Saturday, May 3, 2008

Samsung LN-T5281F LCD 1080p HDTV

Samsung LN-T5281F LCD 1080p HDTV Samsung LN-T5281F LCD 1080p HDTV Samsung LN-T5281F LCD 1080p HDTV Samsung LN-T5281F LCD 1080p HDTV Samsung LN-T5281F LCD 1080p HDTV HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

Big things are happening with LCD flat panel televisions. New developments like LCD motion lag compensation and LED backlighting, manufacturers are attacking some of the well-known shortcomings of that technology.

The LN-T5281F ($4,499) not only uses LED backlighting, it also employs an innovative new technique aimed at improving blacks and contrast called "local dimming," which dims the LEDs that light the screen in localized areas. Samsung is so high on this technique it claims an attention-grabbing 500,000:1 contrast ratio. So, let's see if it delivers!

Design and Features
If you use a tabletop setup rather than a wall mount, the set comes pre-attached to a stand that swivels a specified 20 degrees in either direction (I measured closer to 30 degrees).

The LN-T5281F has a highly reflective screen. It's more like that of plasma glass than the diffusive screens found in most LCD televisions. Many LCD computer monitors now use shiny screens to provide a punchier, brighter image, and that might be the intent here. But you'll need to position the set carefully relative to the viewing position to avoid distracting reflections.

The only increasingly common feature it does not include is 120Hz operation. Most of the Samsung's main features and operating characteristics, including inputs, picture modes, video controls, aspect ratios, remote, and more, are identical to those of Samsung's LN-T5265F, which I reviewed recently. Rather than plow over that ground again, I'll refer you to the discussion of the features and controls in that review. My preferences—the features I used and the ones I chose not to—were essentially the same here. This included the use of a modified Movie mode for nearly all of my viewing and measurements.

But there are some important additions to the LN-T5281F. The biggest, gee-whiz new feature is LED SmartLighting. This uses LEDs for backlighting rather than the fluorescents most common in LCD sets. Samsung's LED implementation goes even further with the local dimming technique referred to in the opening. The LEDs are positioned behind the panel in a number of clusters that can be illuminated independently depending on the amount of light required in each area of the picture.

Local dimming is roughly similar in its effect to a dynamic iris in a projector, with several important differences. The dimming here can be done by area, rather than in response to the overall average picture level. When the LEDs shut down, they turn off completely, rendering a darker black than even the best CRTs. And LEDs can turn on and off much faster than any dynamic, mechanical iris.

So does this local dimming duplicate the performance of a good CRT? Not quite, but even if Samsung's claimed peak dynamic contrast ratio of 500,000:1 is a bit unrealistic, what I saw from this set on dark images was often startling.

The brightness of the LEDs can be set with the Backlight control. Unlike the Brightness and Contrast controls, which operate on the bottom and top of the brightness range independently (though here as in most sets there is some inevitable overlap), a Backlight control raises or lowers the brightness of the image across the entire output range. Lower settings—which provide the best picture, also reduce energy consumption. I found a setting of 3 (out of 10) fine for most programming. But you might prefer a setting a bit higher for news or sports, or if the room is brightly lit. But higher Backlight settings can reduce the richness of dark scenes.

The set also has another new feature called LED Motion Plus. When turned on, LED Motion Plus cycles the backlighting rapidly from top to bottom, in eight groups of horizontal rows for each frame. This is done in such a way that the backlight is off or nearly off during the fraction of a second that the LCD response is lagging, limiting the visibility of the lag.

Because the backlight is fixed at 10 when LED Motion Plus is on, and I prefer to have control of the backlighting, I did most of my viewing with this feature turned off.

Dark Victory
Yes, I know, that's the title of a classic but depressing Bette Davis weeper. But as used here it's anything but depressing. This Samsung has the deepest blacks I've yet seen from an LCD television. In fact, with a full screen, video black image viewed in total darkness you often can't tell if the set is on or off; the screen is as dark as the frame and the surrounding blackness of the room!

LED SmartLighting also includes the Samsung's local dimming feature, described earlier. It can increase the contrast between light and dark areas of the picture by illuminating areas of the image selectively. While it can't make the dark areas quite as deep as you'll see when the screen is entirely black, it's still very effective. There was some visible brightening of the areas immediately around white titles on a black background, but this is likely unavoidable if the local dimming is done at anything short of the pixel level!

You can see the effect of LED SmartLighting for yourself, particularly on scenes with a mix of dark and light areas. Turn it off and the dark areas become lighter, with more than a hint of the "gray haze" that affects digital displays with less than the best black levels. Turn it back on and the haze disappears.

On some material it required a delicate balancing of the brightness and gamma controls to provide the best combination of deep blacks and shadow detail. A one step change on either control could sometimes make the difference between an acceptable image and a compelling one.

But even in dark scenes where I felt that there should perhaps be more detail in the deep shadows, the Samsung's blacks could be striking. A great example of this is the below decks scenes near the beginning of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. As a crewman conducts a night inspection around the sleeping sailors and idle cannons, he carries only a dim lamp to light his way. On most digital displays you can see the important details in these scenes, but the surrounding gloom is often a dark to medium gray rather than inky black, depending on the quality of the set. On the Samsung, these dark areas are near total black, and while you can't see very deep into them, all the important details are visible in each shot. You really have to see this quality in a darkened room to appreciate how much it can enhances the dramatic effect of the scene.

Great blacks, combined with the Samsung's more than generous (but, when properly set up, not excessive) brightness also give the LN-T5281F's picture impressive depth. This varies from program-to-program and, not surprisingly, is most effective with computer animation. But in my experience of video displays, this set's subjective depth has only been exceeded (barely) by a few projectors and, among flat panel digital displays, the newest Pioneer plasmas.

Overall Performance
I'll start with the down side. The Samsung's shiny screen is also the source of a common LCD problem: degraded off-axis viewing. The image washout starts to become serious beyond about 20 degrees. Good seats for viewing the Samsung will be located at all positions on, say, a typical three-seat sofa positioned about 10 feet from the set (the closer you sit, the narrower the best viewing width). But the middle seat will always be the best in the house.

A less significant problem was poor operation with at least one an effect I call the "red splotch." On some program material shadows appeared crimson red. This was most often visible on Caucasian skin, where the shadows should have been gray or grayish pink. It usually could be attributed at least in part to the program material, but I did see it more often on the Samsung than on other sets I've tested recently. But it occurred only rarely.

The Samsung's deinterlacing and scaling of 480i inputs up to its native 1080p, including its recognition of 3/2 pulldown, was mediocre at best. This was particularly true of test patterns and challenging program material.

The Samsung earned a far better score in the HD video processing tests. Both its film and video 1080i-to-1080p deinterlacing were excellent, including (on film-based programming) recognition of 3/2 pulldown.

And there was more good stuff. The Samsung's color was very accurate, particularly after calibration. It was also free of significant uniformity issues; black and white movies showed no obvious color contamination anywhere on the screen.

Yes, there were reasonable variations in both flesh tones and greens on different program material, but these are common to most sources. Sometimes the color from the Samsung was exceptionally vivid—the first season of Star Trek, just released on HD DVD, popped with bright colors that I don't remember ever seeing on past broadcasts of the show. But the more natural, subdued colors of many current HD programs, such as House, were also properly reproduced. Speaking of House, the title character's scruffy look is getting a bit out of hand this year, and the Samsung's sharp, crisp picture made that all too clear.

Feed the set a high quality HD source and you'll know it. Period dramas like the absolutely final, last, definitive, ultimate cut of Oliver Stone's Alexander on Blu-ray, or Pride and Prejudice on HD DVD, provided enough eye-candy and detail on the Samsung to keep me going for another 10 pages of description—but I'll avoid the temptation.

High-definition popped on the Samsung in a way that literally compelled me to watch many HD commercials rather than fast forwarding through them on my cable DVR. And while standard definition on the Samsung also looked better than average on all but the most cruddy cable channels, those HD commercials made me want to force advertisers who still air standard definition ads to sit down and watch HD on a Samsung to see what HD ads are doing for their competitors.

The Samsung will accept a 1080p/24 input, but it converts it internally to 1080p/60 prior to display. Whether you will be better off simply changing the output resolution on your high-definition player to 1080p/60 to begin with will depend on which device—the player or the set—does a better job in converting 1080p/24 to 1080p/60. It's likely you won't see any difference.

As in the Samsung LN-T5265F, the LN-T5281F was better than average in avoiding image lag or smear, once a nagging problem with LCD displays. It was good without the LED Motion Plus feature engaged and somewhat better with it—though the difference was much more obvious on special test scenes than with most program material. Plasma still wins out for the lowest image lag of any digital display technology, but I was never bothered by it on the Samsung—even when watching fast moving sports.

I was fortunate to have the Pioneer PDP-6010FD 60" plasma in-house at the same time as this Samsung. While there were only a few days of overlap and the comparo took place before the Samsung had its full color temperature calibration, it was long enough for me to spend time with both displays side-by-side.

I found little to choose from between the two sets with respect to color quality, noise, and that hard-to-define "wow" factor (apart from the obvious difference in screen size). The Pioneer scored higher with its SD video processing, though not by much. But it was a tossup on HD deinterlacing, where both sets deinterlaced 1080i to 1080p well and both dealt properly with 3/2 pulldown on film-based material.

The Pioneer makes better use of film-based, 24p material, by turning it into 72Hz. As noted earlier, the Samsung simply converts it into 1080p/60 by adding 3/2 pulldown.

Despite the fact that the Pioneer turned in a slightly worse result in the HDMI resolution tests, particularly at the maximum HD burst test at 37.1MHz (more on the Samsung's test results in the Measurements section, below), the Samsung sometimes looked a hair less sharp. But I do mean a hair; if I hadn't seen the two sets side-by-side, I'd never have suspected any differences.

The Pioneer was the winner in both its off-axis and motion performance. Plasmas are, by nature, more like direct view CRTs than any other new display technology (apart perhaps for the stillborn SED) with respect to their off-axis viewing quality and resistance to motion lag. So it was no surprise that the Pioneer was the clear winner in both of these categories, though the differences were much more obvious in the off-axis category.

But depending on the program material, the Pioneer plasma drew roughly twice the power (350-400W) as the LCD Samsung (under 200W) with the same program material (tested with a Watts Up Power Analyzer).

While the Samsung could be set up to be considerably brighter than the Pioneer, the differences were subtle at more realistic levels, such as the settings I used. The only exception, which favored the Samsung, was on scenes demanding high brightness over the entire screen. That is, in general, a strength of LCD and a weakness of plasma, though I never found it to be a serious limitation of the Pioneer.

It was a close run in black level, but ultimately I had to come down on the side of the Pioneer. Despite the fact that the Pioneer never went completely black on fades between scenes, and the Samsung could, the Pioneer worked better for me in some very dark, low contrast program material. Samsung's local dimming can provide little or no benefit for such scenes, since there are seldom any areas that can be selectively lit. This is the only type of material in which the Samsung reverted to that gray haze look. A good example of this is a night scene in a church in Saving Private Ryan. On the Samsung, the image had a rather flat, grayish, subtly washed-out appearance. On the Pioneer, the actor's faces popped just enough, in front of deeply shadowed backgrounds, to give this difficult scene a reasonable sense of depth.

While the Samsung is not perfect in every respect, no video display is. But with stunning reproduction of the deepest blacks, great color, fine detail, and overall excellent performance on every type of program material, both HD and SD, the LN-T5281F is the best flat panel LCD I've yet reviewed.

• Superbly rich, inky blacks, good (but not exceptional) shadow detail
• Sharp, crisp image without enhancement
• Accurate color and excellent resolution

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