04/11/2012 10:26 | By John Archer, contributor, MSN Tech

Samsung PS51E490 review

John Archer provides the lowdown on Samsung's 51-inch Plasma TV.

Samsung PS51E490 review (© Samsung)

What is it? A 51in plasma TV with active 3D playback, a Freeview HD tuner and DLNA/USB multimedia playback support.

What's great? It's remarkably cheap considering what it offers, with its high definition pictures and 3D efforts, at least, proving surprisingly easy on the eye.

What's not? Pictures lack the contrast and punch you get with more expensive plasma models, no smart TV functionality, it's only got two HDMIs

The bottom line: While the PS51E490 certainly doesn't set any performance records, it's still better overall than you would expect for a 51in TV you can find selling for under £600.

With the PS51E490, it's all about the money. Samsung has clearly put together the set with the simple aim of delivering a 51in 3D-capable TV as cheaply as possible. And while this has required inevitable sacrifices along the way, for the most part the PS51E490 hits its budget target rather well.

Aesthetically the PS51E490 is no challenger for the svelte, chic, futuristic looks of many of Samsung's LCD TVs. But its dark bezel is pleasingly glossy and distinguished from rivals by a subtle but pleasant colour gradation effect.

Its connections are rather disappointing, though. Specifically, you only get two HDMIs, and there's no Wi-Fi unless you purchase an optional USB dongle. Furthermore, while the PS51E490 can play video, photo and music files from USB sticks or DLNA PCs (via a provided LAN port), its network capabilities don't extend to accessing Samsung's online Smart TV services.

This a blow given how much content there is on Samsung's latest Smart TV iteration, but we can readily imagine plenty of people feeling willing to sacrifice online functionality in return for the PS51E490's price/screen size combination.

Especially as you can hardly accuse the PS51E490 of being feature-free. It has an HD Freeview tuner, for instance, rather than just a standard def one. Also, its tidy onscreen menus surprisingly include such calibration tools as a white balance adjustment, multiple gamma presets, the unusual but welcome option to adjust the plasma panel's 'cell light' level, and a couple of noise reduction routines.

Most surprising of all, though, is the TV's active 3D support, which even extends to the inclusion of two pairs of 3D glasses free with the TV. If Samsung can manage free glasses with a TV as cheap as the PS51E490, we can't help but wonder why Panasonic only supplies free glasses with its flagship 3D TVs.

It’s not just the free glasses that make the PS51E490 a good budget 3D option either, for it’s also a surprisingly good 3D performer. Pictures are vibrant and bright enough not to feel like too heavy a compromise versus 2D images, and crosstalk double ghosting noise is impressively low level for such a budget set.

There are 3D problems too - most notably slightly jerky motion reproduction and a lack of resolution compared with more powerful 3D TVs. But overall the PS51E490's 3D is more than good enough for the set’s money.

The same goes for the PS51E490’s 2D HD pictures. Colours look reasonably bold by affordable plasma standards, and although there's some evidence of the orangey and green undertones commonly witnessed with cheap plasma TVs - especially in high levels of ambient light - it's not a severe issue.

When it comes to contrast, the PS51E490 undeniably doesn't produce black levels nearly as profound as those of the best plasma TVs in town (predominantly those wearing the Panasonic brand). However, black levels are deeper and shadow detail levels higher than you would expect from pretty much any LCD-based rival at the same price level, leaving Blu-ray movies looking consistent and believable.

The PS51E490's biggest shortcoming with HD is that its pictures aren't as crisp and detailed as those you get with more expensive TVs - a fact that we attribute to the screen only having a native 1024x768 resolution and suffering with a little horizontal motion judder. Though on the upside the PS51E490’s motion is at least largely free of the dotty noise over moving objects that subtly affects most of Panasonic's plasmas this year.

One other problem we spotted was green dot noise during dark scenes. But this is only really noticeable if you're sat too close to the screen, and can be reduced by adjusting down the PS51E490's cell light setting.

The PS51E490's biggest weakness is standard definition. This looks a bit mushy, and also suffers a noticeable drop off in colour punch and accuracy - especially with low-quality broadcasts. Just as well, then, that with its Freeview HD tuner and HDMI inputs, it’s entirely possible to keep low-quality standard def sources to a minimum.

Joining the PS51E490’s solid pictures is some similarly solid audio. The set’s bulk relative to many of Samsung’s LED TVs helps it produce a bit more bass and a slightly more open mid-range than you get with most budget flatscreen TVs.

There’s no doubt that you can considerably better the PS51E490’s performance - as well as adding Smart TV functionality - if you spend a chunk more cash. But as we said at the start, the whole point about the PS51E490 is that it doesn’t want you to have to spend much cash on your next TV. And as a budget big-screen option, especially for film fans, it does a very respectable job indeed.

4 stars