Samsung Series 5 T27A550 £414
21st Dec 2011 | 15:30
A fine LED HD monitor, but can you really use it as a TV?
Movies, games, PCs and TV. Can a single screen really display content for every count? That's the challenge for the new Samsung Series 5 T27A550 HD TV monitor. It's a 27-inch beast with an integrated digital TV tuner and enough inputs to cope with everything from desktop PCs to games consoles and set-top boxes. It's the total video solution.
That it looks a little like a miniature high-end HD TV, sports a full HD 1920 x 1080 pixel grid and comes with an infrared remote just sweetens the deal. It's an awful lot of screen, features and technology for the UK price of £414 or US cost of $430.
Of course, HD TV prices have been tumbling of late. Some 32-inch HD TVs can be had for under £250. Likewise, pretty much an HD TV with an HDMI port is capable of doubling as a monitor for a PC or a screen for a gaming console and set-top box.
It's also worth noting that the panel itself is based on that cheapest of LCD technologies, TN. At this price point, that's inevitable. But it's worth remembering that large, expensive HD TVs use more sophisticated VA or IPS technology.
In that context, the 27-inch Samsung T27A550 Series 5 LED HD TV monitor looks more reasonably priced than outrageously cheap. However, it does have a few extra features that separate it from the norm. For starters, it supports playback of music, video and images from any standard mass storage USB device.
Samsung has also come up with a few technologies intended to offset the image quality issues that come with TN panel technology. Dynamic contrast is an old trick used to compensate for poor black levels. More intriguing is Samsung's Magic Angle Vertical tech, which claims to improve viewing angles, another TN weakness.
Of course, this isn't the only all-in-one screen on offer. The LG DM2350D does all this and more in an even smaller 23-inch package. Samsung itself does a number of cheaper options, including the Samsung B2330 HD.
As a 27-inch monitor that can be bought for under £350 in the UK and under $300 in the US, there was only one likely panel technology for the Samsung Series 5 T27A550. Yup, it's our old friend twisted nematic, or TN for short.
TN is the cheapest of the commonly-used LCD panel techs. That's not its only advantage, though - it's the fastest responding, too. That gives it a significant advantage over IPS and VA panels when it comes to fast-moving images. Think games and action movies. Sure enough, Samsung quotes response times of just 5ms.
Of course, the panel itself isn't the only major component contributing to image quality. The backlight plays a big role, too. Increasingly, flatscreen TVs and LCD monitors are moving to LED backlight technology. So it is for the Samsung Series 5 T27A550.
The main advantages of LED tech include broader colour reproduction, cleaner whites, lower power consumption and better longevity. In fact, there are few if any metrics by which old school CCFL backlight technology can be said to be better.
Samsung has also addressed the shortcomings of TN with some image-enhancing technologies. Dynamic contrast compensates for the poor black levels and contrast produced by TN panels. Meanwhile, Samsung's Magic Angle Vertical enables users to correct the screen for viewing off the horizontal. In theory, this enables the panel to be situated above eye level while maintaining colour fidelity.
Elsewhere, the Samsung Series 5 T27A550 HD TV monitor scores with a decent but not quite perfect array of inputs. You get VGA for analogue PC connections (which will only be relevant for very old PCs) and a pair of HDMI ports for a range of devices including PCs, set-top boxes and games consoles. There's also component analogue video support for legacy AV devices.
What you don't get, however, is DVI or DisplayPort, the preferred digital interfaces for PCs. Given this screen's claim to combine a monitor and an HD TV in a single box, that's an oversight. As we'll see, the HDMI interface can be problematic with some PC graphics cards.
Another intriguing feature, My Downloads, involves support for direct viewing and playback of files from a USB storage device. Still images, music and video are all supported - more on specific format support in a moment.
Finally, the Samsung Series 5 T27A550 has an integrated digital TV tuner. Unfortunately, it's restricted to DVB-T/C rather than DVB-T2, which means no native Freeview HD support. Of course, with HDMI connectivity, you can hook up an external Freeview HD box.
First up, what's the Samsung Series 5 T27A550 HD TV monitor like as a physical object? It looks a lot like one of Samsung's pricier HD TVs, just on a smaller scale. The downside is that the HD TV styling comes with HD TV limitations. The stand is tilt-only. For PC usage, more adjustability, including height and swivel, is desirable.
On a related note, the lack of DVI or DisplayPort connectivity presented problems in testing. Connecting via HDMI can present scanning problems, particularly with certain AMD graphics cards and driver configurations. Despite considerable effort, we couldn't achieve a pixel-for-pixel image from our test PC via an AMD video card.
Strictly speaking, this isn't Samsung's fault. AMD video boards have a habit of incorrectly outputting an overscanned signal over the HDMI interface. However, this issue simply doesn't arise with DVI and DisplayPort. We'd therefore be very wary about buying the Samsung Series 5 T27A550 HD TV monitor primarily for use with a PC.
That aside, image quality is above average for a TN screen. Thanks in part to the LED backlight, colours are vibrant and relatively saturated. OK, a VA screen has more visual punch and IPS panels are much more accurate. But for non-professional usage, the Samsung Series 5 T27A550's colours are certainly adequate.
Black levels are good for a TN monitor, too, even if Samsung's dynamic contrast technology is no substitute for a panel with inherently strong contrast.
As for the Magic Angle Vertical technology, well, the first thing to say is that it's not dynamic. You have to set it up for a particular viewing position and stick with that. If you change your viewing position or the height of the screen itself, you have to recalibrate.
That said, it does offset much of the colour inversion that TN panels suffer when viewing from below horizontal. While we'd still recommend viewing from the correct angle, it's a useful tool if this isn't possible.
Thanks to the TN technology, pixel response is another strong point. Factor in the 27-inch diagonal and a 1920 x 1080 pixel grid that won't overload your GPU and you have a great gaming panel.
As for the My Downloads USB playback feature, it supports JPG images up to 15,360 x 8,640 resolution and non-DRM MP3 files.
But video is arguably the most critical aspect, and here the news is good. The Samsung Series 5 T27A550 supports Full HD video files in a wide range of codecs and containers including (but not limited to) .AVI, .MKV, .ASF and .MP4 on the container side and XVID, H.264, DIVX and MPEG4 in terms of codecs.
As for HD TV duties, well, the built-in standard definition tuner inevitably results in soft image quality. But the display itself is easily vibrant enough for daily TV viewing.
An all-in-one screen that covers all your video viewing and playback needs in a single, slick-looking device is an awfully tempting proposition. That the Samsung Series 5 T27A550 does this for a price of around £414/$430 while offering a generous 27-inch screen diagonal only sweetens the deal.
In use, however, there are issues. It's weakest as a PC monitor on several counts. The lack of DVI or DisplayPort connectivity can lead to scanning issues, and the tilt-only stand lacks the flexibility you really want from a PC. Plus, while the Full HD resolution is perfect for HD TV and movies, it makes less sense on a 27-inch PC panel. Even 22-inch monitors now offer the same resolution. So all you're getting is larger pixels, not more usable desktop real estate.
It's also worth noting that BenQ offers its EW2730V 27-inch monitor for a very similar price. OK, it lacks a TV tuner. But it sports a much higher quality VA LCD panel with a 3,000:1 native contrast ratio and thus significantly betters colours and black levels.
As an HD TV, the news isn't that much better, even if the context is a little different. For starters, 27 inches is no big deal in the world of HD TVs. Prices for large HD TVs have positively collapsed in the last 18 months.
You can now buy a Full HD 42-inch plasma screen for under £400. The Samsung Series 5 T27A550's price will get you at least 32 inches of conventional LCD HD TV. And given the screen's lack of DVI or DisplayPort connectivity, it's hard to see how it's more or less of a PC monitor than any HD TV with HDMI connectivity. What's more, the lack of native Freeview HD support means you'll need some kind of external box to watch HD broadcasts.
That said, the My Downloads USB playback feature does give it a lift above both the HD TV and PC monitor norm. It certainly makes it more flexible for playing back video files. However, it's hard to imagine using this feature frequently if you have the Samsung Series 5 T27A550 hooked up to a PC. At best, it might be handy as an alternative to booting your PC.
If space is at a premium, a single display that provides monitor duties, a TV tuner and supports set-top boxes and games consoles is extremely handy. For a TN screen, it also offers decent image quality, in part thanks to the use of an LED backlight. The relatively modest 1080p resolution also means you won't need an epic graphics card to play games.
Jack of all trades, master of none, we're afraid. As a PC monitor, the pixel pitch is too coarse. Worse, the lack of DVI or DisplayPort connectivity could cause problems with AMD graphics cards. As an HD TV, it's not terribly big and lacks native Freeview HD support.
Inevitably, the attempt to provide all-in-one capability results in a lack of excellence in any one metric. To keep the price bearable, Samsung had to use a TN panel and that puts a cap on image quality and vibrancy, despite the use of an LED backlight.
As a PC monitor, the 1080p resolution isn't a great fit with the 27-inch size, which ironically limits its appeal at this price point as an HD TV. As does the missing Freeview HD support.