You don’t need to spend a lot of money for a 3D HDTV, even if you want a big, 50-plus-inch model. Samsung’s PN51D550C1F is a 51-inch plasma HDTV that supports 3D, looks pretty great, offers a very effective power-saving mode, and costs just $1,299.99 (list). This set isn’t perfect, though. While it has 3D support, it doesn’t integrate Netflix or any other video-streaming services. In fact, you get no Web apps, though there is local network access through DLNA. In the bargain, you also get less-than-stellar shadow detail when compared with other plasma screens. But then again, there’s the price, which is tough to beat. This set improves on last year’s Samsung PN50C590G4F ($1,399.99, 3 stars) adding 3D support, upping the slick design factor, and offering much better power consumption stats, but it takes a hit on black levels.
If you didn’t know the PN51D550C1F was an inexpensive plasma screen, you could easily assume it to be mid-range LED-backlit LCD HDTV that cost several hundred dollars more. The 2.2-inch screen is very thin for a plasma display, and its bezel is a glossy black surface edged by transparent acrylic, giving it some style and flair. The bottom of the bezel shows a Samsung logo in the middle and a power light and touch-sensitive controls on the lower left corner. On the back of the screen, two HDMI and two USB ports are mounted to the side, with the remaining two HDMI ports, two sets of component video inputs, optical audio input and outputs, Ethernet port, coaxial cable input, PC video input, and Ex-Link port (for motorized mounts) face back.
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The curved 9.5-inch remote looks like a streamlined version of the blocky remotes that came with Samsung’s 2010 HDTV models. The button layouts are nearly identical, with the number pad on the top, with channel and volume controls, a direction pad, and playback controls below. The biggest difference besides the curved profile of the remote is the direction pad, which has become a circle with four directional curves compared to last year’s rectangular buttons. The remote isn’t backlit, but the different button areas feel unique enough that you can easily use the remote without looking at it.
Besides 3D support, the PN51D550C1F doesn’t have many features. The panel incorporates a 600Hz “Subfield Motion” system to reduce motion blur and can display both locally connected media through USB and locally networked media through DLNA. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have any online content features, Web apps, or widgets, so if you’re not planning to stream media locally, there’s no reason to run an Ethernet cable to the back of the set.
Samsung PN51D550C1F Specifications
- Screen Size
- 51 inches
- Plasma, HDTV
- Supported Refresh Rates
- 60Hz, 600Hz
- Video Inputs
- Component, DVI, HDMI, USB
We use DisplayMate software and a chromameter to test the picture quality of HDTVs, and, for the most part, the set proved admirable in our trials. Its color levels were satisfyingly accurate and its peak white levels had 205.5 cd/m2 luminance, while its peak black levels dipped as low as 0.05 cd/m2 for a respectable contrast ratio of 4,110:1. Black levels were slightly disappointing for a plasma; while 0.05 cd/m2 is decent, plasmas like last year’s Panasonic TC-P42GT25 ($1,699.99, 3.5 stars) reached 0.03 cd/m2 and our LED-backlit Editors’ Choice LG Infinia 47LW5600 ($1,699.99 list, 4.5 stars) got as low as 0.01 cd/m2, the lowest black levels we can measure without reading total darkness. This not-so-great black level isn’t a dealbreaker, but it can muddle details in shadows when watching dark scenes. However, both models are more expensive than the PN51D550C1F, and for its price, the set’s test results are good.
I tested the screen’s 3D capabilities with Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon 3D on Blu-ray. The 3D looked generally good, but I occasionally noticed some crosstalk, especially in scenes with considerable motion between distant backgrounds and close foreground objects (like the flying scenes). The screen has a few options for adjusting the 3D effect, but the “3D Perspective” setting only disoriented me when I moved it off of the default, and other settings were disabled with a direct 3D video feed and not a 2D-to-3D conversion. A very welcome 3D-to-2D conversion limits the screen to just one perspective, effectively making it a 2D film. This is useful if you have a 3D-only promotional Blu-ray disc (like the How to Train Your Dragon release included with the set), a 3D Blu-ray player, and no menu options on the Blu-ray side to disable 3D.
The PN51D550C1F currently comes with two pair of “starter” active shutter 3D glasses are part of a promotion held by Samsung. If the HDTV is bought at certain retailers, it will come with two sets of Samsung’s SSG-3100GB 3D glasses. Samsung offers additional 3D glasses for users who would like more than two people at a time to watch 3D movies on their HDTVs. The available glasses range from bulky $50 models with replaceable batteries to streamlined and light $150 models with rechargeable batteries. For a family of four, expect to spend $100 more to outfit everyone with 3D glasses, or $600 to outfit everyone with Samsung’s high-end 3D glasses. Passive 3D screens, like the LG Infinia 47LW5600, can use any polarized-lens 3D glasses, which can be much cheaper than even the low-end active shutter glasses.
If you watch the PN51D550C1F with the screen at full brightness and everything turned up and optimized, it’s appropriately power-hungry, a common issue for plasmas. However, an EnergyStar-branded Standard mode cuts the power consumption down to near-LED LCD levels without dimming the screen to the point that it’s unwatchable. Using the Top Gun Blu-ray Disc to test the HDTV’s power consumption, we found the screen devours an average of 281 watts. However, with the Standard energy saving mode activated, that figure drops to approximately 120 watts, an excellent result for any HDTV and remarkable for a plasma screen. While it does darken the screen (and further contributes to the mediocre-shadow-detail problem), the picture is still very watchable and is great for casual TV viewing. It still doesn’t come close to the energy efficiency offered by many LED-backlit LCD HDTVs, however.
Considering its relatively low price tag, the Samsung PN51D550C1F is an affordable way to get a large 3D screen in your home. Its picture looks generally good, the set’s 3D is effective, and the power-saving mode cuts its energy consumption to less than half. However, its black levels are mediocre for a plasma screen, and without any Web apps or other network functions beyond accessing local media, you’ll really need a solid Blu-ray player or a media extender if you want to access Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, or any other service readily available on other HDTVs. Considering you get 51 inches for $1,300, and can stock up on enough 3D glasses to furnish four people at a time for just $100, the lack of Web services is an acceptable loss. If you don’t mind losing a few inches of screen size, though, the LG Infinia 47LW5600 offers a better picture, Web apps, and passive 3D (which lets you use much cheaper 3D glasses that aren’t dependent on batteries) for $300 more.