line of DVD resolution, but the grass and bridge from the detail test appeared a bit softer than we'd like to see. The set also didn't remove the jaggies from moving diagonal lines very well. As with HD material, SD noise reduction was superb, and the set had no trouble engaging film mode's 2:3 pull-down detection.
PC: Like most Samsung HDTVs we've seen, the PN50A550 performed extremely well as a big computer monitor. When connected via the HDMI input, the PN50A550 performed very well, resolving every line of both horizontal and vertical resolution when given a 1,920x1,080 source and set in the Just Scan aspect ratio. We connected our PC via the analog input and experienced the same results after we hit the Auto Adjust command.
|Before color temp (20/80)
|After color temp
|Before grayscale variation
|After grayscale variation
|Color of red (x/y)
|Color of green
|Color of blue
|Defeatable edge enhancement
|480i 2:3 pull-down, 24fps
|1080i video resolution
|1080i film resolution
|Picture on (watts)
|Picture on (watts/sq. inch)
|Cost per year
|Score (considering size)