The Top 50- to 55-Inch HDTVs

Looking for a big new HDTV for spring? Consider these six PC World-tested TVs.

Samsung PN50A760 HDTV

The Samsung PN50A760 HDTV ($1850 as of April 16, 2009) combines cool multimedia capabilities and great image quality. In our lab tests, this Samsung plasma HDTV earned the highest scores in its size category for image quality. Though we noticed some pixelation in several tests, the PN50A760 performed very well, with some crisp, sharp images and good color balance. I especially admired its handling of fast motion 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 soundtrack's sudden organ blast had a powerful, in-the-gut heft.The TV also benefits from being easy to set up. The TV's menus are thoroughly readable, and the Input menu gives priority to attached devices that are currently 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, too. 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 set's flash memory. You can plug a USB drive into the TV'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.

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

Panasonic TH-50PZ850U

The Panasonic TH-50PZ850U is a pretty good value, especially in view of its generous array of extra features. This set also does an adequate, though not extraordinary, job displaying movies and TV shows. And at $1700 street (as of April 16, 2009), this plasma HDTV is reasonably inexpensive for a 50-inch set.

This is one of two ethernet-enabled TVs we've looked at recently. Once you've plugged it into your home network, you can access online content delivered via Panasonic's Viera Cast service, including YouTube, weather reports, Picasa, and Bloomberg. The TH-50PZ850U also has an SD Card slot for JPEG photo or video (AVCHD or MPEG2) playback.

Overall, we deemed the TH-PZ850U's picture quality good but not great. Among the problems judges noted were pixelation in long shots, reddish tones on Caucasian skin, and a bad overscan when handling a 720p source.The model does have a very good (albeit not backlit) programmable remote. It's long, but the buttons are big and easy to find with your thumb.

The blocky on-screen menus aren't pretty, but they're functional and easy to read. An easy-access "Sub" Menu lets you change common options such as Closed Captioning and Favorites without having to navigate the main menu.

The sound quality is acceptable, but no better than that. It emulates surround sound reasonably well and becomes only slightly strained when things get loud. But you won't want to depend on your TV's speakers if sound is important to you.

I wish that the image quality were a bit better, but the Panasonic TH-50PZ850U is definitely worth its price.

LG Electronics 50PG30 HDTV

The LG Electronics 50PG30 HDTV is a relatively inexpensive ($1300 as of April 16, 2009) 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 from an indirect angle--as you'd expect from a plasma TV. And I thought that the 50PG30 did a fine job with foreground and background detail (especially the latter) on our David Letterman interview clip. My least satisfying experience while viewing the 50PG30 was in the NASCAR clip, where I noticed 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 the Samsung PN50A760. LG's other entrant in this category, the LG Electronics 52LG70, is superior to the 50PG30 in almost every way--but it costs $600 more.

LG Electronics 52LG70 HDTV

It closely resembles its plasma HDTV sibling (the LG Electronics 50PG30), but the $1900 (as of April 16, 2009) LG Electronics 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. The set 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, helped along by well-placed connectors and a setup wizard that asks whether the set needs home or store optimization. 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 ones that are already 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 are well placed for thumb control. The remote lacks backlighting, but 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 of 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 sets that are considerably less expensive.

Sharp Aquos LC-52D85U HDTV

Design is not the Sharp Aquos LC-52D85U HDTV's strong point. The on-screen menus, the remote, and even the manual could have used some friendliness training.But this $1600 (as of April 16, 2009) LCD model does well on the most important criterion, image quality.

In our PC World Test Center evaluations, it tied with the LG Electronics 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 120Hz refresh rate, we saw no evidence in our NASCAR clip that its faster refresh helped smooth out motion.

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 HDTV does not support picture-in-picture or have any multimedia capabilities via USB, SD Card, or ethernet. At $1600, 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 $250 less than the top-rated Samsung PN50A760.

Vizio VF550XVT

Despite capturing the fifth spot on our charts, the Vizio VF550XVT ($1800 as of April 16, 2009) isn't without problems. One judge noticed heavy pixelation around cars in a wide-shot while reviewing a 720p NASCAR racing clip. In a scene from Mission: Impossible III, Tom Cruise appeared to be encased in a bubble of pixels as he ran up a brick wall. The VF550XVT also had problems with color accuracy, displaying some scenes with a yellowish cast.

The audio wasn't very good either. I heard strong stereo separation between the three front tracks--better than what I generally hear from a standard, two-speaker TV--but only the slightest hint of emulated surround. A big blast of organ music was barely louder than the dialogue that preceded it, and the sound system suffered from weak bass, as well.

At first, I liked the attractive, easy-to-read on-screen menu very much. But the menus are unintuitive and unhelpful. Also, Vizio doesn't provide a smaller, convenient menu for adjusting options that require frequent changing.

The programmable remote has very useful backlighting. Press any key and all of the others light up. Most of the labels are on the buttons, so you can read them in the dark. But the remote is big and clunky, and several commonly used buttons, including Menu and Inputs, are too small and easy to miss.The VF550XVT's picture-in-picture works fine as long as you've turned off the parental control rating option. And unlike Samsung, with its handling of such recent PIP-equipped TVs as the PN50A760, Vizio includes a PIP button on the remote.

In my experience, Vizio TVs usually deliver very good pictures at a reasonable price, but I was quite disappointed by the VF550XVT's performance. Let's hope that this model proves to be an aberration.

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