Samsung PN50A650 50" Plasma HDTV Review
We’ve been visiting over the past few weeks how the new ATSC digital standard will affect many people over the coming months. This transition from analog to digital broadcast will signal a new era that that will take place on February, 17, 2009. The ATSC standard was developed for what we now know as the HDTV and we’ve been reviewing products associated with bringing us this same content on our PC’s. But is the experience different as it is on a dedicated HDTV set?
People who pull in analog over-the-air (OTA) content on their non-HD televisions via antenna will be the ones directly affected by this transition but they have three simple options to get around this issue; purchase a brand new HDTV set with a built-in ATSC tuner, purchase a ATSC card for viewing HD content on their PC, or purchase a ATSC converter box to utilize on their current non-HD television. Note the highest HD standard we have is currently 1080p, a resolution of 1920x1080, so in order to view the full picture on the PC properly, you’ll need at least a 24” monitor that can support this resolution in order to have the best experience possible.
If you’re in the market for a new HDTV set, today’s review will definitely help you consider one of your choices in the 50” plasma segment. Today will mark our very first HDTV review regarding the Samsung 6 Series plasma PN50A650.
Samsung is undoubtedly one of the names you come across when you purchase just about anything electronically related. It’s just one of the names that come to mind when shopping around that it’s almost second nature. Their name sticks to the minds of consumers almost the same way the brand name Sony was a couple of years back. Not surprisingly is the fact that Samsung is indeed the global and US market leader in HDTV television sales heading into this year according to the NPD Group.
When you are on the market for an HDTV set, you will come across two different types of HDTV technologies. One is plasma technology, and the other LCD technology. You’ll probably know about LCD technology because chances are the monitor you’re reading this very review is based on LCD technology.
All modern day computer monitors are based on LCD (Liquid Crystal Display). The technology has been around for a very long time and comes in many forms; the microwave display, your watch, calculator, cell phone screen, and laptop screen all derives from LCD technology. Take the clock for example. The LCD on the clock is probably protected by a clear plastic screen. This is possible because LCD by nature emits little heat. So when purchasing an LCD HDTV you’ll probably come across the screen utilizing a matte surface or coated with a glossy finish.
In layman terms, an LCD panel is created by placing two transparent materials together with one of the layers containing liquid crystals that can either block or allow light to pass through, making an image appear. However, liquid crystals on the LCD by nature cannot create their own light source, so an external one is needed in the form of a bulb, usually of the fluorescent kind. The drawback of using a bulb to supply backlight is that it directly affects power consumption because the bulb is on all the time. The LCD backlight in every circumstance, whether the image on screen is bright or dark, the power consumption is constant. Another situation where the backlight bulb hurts LCD performance is in its color department. Since the LCD backlight is on all the time and that the crystals are the only ones that are able to limit or allow light through to make an image, the LCD has a difficult time reproducing proper black colors, turning black into grey. Opposed to LCD, plasma has the ability to turn off a pixel completely at any time. The result is a black that is real and represented almost perfectly.
An issue associated with HDTV sets using LCD technology is ghosting (or motion-blur). Earlier LCD monitors suffered from extreme ghosting when viewing fast action scenes or playing a video game. The problem with LCD technology was what it was originally designed for; viewing static images. Remember this technology was to replace CRT monitors and back then PC’s were just used for getting work done, little of the multimedia, games and entertainment we see today. Essentially LCDs are born with motion-blur and it’s always going to be present. What have LCD manufactures done to try to “fix” this problem?
Create a feature called “120Hz” technology where the picture motion is reset twice the time of the normal 60Hz standard. But, 120Hz technology has its own set of downsides. I personally find 120Hz makes motion seem “unreal” and “too fast”. Motions seem abnormal from what I’m used to and I’ve noticed on some sets that contain 120Hz, it can introduce artifacts on screen. Frankly speaking, 120Hz is really a band-aid solution to the problem that has always plagued LCD technology. On the other hand, plasma does not suffer from motion-blur.
Plasma technology has been out for some while, just not as long as LCD technology. It might not have been as established as LCD technology but plasma technology has definitely come a long way over the past five years and is arguably better in every aspect. In the early stages of plasma development, there were problems which instilled fear in consumers. The biggest one being the issue of burn-in (where the picture on screen remains “stuck” even after you have shut off the television and resumed viewing the next day). However, I remember the same thing happened to my old CRT tube television (burn-in). Advancements have been made to stop this issue (such as the “pixel-shift” feature that shakes pixels from side to side and up and down from time to time). Samsung has also created a feature where a black and white static image on the screen is shifted horizontally continually. Overall, the issue of “burn-in” comes down to the content you’re watching. If you don’t abuse the panel by setting it to a mode like vivid mode, and watch a static image for hours, you will simply not get burn-in. I can safely say that the issue of burn-in should not scare you away from purchasing a plasma HDTV.
While it is true that plasma technology generally has greater maximum power consumption compared to its LCD counterpart, this really shouldn’t be an issue because this number really depends on the content you’re watching. Honestly, the only way you’ll ever meet maximum power consumption specification is if you like staring at a blank white static image with your contrast and brightness set at 100. It’s simply not going to happen and power consumption should actually be generally anywhere between 150-200 watts less than the maximum total specified.
Plasma technology is similar to old tube CRTs of the past, being that they need to charge “elements” that are within. With the LCD needing to have an external light source in the form of a fluorescent bulb in order to light up the liquid crystals, the plasma display needs to charge up the phosphors inside the display to generate an image for the viewer. Instead of liquid crystals in between layers of materials, plasma consists of cells that are individually injected with what is known as neon-xenon gas and that are sealed in plasma. Inside you have a grid dedicated to the three primary colors of red, green and blue. Turning on the television will charge this gas and produces the picture from its red, green and blue phosphors.
Upsides to plasma technology is that it can render deeper blacks (because plasma has the ability to turn off any pixels at any given time), provide better color reproduction, offer higher contrast ratios, and plasma technology has no problems handling motion, having no need for the 120Hz feature LCD’s are trying to compensate for. I think the most important factor plasma has going for it is that for energy consumption, it has the ability to switch off pixels at any time (like when you are watching a scene with dark colors).
With any purchase, my advice is to go in-store and “pre-view” existing plasma and LCD HDTV units and choose the one you feel is best. Also factor in things such as the type of environment you’ll be placing the television in and that it suits your needs (big or small for what size room).
Samsung has recently come out with new lines of HDTV for 2008, which is dubbed accordingly: Series 4, Series 5, Series 6, and Series 7. Both Series 6 and Series 7 are considered to be Samsung’s “high-end” offerings and provide larger screen sizes and features coming in either LCD or plasma technology.
Continuing on the trend of beautiful looking products, Samsung has created models with TOC (Touch of Color), where the bezels are filled with an amber tint to the frame. I personally had reservations because the pictures had it looking a little too red but you’ll notice in the gallery that the color is subtle yet not intrusive, adding to the personality of the display. It is a sight to behold.
Features and Specifications
Looking at the specification reveals that we indeed have a higher-end television. The Samsung PN50A650 is a 50” plasma HDTV that contains a multitude of features such as four HDMI inputs and the interesting RSS-Infolink which provides information such as weather information and business news feeds instantly through the LAN port located at the back of the HDTV.
Containing a contrast ratio that is 1,000,000:1, the PN50A650 can be really bright if need be, although this ratio is only achieved through its dynamic contrast mode. Native contrast ratio is rated for 30,000:1 which is up there and most likely best in its class. I’ve seen plasmas with the same screen size that only have half the contrast ratio of what this can do natively and all the LCD’s I’ve seen don’t even come close in this department. You can be sure that you have lots of power at your fingertips.
The Samsung PN50A650 does not contain a conventional glass screen but rather a glossy plastic screen. The upside to this type of screen is the unlikely damage (shatter) compared to glass if something is thrown at it. The glossy film will act as a barrier. The downside is that the unit will feel warmer up front, as plastic gets warmer than glass during operation.
First Impressions and Design Overview
The Samsung PN50A650 comes in a very large corrugated box surrounded by bodies of foam protection to prevent any damage and flex during delivery and no problems were had when delivered. The first time I lay my eyes on the box, it was huge! And heavy! The box has a huge sticker that displays the Plasma HDTV and some of its features. Located around the sides of the cardboard container are plastic handles that you grab onto when lifting. When you’re ready to open the box, don’t make the mistake of cutting the top because all you need to do is remove the plastic handles in order to lift the whole box upwards.
I had reservations regarding “Touch of Color” that Samsung has decided to instill on their new HDTV lineup but once I saw the Samsung PN50A650 for the first time, I was very impressed at how nice it looked and how subtle it really is during viewing. Touch of Color adds personality to your room. I think it’s exciting to have change and not become used to seeing a television regulated to being black. The reddish tint is darker at the outer edges and becomes less prominent coming inwards to the screen. The reddish tint is similar to if you pour red dye in water; it’s rather soothing to the eye.
The frame does not contain straight 90 degree edges but curves around contributing to its very sleek and beautiful look. The bezel doesn’t feel cheap but rather made of a solid piece of clear plastic. Tap it and it doesn’t sound nor feel cheap but upscale and something of quality.
The lower right hand side of the bezel contains the flush mounted front-panel controls such as channel, volume, menu and more. These buttons aren’t of the conventional type but rather sensitive to the tap of your fingers. Once you tap a button, the whole piece illuminates orange to display the full list of controls.
Coming down to the plastic glossy screen, I notice how shiny it looks, and how it reminds me of how it could be used as a mirror. For some folks, I know this will be one of the deciding factors of purchase, so I really have to tell you if it’s a distraction.
The Samsung PN50A650 is located right beside two large windows, so there is no shortage of light coming inside. Even when the blinds are shut, light seeps through the seams. Sitting and watching right smack in the middle of the screen presents very little problems. You simply focus on the screen and all the colors are deep and are portrayed the way intended. Viewing from the side, there are some reflections of the windows, but Samsung has done a great job on the anti-reflective coating. Previous to this plasma, I had a 27-inch CRT TV in the same exact spot and it’s 100-times worse than what this PN50A650 can do in bright conditions. Overall, reflections don’t distract all too much from viewing what is on the Samsung PN50A650’s screen. I still can watch and enjoy television and not need to reposition my body in order to see the screen better.
Frankly, I’ve watched from the side many times and it’s totally manageable. If you are worried about reflections then my advice is don’t be. If anything, just position the HDTV screen away from your windows. Don’t make performance in a brightly lit room sway your decision. LCD’s and plasmas are performing leaps and bounds better in bright conditions compared to old CRT TVs. I even have a MacBook laptop that has a shiny screen and it can’t match what this Samsung PN50A650 can do in a bright environment. The MacBook’s glossy LCD screen fails in comparison to the PN50A650’s glossy screen. Movies are meant to seen in a dark environment, that’s just the way it was meant to be, even at the movie theatres.
Coming from the conventional old CRT tube television, it was very bulky and very fat. The polar opposite is the Samsung PN50A650 HDTV, which measures only about 4” thick. It was amazing to see how much room the plasma had given back for us to use. The room looked and felt bigger since the footprint of the Samsung PN50A650 is small. The base stand on the Samsung PN50A650 measures 2-ft in length and just a small finger in height and has the ability of swiveling around which is a great addition and can help when you want to sleep on your couch and view the HDTV directly.
The two built-in speakers are down firing and located underneath the HDTV providing a total of 10watts per channel. The Samsung PN50A650 adds SRS-XT mode that mimics a surround sound environment.
Coming around to the rear of the unit, we have a grayish plastic panel that contains ventilation holes in many areas around the unit. This is to keep the entire HDTV as cool as possible and remember that plasmas generally do run hotter than LCD’s and the Samsung PN50A650 is no different as its energy consumption can draw upwards of over 500 watts. Realistically speaking, as I said before, you’ll never come close to drawing that much energy because it requires you setting screen options to maximum value, including the dynamic contrast feature, and staring at a blank white static image.
In terms of inputs, you have plenty of everything you need. The Samsung PN50A650 contains everything you could possibly want or need.
Purchasing the Samsung PN50A650, you will find these items located in the box…
Samsung provides a good amount of stuff with your purchase. You have a fairly thick user’s manual which goes over all the features and menu options on the PN50A650. Everything is clear and concise. I will say some of the things are redundant because the PN50A650 provides on screen information already for most menu options, located at the bottom of the menu screen.
Some of you may be wondering about the ferrite cores included with the PN50A650 and what they are used for or even if they are even needed. Samsung throws in five thick ferrite cores for anything you want to use it on such as the power cord. Ferrite cores are used to reduce electromagnetic interference (noise) from leaking through affecting other transmissions.
Let’s watch some HDTV!
A melody chimes to greet you the moment you turn on the Samsung PN50A650. In the event you don’t like the melody, you are free to turn it off in the setup menu. The first thing I did was scan for some HD channels! I couldn’t wait to see what I have been missing, so I headed into the menu and selected to scan for (over-the-air) OTA HD channels. Remember that the Samsung PN50A650 contains a single dual TV tuner that can bring in the new ATSC digital channels and the older analog fuzzy NTSC signals. If you are in the US and have access to digital encrypted cable service then you will be happy to see Clear QAM support. Also remember that OTA analog NTSC content will become nonexistent in the USA coming February 2009 and for Canadians in the year 2011, yet whatever affects the USA will surely affect Canadians.
One of the drawbacks to having a single TV tuner and not separate ones is PIP (picture-in-picture). On the PN50A650, PIP only exists for analog NTSC broadcasts and there is no way seeing digital ATSC channels right beside. Also PIP only works when you are on an external video source (say you’re playing a video game, you are able to view PIP no problem). To make things worse, there is no PIP button on the remote, but you have to go through the setup menu in order to enable PIP. I’m really puzzled with this and wonder why PIP is even offered if it’s a hassle just to enable.
Scanning for OTA HD channels only takes about five minutes which is relatively fast. My first attempt with a homemade UHF antenna (UHF because digital channels are broadcasting on this spectrum) brought in nine (9) DTV (Digital Television aka ATSC) channels in HD and 15 analog NTSC channels. One of the things I was disappointed with was the fact that you aren’t able to tune into channels manually (it has to be picked up through the channel scan) and that with each new channel scan, it’ll erase your old channel list, essentially starting from scratch. The problem with this method is that I have to delete all the channels that are duplicates and the ones I don’t want. I’d like it if there were a personalized channel list that was unchanged and that by scanning for new channels would only add channels that were not previously there.
While nine (9) HD channels don’t seem like much, expect more channels within the coming year for all of us in Toronto. And if you can get an outdoor antenna such as the Channel Master CM-4228, you can bring in more OTA channels located in Buffalo. OTA HD content in different parts in the US will vary but I’m hearing reports of lots more HD content there, than up here in Canada (understandable because their switchover date comes soon).
One of the great things about OTA HD is the fact that it is free and 100% legal. Another thing is that it prevents you from shelling out monthly charges to your local cable provider, saving you lots of money in the long run. Lastly, OTA HD content comes in uncompressed from the source and thus provides better quality picture than if you are watching HD content through your local cable provider. This is because there can only be so much channels going through one cable because of bandwidth limitations (check up multiplexing). So be confident that you’re watching uncompressed high quality HD content when going the OTA route with a UHF antenna.
Switching between digital channels takes two seconds while switching between analog channels takes only one second. And let me tell you, there is no substitute for the real thing. We’ve been seeing if you can get away with an ATSC card and PC monitor and the feeling is just totally different!
The Samsung PN50A650 produces spectacular picture quality that my eyes could not believe what I was seeing. The digital video processor does an amazing job at reproducing images and colors on the screen.
The Samsung PN50A650 comes with a full size remote control that sets a clicker wheel in the middle of the remote. The hard plastic shell is reminiscent of the TOC bezel as the top portion is painted in a deep dark red color. The remote has ability to illuminate orange at night and works very well. All buttons are large, easy to read and rubberized. The buttons feel and perform well except for the annoying crunchy feeling I get when changing channels. Unfortunately with this remote, some folks will find it to be either a hit or miss.
The wheel and clicker takes some getting used to and there are times when the wheel is often too slow or too fast for the GUI. I don’t even turn the wheel anymore; instead I just tap up, down, left, or right.
There needs to be a better way at changing video sources. Hitting the source button brings up the GUI where it lays out all the connections. The input labels that are grayed out mean that there is no signal found whereas the ones that are white are moved to the top of the screen and mean a signal is found and thus can be selected. Since there are many inputs on this HDTV, sometimes switching between all the inputs take a while. Although the ability of naming each of your inputs makes it easier to know what is connected to whatever input. For example, I can name HDMI 1 “Game” and HDMI 2 “Blu-Ray” and so forth. This makes it easier but like I said, having each input already on the remote would speed things up.
The time it takes to switch between sources depends on the gear you running but for example, the PN50A650 took about nine seconds to switch from TV viewing into HDMI 1 which housed a Blu-Ray player I was testing. Additionally switching from the Blu-Ray player into TV mode took only two seconds. Your mileage may vary but these are numbers you can expect.
User Interface Menu – Tweaks galore
The Samsung PN50A650 has got to be one of the most feature packed HDTV I’ve come across and I’ve seen many through friends and family. It has a user-friendly menu system that has a multitude of options and probably the most options I’ve seen yet on a television dedicated for tweaking only the image. The amount of picture options you can tweak is simply astounding. Not only do you have your standard color, saturation, contrast, and tint, Samsung goes as far to provide white balance, color space, black adjust, dynamic contrast (I don’t use this – this overexposes the image), gamma, flesh tone, edge enhancement (like sharpening), blue mode (to tweak hues) and more. There are so many tweaks that sometimes you find things that are redundant but they all work to achieve what you want to see better.
Some digital channels still broadcast in 4:3 format, so you need to switch picture sizes from time to time to get it in full screen. Thus on the remote is a button labeled “P.Size” which means picture size. You can view channels in 16:9, Zoom, Wide Fit, 4:3, and Just scan (useful for when connecting a PC – the HDTV will find the perfect fit for the image).
Some folks are still worried about screen burn-in that is associated with plasma displays but I’ve told you that advancements have been made to prevent this from happening. Samsung has included a good amount of options in order to make this a thing of the past. Under the picture options menu is “Screen Burn Protection”. Samsung provides a pixel shift feature which shakes the pixels at intervals (default is for every 2 minutes) and another feature called “All White” which changes all the pixel phosphors to white on screen and lastly, “Scrolling” places a pattern on screen where you have a gradient moving horizontally. Lastly, you have the option to set the colors of the side bar in 4:3 picture size format.
There aren’t many audio options on the PN50A650, but the amount of options is good enough. The PN50A650 provides different audio preset modes such as movie mode, music mode, speech mode and standard mode. It also supports SRS TruSurround XT which mimics a surround sound environment. Top it off with an equalizer to tweak the sound to your liking, there’s not much more I can ask to have on this front.
The options I have given you here are not a total listing of options provided on the Samsung PN50A650. For a full list, download the user’s manual provided on Samsungs website.
How does it perform?
I can sum up the performance of the Samsung PN50A650 with different words meaning the same thing. Absolutely incredible, marvelous, inspiring, attention grabber, majestic, superb, phenomenal, the list can go on and on.
Out of the box, the picture quality already amazed me. After calibration, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The video processing unit does an amazing job at rendering things the way they were intended to be. Colors are eye-popping, flesh tones are true. The experience is just out of this world and no ATSC card for a PC can match what the real thing can provide – the experience. Watching television shows and movies (on Blu-Ray) make you feel that you’re immersed in action and that you’re a part of what you’re watching.
The Samsung PN50A650 handles motion very well and poses no problems. The lag is minimal and is not distracting but feels real and not artificial. Some of the LCD’s I’ve seen with 120Hz technology looked fake and introduced artifacts on screen that were not intended to be on the screen. Watching numerous movies and shows, sports such as tennis, baseball, basketball, and football, even the Olympics, the objects (the ball) never seemed to leave a long trail. I cannot say the same for my current LCD monitor which is rated for 16ms and suffers horribly from motion-blur.
The audio department, like I mentioned earlier, is a hit or miss depending on what type of individual you are in regards to audio. If you’re a person who has never owned a home theatre or dedicated speaker set for your television, you probably won’t mind the built-in speakers on the PN50A650. The down firing speakers are decent and can get the job done, but they don’t sound full or vibrant. Even when tweaking the equalizer, I could never find the “sweet spot” and something was always missing for me to be satisfied.
Thankfully, the PN50A650 provides an audio RCA input connection as well as digital output so you can hook up a home theatre system or even dedicated speakers in replacements of the built-in speakers. Hooking up even the inexpensive Edifier R1200T speakers I reviewed a while back did wonders for audio satisfaction.
I like it that the Samsung PN50A650 provides picture settings that are independent of each other. So if you tweak picture settings on HDMI 1, those settings won’t affect and be the same settings for Component 1. All inputs have their own individual picture settings and this is a very important feature to have. I’m glad Samsung noticed and implemented such. There are different preset entertainment modes that you can choose as well ranging from sports, cinema or game modes but I prefer to set settings myself.
Regarding some of the features on the Samsung PN50A650, one thing I’d like to take a look at is the WiseLink feature which allows the HDTV to become a multimedia pod. WiseLink allows you, through a USB port, to show JPEG images in the form of slideshows and play back any MP3 audio files you have on the HDTV. The GUI is very appealing to the eye with large icons representing a photograph and music playback. While playing back your photos on screen, you have the ability to do small things like have background music (on your device) playing while viewing your slideshow or the ability to do small things like rotating and zooming. WiseLink doesn’t have special features but it does what it’s supposed to do well. If WiseLink had the ability to play back video of different formats, then the multimedia experience would be set, but I guess that would be stretching it since it’ll have to integrate different codecs. The very same USB port also allows firmware upgrading on the PN50A650 if there are new updates.
The Samsung PN50A650 is not totally perfect though, no television is for that matter. The unit I received, under operation would create a noise that sounded like a high-frequency buzz. I noticed that it was always present, but could be considered normal because the phosphors on the screen were being charged. I’ve noticed the same thing on some LCD monitors, but those were barely audible. For the most part, the buzzing sound is manageable but would get louder when bright colors were on the screen. When scenes were dark, the noise lessened. But don’t let it get to you, the sound is totally manageable and you’ll forget that it even exists quickly.
Another weak point on the PN50A650 is the component video inputs. I have an Xbox 360 which can do either HDMI or component video. HDMI input performance on the PN50A650 is excellent but when used through component video, the image quality totally changes and suffers quite dramatically. The biggest standout was the fact that on component video, I could visibly see shadows that were reflections of the text they represented. See the images in the gallery, you can’t possibly tell me that is normal. Secondly, the jaggies were out in full force under component video connection. HDMI on the other hand was perfect in every way. Lastly, the picture quality turns soft and flakey when on component video. I couldn’t believe the difference between component and HDMI and some of the things I’ve seen have got to be because of the actual inputs on the PN50A650 or something to do with the internals related to the component video connections.
I have been asked to post my picture settings for HDMI input (these are similar for TV viewing as well) and I thought it would be a good idea to help out users who have purchase this television set. Your mileage may vary since units sometimes are a little different than each other but here they are.
Detailed Settings Menu
Picture Options Menu
There’s not much more I can say. The Samsung PN50A650 is something I would definitely purchase if I were on the market.
The picture quality is unbelievable, rendering beautiful accurate colors and blacks are good as well. Picture quality and handling motion is where the PN50A650 excels and is probably tops among the competition.
The audio department is decent but leaves more to be desired; you really owe it to yourself to purchase at least good speakers in replacements of the built-in ones.
Regarding inputs on the PN50A650, it shouldn’t be an issue offering plenty of HDMI, component, and PC connections. Though I was impressed with the HDMI quality, I couldn’t say the same for the component video performance.
The ATSC tuner on the PN50A650 is excellent being sensitive to signals and pulling in even weak signals allowing them to be viewed with at least 1-bar on the signal meter.
Rounding out is the ability to view JPEG and play back MP3 audio files through Samsung’s WiseLink feature. I find playing back photos I’ve taken with my digital camera to be a great feature and is something I use often. I would have liked support to play back video, but that might be pushing it.
Definitely the Samsung PN50A650 is something you won’t regret purchasing and although I would have loved to give it the Editor’s Choice Award, I can’t honestly give it that because it isn’t balanced in all aspects. But definitely for picture quality it will receive Editors Choice.
In the end, I would still buy it.
Pros and Cons