Value-priced 50-inch plasma HDTV

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It’s not very often that you’ll hear someone say that a $7,000 television could be considered a bargain, but that’s exactly what I’m going to tell you about Sampo America’s new 50-inch plasma TV, the 50X6.

InsertArt(1990046)SAMPO ARE THE people behind Gateway’s inexpensive 42-inch plasma TV, which it builds to the computer maker’s specifications. But while I was playing with the Gateway, Sampo’s engineers were busy developing a bigger, better model.

I got to see a working prototype at the Consumer Electronics Show back in January and was very impressed with what I saw. The biggest difference (aside from the size of the actual screen) was that this is capable of high definition video reproduction (HDTV), whereas the Gateway, and the Sampo model it was based on, are limited to enhanced definition video (EDTV).

Sampo’s new big-screen plasma is indeed big: 49.5 by 31.9 by 4.2 inches. And heavy. I didn’t try balancing it on a scale, but the shipping container says it weighs in at 108 pounds. (The shipping container is massive in its own right and weighs something like 30 pounds.) This is a two-person device to unpack, lift and install.

I can quote you a lot of meaningful facts about the Sampo, such as the screen aspect ratio (16 by 9), the pixel pitch (0.81mm) and I can tell you that the screen is capable of 16.7 million colors, a brightness of 500 cd/m2 and that the set will work on NTSC (USA) and PAL (foreign) signals. But I’d rather let Sampo tell you about their TV:

“The PME-50X6, which features a 1366 x 768 native resolution, incorporates Sampo’s MotionDSC Digital Processor an advanced digital image processor that generates smooth motion video with minimal video artifacts. The quiet display also incorporates a host of value-added features including: picture-in-picture and side-by-side picture, 3:2 pull-down for film scan conversion, dual high-definition component video inputs, HDTV signal compatibility, user-selectable color temperature controls, a standard DVI-D with HDCP interface, optional TV tuner, and an integrated premium sound system consisting of built-in speakers, integrated audio amplifier and BBE® and SRS® sound processors.

Connectivity options for the PME-50X6 include: composite, S-Video, 2 high-definition component video inputs, DVI-D with HDCP and RGB inputs for computer applications, RGB output for loopout functionality and an RS-232 remote control port.

An optional NTSC TV/CATV tuner module expands the monitor’s capabilities to include cable or over-the-air television reception capabilities with convenience functions such as Closed Caption decoding, favorite channel programming, and channel lock and V-Chip parental control.”

Those specifications and features aside, none of this means anything if the picture quality you’re buying isn’t top notch. Luckily, there’s nothing like that happening here. The Sampo 50X6 produces one of the best high-definition pictures I’ve even seen anywhere.

Even when I first checked out the TV picture quality, I was pleased with the standard settings. After following along with the step-by-step instructions from Sound & Vision Magazine’s Home Theater Tune-up DVD (a grand total of 10 minutes and a highly recommended addition to any HDTV setup) the Sampo almost literally came to life.

The 50X6 screen produces a better balanced picture, bright and clear with an almost life-like color balance. HDTV signals (from my local cable provider) and DVDs can be eerily real looking. Everyone who has come to see the big new screen has come away with the same impressions. This is one terrific TV!

I did not hook a PC up to the 50X6 as I didn’t want to see my e-mail on such a large screen, but you can do so if you’d like.

Unfortunately, I was able to find a few things that I’d like to see improved. First, there’s the on-screen adjustment panel. It’s too small. Sampo should consider making the panel’s graphics a little easier to see from across the room.

The remote control is the exact same model that came with the Gateway plasma. I was hoping they would have upgraded it as well. Functionality is fine, but the remote is big, bulky, and somewhat overly complicated to use.

Another manufacturer, Hitachi, has a terrific solution for the same problem. On some of their big-screen TV units, in addition to a large, button-laden remote they also provide a very small clicker for controlling the volume, channels and inputs. You use the small remote most of the time and the larger one when adjustments are needed.

Sound quality from the built-in speakers is OK, but only passable. If you’re spending thousands on a plasma TV for your home theater set-up you shouldn’t be listening to it through speakers built into your TV monitor. Hooking the 50X6 into my hi-fi system was a huge improvement.

All that said, Sampo’s new 50-inch plasma HDTV is a winner. With a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $6,999, it really is a bargain compared to other 50-inch screens; many of them sport scary prices of more than $10,000 or $12,000. Sampo’s video quality is top-notch and, at the price they’re asking, somewhat of a miracle. If you’re in the market for a big-screen set you owe it to your eyes (and maybe your wallet) to check out the 50X6.