Samsung PN58A650 — Plasma display offers good value despite glitches

While the fundamentals of Samsung’s high-end flat panel TVs are similar every series usually has a feature or two that stand out from the rest.

The “showpiece” feature – in the case of the Samsung Series 6 plasma HDTVs – is their ability to wirelessly access content over a local area network, as well as from the Web.

For instance, Series 6 plasma displays offer Internet@TV – a service that provides access to sought-after Web content on your TV set through a bunch of “widgets.”

These plasma displays are also among the first TVs to be wireless DLNA-compliant, enabling users to access media content that may exist on PCs or other devices around the house, without the hassle of extra cabling.

Among their broad range of connectivity options, they also come equipped with a USB 2.0 port.

So users can connect storage and mobile devices, and then play a range of multimedia files, especially as these displays support an expanded list of codecs – including Windows Media Video 9, DivX, MKV and 3GPP.

These broad device and network connectivity capabilities are undoubtedly the hallmark of the Samsung PN58A650 58-inch Plasma HDTV – the focus of this review.

They also make this 58-inch high-end plasma HDTV a great productivity-cum-entertainment display for the information worker.

This is true even though some of these network features don’t exactly work as they should — not consistently at least. There are issues with the “PC Share” capability, as well as with the Internet@TV services, which I’ll detail later.

But as this is first and foremost an HDTV, let’s first talk about the audio-visual experience.

Vivid colours

Samsung PN58A650 offers a native resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 – or 1080p – something standard in 58-inch displays today.

The PN58A650 has four pre-configured picture modes – Dynamic, Standard, Eco and Movie.

The Eco mode cuts down the colossal power consumption of the display without any noticeable compromise in picture quality, and it’s a welcome addition. The drawback, though, is this mode is not available when you connect your PC to the display.

Another disappointment is that there aren’t any buttons on the remote to access any of the preset modes and you have to use the onscreen menu to do that.

Onscreen menu controls also allow users to fine tune features such as pixel brightness (using a feature call Cell Light), contrast, sharpness colour, and tint).

Advanced settings – available only in Standard and Movie Modes – allow you to make more granular adjustments to colour and contrast.

For instance, using the Black Tone feature you can try to enhance the picture depth by adjusting black colour intensity – or control luminance by tweaking the Gamma settings.

A Screen Burn Protection control option helps you reduce or prevent pixel burn,which could occur when you pause an image for too long, for instance.

I experimented a bit with colour tones and other Picture options and selected the Warm2 Tone (only available when in Movie mode).

Then after adjusting colour, sharpness, contrast, brightness and tint to where I wanted them, I spun The Forbidden Kingdom on a Samsung Blu-Ray player hooked up to the PN58A650 via an HDMI cable.

The picture quality of this martial arts adventure flick starring Jackie Chan and Jet Li, was awesome.

The TV’s rendering of colours, shades and tonal nuances was impressive.

Whether it was the darker sepia tones of the tea shop where Jason and Jackie Chan bat the breeze towards the start of the film, or the resplendent hues of the verdant forests they trek through, or the lavish costumes donned by the Jade Warlord’s fighters — watching this film on the PN58A650 was a visual treat.

While best results are achieved playing a Blu-Ray disk at 1080p (using one of the TV’s HDMI ports), the audio-visual quality of DVDs and other media played using some of the other PN58A650 ports was also impressive.

I connected a variety of devices to the display, including a Sony DVP NS-325 DVD player (using a component cable), and a Panasonic Omnivision VHS video recorder to one of the composite ports.

In all cases picture quality was what you would expect from a high-end plasma display, colour accuracy was impressive, as were the black levels.

And you realize just how useful the TV’s anti-glare screen can be, when watching videos for hours at a time – as happened during my tests.

Media Play DLNA – a disappointing experience

My experience when using the DLNA network to access and play media stored on my desktop PC was disappointing though.

You begin with installing the DLNA application on PCs in your home whose rich media content you want to access on the PN58A650.

I installed the software — dubbed PC Share Manager 2.0 — on my HP Media Centre desktop PC and then connected a SlingLink Turbo unit to the Samsung TV’s Ethernet port.

The SlingLink unit enabled me to establish a wired connection to my router, which was in a different room. I set the computer to share folders where my pictures and video were stored.

The final results after this extensive set up operation though, were disappointing.

The Samsung display detected my home PC. But when I sought to access any of the Photo, Music or Movie files using the Media Play DLNA function – I was usually unsuccessful.

Either a song would play partially and stop, or else I’d be pre-empted right at the start with a message: Request Cannot be Completed. And then the Media Play function would be temporarily disconnected.

Users would be far better off copying their PC’s media files (pictures, music or video) on to a USB device, connecting this device to the USB port on the TV, and then playing the copied files.

In my tests this worked beautifully. The PN58A650 displayed the pictures, and played the music files and videos on the USB thumb drive without a hitch and the picture and sound quality was good.

It’s a far better option than using Media Play DLNA – and you’ll save yourself a lot of grief.

Internet@TV

I had several frustrating experiences when trying to use Samsung’s Internet@TV content service powered by Yahoo! Widget Engine.

The service is designed to let users access Web-based multimedia content from their favourite Internet sources – including
YouTube, flickr, and Yahoo News, Finance and Weather.

 My experience when using these Web widgets was mixed.

While, for the most part, the News, Finance and Weather widgets – offered through the new InfoLink RSS service – worked well, trying to access and play YouTube videos was like pulling teeth.

Even the few times the YouTube widget worked reasonably well, the search for videos was a longwinded process, and trying to type in search phrases using the one-letter-at a-time onscreen keyboard was exasperating.

Most of the time, when trying to access YouTube videos I’d get the message: “This Widget is unable to refresh its data and will be closed. Please try again later.” And that was the end of that.

Remember I used SlingLink to connect the TV to my router. This was a hardwired (not a wireless) connection to the Internet, so if anything YouTube access should have worked as well on this TV, as on my PC.

But this was certainly not the case.

Connectivity galore

With the broad range of connectivity options offered by the PN58A650, it’s hardly ever likely you’ll run out of ports – no matter how many devices you want to hook up to this TV.

The laundry-list includes: four HDMI jacks, a LAN port (for network or Internet connectivity), two Component input ports, two AV input ports (one of the component ports doubles up as an AV port). You also have coaxial Antenna In for your cable network.

You can hook up your PC using the VGA port at the rear panel – and if your PC supports an HDMI or DVI connection there are ports for this too.

Final word

The Samsung PN58A650 plasma TV’s retail price of around $2,700 in Canadian electronics stories may be beyond the budget of many information workers.

But for those who can afford it, this solid, feature-replete and well-designed plasma TV offering would offer more bells and whistles than they would possibly use.

Support for PC connectivity and its ability to connect to the Internet, make this an attractive hybrid display for the information worker – especially as the TV also includes support of USB mass storage class devices (such as thumb drives and flash drives).

However, glitches with the DLNA Media Play function should be addressed – and the Internet@TV feature needs to be honed and expanded to include more widgets.

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