Only a few years ago the idea of getting a 50-inch Full HD plasma for £750 was unthinkable. Now, the choice is huge, and Samsung’s polished PS50B550 joins mid-range plasmas from LG and Panasonic as excellent value screens for anyone after the perfect picture.
Boasting Full HD resolution (which, on a 50-inch screen is definitely worth considering), the PS50B550 does away with online goodies like Internet@TV (found on Samsung’s higher-end TVs) and even USB video playback (only photos and MP3s can be played) to achieve an attractively low price. Aside from a few tweaks for dynamic contrast, flesh tone and edge enhancement there’s not much to be excited about aside from the rose black-tinted frame.
You might think that the absence of hyped-up features, such as 200Hz or LED backlighting, places the PS50B550 at the low-end of the flatscreen spectrum, but that’s to misunderstand plasma tech. The 200Hz feature is designed largely to make pictures on a LCD TV watchable by attempting to remove some blur; plasmas have never suffered from that problem. Ditto LED backlighting - an attempt by LCD TV manufacturers to allow a panel to create light and dark areas of a picture at the same time. Already a lot more dynamic and responsive than an LCD panel, plasmas have been producing massively high contrast ratios - and deeper blacks - for a decade.
In front of that plasma panel is a thin film across the glass that's designed to stop reflections and ambient light in your viewing room from ruining the picture. Called FilterBright, this approach can be troublesome by causing a double image, but we didn’t spot anything of the kind on the PS50B550.
Ins and outs impress, with a side-mounted HDMI port complementing the rear panel's trio. Alongside that extra HDMI is a USB port that's compatible with both MP3 music and JPEG photo files, but the lack of support for any video files does seem a bit stingy. Onscreen menus are generally easy to use, though we did notice that the input changer lags behind the remote control, and seems to have a mind of its own when a Blu-ray player is attached.
Still shots from Blu-ray movies may lack the extra fine detailing seen on some Full HD LCD TVs, but when the camera starts to move the PS50B550 comes into its own - great colours and deep black levels lend the onscreen action some realism that’s so comfortable to watch - and with barely a trace of blur or judder.
A blast of ProEvolution 2010 on the Xbox 360 also impresses. So much so that we're not sure why plasma makers don’t shout about this skill more often. There's no dedicated "game mode", but the PS50B550 doesn't need one - on dynamic settings there's plenty of detail, rich contrast, well saturated colours and - best of all - no blur or artefacts.
Gamers often baulk at the idea of plasmas because of screenburn, but it's been yonks since we saw this on a plasma. With an Xbox 360 pumping out Pro Evolution 2010, the Old Trafford pitch looks like a carpet with the finest of details showing, presented with phenomenal clarity even when there's fast movement and sweeping camera shots. In fact the only time there's a slight judder is when watching slow-motion replays.
It may have something to do with the slight softness of detail, but it's a far more watchable digital TV picture than we've ever seen on a comparably sized LCD or LED screen.
Some of the latest LED TVs are awesome and represent a massive step forward for LCD TV tech, but it’s largely a catch-up exercise. The benchmark is plasma picture quality, and while LED TVs still mean a premium price plasmas like Samsung’s PS50B550 are still the best value big screen TVs around for home cinema, gaming - and anyone interested only in top quality pictures from all sources.