Panasonic and Samsung plasma TVs have run very close in our comparisons this year, with a slight advantage in picture quality going to team Panasonic, and a slight features advantage to camp Samsung. That's again the case in the midrange category, where the 3D- and Smart TV-equipped Samsung PNE550 series faces off directly against the similarly specced and priced Panasonic TC-PUT50 series.
I give the nod to the Panasonic by virtue of its deeper black levels and slightly better bright-room picture, but the Samsung PNE550 has its advantages. It gains an edge in the sophistication of its Smart TV platform -- especially if you don't mind sacrificing Amazon video for HBO Go -- and its inclusion of two pairs of 3D glasses. If you're like me you'll value the UT50's merits a bit more, but the Samsung E550 is still a very good television that should please plenty of plasma fans.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 51-inch Samsung PN51E551, but this review also applies to the other screen sizes in the series. All sizes have identical specs and should provide similar picture quality.
|Models in series (details)|
|Samsung PN51E550 (reviewed)||51 inches|
|Samsung PN60E550||60 inches|
|Samsung PN64E550||64 inches|
Not much separates the unadorned PNE550 from the ranks of me-too black-clad TVs out there, but the accents it offers are tasteful enough to place it in the same league as the Panasonic UT50, if a notch below Samsung's higher-end plasmas like the PNE6500.
Compared with the latter's thinner textured charcoal bezel, the glossy frame around the E550's screen seems plain and slightly chunky, although the strip of transparent edging, echoed by the glass top of the stand, lends minor panache. The most notable dash of flavor is another familiar Samsung touch: a clear cylindrical pillar supporting the panel and allowing it to swivel.
If you're keeping track, the PNE550 and PNE6500 share the same panel depth (2.2 inches) and both are slightly thicker than the step-up PNE7000 and PNE8000 models (1.9 inches) in Samsung's lineup.
Samsung's remote is not among my favorites. The tight grid of buttons lacks sufficient visual differentiation, less important keys like "search" and "MTS" are too prominent, and the central Smart Hub button is annoyingly just a logo. On the plus side there's full backlighting, and the cursor pad's curved directional keys make finding and using it by feel a cinch.
|Key TV features|
|Display technology||Plasma||LED backlight||N/A|
|Smart TV||Yes||Internet connection||Built-in Wi-Fi|
|3D technology||Active||3D glasses included||2 pair|
|Refresh rate(s)||96Hz, 60Hz||Dejudder (smooth) processing||No|
|Other: Optional wireless keyboard with touch pad (VG-KBD1000, $99)|
The E550 is Samsung's least-expensive plasma for 2012 to offer Smart TV and 3D, putting it on a features par with the Panasonic UT50, for example. Those extras, and the option of a 64-inch size, are the main things separating the E550 from the less-expensive Samsung E530 series. The more expensive E6500 series, meanwhile, touts an improved panel: "Real Black Pro" on the E6500 versus "Real Black" on the E550. The 6500 also has a few extra picture settings over the E550, although it too lacks a 64-inch size.
Like all Samsung 3D models, and unlike other major-brand TVs that use active 3D technology, the PNE550 actually comes with 3D glasses. Two pairs are packed into every box. They're the SSG-3050GBs from 2011, not the newer Samsung SSG-4100GBs from 2012. Both retail for a scant $20 and they look exactly the same -- the main difference is that the 2012 glasses support the universal standard, so they work with universal-certified 3D TVs like 2012 Panasonics. Check out my 2012 3D glasses comparison for more information.
Smart TV: With the exception of Google TV, Samsung's Smart TV platform is the most content-rich and capable on the market. Its big Achilles' heel, aside from its cluttered interface, is lack of Amazon Instant, a service found on Panasonic, Sony, and Vizio TVs, but not LG's this year.
Otherwise the available content is superb. The big standout is HBO Go, available on no other brand of TV so far. It launched in early August for 2012 models, so this is the first chance I've had to test it. In short, it's great. The video quality was excellent over my Wi-Fi connection in the lab, with sharp details and very few compression artifacts visible in the shadowy areas and gradations from an episode of "Game of Thrones," for example. As with all video-streaming apps, Samsung allows full picture adjustment.
Samsung's HBO Go interface improves upon Roku's. It's designed around persistent vertical menus to the left of "pages" as you delve into the content. The search function is appropriately prominent, and browsing long lists is easier since the layout relies less on big thumbnails and clicking through. I'm not as familiar with the HBO Go app on the Xbox 360, but my CNET colleague Jeff Balakar's quick impression was that he liked Samsung's app better than Xbox's, lauding its improved speed and intuitive navigation.
Another unique addition is the Fios TV app, which allows Verizon Fios subscribers to access a few live TV channels and select on-demand content with no attached box required. It's cool in concept, but the sparse selection (no local channels, and ESPN News instead of regular ESPN, for example) means it's no substitute for an actual Fios box attached to the TV. I didn't test this service since live TV requires the TV to be connected to a Fios router, and that service is still unavailable at CNET's offices.
Samsung offers just about every other mainstream non-Amazon video service, as well as numerous niche video options like TMZ, The Daily, AOL On, Digital Theatre, Demand the Outdoors, Samsung's MediaHub, and a 3D-specific app (the latter two with little worthwhile content compared with mainstream options). We're also happy to see the newly added vTuner Internet radio app join Pandora and subscription music via Mog. Other offerings include a 3D photos app, images from National Geographic, MTV Music Meter, and ESPN ScoreCenter, as well as umpteen less-impressive paid and free games, educational apps, screensavers, and so on. The E550 lacks the cloud gaming app (currently in closed beta) found on higher-end Samsungs.
Samsung also has a few relatively rich proprietary apps, like Family Story, which is a way to "share photos, memos, and family events stored in the cloud," Fitness and Kids (both with custom VOD), and a Social TV app combining Facebook, Twitter, and Google Talk in a bar alongside live TV. There's also an AllShare Play app that manages DLNA and USB media files and can also grab files from the cloud.
Samsung still boasts the best browser I've tested on any TV, although it's slower and more frustrating to use than the browser on a laptop, tablet, or phone. That's partly because it depends on the TV's standard remote control; when I tried it with Samsung's Bluetooth keyboard the experience improved immensely. If you're thinking of getting the keyboard, be aware that its alphanumeric keys didn't work with the apps I tried (HBO Go, Netflix, Hulu Plus and YouTube) so it won't help ease searches much there.
Our favorite proprietary app is Your Video (pictured above), because it features a cross-app search that can now hit Netflix in addition to Vudu and CinemaNow. It also works with the keyboard, unlike the native Netflix app. HBO Go and Hulu Plus don't show up in its results, however, and neither do your own TV listings. It shows other information, too, like biographical and production notes, acting as a sort of IMDb Lite. There's a separate "search all" option that hits local files (DLNA/AllShare), Your Video, YouTube, Facebook, Samsung Apps, history, and the Web browser -- and happily you can disable any of those search targets.
Samsung's Smart Hub interface tends toward crowded and overwhelming. You can only customize the bottom half, and even then many of the icons can't be deleted. While response time could be speedy, I occasionally encountered hitches and balkiness (in my experience the dual-core Samsung sets aren't much better). I prefer the simpler look and customization of Panasonic's interface, for example, but there's no denying that Samsung's is more advanced.