Samsung LN-T5281F LCD 1080p HDTV

Big things are happening with LCD flat panel televisions. New developments like LCD motion lag compensation and LED backlighting, manufacturers are attacking some of the well-known shortcomings of that technology.

The LN-T5281F ($4,499) not only uses LED backlighting, it also employs an innovative new technique aimed at improving blacks and contrast called "local dimming," which dims the LEDs that light the screen in localized areas. Samsung is so high on this technique it claims an attention-grabbing 500,000:1 contrast ratio. So, let's see if it delivers!

The Samsung's shiny black bezel is framed on the left and right sides by a thin gray "wing" that's spaced a fraction by of an inch from the frame itself. The set's controls, located on the right wing, are mounted flush and are nearly invisible from just a few feet away.

The other function of the gap between the frame and bezel appears to be sound. The upper midrange and high frequencies come from midway up in this space at the left and right, presumably from small drivers mounted inside the frame, and the audio is given greater weight by two larger speakers mounted on the back of the set.

Only those two speakers, bolt anchors for wall mounting, and the input panel and power connector interrupt the smooth black of the Samsung. Another, supplementary input panel is located on the left side of the set. If you use a tabletop setup rather than a wall mount, the set comes pre-attached to a stand that swivels a specified 20 degrees in either direction (I measured closer to 30 degrees).

As with other new Samsung flat panel sets, the LN-T5281F has a highly reflective screen. It's more like that of plasma glass than the diffusive screens found in most LCD televisions. Many LCD computer monitors now use shiny screens to provide a punchier, brighter image, and that might be the intent here. But you'll need to position the set carefully relative to the viewing position to avoid distracting reflections.

New Features
The only increasingly common feature it does not include is 120Hz operation. Most of the Samsung's main features and operating characteristics, including inputs, picture modes, video controls, aspect ratios, remote, and more, are identical to those of Samsung's LN-T5265F, which I reviewed recently. Rather than plow over that ground again, I'll refer you to the discussion of the features and controls in that review. My preferences—the features I used and the ones I chose not to—were essentially the same here. This included the use of a modified Movie mode for nearly all of my viewing and measurements.

But there are some important additions to the LN-T5281F. The biggest, gee-whiz new feature is LED SmartLighting. This uses LEDs for backlighting rather than the fluorescents most common in LCD sets. Samsung's LED implementation goes even further with the local dimming technique referred to in the opening. The LEDs are positioned behind the panel in a number of clusters that can be illuminated independently depending on the amount of light required in each area of the picture.

Local dimming is roughly similar in its effect to a dynamic iris in a projector, with several important differences. The dimming here can be done by area, rather than in response to the overall average picture level. When the LEDs shut down, they turn off completely, rendering a darker black than even the best CRTs. And LEDs can turn on and off much faster than any dynamic, mechanical iris.

So does this local dimming duplicate the performance of a good CRT? Not quite, But even if Samsung's claimed peak dynamic contrast ratio of 500,000:1 is a bit unrealistic, what I saw from this set on dark images was often startling.

The brightness of the LEDs can be set with the Backlight control. Unlike the Brightness and Contrast controls, which operate on the bottom and top of the brightness range independently (though here as in most sets there is some inevitable overlap), a Backlight control raises or lowers the brightness of the image across the entire output range. Lower settings—which provide the best picture, also reduce energy consumption. I found a setting of 3 (out of 10) fine for most programming. But you might prefer a setting a bit higher for news or sports, and higher still if the room is brightly lit. But higher Backlight settings can reduce the richness of dark scenes.

The set also has another new feature called LED Motion Plus. This is intended to reduce the visibility of LCD motion lag. When turned on, LED Motion Plus cycles the backlighting rapidly from top to bottom, in eight groups of horizontal rows for each frame. This is done in such a way that the backlight is off or nearly off during the fraction of a second that the LCD response is lagging, limiting the visibility of the lag.

LED Motion Plus can result in a slight loss of brightness. But because the backlight is fixed at 10 when LED Motion Plus is on, and I prefer to have control of the backlighting, I did most of my viewing with this feature turned off.