Plasma technology has been around for long enough that it's able to deliver a high-quality display for very little money, and there are two companies at the forefront: Samsung and Panasonic. This year, Panasonic's ST60 received our first five-star television review, while the less-expensive S60 earned our highest praise for value. The Samsung F5500, priced roughly in between those two, is the Korean giant's closest thing to a response.
The F5500 is cheaper than the ST60, but its picture isn't anywhere near as good. From colour response to black levels to shadow detail, the Panasonic ST60 is superior in every way. That's not to say the Samsung F5500 is a poor television. It's not, and it will tan the hide of most LED LCDs in its price range. If it wasn't for the strong competition from Panasonic, we'd be praising the F5500's deep blacks and relatively good colour.
Where the Samsung F5500 disappoints is in bright room playback. I don't know of anyone who dutifully turns off all the lights and closes the curtains every time they watch TV, and the Samsung is worse than any TV we've recently tested with the lights on and that includes the also-heliophobic S60.
Features-wise Samsung has Panasonic beat, with a full complement of doodads, such as Smart TV, voice interaction and a touch pad remote. It also offers decent 3D replay for the money. While priced right and blessed with excellent black levels in a dark room, the F5500 just can't compete with TVs that better handle everyday ambient light. If keeping the blinds closed sounds too difficult, video quality aficionados should look to a Panasonic instead of this Samsung.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 51-inch PN51F5500, 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. That includes the 60-inch member of the series, despite its unusual pixel structure (see Features section below).
It was more than five years ago that Samsung introduced its Touch of Colour (TOC) design, and its legacy lives on in the F5500. Originally, "TOC" indicated a black bezel with a rose-coloured tint, but the new Samsung is simply black with a clear perspex rim.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The stand is probably the weakest part of the set's design. It may feature the distinctive four-pronged look, but the legs themselves feel insubstantial. The construction is plastic over metal, and you can actually twist the plastic where it touches the table; it's not well anchored to the metal skeleton. This probably doesn't pose a safety risk, as the TV sits quite firmly through the force of gravity, but it's an unusual oversight given Samsung's usual high-quality standards. At least it swivels, eh?
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The TV ships with a single remote, the Smart Touch Remote Control, which you may end up having a love-hate relationship with. In its favour, the touch pad is responsive and enables cool features like gestures (drawing the channel number is especially fun). But you will probably wish you just had a normal remote, especially when trying to stop a fast-forwarding DVR-ed program, because there are no transport buttons and accessing them is convoluted, to say the least. The remote does have a microphone for voice search, which means you may not miss having a separate keyboard.
For more on the remote, check out our F8000 review; the F550's remote control is identical but for its black exterior.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Samsung is bringing out fewer plasma models this year compared to 2012, and the F5500 is the next best after the top-of-the-range F8500. The F5500 has a different panel than the F8500, which accounts for its lesser picture quality. Meanwhile, the step down F5300 is basically a "dumb" version of the F5500. As you'd expect from a roughly US$200 price differential, there are quite a few additions, with the most obvious being smart TV with a new remote, but you also get 3D playback with two pairs of active shutter glasses.
The 60-inch members of the 5500 and 5300 series have somewhat different sub-pixel structure compared to the 51- and 64-inch sizes (sub-pixels are the little coloured dots that combine to form a pixel). On the 51- and 64-inchers, and just about every other flat-panel TV in existence, each pixel is composed of one red, one green and one blue sub-pixel (RGB), all of uniform size. On the 60-inchers however, there is one green sub-pixel for every red, and another green sub-pixel for every blue (RGBG). In addition, the areas of the red and blue pixels are larger than the green ones, allowing them to emit more light but use less power overall. There are also most likely half the number of red and blue sub-pixels since they "share" a green one. We're awaiting confirmation from Samsung on that last point of difference.
This kind of sub-pixel structure is known as PenTile on some displays, such as many of Samsung's OLED smartphone screens. Samsung says that there should be no major difference in picture quality between the 60 inch and the other sizes at normal, reasonable viewing distances.
The F5500 is one of the company's cheapest TVs that still features Smart TV. Samsung has seemingly worked hard to integrate its 2013 Smart TV suite with cable programming, and while it's not yet seamless, the new "five-panel" system is a step forward. The options are "On TV" (cable integration), "Movies and TV shows," "Photos, Videos and Music" (DLNA), "Social" (Skype, YouTube, Facebook, etc) and "Apps."
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
You get a choice of three picture presets with the F5500: Vivid, Standard and Movie, though as usual with Samsung, the best from an accuracy standpoint is Movie Mode. The television lacks the Colour Management System found on the F8500, although it does have a two-point greyscale adjustment and adjustable Gamma settings. Given how good the defaults were on the sample I received, I didn't need to change these too much.
The TV comes with three HDMI ports (though lacking the currently trendy MHL support), a digital optical audio socket and a shared component/composite input.
Accessories are the name of the game here, and the TV includes two USB ports. To this, you could connect a separate Skype camera (US$99), for example, and this would enable the gesture control of the fancier TVs in the range.
Internet connectivity is enabled by an Ethernet port and a wireless adapter.
It's been neck and neck between Panasonic and Samsung for several years when it comes to the picture quality of the companies' respective plasmas, and in the F5500, this trend is set to continue. While it's better than the Panasonic S60 in some ways, colour especially, it's also worse in others, such as black level, shadow detail and bright room performance. A few years ago all plasmas performed poorly in bright rooms; that was to be expected. But while most got better, Samsung's F5500 performs worse in the light. Even though the F5500's black levels improved on last year's E550, you won't get to enjoy them in anything but a pitch-black room, with high reflectivity and poor contrast in most lighting conditions.
If you're able to control the amount of light in your room, the Samsung is capable of a very good picture with excellent contrast, rich colours and plenty of detail. I'd still recommend paying more for the superior and much more versatile Panasonic ST60, though.
While LCD black levels don't change much year to year, plasmas somehow manage to improve each time. This is certainly the case with the F5500, which has doubled the depth of black compared to last year (0.004 versus 0.008; lower is better), and side by side, the differences were obvious. In a dark room, the F series easily beat the older E series for the depth of its images and purer blacks.
But just as the E550 couldn't compete against the Panasonic UT50 last year, even with the improvements, the F5500 still loses out to this year's Panasonic S60 for black levels. Both the Panasonic S60 and ST60 beat the Samsung at portraying a darker shade of black and were also better at illuminating shadow detail.
The Samsung F5500 did portray a family resemblance in its shadow detail in that it performed very similarly to the much-more-expensive Samsung F8500, which is also not as good as the rest of the group. At 1:08:49 in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, you see Snape standing against a window wearing his usual black cape. On the Panasonics (and last year's Samsung E550), you can see buttons and folds, but on the two new plasmas, you can see only a black blob.
Colour performance of the F5500 was mixed, but generally, it rated well and especially in comparison to the Panasonic S60. Where the Samsung had the S60 licked here is that low-level colours were "truer" as the S60 had a tendency to make shadows green. I believe I personally would trade the slightly worse black levels and shadow detail of the Samsung, in this case, for better colour overall.
This TV has some issues with the colours red and cyan, which couldn't be corrected with the controls. Playing with the Tint control and using "The Tree of Life" (Chapter 5, 37:18) as a reference, I wasn't able to get the mother's cyan dress to look natural, and only by advancing the colour control to cartoonish levels was I able to match the other TVs for the saturation of the mother's hair. On a lesser note, the grass around her was a little less blue than it should have been. In comparison, both the Samsung 8500 and last year's E550 had better secondary colours, with the mother's hair and skin tone rendered almost identically on both units.
The Samsung F5500 is very light on the processing, and this is good news for gamers but bad news for movie fans. With a score of 38.8 milliseconds in gaming mode, this TV should give a great gaming experience, but by failing both our image processing tests, it means it's not a great movie screen. It failed the 24p test, with too much judder in playback, while the 1080i test was subject to artefacting.
The Samsung F5500's bright room performance is poor, much worse than last year's E550. The F5500's screen was the most reflective in our line-up, and black areas were the most washed out, robbing dark scenes of punch and impact. If you only watch daytime TV, it's fine, but you'll want to pull down the shades to watch a movie or crime show. With TVs like the ST60, screen coatings have become so good that they've raised the bar for all competition.
As the price of the Samsung F5500 sits between the S60's and ST60's, it's fitting that the sound quality does as well. When watching action movies, the Samsung has some low-end punch, which is something that the S60 lacks, but in exchange, the S60 has greater high-end detail. When compared to the Panasonic TV above it, the Samsung is able to deliver voices in a natural way, while the ST60 was a little more chesty. The trade off here is that the F5500 lacked the mid-range detail and true low-end delivery of the ST60. But when it came to music playback, all three were pretty terrible, with the Samsung F5500 and the Panasonic capable of spectacularly farty bass, even in Music mode. If you are looking for a TV that can play music, try brands like Sony or even Sharp.
While it's a great TV, the competitive Panasonic ST60's only real failing is that it's not very good for 3D. In comparison, the cheaper Samsung is a little better overall but not by much. Using our "ghostly hand" test ("Hugo" at 4:44), the F5500 displayed significant crosstalk on static contrasting edges, but this was counteracted by much better movement resolution than the ST60 during the "Hugo" chase scene (7:40).
Power usage is a plus for this television, as even in a calibrated mode, it uses relatively little electricity.