LG 50PZ850T £990
16th Dec 2011 | 11:47
Ever wanted to draw pictures on your telly? Thanks to LG's PenTouch TV you can
LG is never short of an idea or two, that's for sure.
For instance, not content with introducing passive 3D TVs to the world this year, the Korean brand has now also hit the street with PenTouch technology, as sported by the 60-inch 60PZ850T and the 50-inch 50PZ850T under scrutiny here.
As its name suggests, PenTouch uses a 'touch-screen' technology in conjunction with a special 'pen' to allow you to interact directly - as in, physically - with the 50PZ850's screen.
You just move the pen around on the screen or tap it to produce freehand drawings or navigate and access various function buttons or browser icons.
With its key PenTouch system not necessarily God's gift to TV tech, then, it's just as well that the 50PZ850 has a couple of other tricks up its sleeve. Namely active 3D playback (one pair of active shutter glasses is included) and a reasonably potent video engine. Though it should be made clear right away that the PZ850 TVs unexpectedly do not carry LG's Smart TV system.
On paper, this possibly sounds like fun. Certainly LG's promotional materials for the PZ850TVs make extravagant use of photos of cute, excited kids playing with their new TV/best friend. However, the reality of the feature is rather less credible - more on this later.
If you'd happily ditch the PenTouch system in favour of a more powerful picture engine and Smart TV functionality, you could step up to LG's PZ950T plasma series without spending a fortune more. Or if you're happy to again do without PenTouch and settle for a few picture quality compromises, you could step down to LG's PZ570T plasma series, which still carries 3D despite its relative affordability.
With LG's 2011 having being notoriously inconsistent where TVs are concerned, though, the key question for now is whether the 50PZ850T is one of the brand's hits or misses.
To say that the 50PZ850T is an oddity in feature terms would be an understatement. Obviously the stars of the show - on paper at least - are the set's active 3D and PenTouch functionality. Both of which need more explanation.
If you're wondering why LG has used an active 3D system on the 50PZ850T in direct opposition to LG's virulent belief that the passive 3D technology now used on all of its LCD TVs is the best 3D option, it's because apparently plasma technology - or at least, LG's plasma technology - isn't capable of outputting enough brightness to counter the impact of the passive 3D filter.
Given LG's generosity when it comes to giving away passive 3D glasses with its passive TVs, it's a shame if hardly a surprise that you get just a solitary pair of active shutter glasses with the 50PZ850T.
As for the PenTouch feature, its response time is said to be only 150ms, and its touch resolution is a respectable 4.6mm(h) x 2.3mm(v). It also must be stressed that the feature doesn't just let you draw pictures on the TV's screen; the 'pen' can, among other things, also be used to access and navigate the Internet, browse 'sweep'-style through the photos you might have stored on a PC, or access and write notes for a provided Family Diary feature.
However, within about 10 minutes of using PenTouch, it's looking like quite possibly the single most pointless feature ever added to a TV. Seriously, who in their right mind - aside, possibly, from a toddler - would really want to put down their laptop or tablet computer, stand up, wander over to their TV and start using a huge pen to draw on their TV or use it to access a few cumbersome 'apps' that would be much better suited to a computer anyway?
As for the possible toddler attraction, would you really want your kid to be a) standing literally inches away from a 50-inch TV, and b) banging a pen against it with the sort of gusto that only a toddler can manage? Surely not.
To be honest the feature isn't even something you will necessarily try once and then forget, as it's quite a faff to get up and running, at least to its full extent. So really, highlight feature or not, the best thing to do with PenTouch is forget it's even there and move swiftly on - while trying desperately to ignore the fact that presumably you have to pay a few quid for it...
Rather more likely to appeal to the readers of this website - or anyone normal - is the TV's impressive suite of picture adjustments. As usual with LG plasmas, the 50PZ850T comes with the endorsements of both THX and and the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) - endorsements that are only handed out to TVs deemed to have enough picture flexibility to be professionally calibrated.
The endorsements also mean the TV enjoys two THX presets (one for a 'Cinema' and one for a 'Bright Room') and two ISF Expert modes, via which you can access in-depth tools like a colour management system, white balance adjustment, and gamma controls.
The 50PZ850T's connections are promising. There are three HDMIs for 3D and HD sources (one less than might, perhaps, have been ideal), as well as a USB port that can be used for playing back a decent variety of music, video and photo files. There's also a LAN port, though it was surprising to find that while this permits networking with other computers, it doesn't also provide access to LG's latest Smart TV online service.
The design of the 50PZ850T has to class as a significant feature, meanwhile. For as well as boasting one of LG's impressively slender 'Razor Frame' bezels, it enjoys a shiny metallic finish that's quite new for LG and gives the set a pleasingly distinctive and gently opulent appearance.
It's worth adding too that the screen enjoys 'Protective Skin Glass', which LG claims boosts picture clarity as well as improving the screen's durability and safety to cope with the fact that you're supposed to be jabbing pens at it all the time.
Finally the 50PZ850T boasts LG's 3D XD Engine video processing system, which actually works to improve both 2D and 3D picture quality as well as powering the set's solid - but certainly not spectacular - 2D-to-3D conversion system.
How good the 50PZ850T's pictures are depends on what you decide to compare it with. For while it often looks pretty handy, at least with HD, when compared with your average LCD TV, it falls short of the standards being set right now by its main plasma rivals.
This performance summary is particularly appropriate when it comes to the 50PZ850T's contrast performance. For while its black level response is actually good-to-very-good compared with most LCD TVs - especially in terms of the amount of shadow detail retained during dark scenes - black colours certainly look greyer than they do on equivalent Samsung and Panasonic plasma models.
To be fair, this is only really apparent when you're watching predominantly dark scenes. Where there's a mixture of bright and dark content, the set's black level efforts look extremely accomplished.
Especially as plasma's self-emissive nature means that dark and light parts of a shot can be produced with independent luminance levels, so there's no need to compromise the bright bits in order to improve the dark bits.
The 50PZ850T's colours are a similarly mixed story. Compared with the best LCD/LED TVs, there's no doubt that its colours look slightly dull at times, certainly once the screen has had a little calibration work done on it. In fact, post-calibration pictures in general look rather muted and short of brightness.
That's not to say the 50PZ850T isn't capable of looking quite punchy by plasma standards; it's just that it only looks really dynamic if you use the 'Vivid' preset or leave its colour, contrast and brightness settings set so high that colours look gaudy and noise levels look excessive.
While sensibly calibrated 50PZ850 colours might not be the punchiest around, though, they are actually reasonably accurate in most areas, as well as containing a quite expressive amount of subtlety when it comes to portraying small tonal shifts and blends. That said, colour tones aren't perfect; there are always a few tones that look a bit under-saturated no matter what settings you use.
The 50PZ850T shows off more of plasma's advantages, meanwhile, when it comes to motion reproduction, as there's scarcely any trace of the motion blur that troubles pretty much all LCD TVs to some extent. There is a little judder to be seen, and some very faint traces of fizzing noise over skin tones as they pass across the screen. But both these flaws can be considered minor.
With some decent if not spectacular sharpness and detailing evident while watching HD on the 50PZ850T, meanwhile, overall the set can be considered a rather good 2D HD display - especially if the room it's in isn't very bright.
What's more, it turns out to be a reasonable 3D display too - especially as it suffers far less than some of LG's other plasma TVs with the dreaded crosstalk double ghosting problem. There's still some evidence of it over 'classic' crosstalk-inducing sequences, but it's neither as common nor as aggressive when it does appear as it can be on many rival 3D TVs.
The full HD active 3D images look detailed and 'HD', meanwhile - though there's no hiding the fact that they also look quite a bit duller than their passive counterparts.
Aside from the collection of minor niggles noted in passing already, the 50PZ850T has a trio of more significant issues you need to be aware of. First, its screen seems a little prone to image retention, suggesting that it needs to be treated with great care, at least in the first few weeks and even months of your ownership, if you want to avoid any potential permanent 'screen burn' issues.
Next, the 50PZ850T doesn't seem a particularly good friend of standard definition. LG's highest-spec LCD TVs have exhibited some much-improved standard definition upscaling this year, but the 50PZ850T leaves standard def sources looking a bit soft and murky, and also seems to struggle to deliver the same sort of colour accuracy in evidence with HD material.
Bad news for gamers
The third of the 50PZ850's genuine disappointments - if you're a gamer, at any rate - concerns its input lag. For as with many other LG TVs in 2011, this plasma model records a figure of 81ms, even when using its dedicated Game preset. This is more than twice as high as the input lag figures of most rivals this year, and from our experience can result in reduced performance when playing fast-reaction games.
It's probably necessary to at least mention here, finally, that the PenTouch functionality works reasonably well after an initial 'learning curve' aa you figure out what sort of interactions the screen 'likes' and which ones it doesn't. But as mentioned earlier, at no point did any of the features PenTouch delivers remotely feel like sufficient justification for including such a bizarre feature on a domestic TV.
Sound, value and ease of use
The 50PZ850 is incredibly heavy and robustly built for a modern TV. Obviously this is mostly down to its tough-finished, heavy-duty screen. But the build quality also raises hopes that the 50PZ850 might prove a cut above the flat TV norm with its audio power.
And to some extent it is. Certainly its sound isn't prone to the distortions and unwanted chassis vibrations so common in the skinny TV world. This is particularly helpful when it comes to handling deep male and shrill female vocals.
However, there's no great bass extension to be heard, and treble detailing is merely average.
On the one hand, getting a reasonably well specified 50-inch, 3D-ready plasma TV for marginally under a grand doesn't seem like a bad deal.
However, it's disappointing that the 50PZ850T doesn't provide any Smart TV online functionality for its money, and it's impossible to avoid the fact that you must be paying at least something for the PenTouch functionality despite it being a feature it's hard to imagine anyone - at least in a domestic environment - using more than once.
Ease of use
LG's onscreen menus continue to be some of the best in terms of both their presentation and their ease of use.
The use of bold, large icons immediately puts you at ease when you first hit the menu button, and the way features are divided across the initial main menu headers is logical. The submenus all feature very clear text too, and best of all, navigating between and around them all feels logical and consistent.
It's also much appreciated that LG provides a picture wizard too that holds your hand through a basic but reasonably effective manual calibration process. And many people will like the way that the more in-depth calibration tools are only accessible if you first access the ISF Expert preset modes. This ensures that complex features only come into play for people actively looking for them, and so can't confuse more casual users.
The remote control is a good effort too. It's a little unassuming to look at, but the more you use it the more you start to appreciate its logical, ergonomic layout and tactile button response.
The PenTouch system that's the headline feature of the 50PZ850 is unfortunately a classic example of a piece of technology designed to solve a problem that never actually existed. Did you ever feel the urge to walk over to your big TV, pick up a pen and start scrawling on the screen? Nope, didn't think so.
The only people who might get any use at all out of PenTouch are young kids, but it's hard to see how having young kids standing extremely close to and touching a 50-inch plasma screen is ever likely to be a great idea.
Once you write PenTouch off in your mind, though, the 50PZ850T certainly has its attractions. It's got solid USB and PC-based multimedia support for instance, and its HD picture quality isn't bad at all so long as you don't mind the post-calibration image not being particularly bright. It's good to see that 3D doesn't suffer too badly with crosstalk noise either.
A list of niggles that includes an uninspiring standard definition performance, some colour tone concerns, rather average black levels by plasma standards and excessive input lag make it impossible for us to wholeheartedly recommend the 50PZ850T. But for all its foibles and mad features, it's still ultimately a respectable 3D plasma TV; you just need to be fully aware of the pros and cons before you part with any cash.
The metallic design is eye-catching if you like that sort of thing, and provided you can make your room reasonably dark and don't mind putting in a bit of time to adjust colour balances, the TV can also produce some good HD and decent 3D images. The operating system is good too.
Some colour tones never look quite right, black levels aren't great by plasma standards, you initially need to be careful about image retention, standard definition pictures don't look particularly brilliant, there's no Smart TV functionality, the input lag is too high for gamers, and the PenTouch feature is a waste of space.
There are things to like about the 50PZ850. Its picture performance with HD is in many ways very good, and it's a relief to find that its 3D pictures are far less troubled by crosstalk than those of some of LG's cheaper active 3D TV plasma models. It's a very easy TV to use, too.
Ultimately, though, a series of seemingly rather careless flaws, a lack of LG's Smart TV service and a headline feature that's no use to man nor beast mean the 50PZ850T can ultimately only earn a very cautious rather than whole-hearted recommendation.
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