Editors' note (March 4, 2010): The rating on this product has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace, including the release of 2010 models. The review has not otherwise been modified. Click here for more information.
If the Internet is the future of television, then LG's LH50 series hails from the day after tomorrow. This flat-panel LCD is the first to offer Netflix streaming, which allows instant, free-to-subscribers access to an all-you-can watch menu of thousands of movies and TV shows without having to connect another box. Sure, Sony has already announced the service for its own compatible TVs later this fall, and we expect Netflix to make its way to Yahoo Widget-equipped TVs from Samsung (and perhaps others) sometime later this year, but for now the LH50 holds exclusive claim to Netflix. Speaking of Yahoo Widgets, the LH50 delivers that feature too, and better than other TVs we've tested, and also includes its own YouTube client and network streaming to boot.
On the other hand, the LH50 costs a good couple hundred more than its non-Web-enabled cousin in the company's line--easily enough to buy an external Netflix device and then some. Its performance wasn't as good as some of the better LCDs we've tested, albeit still decent enough to pass most viewers' muster, especially in terms of color accuracy. For fans of Internet video who don't want one more box, those issues might be worth the sacrifice for the LG LH50, which for now is the most well-featured Interactive HDTV available.
Series note: We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 47-inch LG 47LH50, but this review also applies to the 42-inch LG 42LH50 and the 55-inch 55LH55. All three share identical specs and features and should provide very similar picture quality.
Editors' note: Many of the Design and Features elements are identical between the LG LH50 series and the LG LH55 series we reviewed earlier, so readers of the earlier review may experience some déjà vu when reading the same sections below.
The LG LH50 lacks any overt, eye-catching styling cues to set off its glossy black sheen. Its most remarkable external feature consists of the thin, transparent strip along the left and right edges of the frame. That frame rounds slightly along the top edge and is thicker below than above. A bump on the bottom right edge houses the blue-lit power indicator. The stand swivels and matches the panel with its glossy black.
LG's remote is relatively disappointing. We found the cluster of similar buttons around the cursor control difficult to differentiate without constantly having to look down at them. A little illumination would have gone a long way. On the plus side, it's easy to find the different-colored buttons for "Netcast" (for Netflix, YouTube, Yahoo Widgets, and local photos and music streaming) and Widgets (for Yahoo Widgets, again), and there's another prominent button labeled "Energy Saving" that directly accesses said control and a little energy saving graphic to provide enviro-geeks a warm fuzzy. The remote can't control other brands of gear directly with infrared commands.
The menu system is quite extensive, so the easy-access quick menu for aspect ratio, picture and sound modes, the timer, and other oft-used functions is welcome. The main menu is laid out the same as last year's model, with the addition of a new onscreen "simple manual" that provides basic setup and function information. One miscue: we'd really like to see explanations of menu items appear onscreen, too, especially since many of them are so advanced.
Interactive capability: At the time of this writing the LH50 LCD and PS80 plasma series by LG are the only TVs on the market with built-in Netflix streaming. Of course you can get the service on other external devices such as the Xbox 360, TiVo HD, Roku player and a few Blu-ray players, for example, but these LG sets build it right in.
For the uninitiated, Netflix streaming, called "Watch Instantly" by the company, lets Netflix subscribers immediately watch free movies and TV shows from the service's catalog. The selection of titles is more restricted than the normal mail order service and generally excludes new, major name releases, but there are still thousands of titles. You must select titles to watch instantly using a PC; you can't browse and choose titles directly on the TV, although that restriction may be lifted in a future update.
In our testing, the Netflix streaming worked as well as it has in other such devices, and it was exceedingly easy to use, interfacing flawlessly with our Watch Instantly queue on the Netflix Web site. As usual, video quality depends a lot on your Internet connection. In the best-case scenario, with "full bars," the so-called HD videos looked a bit better than DVD, although the frame rate still seemed too slow, creating a stuttering effect in pans and other camera movement that dejudder didn't address (to be fair, all Netflix devices suffer from this artifact). The main difference, and it's a potentially big one for videophiles, is that LG's built-in Netflix service doesn't allow you to adjust any of the picture parameters beyond the presets for the various picture modes. You can choose from among the modes via the quick menu, but main menu access isn't available, so you can't tweak any of the modes. That said, you still get more control of the picture than you do on Yahoo Widgets' current video players, for example, and choosing from among eight modes will be plenty for most viewers. Our Roku review has more details on Netflix streaming.
Aside from Netflix, the LG offers its own YouTube client that's superior to the Yahoo Widget available on Samsung TVs, not to mention the proprietary clients developed by Sony and Panasonic, but basically offers the same functionality. You can sign into your YouTube account, brose most-recent, most-viewed, and top-rated videos, search via an onscreen virtual keyboard using the TV remote (autofill of popular search terms is supported, thankfully) and sort by date. Like on those other TV clients, YouTube.com's "HD" category is absent and video quality is significantly worse than it is on the Web site, even with higher-quality non-HD videos. No "continuous play" option is available to automatically move on to the next video in a category. Check out our look at YouTube on TV for more information.
The LG also includes Yahoo Widgets. At the time of testing, it offered fewer widgets than Samsung, but significantly more than Sony, although we expect those differences to even out in time (but naturally we don't expect LG to get the YouTube widget, for example, since the company built its own separate client). Check out Yahoo's official list of current LG widgets for details.
On the other hand, the LG implementation of Yahoo Widgets was much more responsive than on the Samsung and Sony TVs we've, even after we had downloaded all of the available widgets into the dock. Moving between snippets on the dock, navigating among individual widgets, and even loading the widget engine in the first place all moved much faster on the LH50 series than any of the four Samsung TVs we had on hand. For that reason, we found it the best widget experience we've tested so far. Check out our full review of Yahoo Widgets for more information.
Finally, like many current TVs, the LG LH50 can stream photos, music, and video from networked PCs in the home, as well as from thumbdrives connected to its USB port. We didn't test this feature.
It's notable that the LH50, like other interactive TVs, doesn't include wireless capability; if you want to ditch the Ethernet cable, you'll have to add your own wireless solution.
Other features: Even beyond the interactive capabilities, the LG LH50 is a full-featured HDTV. It lacks the LED backlight and 240Hz refresh rate found on more-expensive models available today, however, making do with standard backlighting and 120Hz processing with dejudder. LG's dejudder processing is similar to past 120Hz and 240Hz displays, which force you to engage the smoothing effect of dejudder if you want to enjoy the benefits of reduced blurring. Samsung's and Toshiba's 2009 models, on the other hand, allow you to separate the two functions, an option we really prefer to have. The LH50 series offers two strengths of dejudder, Low and High, and also offers a separate "Real Cinema" function designed to work with 1080p/24 sources--although in our experience it was basically unwatchable. Check out the performance section of the review for more details.
Like other LG displays, the picture controls on the LH50 series surpass most of the competition. The company included even more adjustments than last year, starting with a well-thought-out Picture Wizard that uses internal test patterns to help you perform your own basic calibrations of the controls for brightness, contrast, color, tint, horizontal and vertical sharpness, and backlight. Once you've finished, your settings are saved to the Expert1 picture memory slot for your choice of inputs.
Each of the eight adjustable picture memory slots is independent per input, and we appreciated that all of them, aside from the two Expert slots, indicate whether they're in the default settings. A ninth mode, called Intelligent Sensor, reacts to ambient lighting conditions and automatically sets picture parameters accordingly. Advanced controls abound in even the nonexpert modes, with three color temperature presets, settings for dynamic contrast and color, noise reduction, three levels of gamma, a black level control, wide and standard color spaces, edge enhancement, a room-lighting sensor, and even an "eye care" setting designed to prevent the screen from being too bright (it's disabled in Vivid and Cinema modes).