Samsung PN50B860 Plasma HDTV

Price: $2,400 At A Glance: Excellent resolution and color • Full adjustability • Blacks could be better • Ultra-thin 1.2-inch profile

Plasma Soldiers On

LCD televisions are everywhere these days. They fill the back walls of Best Buys, are lined up like hedgerows near the entrance of Costco, and fly out the door at Walmart. Even at this moment, they’re undoubtedly being flogged out of the back of a fleet of white vans in parking lots across the land.

Yet the alternative in the flat panel market, plasma, continues to hang in there. The reasons are simple. Until very recently, plasmas could be (although they weren’t always) less expensive than similarly sized LCDs. Good performance on rapid motion and flawless off-axis viewing also come with the territory on a plasma but not on LCD. And for years, plasmas were capable of better black levels and higher contrast—although this wasn’t universally true and is, in any event, slowly changing.

The new Samsung PN50B860, together with a number of siblings, is distinctive for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most visible is its amazingly thin design—approximately 1.2 inches deep (without the stand). Because plasma’s picture elements are self-illuminating, as with a CRT, they don’t require a backlight, so making them thinner involves fewer challenges than with an LCD. Ultra-thin LCDs are also available, but they tend to be expensive.

Under the Hood
The PN50B860 is not only thin, but at 57.5 pounds (without the stand), it’s considerably lighter than most plasmas of the same size. This is challenging to LCD’s long-held advantage in the weight department.

The Samsung offers ample inputs for most users, but they are more limited than usual. There’s no S-video and only one component and one composite input, which are shared (you can’t connect them both at the same time). But there are four HDMI 1.3 inputs, together with antenna, PC (VGA-style analog), LAN, and two USB ports. Users who need more flexibility probably use an external switcher anyway—most likely the one built into an A/V receiver.

Samsung claims that its new E-Panel technology offers improved picture quality, with 600-hertz Subfield Motion for better resistance to motion blur. Subfield drive is fundamental to all plasma displays, and while 600 Hz may be a step up from the frequency Samsung used last year, it’s not unique. (Panasonic also recently increased its subfield drive frequency from 480 to 600 Hz.)

If used properly, an increased subfield drive frequency may improve certain aspects of a plasma’s performance, only one of which is motion. And it’s probably not the most important. Don’t confuse this 600-Hz frequency with the 120-Hz (and up) operation of many LCD sets. It isn’t the same thing. And in any case, plasma’s inherent resistance to motion blur doesn’t need heroic enhancements.

Control Central
The Samsung offers the usual picture controls and picture modes, the latter including Eco for the carbon obsessed (the set is also ENERGY STAR compliant) and Movie for those who want the best picture. All of the important picture controls are available in Movie, but that’s not true for some of the other picture modes.

A Cell Light control—a first for a plasma display—is apparently intended to perform a function similar to that of a backlight control on an LCD. Surprisingly, however, and unlike many LCD backlights, it alters the peak brightness but doesn’t change the Samsung’s black level. The black level remained the same at all 11 Cell Light settings, from 0 to 10.