THE GOOD: Excellent black-level performance; accurate color overall; numerous picture controls and tweaks; sleek styling with inch-deep panel; superb streaming and widget content via well-integrated Apps platform; solid 3D picture quality.
THE BAD: Cannot properly handle 1080p/24 sources; less efficient than LCD models; duplication of Apps and widgets can be confusing; does not include 3D glasses.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Among the better 2D performers available, the Samsung PNC7000 series plasma also delivers 3D for less than the competition.
As the least expensive plasma TV for 2010 to feature 3D compatibility, the Samsung PNC7000 series will strike a chord of interest with those who care both about the picture-quality advantages of plasma over LCD--such as improved uniformity and off-angle viewing--and about that much-hyped third dimension. And judging from the four 3D models we've reviewed, plasma provides a significant advantage over LCD for 3D picture quality too. That said, the excellent overall 2D image on the Samsung PNC7000 series is what matters most to us, despite a few niggles that keep it from the very top of the class. A comprehensive feature set and slick, slim styling sweeten the deal even further, making the PNC7000 one of the most impressive plasmas we've seen so far.
Series information: We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 50-inch Samsung PN50C7000, 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 clean, classic look of the PNC7000 series is one of our favorites among plasma TVs this year. We especially like the matte finish of the dark gray bezel, with its subtle metal-like texture to match the actual brushed metal of the stand. Samsung's signature transparent stalk and frame edge heighten the appeal, and if you care, the panel is thin enough at 1.4 inches to cause guests to mistake it for an LED-based LCD.
The remote included with the PNC7000, 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 semi-keys, the C7000'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 Samsung PN50C7000 lacks the 3D glasses included on the Panasonic TC-PVT20/25 series, but on the other hand offers a system that converts 2D content to 3D (Panasonic does not). At press time Samsung's starter kit, with two sets of specs and a 3D Blu-ray of "Monsters vs. Aliens," is free if you buy a Samsung 3D Blu-ray player along with your TV. The PNC7000 lacks the Cinema Smooth option found on the PNC590 and the step-up PNC8000 series, so it doesn't properly reproduce 1080p/24 cadence. We'd like to see built-in Wi-Fi, but other plasmas require a dongle for wireless Internet access, too.
The selection here is the best available on any TV today. With the addition of Hulu Plus Samsung has leapt ahead of the competition for now, although we expect other TV makers to add Hulu's subscription service soon enough. Dailymotion, CinemaNow and Blockbuster are not found on other TVs. No major video services go missing, although we'd like to see more audio support beyond Pandora (like Slacker radio or Last.fm). With the exception of Amazon VOD, which takes the form of a Yahoo widget, all of the streaming services are integrated into Samsung's main Apps platform (see below).
In brief testing we had no problems with Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, or YouTube. Video quality was par for the course, and we appreciated that picture settings, including custom dejudder, were available for streaming video--although 2D-to-3D conversion was not. We did not test streaming of music, photos, or video via USB or DLNA.
However, we did check out Hulu Plus and came away with mostly positive impressions. Its video quality was very good to excellent overall, depending on the source. Its navigation was snappy, and we liked the built-in search (aside from the tedium of entering terms using the TV's remote) and the app's general interface.
The one big problem we had with Hulu Plus was its lack of picture control. On Netflix, Amazon, and Vudu, we were able to adjust basic picture parameters and choose from among picture modes. With Hulu Plus, no picture adjustment options were available and the image appeared stuck in the default Dynamic mode--otherwise known as Torch Mode, with overly bright highlights and oversaturated, inaccurate colors. The non-defeatable dejudder processing afflicting earlier PNC7000 models (see Editors' note) would likely also be present, but it our updated review sample it was thankfully absent. We assume Samsung will update the app to include some picture controls in the future, but as it stands we prefer to get Hulu Plus from an external source (like the Blu-ray player), where picture controls remain an option.
Check out our hands-on impressions of Hulu Plus on the Samsung CD-C6900 Blu-ray player for more information.
Samsung wants you to think of its Apps platform much like a certain other Apps store from Apple. The TV version from Samsung is a far cry from the iPhone version today, but does offer more options than similar services on other brands' TVs. Since the service debuted earlier this year it has added Facebook, Google Maps and videos with product support and info on Samsung products. On the other hand the lame games are (thankfully) gone.
In addition to Apps within the main interface, there's a separate Yahoo widgets interface with 19 total add-ons available at press time. They include weather, news, sports and the like, along with meatier widgets like Amazon Video-on-Demand, Drivecast, Flickr and, yes, Facebook. The widget experience is much, much better than in the past, owing to faster load and response times. Now the widget taskbar comes up almost immediately, and navigating between widgets and within a widget itself is a breeze.
On the other hand we'd prefer to see one integrated interface, such as the one Vizio offers, for all interactive functions. For both Facebook and Twitter, for example, the TV has both an App by Samsung and a Yahoo widget. Both interfaces offer news, weather and even photo services (Picasa for Apps, Flickr for widgets). With all that content, juggling two interface options can become confusing.
Both Apps and widgets have profiles and universal sign-in features, which makes them easier to use. An option to input searches, passwords and other text with something other than the unwieldy onscreen keyboard would help a lot, however.
Samsung has officially retaken the picture settings crown from LG this year, at least on higher-end models like the PNC7000. Highlights for tweakers include a new 10-point system--it works better than what we saw on LG's PK750 plasma, but still has a couple of issues--in addition to internal test patterns and red, green, and blue color filters, all to help would-be calibrators. For some reason Samsung has also changed the name of one of its picture modes from Natural to Relax, but as usual only the Movie mode allows the full panoply of adjustments.
Samsung offers a smattering of settings for both native 3D content and 2D-to-3D conversion. With the former you can fool around with "3D viewpoint," said to adjust perspective, while the latter provides a "depth" setting that gives a similar adjustment option. On the other hand the C7000 lacks the 3D Optimize option found on the UNC8000 LCD. It's also worth noting that engaging 3D changes to a separate set of picture settings, and removes some of the options available in 2D mode (like Eco settings, aspect ratio adjustments, and more).
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 30.7 watts.
Since it's limited by cabinet depth, the jack pack of the PNC7000 is oriented much like that of Samsung's 2009 LED models, such as the UNB7000 series. A horizontal and a vertical row of jacks are arranged so the cables run parallel to the panel, instead of plugging in perpendicular. The selection of analog inputs is sparse almost to a fault, with just one composite and one component port, which share a single audio input. Plenty of HDMI inputs are available however, and the second USB port is nice if you use the optional Wi-Fi dongle for one.
3D picture quality: The 3D image produced by the Samsung PNC7000 plasma handily beat that of the LED-based Samsung UNC8000 and Sony XBR-HX909 LCDs in one crucial area: reduction of crosstalk. This artifact looks like a ghostly double around certain objects, especially against dark backgrounds, and is our least favorite aspect of watching 3D. The PNC7000 evinced similar amounts of crosstalk as Panasonic TC-PVT20/25 plasma.
We compared the four TVs side-by-side in our lab using a method similar to our standard 2D comparison (see below), aside from the necessity to switch glasses between the different brands; the inability to watch more than two Blu-ray sources simultaneously (we took advantage of the Panasonic DMP-BDT350's dual HDMI ports); and the fact that we didn't calibrate the TVs--they were left in their default Movie (or Cinema) picture settings.
In the "Monsters vs. Aliens" Blu-ray we appreciated the sense of depth and detail in the PNC7000's image; the asteroids and snow from the first few minutes of the film literally popped off the screen, and the atmospheres of the planets and the bun of the cheeseburger on a scientist's desk seemed equally realistic and detailed. The effect was impressive and immersive for the most part, although overt pop-outs like the scientist's paddle ball were an exception.
We did see that ghostly double image around the edge of the red planet, however, as well as in the laptop screen of the scientist, and around the 17 minute mark where the General is hovering in his jetpack against a gray background. But it was no worse than we saw on the Panasonic, and not as prevalent as we saw on the LED-based models.
Since they use the same glasses, the Samsung LED and plasma were the easiest to compare, and in terms of crosstalk it was easy to see the plasma's superiority. The shelves above the scientific instruments, the instruments themselves, the pillars on the porch after the titles; the ironwork at the foot of the bed--all showed significant, distracting crosstalk on the LED and much less, or none, on the plasma.
We also watched some of the Home Run Derby on all four TVs, and the differences were similar. In some areas, such as the clothing of the announcers in the booth, crosstalk was visible on all four, but again it was worse on the LEDs. Compared to the Blu-ray, Fox's 3D looked significantly softer on all of the sets, of course, but the 3D effect felt natural for the most part, even when David Ortiz waved his bat at the camera to demonstrate the sense of depth.
Aside from crosstalk the 3D presentations on each TV were quite similar, and differences could often be attributed to picture settings or screen size. That said we did detect some color-related issues on the Panasonic that we didn't see on the Samsung; in particular it appeared bluer in its default setting, for example in the black-and-white Dreamworks logo, than did the Samsung, and the amber tint of the Panasonic's glasses showed through occasionally on crosstalk.
We didn't test Samsung's 2D-to-3D conversion system on this model, but we assume it performs similarly to what we saw on the UN55C8000. See that review, or our writeup of that TV's simulated 3D and Avatar, for more details.
2D picture quality: All told the PNC7000 provided excellent picture quality with 2D sources, evincing deep black levels and relatively accurate color. It lacks the 1080p/24 processing, inky blacks and spot-on color of some high-end TVs, but it showed no major issues in our tests, and delivered the uniformity and off-angle prowess we expect from plasma.
As usual Movie mode was the most accurate prior to calibration. The grayscale tended toward blue, however, especially in the lower end, and wasn't as linear overall as we'd like to see. User-menu calibration evened out the scale significantly, although there were some spikes and valleys we couldn't get rid of in the darker areas (below about 35 IRE). We blame that on Samsung's interval system, which adjusted the 10 IRE points effectively, but not the areas between each of the ten. After our adjustments gamma measured an average of 2.17 versus 2.33 in default Movie (the standard is 2.2), but dark areas were still a bit too dark compared to brighter ones.
For our image quality tests in 2D we used the Blu-ray of "Star Trek" played over the PNC7000 and a few comparable models.
Black level: Samsung's second-best plasma turned in a solid performance here, although it still fell short of the best models in the lineup. The PNC7000's depth of black exceeded that of the C590 and LG PK950 plasmas, along with the UNC8000 LCD, and in many scenes also beat the Panasonic TC-PG20 by a hair, but clearly fell short, to a greater or lesser extent, of the other displays.
The numerous shots of space provided some of the best examples; the void between the stars, the letterbox bars and the shadow in front of the Enterprise's warp drive in Chapter 5, for example, all appeared a bit darker than on the G20 and the UNC8000, but lighter than on the VT25, LH8500 and our reference Pioneer.
In very dark scenes, such as when the Romulan ship passed in front of the camera, or during the black of the rolling credits, the G20 managed a darker black than the PNC7000, but in most scenes, the Samsung won. The differences between the two were slight, however, and for most viewers wouldn't be visible outside of a side-by-side comparison. Videophiles, however, might prefer the Samsung thanks to its more stable black levels; the Panasonic shifted slightly depending on picture content.
Shadow detail appeared a bit more obscured on the PNC7000 than on some of the other sets as well, although it still outdid the UNC8000 in this area. The crannies, struts and other shadowy details in the hull of the Romulan ship, for example, appeared less distinct and natural than on the better plasmas and the LG LED.
Color accuracy: The Samsung performed well in this category aside from a couple issues. Skin tones, such as the face of Uhura at the bar or Spock at the bridge, did appear somewhat cooler and bluer on the PNC7000 than on our reference and most of the others in our lineup, but they weren't bad, and happily lacked the slight green cast we saw on the G20. Primary colors, such as the red of the Corvette and the green grass of the fields from the joyride scenes, seemed off as well, but again the difference wasn't drastic. We also appreciated that near-black areas stayed true as opposed to veering too badly into blue.
Video processing: There's not much to speak of here since the PNC7000 lacks the Cinema Smooth option found on some other Samsung plasmas. As a result it reproduced 1080p/24 sources with the standard, slightly hitching cadence characteristic of 2:3 pull-down.
Samsung's Web site lists as a selling point "600Hz Subfields," which sounds like the "600Hz Sub-field Drive" touted by Panasonic, but the two didn't deliver the same results. The Samsung PNC7000 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: The PNC7000 has a very similar antireflective screen as the C590, and both performed about as well as the Panasonic plasmas at reducing reflections and slightly worse at preserving black levels in a bright room. The LG PK950 and Samsung UNC8000 caused brighter reflections but preserved black levels better, while the Pioneer was better and the LG worse in both categories.
Standard-definition: The Samsung PNC7000 handled standard-def sources better than the PNC590, and also outdid the other plasmas in our lineup. It delivered every line of the DVD format, and details in the grass and stone bridge were as good as we expected. Jaggies were minimal, unlike what we saw on the C590, and noise reduction was solid, with 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 pulldown 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 PNC7000 series, but we did test the 50-inch model. For more information, refer to the review of the Samsung PN50C7000.