The Top 50- and 52-Inch HDTVs

HDTV prices are dropping, image quality is improving, and the idiot box asks intelligent questions the first time you turn it on. HDTV really is better than ever.

Samsung PN50A760 HDTV

Samsung's PN50A760 HDTV combines cool multimedia capabilities and great image quality. In our lab tests, this Samsung plasma HDTV was the only model in its size category to earn a rating of Very Good for image quality.

One juror noted some pixelation in several tests, but even so she declared this model the "best out of all tested," with some very crisp and sharp images. Another juror commended the set's color balance. I admired its handling of fast motion in our NASCAR-clip test, and its wide viewing angle.

In my hands-on tests, the PN50A760 provided excellent virtual surround sound, close to what you'd experience with a dedicated speaker system. A movie sound track's sudden organ blast had a powerful, in-the-gut heft.

The PN50A760 is well designed. A setup wizard helps you optimize the set for use in your home (as opposed to in a store). The TV's menus are thoroughly readable, and the Input menu gives priority to attached devices that are actually turned on, so you don't have to scroll past a bunch of irrelevant options to select the device you want to use.

The PN50A760 has a host of slick multimedia capabilities, as well. Press the remote's Content button to get a full screen of options, including scenic photos, recipes, exercises, and children's activities--all built into the TV's flash memory (but not updatable). You can plug a USB drive into the set's side-mounted USB port to view your own photographs or to play audio files. Alternatively, you can plug an ethernet cable into the PN50A760 and view media from a PC set up as a DLNA server (the TV comes with appropriate software for this).

Backlighting makes the excellent, programmable remote easy to use in the dark. It has a convenient jog wheel in place of the usual arrows, but Samsung left out a picture-in-picture button, despite the TV's picture-in-picture function.

At $2500, the Samsung PN50A760 is pricey. Still, you get what you pay for in image quality and extra features.

For more HDTV coverage, see "Top 46- and 47-Inch HDTVs" and "The Top 42-Inch HDTVs."

LG Electronics 50PG30 HDTV

The LG 50PG30 HDTV is an inexpensive ($1700) plasma set with stylish looks. Its design and range of inputs (including three HDMI ports) will attract attention, but this model's image quality is only average.

In PC World Test Center tests, our judges had a wide range of reactions to the set. It looked quite good when viewed at an angle--as you'd expect from a plasma TV. And I thought the 50PG30 did a very good job with foreground and background detail (especially the latter) on our David Letterman interview clip. My least satisfying 50PG30-viewing experience was in the NASCAR clip, where I observed some motion blur and fuzziness. One judge faulted facial tones; another said that images appeared flat, with colors that didn't pop.

The 50PG30 is easy to set up, with conveniently placed inputs and a setup wizard that asks whether to optimize for home use or store use. The Quick Menu offers rapid access to common op­­tions such as the set's picture and sound modes. And the se­­lec­tions that pop up (as icons) when you press the Input button give top priority to sources that are currently sending a signal to the TV--a time-saving touch.

But the 50PG30 has no picture-in-picture, and no USB or SD Card multimedia capabilities. The remote doesn't glow in the dark, isn't programmable, and controls only VCR or DVD players that support LG's SimpLink (HDMI CEC) interface. Though the 50PG30 finished second among the 50- and 52-inch sets in our overall rankings, thanks in large part to its low price, it can't touch the superior design and top-of-the-line image quality of Samsung's PN50A760. LG's other entrant in this category, the 52LG70, is superior to the 50PG30 in almost every way--but it costs $800 more.

Next: This LG set's LCD sibling.

LG Electronics 52LG70 HDTV

Though it closely resembles its plasma sibling ( the LG 50PG30), the $2500 LG 52LG70 LCD HDTV is clearly the more advanced model. Unlike with the plasma set, you can plug a flash drive into the 52LG70 to view photos and listen to MP3s. It packs four HDMI ports and two optical audio outputs into its 52-inch frame, but it lacks a picture-in-picture mode.

Setup is simple: Well-placed connectors and a setup wizard that asks whether the set needs home or store optimization help things along. When you press the remote's Input button to change from your cable input to your DVD player (for example), the TV displays icons for all of your inputs; the inputs that are turned on are highlighted and grouped together at the front. Want to adjust the aspect ratio or the TV's backlighting? The Q (for Quick) Menu button offers instant access to those op­­tions. The buttons on the long, thin remote are of good size and well placed for thumb control. Though the remote lacks backlighting, you can program it for use with other devices.

Our PC World Test Center judges rated the LG 52LG70's image quality as average. I saw several faces with the unnatural color and texture of an oil painting rather than human flesh. All of the judges noticed pixelation and other artifacts in various tests, especially during fast action and dissolves. Some images in our tests seemed a bit soft, too, but in general we found the image quality pleasing. The 52LG70 is a very good HDTV at an acceptable price. However, you can find some pretty good ones that are less expensive.

Next: A Sharp LCD model

Sharp LC-52D85U HDTV

Design is not the Sharp LC-52D85U HDTV's strong point. The on-screen menus, the remote, and even the manual could have used some friendliness training.

But this $2300 LCD model does well on the most important criterion, image quality. In our PC World Test Center evaluations, it tied with the LG 52LG70 LCD model for third place overall in its category. Our judges tended to give it Good or Very Good ratings on most measures, and one juror praised the set's ability to show details.

Even so, our judges detected some shortcomings: One noted visible artifacting, and another complained that colors looked washed out in a 480p DVD. I noticed pixelation, and found many scenes excessively bright. And though this set has a 120-Hz refresh rate, we saw no evidence that the faster refresh helped smooth out motion in our NASCAR clip.

The Sharp delivers acceptable audio, but its artificial surround sound exhibited no real depth, and an organ blast had no oomph. Loud sounds suffered from slight harshness. The remote is freckled with tiny, difficult-to-press buttons. Though it has a backlight, the feature doesn't provide much help in the dark. Press the Light button (which glows quite nicely), and only the elongated Volume and Channel buttons, plus four others, light up. Since the labels aren't illuminated, it's unclear which button is which. Click the Input button, and you get a list of all available inputs, whether they have hardware connected to them or not.

This model does not support picture-in-picture or have any multimedia capabilities via USB, SD Card, or ethernet.

At $2300, the LC-52D85U provides the best picture for its price among the big sets. It's not the easiest model to use, and it lacks some features, but it also costs $200 less than the Samsung PN50A760 (which does have those missing features).

Next: A Westinghouse LCD TV

Westinghouse Digital TX-52F480S HDTV

The Westinghouse Digital TX-52F480S ($2550) is the second most expensive HDTV in its size category. Though it costs only $50 more than the Samsung PN50A760, this set falls short of the Samsung on image quality and features.

The TX-52F480S scored fairly well in our Test Center evaluations, finishing second in our performance tests. Despite being the only 50- to 52-inch LCD HDTV we tested that didn't de­­liver a 120-Hz refresh rate, it provided smooth motion in our NASCAR test clip, where the advantages of a 120-Hz HDTV would have been most likely to be discernible. Our panel of judges found other issues with the image quality, though: Nearly every judge noted the reddish, sunburned tint the TV gave Caucasian skin tones; several panelists observed pixelation and fuzziness. And the TX-52F480S failed our HD HQV Benchmark Jaggies test.

In my hands-on use, this model's audio was wretched. At 61 percent of full volume (full volume was too loud for my health), the built-in speakers lacked dynamic range: The movie sound track I used in testing sounded flat, muddy, and strained. Even at 40 percent of full volume, the audible strain was distracting. Anyone who buys this set should reserve the internal speakers for news and TV shows, and use a separate sound system when watching movies and concerts.

The TX-52F480S's remote control is middling. Wes­ting­house put the arrow buttons near the bottom, where they're difficult to reach, and the commonly used Mute and Input buttons are tiny and inconveniently situated. The remote lacks backlighting and can't be programmed. On a positive note, the remote has a Closed Caption button. A bigger plus is the set's Autosource feature: Turn on a DVD player or other A/V source that's connected to the television, and Autosource automatically switches to it.

Overall, the Westinghouse Digital TX-52F480S is a decent TV. But other models offer more features for less money.

For more on HDTVs, see "How to Buy a Flat-Screen HDTV" and "Essential HDTV Accessories."