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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.
With the exit of heavy-hitter Pioneer from the plasma racket, just three major makers remain: Panasonic, Samsung, and LG. The latter two offer significantly more models of LCD TVs than of plasma, however, and seemed more focused on LCD technology. Nonetheless Samsung's 2009 plasmas, if the PNB650 series is any indication, are nearly the match of Panasonic's best. The model we tested delivered superb black-level performance--significantly better than past Samsung plasmas--and the company's traditional accurate color. Samsung has also kept up with Panasonic on the feature front and delivers more picture adjustments, although we prefer Panasonic's VieraCast to Samsung's sluggish Yahoo Widgets when it comes to interactive features. Regardless, the superb overall package delivered by the PNB650 series once again poses a difficult decision for plasma HDTV buyers.
We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 50-inch Samsung PN50B650, but this review also applies to the 58-inch Samsung PN58B650. The two have identical specifications aside from screen size, and should deliver very similar picture quality.
Editors' note: Some of the Design and Features elements are identical between the Samsung PNB650 series and the Samsung LNB750 series we reviewed earlier, so readers of the earlier review may experience some deja vu when reading the same sections below.
Sleek, minimalist looks define the Samsung PNB650 plasma. The company has scaled back the prominence of its "Touch of Color" design, so the hint of red in the frame along the top and bottom is even subtler--and more acceptable in our opinion--than before. It's still there, however, and may bug viewers with sensitive decor tastes. Glossy black is the panel's other major color, edged by Samsung's trademark clear coating on all sides of the frame. The black portion curves slightly along the bottom but the clear edge remains straight, becoming a bit wider in the corners than the middle. We like the overall looks of the panel, albeit not as much as the one-sheet-of-glass design of the smaller Panasonic V10 models.
We appreciated that the see-through stalk that supports the panel above the stand also allows it to swivel to either side. The glass-topped stand matches the panel perfectly, down to the subtle red Touch and clear edging.
Samsung used the same menu system as last year, this time with matching red borders, and we still think it's one of the best in the business. Big, highly legible text is set against transparent backgrounds that occupy almost the whole screen. Getting around is easy and there's helpful explanatory text along the bottom to describe the different selections.
The remote control is the same as last year too, and we're definitely fans--especially since Samsung ditched the rotating scroll wheel. The buttons are big, backlit, and easily differentiated by size and shape, and we liked the dedicated "Tools" key that offers quick access to picture and sound modes, the sleep timer, and the picture-in-picture controls. However, we didn't like the remote's glossy black finish, which picked up more than its share of dulling fingerprints after a few minutes.
Samsung and Panasonic share a lot of features in their plasma TVs, including "600Hz" panels that are said to improve motion resolution to reduce blur. The best thing we can say about this feature is to ignore it; the number was created in response to the 120Hz and 240Hz refresh rates of LCDs. Plasma technology is inherently less subject to blurring than LCD, and in any case it's really hard to see any difference with real material. Like Panasonic, Samsung also includes a mode to properly deal with 1080p/24 sources, although engaging it did cause a strange glitch. See performance for more details.
While Panasonic has VieraCast on its higher-end plasmas, Samsung's main interactive capability is supplied by Yahoo widgets. The system gathers Internet-powered information nodules, called "snippets," into a bar along the bottom of the screen. The model we reviewed came with widgets for stocks, weather, news and Flickr photos, plus Yahoo video, sports scores, poker, trivia and Twitter--and more are sure to appear in the near future. For more information, check out our full review of Yahoo widgets. That review was based on our experiences with a Samsung UN46B7000, and our impressions of the system on the PNB650 are mostly the same, including its sluggish response time. Mainly for that reason, we prefer VieraCast to Yahoo Widgets.
Other interactive features on this set abound. Unlike the Panasonic, it can stream videos, photos and music from DLNA-certified devices via the network connection, as well from its USB ports, which can connect to MP3 players, USB thumbdrives, and digital cameras (we didn't test this capability). There's also built-in "content," such as recipes, games, workout guides, and a slide show of high-definition art and photos with music. We went into depth discussing the underwhelming content features last year, which are similar this time around, so if you're interested check out the Interactive section of the 2008 Samsung LN46A750 review.
Like other Samsung sets, the PNB650 series offers numerous picture tweaks, starting with four adjustable picture modes that are all independent per input. One of these modes is called "Eco" but, aside from its slightly lower default light output and consequent power savings, it's no different from the other three.
There are five color temperature presets augmented by the capability to adjust each via a custom white balance menu; three levels of noise reduction, including an automatic setting; a film mode to engage 2:3 pull-down (it also works with 1080i sources) or take advantage of 1080p/24 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 tone" control that affects shadow detail; and a color space control that lets you tweak the Samsung's color gamut.
You can choose from four aspect ratio modes for HD sources, two of which let you move the whole image across the screen horizontally and vertically. As we'd expect from a 1080p TV, one of those modes, called Screen Fit, lets the PNB650 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.
We appreciated the three power-saver modes (not to be confused with the Eco picture mode), which further reduce energy use. Samsung also throws in picture-in-picture, an "E-manual" on a USB stick and even a customer care screen that includes the firmware version for when you need to call the company. We're also big fans of the new-for-2009 capability, unique among HDTVs, to get firmware updates via an online download, rather than making you go to the Web site, as was the case before.
Samsung's "screen burn" menu offers a couple of ways to combat burn-in, aka image retention, and address it should it occur. By default the pixel shift function automatically moves the image slightly around the screen. You can set the bars to either side of 4:3 programs to gray or black (light gray, the default, is the best to help prevent burn-in). And if you do see image retention, a few hours of the scrolling ramp pattern should clear it up. It's worth noting that on our review sample, we did notice more image retention than we saw on the Panasonic and Pioneer plasmas, although as usual it was quite temporary and disappeared quickly during normal viewing. We only noticed it after the screen faded to black after displaying still images, like our PS3 menu. We'd expect the issue to go away after a couple hundred hours of use.
The PNB650 series offers very good connectivity, although it does follow the recent trend of spurning S-Video inputs--not one is to be found on this TV. The back panel sprouts three HDMI ports, two component-video inputs (one of which can be sacrificed for composite-video, if you need it), one VGA-style PC input, one RF input for cable and satellite, the Ethernet port, and one stereo analog and one optical digital audio output. The TV's side panel offers a fourth HDMI, two USB, and one AV input with composite-video.
The Samsung PNB650 series delivers excellent overall picture quality, surpassing the color accuracy of the superb Panasonic V10 series and also delivering an arguably better picture in a bright room. The Panasonic delivers deeper black levels, however, and a video processing glitch we encountered with the Samsung's 1080p/24 mode also gave us pause.
For our comparison, we lined the Samsung PN50B650 up next to a couple of competing plasmas: the Panasonic TC-P50V10 and TC-P46G10, as well as our reference Pioneer PRO-111FD. We also included a couple of high-end LCDs, namely Samsung's own LN52B750 and the Sony KDL-52XBR9. The large part of our image quality tests were conducted using the "Notorious" Blu-ray Disc.
Black level: Although not quite as deep as the blacks on the Panasonic and especially the Pioneer plasmas, the shade of black produced by the Samsung PNB650 was extremely dark, and beat the level of black on the two LCDs. It's also significantly better than anything we saw on the company's plasmas last year.
During "Notorious," for example, the shadows, leather jacket and black clothing in Biggie's apartment all appeared a deep, rich shade of black, which looked quite realistic in our dark room, if not quite as dim as on the Panasonics. In the intro, the black background behind the text was again just slightly lighter on the Samsung plasma, but the difference was subtle. Details in the shadows, like the folds of clothing in the dim light or the shaded side of Biggie's face, seemed a bit more obscured and less natural, although again it would be tough to spot the difference without having the displays side-by-side.
We did encounter one significant black level snafu, however. When we engaged the "Cinema Smooth" mode in the Film Mode menu, which is designed to help preserve the correct frame rate of film with 1080p/24 sources, black levels rose significantly. It was as if the TV had switched to another, uncalibrated picture mode. Switching Film Mode back to Off didn't return the black levels to their correct, calibrated state; to do so we had to stop playback entirely, which sent a normal 1080p/60 source to the TV and disengaged Cinema Smooth. Needless to say this is unusual behavior, and we'll update this review when Samsung has an explanation (and hopefully a fix). In the meantime, we recommend not using Cinema Smooth with our picture settings.
Color accuracy: Here's where the Samsung outdid the Panasonics and nearly matched the Pioneer. Primary and secondary color accuracy was nearly perfect on the PNB650, and while the grayscale varied a bit more than we'd like to see, it was still solid. Accurate color decoding resulted in excellent saturation, for colors that looked a bit more lifelike overall than on the Panasonic V10.
During Biggie's affair with Lil Kim, for example, her skin tones looked natural and not too ruddy, although in the darker shadows under her neck, for example, there was a bit of extra redness compared with our reference Pioneer. The bright orange of the wall and the red of the painting were closer to our reference than the Panasonic, as was the green of the bushes outside Biggie's brownstone. The Samsung's color of black in very dark areas, such as the recording studio before Biggie walks in, appeared just a bit bluer and less true than that of the Panasonic, but the difference was subtle once again.
Video processing: Aside from the black level issues we described above, the PNB650 handled 1080p/24 sources properly when we engaged the Cinema Smooth setting in its Film menu. We tested this option by watching the flyover of the deck of the Intrepid from "I Am Legend," and the planes and indeed the entire frame preserved the correct cadence of film, without the hitching motion characteristic of 2:3 pull-down. When we switched the Cinema Smooth setting off, the hitching returned. We wish this mode automatically engaged the Samsung received a 1080p/24 source, especially since it seems to turn off every time the TV receives a normal 1080p/60 source.
According to Samsung, its plasmas use 600Hz subfield motion technology, which sounds like the 600Hz subfield drive employed by Panasonic on its plasmas, but the two didn't deliver the same results. The Samsung didn't quite match the motion resolution of the Panasonic plasmas or the 240Hz LCDs in our comparisons, delivering between 800 and 900 lines, according to our test. That's still very good, however, and as usual we suspect that even the most blur-sensitive viewers won't notice a difference with regular program material.
As expected, the B650 delivered every line of still resolution when we selected the "Screen Fit" aspect ratio mode, and it deinterlaced both film- and video-based source properly. To pass our film deinterlacing test, the TV had to be in the "Auto1" Film Mode setting; Auto2 is the default when the TV detects 1080i sources.
Bright lighting: Under bright lights the Samsung performed as well as any plasma we've tested aside from the Pioneer, which was roughly its equal. Its main strength was its capability to preserve a darker shade of black, despite ambient lighting, than the Panasonic, whose blacks washed out and became grayer faster than they did on the Samsung. On the flipside, the Samsung did not attenuate reflections, such as bright lights in the room or reflections such as this reviewer's white T-shirt. The Panasonic's reflections were dimmer and thus less distracting than those of the Samsung, but we still liked the Samsung's bright-room image better overall. It's worth noting that the overall best bright-room performance in our lineup was provided by the matte-screened Sony LCD.
Standard-definition: The PNB650 evinced generally solid standard-definition picture quality. According to our tests, the display handled every line of a DVD source and the shots of grass and steps from the detail test looked good. The set eliminated jaggies from video-based sources well, and its noise reduction cleaned up the lowest-quality shots of skies and sunset with aplomb. Finally the set passed 2:3 pull-down test by eliminating moire from the stands behind the racecar.
PC: Samsung's PNB650 series delivered excellent performance with HDMI sources from computers, resolving every line of a 1,920x1,080-pixel image with no overscan or edge enhancement. The image did appear very slightly softer via VGA but the set still resolved every line, according to DisplayMate tests.
|Before color temp (20/80)||6664/6673||Good|
|After color temp||6442/6449||Good|
|Before grayscale variation||145||Good|
|After grayscale variation||101||Average|
|Color of red (x/y)||0.646/0.329||Good|
|Color of green||0.296/0.605||Good|
|Color of blue||0.149/0.06||Good|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||Y||Good|
|480i 2:3 pull-down, 24 fps||Pass||Good|
|1080i video resolution||Pass||Good|
|1080i film resolution||Pass||Good|
Power consumption: We didn't test the power consumption of the Samsung PN58B650, although we did test the Samsung PN50B650. For more information, please refer to the review of the PN50B650. How we test TVs.