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Samsung F5500 series plasma review: Like a gremlin, this TV hates bright lights

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The Good The Samsung E5500 plasma TV offers a very attractive mix of features, performance, and design for the right price; black levels are very good for the money; Smart TV and a usable Web browser are unexpected bonuses; 51-inch version is relatively energy efficient.

The Bad Picture quality deteriorates quickly as room lighting brightens; relatively inaccurate color of red; poor sound quality.

The Bottom Line The Samsung F5500 plasma offers great features and very good picture quality, but its performance suffers significantly under the lights.

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7.6 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7
  • Value 8

Plasma technology has been around for long enough that it's able to deliver a high-quality display for very little money, and there are two companies at the forefront: Samsung and Panasonic. This year, Panasonic's ST60 received our first five-star television review, while the less-expensive S60 earned our highest praise for value. The Samsung F5500, priced roughly in between those two, is the Korean giant's closest thing to a response.

The F5500 is cheaper than the ST60, but its picture isn't anywhere near as good. From color response to black levels to shadow detail, the Panasonic ST60 is superior in every way. That's not to say the Samsung F5500 is a poor television -- it's not, and it will tan the hide of most LED LCDs in its price range. If it wasn't for the strong competition from Panasonic, we'd be praising the F5500's deep blacks and relatively good color.

Where the Samsung F5500 disappoints is in bright room playback. I don't know of anyone who dutifully turns off all the lights and closes the curtains every time they watch TV, and the Samsung is worse than any TV we've recently tested with the lights on -- and that includes the also-heliophobic S60.

Features-wise Samsung has Panasonic beat, with a full complement of doodads such as Smart TV, voice interaction, and a touch pad remote. It also offers decent 3D replay for the money.

While priced right and blessed with excellent black levels in a dark room, the F5500 just can't compete with TVs that better handle everyday ambient light. If keeping the blinds closed sounds too difficult, video quality aficionados should look to a Panasonic instead of this Samsung.

Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 51-inch PN51F5500, but this review also applies to the other screen sizes in the series. All sizes have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality. That includes the 60-inch member of the series, despite its unusual pixel structure (see Features section below).

Models in series (details)
Samsung PN51F5500 (reviewed) 51 inches
Samsung PN60F5500 60 inches
Samsung PN64F5500 64 inches

It was more than five years ago that Samsung introduced its Touch of Color design, and its legacy lives on in the F5500. Originally "TOC" indicated a black bezel with a rose-colored tint, but the new Samsung is simply black with a clear perspex rim.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The stand is probably the weakest part of the set's design. It may feature the distinctive four-pronged look, but the legs themselves feel insubstantial. The construction is plastic over metal, and you can actually twist the plastic where it touches the table -- it's not well-anchored to the metal skeleton. This probably doesn't pose a safety risk as the TV sits quite firmly through the force of gravity, but it's an unusual oversight given Samsung's usual high quality standards. At least it swivels, eh?

Sarah Tew/CNET

The TV ships with a single remote, the Smart Touch Remote Control, which you may end up having a love-hate relationship with. In its favor, the touch pad is responsive and enables cool features like gestures (drawing the channel number is especially fun). But you will probably wish you just had a normal remote, especially when trying to stop a fast-forwarding DVR-ed program, because there are no transport buttons and accessing them is convoluted, to say the least. The remote does have a microphone for voice search which means you may not miss having a separate keyboard.

For more on the remote check out our F8000 review; the F550's clicker is identical but for its black exterior.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Key TV features
Display technology Plasma LED backlight N/A
Screen finish Glossy Remote Touchpad
Smart TV Yes Internet connection Built-in Wi-Fi
3D technology Active 3D glasses included Two pairs
Refresh rate(s) 60Hz Dejudder (smooth) processing Yes, No
DLNA-compliant Photo/Music/Video USB Photo/Music/Video
Other: Voice recognition; cable box integration and control via IR blaster; additional 3D glasses (model SSG-5100GB, $19); optional keyboard (model VG-KBD2000, $99)

Samsung is bringing out fewer plasma models this year compared to 2012, and the F5500 is the next-best after the top-of-the-range F8500. The F5500 has a different panel than the F8500, which accounts for its lesser picture quality. Meanwhile, the step-down F5300 is basically a "dumb" version of the F5500. As you'd expect from a roughly $200 price differential there are quite a few additions, with the most obvious being smart TV with a new remote, but you also get 3D playback with two pairs of active shutter glasses.

The 60-inch members of the 5500 and 5300 series have somewhat different subpixel structure compared to the 51- and 64-inch sizes (subpixels are the little colored dots that combine to form a pixel). On the 51- and 64-inchers, and just about every other flat-panel TV in existence, each pixel is composed of one red, one green, and one blue subpixel (RGB), all of uniform size. On the 60-inchers however, there is one green subpixel for every red, and another green subpixel for every blue (RGBG). In addition, the areas of the red and blue pixels are larger than the green ones, which allows them to emit more light but use less power overall. There are also most likely half the number of red and blue sub-pixels since they "share" a green one--we're awaiting confirmation from Samsung on that last point of difference.

This kind of subpixel structure is known as PenTile on some displays, for example many of Samsung's OLED smartphone screens. Samsung says that there should be no major difference in picture quality between the 60-inch and the other sizes at normal, reasonable viewing distances.

Smart TV: The F5500 is one of the company's cheapest TVs that still features Smart TV. Samsung has seemingly worked hard to integrate its 2013 Smart TV suite with cable programming and while it's not yet seamless, the new "five panel" system is a step forward. The options are "On TV" (cable integration), "Movies and TV shows," "Photos, Videos, and Music" (DLNA), "Social" (Skype, YouTube, Facebook etc), and "Apps."

Sarah Tew/CNET

The TV comes with a IR dongle and a setup routine whereby you can pick your cable provider, and after that you receive a page of suggestions on "what's on." Unfortunately the suggestions don't currently extend much beyond the over-the-air networks. Controlling the cable box -- in this case a FIOS set-top-- mostly worked with as much as a 5-second delay when changing channels.

When talking the more traditional smart TV features the TV does apps such as the almighty Netflix, includes a Web browser and reads your DLNA media. My colleague David Katzmaier performed a comprehensive test of Samsung's Smart TV cable box integration, so if you want more info then try here. To see how this TV compares with its competitors, try our Big Chart.

Picture settings: You get a choice of three picture presets with the F5500: Vivid, Standard, and Movie, though as usual with Samsung, the best from an accuracy standpoint is Movie Mode. The television lacks the Color Management System found on the F8500, though it does have a two-point grayscale adjustment and adjustable Gamma settings. Given how good the defaults were on the sample I received, I didn't need to change these too much.

Connectivity: The TV comes with three HDMI ports (though lacking the currently trendy MHL support), a digital optical audio socket, and a shared component/composite input.

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