THE GOOD: Decent black-level performance and shadow detail; very good color saturation; effective antireflective screen; understated, handsome styling.
THE BAD: Less accurate color with bluer grayscale; cannot properly display 1080p/24 sources; lacks streaming and Internet apps of competing models; uses more power than LCDs and Panasonic's 2010 plasmas.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Samsung's mainstream PNC590 series offers solid performance but won't wow sticklers looking for plasma nirvana.
In 2009 Samsung made significant improvements to the picture quality of its higher-end plasma TVs, bringing videophile cred to bear against category king Panasonic. This year Samsung has announced an even larger lineup of plasmas, and one of the most intriguing from a potential bang-for-the-buck proposition is the PNC590 series. It lacks the features--namely Internet connectivity and services--of its like-priced competition from Panasonic and LG but makes up for it with promising specs. All told, however, C590 can't quite match either the 2010 Panasonic G series or the 2009 Samsungs we reviewed, despite delivering decent picture quality overall. Videophiles seeking a 2010 Samsung plasma might be better served higher in the company's lineup, but less discerning fans of the brand will have few complaints with the C590 series.
Series information: We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 50-inch Samsung PN50C50, but this review also applies to the other screen sizes in the series. All sizes have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality.
The Samsung PNC590 series is formally dressed in glossy black with just a couple of classy, subtle styling cues--namely the transparent plastic edging of the frame and composing the stand stalk--to set it apart from the pack. The black-backed glass of the stand base matches perfectly, and we didn't mind one bit that the panel is thicker than the ones found on step-up Samsung plasmas. This is one handsome TV that should blend well into any room.
The remote included with the PNC590, while similar in size, shape and button count to the one offered on step-up sets like the UNC8000, has one huge advantage. Instead of catering to slick looks with impossible-to-use, flush semikeys, the C590's clicker has standard, raised buttons. We don't like the new grid layout as much as the better-differentiated cursor keys on last year's remotes, but at least that fingerprint-magnet finish is gone.
Samsung didn't change its basic TV control menus from last year, and that's a good thing. The transparent, blue-highlighted graphics are easy to read and navigate, and response is snappier than last year. Text explanations are present for just about every function.
The midrange C590 series lacks the Samsung Apps and streaming media options found on step-up models. It does have an Ethernet port on the back, however, and when connected to your home network it can stream photos, music and video from a networked PC and download firmware updates. The USB ports also allow such streaming. Check out the user manual, page 34 for details.
As discussed in more detail below, the PNC590 didn't handle 1080p/24 content properly despite Samsung's claim that it uses a 96Hz refresh rate
The picture-affecting control selection is on par with the C590's non-LG competitors. Samsung omits a few of the user-menu options found on step-up models, including the color management and 10-point white balance systems, but there's still plenty for tweakers to adjust.
Not much goes missing here. If you're worried about burn-in (we aren't), Samsung includes a pixel orbiter that slowly moved the image around the screen, as well as a scrolling bar to erase signs of image retention should it occur. Unfortunately the screen saver, labeled "auto protection," didn't seem to work at all when we left an image paused for extended periods, so you shouldn't depend on it.
We'd like to see a real onscreen manual as opposed to the simplistic "connection guide." The troubleshooting section is nice, but is mostly geared toward easing the job of customer service reps tasked with diagnosing owner problems over the phone. We like the option to turn off the screen manually, leaving just the sound, which cuts power use down to 26 watts.
The jack pack is normal, aside from the fact that using the back composite video takes up one of the component video slots, and that the analog audio output is a single minijack as opposed to the standard red and white RCA jacks.
Although its picture quality surpassed that of the like-priced LG PK750, the Samsung C590 series fell short of the Panasonic G20/25 series, as well as the Samsung plasmas we reviewed last year, in a couple of areas. Its black levels were only average, its color tended slightly but visibly toward blue, and its video processing failed the 1080p/24 test. Like all plasmas, it trounces the uniformity and off-angle performance of just about every LCD, and while its screen reduces in-room reflections better than other Samsung plasmas we've tested, it doesn't maintain contrast as well under bright lights.
As usual for Samsung the Movie preset delivered the most accurate picture out of the box. It showed a solid 2.27 gamma (the target is 2.2) but a relatively uneven, bluish grayscale, especially at the lower end. For our calibration we were able to tweak matters for the better, hitting a 2.21 gamma at our target 40ftl light output, but we couldn't do as much as we'd like to improve the grayscale. It's also notable that the C590 is missing a color management system, since this is the first Samsung TV we've tested in awhile that evinced less accurate primary colors (namely green).
Our image quality tests entailed checking out "Righteous Kill" on Blu-ray and comparing the Samsung PNC590 series to the lineup below.
Black level: While its black levels were decent, especially compared to many LCDs and a few plasmas we've tested, Samsung C590 delivered a lighter shade of black than any of the other displays in our lineup aside from the LG PK750. The difference was immediately apparent in the black background of the credits and the letterbox bars, as well as in darker scenes like the nighttime chess match and the shooting gallery in Chapter 1, and the dark background behind Pacino's face outside the crime scene in Chapter 2. The difference between the C590 and the other two Samsungs was relatively subtle yet visible in side-by-side comparisons, and became more obvious on the Panasonic, Pioneer and LG 8500.
Shadow detail also turned out relatively well, although near-black areas like Pacino's leather jacket and DeNiro's black suit in the shadowy living room in Chapter 1, or their faces in the dark church in Chapter 2, appeared just a bit more-obscured than on some of the better displays in the lineup, and about the same as we saw on the B650. On the other hand these areas looked somewhat more natural than the lighter shadows we saw on the Panasonic.
Color accuracy: As we mentioned above, the grayscale on the C590 tended toward blue in midbright areas, which manifested most in somewhat paler skin tones, like the face of Karen Corelli as she enters the apartment in Chapter 3 and her legs thereafter, as well as in slightly bluish-white areas, like DeNiro's black-and-white confessional scenes. Skin tones did lack that slight greenish/yellowish tint of the Panasonic, but its warmer look still came closer to our reference than did the Samsung. Saturation on the C590 was robust, thanks to solid color decoding, albeit not quite as strong as some of the other sets in our lineup.
While most of the primary and secondary colors measured close to the reference on the C590, green was the exception. That said, we didn't notice a major difference in green areas, like the trees and grass of the ball field in Chapter 6, compared to our reference.
Like the LG PK750, the C590 also tended toward blue in darker areas, so black and near-black shadows evinced a slight bluish tint absent from the Panasonic and Pioneer, for example. It wasn't nearly as bad as we saw on the Samsung C8000 LCD, however.
Video processing: The C590's film mode menu has an option called Cinema Smooth that's designed to handle 1080p/24 content. Unfortunately, it did not work well. When we used it to watch our favorite test scene for proper handling of 1080p/24, the flyover of the deck of the Intrepid from "I Am Legend," we saw an unusual jerking of the entire frame about every half-second. This issue was more distracting in our opinion than the more subtle hitch introduced by standard 2:3 pulldown, which we saw when we turned Cinema Smooth off. Given Samsung's history of updating firmware, we wouldn't surprised if the company issued another "fix" for this issue at some point, but for now we recommend avoiding Cinema Smooth mode.
"600Hz Subfields" is listed as a selling point on Samsung's Web site, which sounds like the "600Hz Sub-field Drive" touted by Panasonic, but the two didn't deliver the same results. The Samsung C590 didn't quite match the motion resolution of the Panasonic, the Pioneer, or the 240Hz LCDs in our comparisons, delivering between 800 and 900 lines, according to our test. However, that's still very good and as usual, we suspect that even the most blur-sensitive viewers won't notice a difference with regular program material.
Bright lighting: In our brightly lit room, the Samsung PNC590 series performed well--about on par with the Panasonic--reducing reflections better than either of the other Samsungs (including the B650 plasma, which obviously has a much different antireflective screen) but not preserving black levels nearly as well. It beat both of the LGs in these areas, but fell short of the Pioneer.
Standard-definition: The Samsung PNC590 didn't handle standard-def sources as well as the other Samsungs we tested, although it still outdid the Panasonic. It delivered every line of the DVD format, although details in the grass and stone bridge did appear a bit soft. Its biggest failure, however, took the form of significant jaggies in moving diagonal lines and a waving American flag. Noise reduction was solid, however, and even the company's Auto setting kicked in well to remove most of the noise from lower-quality sources. The set also correctly implemented 2:3 pull-down detection.
PC: Via both analog and HDMI, the Samsung plasma performed as well as we expect of any 1080p display. It perfectly resolved every line of a 1,020x1,080 source with no overscan or edge enhancement, and text looked sharp.
Power consumption: We did not test the power consumption of this size in the Samsung PNC590 series, but we did test the 50-inch model. For more information, refer to the review of the Samsung PNC590 series. How we test TVs.