So nearly an LG legend

John Archer finds a lot to like about this 50in plasma TV – and a couple of flaws, too

Proof of just how seriously LG is still taking plasma is abundantly clear in the brand’s latest flagship TV, the 50PK990. Thanks to its slim frame, single-layer finish and novel colour scheme, which subtly infuses a touch of blue into the stand and bezel, it certainly cuts a dash.

Doing more to establish the set’s significance as a flagship product are its connections. Four HDMIs get the ball rolling, and there’s excellent support from a couple of USB inputs, a dedicated analogue PC socket, an Ethernet port and an RS232 port that enables wider system integration.

The USBs and Ethernet port are strikingly flexible, too. The former enable you to play JPEGs, MP3 music files and video formats including DivX HD and introduce a wi-fi USB dongle that ships with the TV.

The Ethernet port is there partly because it has to accompany the screen’s built-in Freeview HD tuner, while also enabling you to stream in files from a DLNA PC, as well as granting access to LG’s new NetCast online TV service.Portrait of a portal

It’s a pity then, that at the time of writing LG’s online portal is basic in the extreme. All you get is YouTube, the Picasa photo storage site, and rudimentary weather-checking facilities courtesy of AccuWeather.

Rather more comprehensive are the 50PK990’s picture adjustment options. The Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) only awards its endorsements to TVs that it regards as flexible enough for professional calibration and this one fits the bill.

There’s a reasonably flexible colour management tool and gamma adjustment alongside the usual tweaks. There’s also a startlingly extensive suite of picture processing options designed to boost motion handling, contrast, noise levels and colour gamut.

If you don’t want to pay the ISF to fine-tune your picture settings for you, an easier option is LG’s Picture Wizard tool, which guides you through the key set-up options using a selection of test signals.

The ISF isn’t the only independent organisation that’s backing the 50PK990. For it’s also got a THX preset, pre-calibrated to deliver a certifiable picture good enough to meet its tough image quality criteria.

And for the most part, we fully concur with THX’s trust in the set. For instance, during the playback of 30 Days of Night on Blu-ray and a couple of missions on Left 4 Dead 2 on the Xbox 360, the TV’s black level response is consistently excellent, with the screen reproducing much deeper, richer and more natural blacks than LG’s previous plasma generation. In fact, their profundity only fall marginally short of those on Panasonic’s latest G20, V20 and VT20 plasma models, which set a high standard.

A positive contribution to the 50PK990’s black level prowess comes from an integral TruBlack screen filter that reduces the impact reflections and glare have on images.

Making dark hues look all the more intense, meanwhile, is the TV’s exceptionally potent colour reproduction – commonly a slight weakness of plasma technology. During 30 Days of Night’s rare bright moments, however, colours look as vibrant and aggressive as those of LG’s best LCD/LED TVs.

The bold colours have been achieved without compromising tonal naturalism and blend subtlety. And they are pretty much immune to the often severe viewing angle limitations associated with LCD TVs.

Meanwhile, the unnaturally rapid movement of 30 Days...’ vampires, along with the near-constant flurry of zombies in Left 4 Dead 2, both provide ample evidence of how good the screen’s motion handling is. Its 600Hz sub-field drive engine helps motion-packed scenes avoid judder and smearing. You can cause the odd processing side effect if you set the noise reduction and motion handling circuitry too high, but overall the processing package’s plus points far outweigh the negatives.

Sharp implement

The 50PK990 delivers some impressively detailed pictures from our two HD test sources. And it does so without the slightly gritty look that sometimes appears with HD plasma pictures (provided, at least, that you don’t activate the set’s flawed Edge Enhancement option, or ramp the Sharpness higher than level 50).

Upscaling of standard-def sources is far better than LG’s previous plasma range, and both Sky News and Pirates of The Caribbean on DVD translate to the screen’s full HD resolution much more crisply than expected. Noise, too, is better suppressed, and while there are more rogue colour tones in evidence with standard-def feeds than HD ones, they’re nothing like as rife as they were last year.

While the 50PK990 is good enough to finally put LG’s plasma screens on the map alongside its established LCD TVs, it won’t be challenging Panasonic’s dominance of the sector, because it suffers from a couple of undeniable flaws.

The worst of these involves image retention, where bright parts of pictures can leave ghostly shadows behind after they’re supposed to have disappeared. This isn’t to be confused with screen burn; I haven’t seen evidence to suggest that the shadows could become permanent. But the spectral remnants of pictures can linger on for quite a few seconds, and that’s enough to be distracting, especially when a source skips from a bright scene to a dark one. Time was when all plasma TVs used to suffer from a degree of image retention, requiring you to be extra vigilant regarding logos and other long-term stationary image features for the first 100hrs or so of the TV’s life. But Samsung and Panasonic have all but removed the phenomenon from their screens now, so it’s hard to comprehend why LG is lagging so far behind. Even having to tolerate it for the first 100hrs or so seems wholly unnecessary today.

Another careless problem that undermines the 50PK990’s extensive good work is a curious streaking effect, whereby shadowy stripes sometimes extend across the screen from the right-hand sides of particularly bright objects. Stranger still, I only noticed this when playing games from the Xbox 360 console. But really, it shouldn’t happen at all.

Turning attention to the 50PK990’s audio, I was quite pleased by its open, decently powerful soundstage and the way it doesn’t start to sound thin and cramped during a full-tilt action sequence. But the set does suffer a bit from the lack of deep bass that’s so prevalent in the flat TV world.

HCC VERDICT

Highs: Styling; superb value; pictures are excellent in many ways
Lows: Annoying image retention and streaking artefacts; limited online functions
Performance: 4/5
Design: 5/5
Features: 5/5
Overall: 4/5

Specifications

3D: no HD Ready: yes With 1080p/24 support
Tuner: yes Freeview HD
Component: yes 1 HDMI: yes 4 HDMI inputs
PC input: yes 1 D-Sub
Resolution: 1920 x 1080
Sound: 20W
Brightness (claimed): N/A
Contrast ratio (claimed): 3,000,0000:1
Dimensions: 1184(w) x 739(h) x 52(d)mm
Weight: 30.2kg
Also featuring: 600Hz processing; MPEG noise reduction; TruBlack filter design; Bluetooth support; NetCast online features; intelligent sensor technology; Energy Saving recommended; built-in picture wizard; colour management; wide colour gamut option