Smart televisions are growing more and more popular at all levels of the market; at the end of the day, most home theaters are largely reliant on Internet connectivity anyway, and wrapping the various streaming video services and other Internet features into the television can substantially increase its out-of-the-box usability. It’s the modern equivalent of the cable-ready television.
However, there’s not exactly a standardized interface here; there’s far more room for manufacturers to differentiate themselves. Samsung’s Smart TV interface isn’t perfect. Their assortment of in-house applications take center stage on the screen, The streaming providers, such as Netflix and Hulu, that should be the crown jewels of a smart TV interface… Those are shunted off in a little bar at the top of the screen; usability is fine, but the result is somewhat ugly and cluttered-looking.
Samsung PN51E550 Functionality & Features
Once you get into your service of choice, though, video quality is great – or, at least as great as it should be; Samsung aren’t magicians, and the Samsung PN51E550 isn’t going to make a low-quality stream beautiful. With something like Netflix‘s HD video, though, you’re going to be just fine.
One neat feature of Samsung’s own services is the ability to stream video files directly to the TV from other machines on your home network. It doesn’t support every format you might want, and it can choke on some large files – but none of that is to say that this isn’t useful. It doesn’t replace a home theater PC or other specialty device, but it’s much simpler and more convenient.
Design & Aesthetics
In a word: minimalist. The Samsung PN51E550 is just a rectangular bezel around the screen, attached to a rectangular swivel base. It’s thin for a plasma, but the nature of the technology demands that the display be meatier than an LCD screen; it’s 2.2 inches deep. That’s still small enough to fit into any space you’d need it to, though, and the simplistic design means that it works just as well in a wide variety of settings.
Plasma televisions are rather temperamental machines; even the modern ones, with years worth of simplification under their belt, still require lengthy calibration times to reach their optimal picture quality. Furthermore, burn-in is still a real concern; with a new plasma TV, you need to wait out the first hundred hours of your shiny new television’s life before you can try to view anything that features a lot of static images. Video gaming, Web browsing, and many films and television shows are off limits for some time while you’re still in that danger zone.
The display technology has thrived because – regardless of the inconveniences associated with it – it produces truly astounding pictures. Samsung’s plasma line has always boasted pictures beyond any LCD screen on the market for the simple fact of their being plasmas, but until recently they were a middle-of-the-road manufacturer. 2011’s line changed that, putting out stellar products that displayed Samsung’s intent to make plasma televisions a priority. At the time, the D8000 and D7000 lines were best in class products; the Samsung PN51E550 follows in their footsteps.
The greatest advantage of plasma televisions over LCDs is in blacks. Plasmas can manage deeper, darker blacks than LCDs ever could – black is the absence of light, and a powered-on LCD screen will always be emitting light. The Samsung PN51E550’s black levels are simply astounding; shadows are more detailed and defined than on anything available for anywhere near this price point before the present day. Color fidelity is fantastic, too; given a good source image, this television can put out a picture that’s almost lifelike.
One minor nitpick is the lack of an anti-reflective layer, which is present on higher-end plasmas from Samsung. That coating helps immensely with glare, making the blacks look even darker. It’s not catastrophic, though; it just means that this screen doesn’t fare as well around external sources of bright light as it could.
Samsung PN51E550 3D Image Quality
The purpose of buying a 3D television is of course to use its 3D functions. It doesn’t matter how good the picture is in 2D mode if the 3D mode doesn’t work; you’d be better off just saving the cash and buying a comparable 2D display. So, how does the Samsung PN51E550 fare, here? Good, though not perfect.
High-quality active shutter glasses provide a convincing illusion of depth while minimizing the common problem of color loss. The Samsung PN51E550 produces a full-HD 1080p picture in 3D mode, just as in 2D mode. Its 600Hz refresh rate – excessive on a 2D television – halves to provide a refresh rate of 300Hz to each eye.
There is a noticeable amount of crosstalk on busy images, though. Not enough to ruin the picture, but enough to create that niggling sense in the back of your mind that pulls you out of a movie. It’s still a fabulous 3D picture, especially for a unit that can easily be obtained for as little as $700… But it’s not perfect, and it’s important that you have your expectations in check with this TV’s 3D mode. It’s good enough to be worthwhile, but the crosstalk is a genuine concern.
The Samsung PN51E550 3D TV is a fantastic television. There are better plasmas, but none in its price range; this is a 51-inch 3D plasma TV that can be obtained for as little as $700, with a bit of shopping around. The picture quality would be perfectly acceptable on a high-end plasma TV, though it wouldn’t set the world on fire; on a unit of this size, though, it’s positively extraordinary.