In the battle between plasma and LCD, the former generally comes out ahead in most areas of our picture quality tests, while the latter has dominated the less-important, but somehow costlier, dimension of depth. LCDs like the Samsung and Sony edge-lit models, and the Hitachi UT37X902 cost a hefty premium for their manufacturers knocking an inch or two from the standard panel’s thickness. Now plasma makers want in on that premium, and PNB850 and PNB860 series represent Samsung’s less-depth-for-more-money gambit.
Like the company’s thicker, less expensive PNB650 series, the PNB850/860 series offers excellent picture quality with accurate color, deep black levels–albeit not as deep as the best plasmas and LCDs–and solid video processing. In fact, we awarded the two Samsung plasmas the same Performance score, although the PNB850/860 gets the nod in Design. If you can stomach the higher price and like the thin profile, however, the PNB850/860 makes a compelling option.
Series note: We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 50-inch Samsung PN50B850, but this review also applies to the 58-inch member of the series, model PN58B850, as well as to the two models in the PNB860 series: the 50-inch PN50B860 and the 58-inch PN58B860. According to Samsung, the only difference between all four models, aside from screen size, is the presence in the 860 models of a manual option for 1080p/24 processing and an extra calibration mode (see below for details). For that reason, we expect the picture quality of all four models to be very similar.
The PNB850/860 series is commendably sleek and high-tech, even by Samsung’s standards, and is easily the coolest looking plasma HDTV we’ve seen this year. Its principal design trait is the thin depth–just 1.2 inches thick–which out-thins every plasma on the market except for Panasonic’s ultra-expensive Z1. Here’s where we mention that we don’t really consider the 3- to 4-inch depths of standard flat-panel TVs anything to sneeze at, but if you want that razor-thin look from the side, the 850/860 series is your only somewhat reasonably priced plasma option.
Other exterior characteristics include hidden speakers and a glossy black frame that’s equal in width on all four sides. It lacks the “one sheet of glass” design of Panasonic’s V10 series, but the frame is a bit slimmer around the sides, which terminate in a transparent edge that lends a high-tech luster. Samsung’s trademark transparent stalk is also in evidence, which allows the panel to swivel atop the substantial, stainless steel-colored metal base.
Samsung used the same menu system as last year and we still think it’s one of the best in the business. Big, highly legible text is set against transparent backgrounds that occupy almost the whole screen. Getting around is easy and there’s helpful explanatory text along the bottom to describe the different selections.
The remote control is similar to last year too, aside from a sort of fin added to the back that keeps it stable on a flat surface, and we’re definitely fans. The buttons are big, backlit, and easily differentiated by size and shape, and we liked the dedicated “Tools” key that offers quick access to picture and sound modes, the sleep timer, and the picture-in-picture controls. However, we didn’t like the remote’s glossy black finish that picked up more than its share of dulling fingerprints after a few minutes.
The PNB850/850 series has the numerous features we’d expect in a flagship plasma. Samsung and Panasonic share many spec sheet bullet points, including “600Hz” panels that are said to improve motion resolution/reduce blur. The best thing we can say about this feature is to ignore it; the number was created in response to the 120Hz and 240Hz refresh rates of LCDs. Plasma technology is inherently less subject to blurring than LCD, and in any case it’s really hard to see any difference with real material.
Like Panasonic, Samsung can also properly deal with 1080p/24 sources. The main difference between the PNB850 series and the PNB860 series concerns the options available with those sources. On the B860 models, there’s a Cinema Smooth option in the Film Mode menu that let you manually turn on or off the 96Hz refresh rate that allows proper display of 24p signals (however, it does not introduce dejudder processing). The B850 models lack that manual setting and simply switch automatically to the proper 96Hz refresh rate when you input a 24p signal. See performance for more details.
Samsung’s main interactive capability is supplied by Yahoo! widgets. The system gathers Internet-powered information nodules, called “snippets,” into a bar along the bottom of the screen. The model we reviewed came with widgets for stocks, weather, news, and Flickr photos, plus YouTube, Yahoo video, sports scores, games and, Twitter–and more are sure to appear in the near future. For more information, check out our full review of Yahoo widgets. That review is based on our experiences with a Samsung UN46B7000, and our impressions of the system on the PNB850/860 are mostly the same, including its relatively sluggish response time. Mainly for that reason, we still prefer VieraCast to Yahoo Widgets.
Other interactive features on this set abound. Unlike the Panasonic, it can stream videos, photos, and music from DLNA-certified devices via the network connection, as well from its USB ports–that can connect to MP3 players, USB thumbdrives, and digital cameras (we didn’t test this capability). There’s also built-in “content,” such as recipes, games, workout guides, and a slide show of high-definition art and photos with music. We went into depth discussing the underwhelming content features last year, which are similar this time around, so if you’re interested check out the Interactive section of the 2008 Samsung LN46A750 review.
Like other Samsung sets the PNB850/860 series offers numerous picture tweaks, starting with four adjustable picture modes that are all independent per input. One of these modes is called “Eco” but, aside from its slightly lower default light output and consequent power savings, it’s no different from the other three.
There are five color temperature presets augmented by the capability to adjust each via a custom white balance menu; three levels of noise reduction, including an automatic setting; a film mode to engage 2:3 pull-down (it also works with 1080i sources) or, on the 860 models, manually take advantage of 1080p/24 sources with the CinemaSmooth setting; a seven-position gamma control that affects the TV’s progression from dark to light; a dynamic contrast control that adjusts the picture on the fly; a “black tone” control that affects shadow detail; and a color space control that lets you tweak the Samsung’s color gamut.
It’s also worth mentioning that the B860 models have a Night/Day mode, intended for professional calibrations, that must be activated via the service menu. In addition to Cinema Smooth, it’s the only difference between the 850 and the 860 models.
You can choose from four aspect ratio modes for HD sources, two of which let you move the whole image across the screen horizontally and vertically. As we’d expect from a 1080p TV, one of those modes, called Screen Fit, lets the PNB850/860 scale 1080i and 1080p sources directly to the panel’s pixels with no overscan–the best option unless you see interference along the edge of the screen, as can be the case with some channels or programs.
We appreciated the three power-saver modes (not to be confused with the Eco picture mode) that further reduce energy use. Samsung also throws in picture-in-picture, an “E-manual” on a USB thumbdrive, and even a customer care screen that includes the firmware version for when you need to call the company. We’re also big fans of the new-for-2009 capability, unique among HDTVs, to get firmware updates via an online download, rather than making you go to the Web site, as was the case before.
Samsung’s “screen burn” menu offers a couple of ways to combat burn-in, aka image retention, and address it should it occur. By default, the pixel shift function automatically moves the image slightly around the screen. You can set the bars to either side of 4:3 aspect ratio programs to gray or black (light gray, the default, is the best to help prevent burn-in). And if you do see image retention, a few hours of the scrolling ramp pattern should clear it up.
It’s worth noting that on our review sample, we did notice more image retention than we saw on the Panasonic and Pioneer plasmas, although as usual it was quite temporary and disappeared quickly during normal viewing. We only noticed it after the screen faded to black after displaying still images, like our PS3 menu. We’d expect the issue to go away after a couple hundred hours of use.
The shallow depth of the PNB850/860 series necessitates some connectivity sacrifices, at least in the analog video input arena. An ample four digital HDMI inputs, however, are arranged vertically along the shallow connection bay on the back of the TV (note that fat cables might not fit the nearly flush sockets very well). You also get two USB inputs, a VGA-style PC input, and a single component-video input that can be converted to accept composite video instead. An RF input for antenna or cable, an optical digital audio jack, and the Ethernet port complete the picture. There are no S-Video or dedicated composite-video connections, so if you need to connect more than one analog device, you’ll need to use a switcher or an AV receiver. There’s also no separate side-panel input bay.
Overall, the picture quality of the Samsung B850/860 series is superb, albeit a bit short of its prime competition, Panasonic’s V10 series. Between the two we give the Panasonic the edge in black level performance and the Samsung the nod in terms of color–with the V10 winning overall in our opinion, if by just a hair. Notably, the B850/860 delivered overall performance that was very similar to that of the less-expensive B650 series, although between the two, surprisingly, the B650′s black levels were just a bit better.
Prior to evaluation, we subjected the B850/860 to our standard calibration, which began with placing the set in Movie mode. We bumped light output up to our standard 40ftl, chose the -1 gamma setting to come closest to the 2.2 standard (it ended up at a respectable 2.25, albeit darker on the bottom end), and tweaked the color temperature controls a good deal more than we had to with the B650, with slightly worse results. As usual, for Samsung we felt no need to mess with the color management system since primaries and secondaries, along with color decoding, were extremely accurate.
Our lineup for comparison this time around included Samsung’s less-expensive PN50B650, along with the Panasonic TC-P50V10 and the reference Pioneer PRO-111FD from the plasma camp. We also included a couple of good-performing LCDs, namely the Samsung LN52B750, the Sony KDL-55XBR8, and the LG 47LH90. Many of our image quality tests were conducted using the “Donnie Darko” Director’s Cut on Blu-ray Disc.
Black level: The Samsung B850/860 delivered a nice, deep shade of black that lent realism to dark and bright scenes alike, but in the film’s many dimmer moments it came in behind most of the other displays at approaching true black. During the black screen showing a date, such as “October 2, 1998,” in Chapter 3, the difference was most apparent, and even the B650 plasma got a bit darker. However, as brighter elements appeared onscreen, the differences narrowed; during the succeeding shot showing the Darko house at night, or a bit later when Donnie sees the scary bunny on the golf course, the two Samsung plasmas and the two LCDs were difficult to differentiate black levelwise, although the other two plasmas along with the Sony XBR8 were clearly closer to true black.
Details in shadows, such as the toys and shelves in Donnie’s room or the siding of the house behind the leaves, appeared a bit more distinct on the other plasmas and the XBR8 as well, although it was about the same compared with the two LCDs and the B650 plasma..
Color accuracy: As with the Samsung B650, accurate color proved a major strength of the B850/B860 plasmas. Its primary and secondary colors were nearly perfect, including the green of the golf course and the light blur of Donnie’s shirt at the beginning of Chapter 4. Both looked more realistic and closer to our reference than on the Panasonic that had more neon greens were fairly obvious in this scene. The somewhat pasty skin of Gyllenhaal and the bronzed face of Swayze in the morning sun also looked just a tad more realistic on the Samsung than on the Panasonic, although the difference was much more subtle. Colors did appear just a bit more rich and saturated on the Panasonic; however, it’s a difference we attribute to the Samsung’s lighter black levels–but compared with the LCDs, the Samsungs saturation was punchier and more realistic. Like the Panasonic, the B850/860 reproduced dark and black areas with very little color tinge, lacking the comparatively bluish cast of the B750, for example.
Video processing: The B850 we tested lacks a manual option for 1080p/24 sources, dubbed Cinema Smooth in Samsung’s menu, but it still handled 1080p/24 sources perfectly as far as we could tell. When we fed the set a 1080p/24 signal, it displayed the proper cadence of film during our favorite test clip, the pan over the Intrepid from “I Am Legend,” as well as during “Darko” when the camera follows Donnie in through the back door to the refrigerator in Chapter 1. In these scenes and others, the proper judder of film was evident, as opposed to the somewhat stuttering, hitching motion of 2:3 pull-down. We couldn’t see any difference between the B850′s handling of these scenes and that of the other 1080p/24 capable displays in our lineup, including the 96Hz Panasonic V10. (It’s worth mentioning that since we didn’t test the B860, we can’t speak to whether it has the same issues with Cinema Smooth as the B650 we tested, but we do prefer the automatic implementation found on the B850 overall).
According to Samsung, its plasmas use 600Hz subfield motion technology, which sounds like the 600Hz subfield drive employed by Panasonic on its plasmas, but the two didn’t deliver the same results. The Samsung B850/860 didn’t quite match the motion resolution of the Panasonic plasmas, the Pioneer, or the 240Hz Samsung B750 in our comparisons, it delivered between 800 and 900 lines, according to our test. However, that’s still very good and as usual, we suspect that even the most blur-sensitive viewers won’t notice a difference with regular program material.
As expected, the B850/860 delivered every line of still resolution when we selected the “Screen Fit” aspect ratio mode, and it deinterlaced both film- and video-based source properly. To pass our film deinterlacing test, the TV had to be in the “Auto1″ Film Mode setting; Auto2 is the default when the TV detects 1080i sources.
Bright lighting: Under bright lights, the Samsung performed as well as any plasma we’ve tested aside from the Pioneer, which was roughly its equal. Its main strength was its capability to preserve a darker shade of black–despite ambient lighting–than the Panasonic that has blacks that washed out and became grayer faster than they did on the Samsung. On the flip side, the Samsung did not attenuate reflections, such as bright lights in the room or reflections such as a viewer’s clothing. The Panasonic’s reflections were dimmer and thus less distracting than those of the Samsung, but we still liked the Samsung’s bright-room image better overall. It’s worth noting that the matte-screened Sony LCD provided the overall best bright-room performance in our lineup.
Standard-definition: The PNB850/860 evinced generally solid standard-definition picture quality. According to our tests, the display handled every line of a DVD source and the shots of grass and steps from the detail test looked good. The set eliminated jaggies from video-based sources well, and its noise reduction cleaned up the lowest-quality shots of skies and sunset with aplomb. Finally the set passed 2:3 pull-down test by eliminating moire from the stands behind the racecar.
PC: Samsung’s PNB850/860 series delivered excellent performance with HDMI sources from computers, resolving every line of a 1,920×1,080-pixel resolution image with no overscan or edge enhancement. The image did appear very slightly softer via VGA but the set still resolved every line, according to our DisplayMate test.