Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
The Samsung PN63A760 is the largest flat-screen HDTV we've reviewed this year. At 63 inches diagonal, it competes with the biggest plasmas from Panasonic, LG, and Pioneer--this is a stratospheric screen size where LCD is nowhere to be found, at least for sub-$5,000 prices. Samsung loaded its behemoth plasma with plenty of features, and we expected this set to exhibit the same solid picture quality we saw on smaller models, such as the PN50A650. But something was lost in the expansion. The big Samsung has a hard time matching the picture quality of its competitors in our comparison, owing mainly to its less-black blacks and mixed-bag color accuracy. In the end its feature set and styling might carry the day for those less focused on picture quality, but home theater fans who want a giant flat screen can do better.
There's nothing understated about the design of the PN63A760. Aside from the fact that it's a God-awfully large television, you have the fact that the top and bottom edges of the frame bear a red tinge that fades to black closer to the screen. Unlike other red-tinted "Touch of Color" models, this Samsung goes one better with a stand that's also tinted red. And, as always, if you don't like red on this TV, you're out of luck; Samsung doesn't make any other colors for its high-end plasmas. We're not the biggest fans of this design, but we can see how some people might like the red, and it's subtle enough to blend in without drawing too much attention, especially in a dark room.
That stand swivels, which takes some serious support on a TV this large. Including the stand, the Samsung PN63A760 measures 60.3 inches wide by 39.6 inches tall by 16.5 inches deep and weighs a prodigious 185 pounds. Chop off the stand for wall-mounting and the panel measures 60.3 inches wide by 36.7 inches tall by 3.9 inches deep and weighs 146 pounds. It goes without saying that you'll want to have a professional mount this massive television.
Samsung's glossy, fingerprint-magnet remote control is the same as the one included with other higher-end models, and its principal standout feature is a rotating, iPod-esque scroll wheel that can be used for everything from menu navigation to changing the volume. We're not fans of the wheel--it's either too jumpy or not responsive enough, depending on how quickly you crank it--so we preferred simply clicking it to get around. Orange backlighting illuminates most keys, and we did like the remote's general layout, which features distinct groups of buttons that are differentiated well. However, we didn't like the lack of a dedicated button to change aspect ratios. To adjust aspect ratio, you'll have to enter the menu system.
We are fans of Samsung's 2008 TV menus. Big, legible type overlays almost the entire picture, and text explanations accompany just about every item. Drilling down is a logical process and most everything is easy to find, although we're a bit baffled by the logic of which items belong in the "Picture Options" submenu versus which ones get dumped into "Detailed Settings." The A760 menus get a different stylistic treatment from other Samsung systems we've seen this year, sporting a colorful trim that fades to black along the top and bottom edges. Guess which color?
As we've come to expect from higher-end Samsung HDTVs, the PN63A760 has more options than a dot-com CEO. One of the most intriguing features from our perspective is the addition of a "Smooth" picture mode that's similar to the dejudder video processing found in 120Hz LCD screens. Aside from Pioneer's Kuro plasmas, this Samsung is the only plasma we've seen with dejudder processing. Check out the Performance section for the full scoop. Like most other LCD and plasma TV models on sale in 2008, the PN63A760 also has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 (aka 1080p).
Interactive capabilities: Like the company's LN46A750 LCD we reviewed earlier this year, the A760 plasma also has numerous interactive features. We didn't test any of the interactive features for this review, but below you'll find a description of what we found when testing that model.
Around back, there's an Ethernet port, which lets the TVs access the Internet to display news, stock ticker information, and local weather. The company's implementation of Internet access isn't as extensive as that of the Panasonic TH-50PZ850U, for example (described here), but it's still pretty cool. We liked the easy-to-read font in normal and large sizes, as well as the intuitive controls. USA Today provides the newsfeed, which can sit in the corner of the screen like a ticker, or be expanded to let you read numerous top stories in a variety of topics. One annoying quirk was that we couldn't remove the Setup screen easily--hitting "return," as the manual suggested, merely turned off the whole service. Also, we'd really appreciate if the port allowed the TV to download firmware updates, but according to Samsung that's not in the cards. A USB-to-Wi-Fi dongle that lets the TV connect to a wireless network (model WIS-08BGX, $34.99) is also supposedly available, although it seems almost impossible to find.
The 760 also adds a suite of limited interactive content functions. The TV comes preloaded with a hodgepodge of a few simple games, recipes, a slide show of high-definition art, a children's section (games, stories, choppily animated sing-alongs), and a fitness section with stretching and massage instruction. The content consists of still images and text in the form of Shockwave files that can be painfully slow to navigate, and we doubt many 760 owners will use it extensively. An unfortunate exception would be Dora-addled rugrats repeating the sing-alongs ad nauseam.
More content can be downloaded from Samsung's Web site, transferred to a USB thumbdrive and played back via the built-in USB port. When we tried doing so, we were frustrated by the scant instructions in the manual. First off, we didn't need the special number the manual mentioned as necessary to download files. Second, the instructions forgot to mention that we had to unpack the files ourselves with the included Korean-language installer on the PC before they can be used--a process many users will find frustrating. When we finally got the content (a yoga instruction and another picture gallery) to load, it worked as well as can be expected, although, again, navigation was poky.
The TV can also reach out to your home network and play back photos, videos, and music stored on networked computers. You'll need to install special software--included with the TV--onto your PC, and of course leave the PC on. Alternately, you can copy files onto a USB thumbdrive and play them directly on the TV.
While this feature seems pretty cool, it's not as good as similar functionality built into a Sony PS3 or a Microsoft Xbox 360, let alone that of a dedicated network media streamer such as Apple TV. Despite being billed as DLNA-compliant, the TV won't play nice with DLNA server software like Windows Media Player 11 or TVersity (both of which we tested), so you're stuck with the included proprietary software. Samsung's software is basic and lacks both preference menus for transcoding and compression and the capability to alter the file hierarchy. It also takes a long time to scan your PC for media, but once it's set up, the system works well. We were able to play back DivX, Xvid, H.264, and MPEG2 video files; as well as the audio formats MP3, AC3, PCM, ADPCM, and AAC. It also let us browse JPEG picture files and, surprisingly, played back raw Video_TS files ripped from DVDs (although it wouldn't recognize ISO files). Unfortunately, we missed some functionality, such as fast-forward and an adequate selection of aspect ratio controls, when playing back video files. We'd like the home network stuff a lot better if it worked with other software, but this is a decent start if you don't have access to another server solution. (Interactivity testing, sans yoga, performed by Matthew Panton).
Picture controls: The PN63A760 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 so many 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.
Other picture controls include five color temperature presets along with the capability 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; 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.
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 Just Scan, lets the PN63A760 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-definition sources.