The Good: Impressive black level performance; excellent tuning options
The Bad: Screen prone to glare; red accents in frame; picture quality lacks softness of some high-end plasmas
The Bottom Line: Samsung delivers its most versatile and eye-catching set yet
My first thought, after taking a gander at Samsung's new "Touch of Color" LCD TV, was that it's gimmicky. In a bid to stand out in a sea of black-framed HDTVs, Samsung infused color directly into the bezel surrounding the screen.
But after testing out the company's LN52A650 in my home, I can say this is one gimmick that works. Over the course of a month, visitors showered more compliments on the overall look of the Samsung set than on any other TV I've reviewed.
Differentiation in TVs is increasingly important for manufacturers struggling against thin margins. A machine that makes an aesthetic statement can sell for a premium over models that are hard to distinguish on picture or sound quality.
the red-accented bezel
Philips, with its Ambilight TVs that boast "mood" lighting around or behind the bezel, and Sony (SNE), maker of "floating glass" XBR models, have until recently cornered the market for TVs that grab attention even when they're turned off.
Make room for Samsung. With its 52-inch LN52A650, which sells for about $2,200 online, Samsung goes against the grain subtly, by adding red accents on what's still a mostly black bezel. The red looks more pronounced in some settings, such as when light poured into my living room, than in others.
The Samsung set is a winner on more than just aesthetic grounds. In terms of overall performance and picture quality, the LN52A650 outshines several LCD sets I have reviewed recently, including models from Toshiba, Sony and Sharp. Nicknamed the Series 6, the Samsung set comes within a hair's breadth of my overall champ, Pioneer's Pioneer Kuro Elite line (BusinessWeek.com, 12/21/07).
blacks don't give you the blues
The Series 6, with a native resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 progressive, or 1080p, handles high-definition viewing with aplomb. LCD TVs have been criticized for bluish-tinged black levels, but in this set Samsung delivers deep, rich blacks that allow for detail, even in night-time or otherwise shadowy scenes.
During a scene in which an oil well blows in There Will be Blood, the dark, brooding atmosphere is reproduced very close to what you see in theaters. I consider this all the more impressive because Samsung uses an extremely bright light engine to make colors pop (undoubtedly to stand out amid a wall of screens at retail). Part of the secret is a glossy all-black screen and filter, though the downside is that you need to draw the shades on bright days to avoid the sun's glare.
The Series 6, equipped with technology to double the screen refresh rate, does a better job at reducing blur in fast-moving objects than other sets do. The product also keeps to a minimum the artifacts that this technology tends to create on other sets.
Crispness over warmth
Another big test for HDTVs is how well they handle a broadcast's native resolution, through what's known as upconverting. Samsung has always done a very good job at this; it doesn't fail with the Series 6. I watched Bravo's Project Runway reality show on Comcast's analog channel and was generally impressed (though it looks much better when watching the cable company's HD feed, since TVs can't create the level of detail from the analog source). Digital channels not broadcast in HD also are upconverted to 1080p with no significant imperfections.
My only real quibble with the set's picture quality is that sometimes it looked too crisp and video-like, lacking some of the warmth and softness that you find in certain high-end plasmas.
With the Series 6, you can attach a cable, satellite, or TiVo (TIVO) set-top box, PlayStation 3, and standalone Blu-ray player with plenty of inputs to spare. There are three HD multimedia (HDMI) inputs on the back, and another on the panel's left side. There's also a pair of component-video inputs; a single RF input for cable and antenna; and a VGA input for computers. The side panel also sports an additional input with S-Video and composite video, a headphone jack, and a USB port for displaying pictures off flash drives or cameras.
back-lit remote keys
On the back, Samsung also includes an Ethernet port. Connect it via a cable to the Internet, and you can download via RSS feeds from USA Today the latest news, stock ticker information, and localized weather directly to the set. It's a very rudimentary implementation of Internet TV, but as the service is expanded over time to offer direct video downloads of movies and other software, Samsung's so-called InfoLink service could become extremely useful.
For what's essentially a new product introduction, Samsung also significantly ups the ante with its remote. Featuring back-lit keys for operation in darkened rooms, it fit nicely in the hand and incorporates a scroll wheel for menu navigation. It's a nice touch, letting the user change settings simply by feel alone, instead of forcing you to squint or hold it close to see what you're doing.
Samsung simplifies its on-screen menu system by opting for iconic representations of the settings. To adjust individual picture settings, for instance, you select a picture of a TV with color bars. Once there, plenty of options await both novices and pros.
Samsung's Touch of Color set may not be for everyone (though the company later this year will introduce sets with additional color-infused options for those who don't like red). Even if you don't like its outward appearance, the outstanding picture quality may be enough to win you over.