Few plasma TVs make it to these pages these days simply because there aren't many out there. Gas screens now account for less than a tenth of flatscreen sales, but the technology itself is still very impressive.
The Samsung PS50B550 carries on that tradition by combining pin-sharp Blu-ray pics with general viewing functions and at a cracking low price.
Its rose-black frame may well be luscious, but the PS50B550 is distinctly barren when compared to other TVs from the brand. With no kind of internet connectivity or wireless streaming, the PS50B550 doesn't have much going for it aside from the bigscreen plasma picture quality so beloved of home cinema aficionados.
Arguably most important of this set's features is its 18-bit processing, which promises to extend the screen's colour palette. That goal is helped by Samsung's Wide Colour Enhancer 2, that's designed to improve the plasma panel's reproduction of reds, as well as giving a more lifelike look to greens and blues.
Also noteworthy is a thick film across the glass panel that stops reflections of ambient light without causing any double images.
Ease of use
The use of simple hi-res graphics make the PS50B550's onscreen menus appear much improved compared to earlier Samsung TVs. The set searches for, finds and structures all digital TV correctly and remarkably quickly, too.
Aping Sony's XrossMediaBar in design is the channel list, which floats a translucent roster of programme details. It's also possible to assign a few favourite TV channels to a button on the remote, a useful feature, given Freeview's evergrowing list of channels. An Info button reveals a basic synopsis and an option to see what's on next.
The PS50B550 likes Blu-ray almost too much. It automatically selects the HDMI port a BD player is attached to and assigns it special Anynet+ status. But it defaults to it far too easily; try playing your Xbox 360 using another HDMI and you'll find that the TV often returns you to the Blu-ray player without any prior warning. It's then a fuss to find your way back. Switch off the Blu-ray deck altogether and the Anynet+ then has to disconnect.
Media playback from a USB stick is also a bit of a fudge: the software's just not very intelligent. Once chosen on the input switcher, you then have to select music or photo, before choosing the file. It's long-winded and without any support for video files – or any kind of PC streaming – the PS50B550 risks being deemed a dinosaur.
As well as the input switcher being sluggish and having a mind of its own, commands issued from the remote are too often ignored or cause the system to freeze for a few seconds. Navigating around this TV is not quite as slick as it should be.
Despite some deep blacks and excellent shadow detailing from our test disc of District 9, it's the almost total lack of blur that makes the PS50B550 such a special screen. As Wikus and Christopher race around the titular slums there's not a blur or judder in sight, while colour saturation is spot on.
Inside the gloomy blacks and blues of the spacecraft there's plenty of detail, though it's not always perfect; a fast zoom across the Johannesburg skyline does cause some judder, while some of the handheld camera work looks rather soft. Close-ups in general do lack fine detailing, but the many heli-cam news report shots across the shanty town are pristine and free flowing.
DVDs and Freeview also hold up well. An episode of Doctor Who on BBC Three sees strong colours and great contrast lending the action significant depth, but the most startling aspect is just how spotless the images are. Freeview broadcasts are so impressive that you might be prompted to recall plasma's almost forgotten status as the only screen technology with all-round ability.
Audio isn't the PS50B550's strong point. Toggling between the provided presets for music, movies and clear voice are just about worth using, but SRS TruSurround HD doesn't blow the soundstage as wide as it promises.
It's ironic that Samsung, which is pushing its LED TVs as a whole new technology, also produces some of the best plasma televisions. In the PS50B550's case, it's also the maker of one of the best bigscreen TV pictures around; no gimmicks, no fuss – just smooth and enjoyable hi-def with fabulous colours, deep blacks and spotless pictures from every source.
LCD and LED TVs may be slimmer and come loaded with extra features, but this 50in plasma is better and cheaper, although it can't quite match LG's 50PS7000 for maximum versatility and value.
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