Before we get any further, let's make one thing perfectly clear: Plasma is nearly extinct as a TV technology. Panasonic exited the business in 2013, Samsung is doing the same at the end of 2014. LG has not made a formal announcement, but experts universally expect it to also stop making plasma sets in the not-too-distant future.
There are many reasons why plasma will soon be gone. For one thing, LED sets produce brighter images than plasma TVs, so they look better in well-lit rooms (including TV showrooms) because blacks won't wash out. Plasma screens also tend to be highly reflective, although changes in technology and design have resulted in LED screens that are just as mirrorlike as classic plasma screens, and higher-end plasma sets that are as good at hiding glare as the best LED TVs.
Burn-in -- where the shadow of a static image can be permanently seen on the screen -- is no longer a major concern (though it can happen if the set is misused). More prevalent is something called temporary image retention, where a shadow from a static image takes time to fade from view. It isn't permanent, however, and most sets now include technology to speed the process of wiping away temporary shadows. Still, if you tend to watch channels with sports, stock or news crawlers, you might still want to look to a TV with different technology.
Finally, there's the issue of power consumption -- most plasma TVs are electricity guzzlers compared to LED sets. Few plasma sets are economical enough to be Energy Star qualified. Most LED sets in all but the very biggest screen sizes earn that distinction.
So why are so many so sad about the death of plasma? Terrific picture quality is why. Few LED sets can match plasma technology when it comes to producing deep, rich black levels and the ability to show the finest details in shadows. Even cheap plasma TVs routinely outperform mainstream LED TVs in that regard. The catch, as noted above, is that most plasma sets have limited brightness, so you need a room where light levels can be well controlled to get the full impact of those great blacks.
Plasma TVs have other advantages, as well. While viewing angles -- how far you can sit off dead center and still see a quality image -- of LED sets are often narrow, plasma TVs offer very wide viewing angles, making them great for large families or small gatherings. LED TVs also often suffer from poor uniformity, where different parts of the screen look brighter, which is rarely an issue for plasma TVs. Finally, plasma TVs do a great job of handling fast motion, and don't need to resort to an increased refresh rate to do so.
Still, at least for a short time, plasma remains a buying consideration. If you act quickly, one of the best plasma TVs ever made can still find a place in your home.
Reviewers are unanimous: The Samsung PNF8500 is among the very best TVs you can buy this year, last year ... and perhaps ever. It's a 2013 model that Samsung kept in production in 2014. It won the 2013 Value Electronics Shootout -- a competition that pits the best of each manufacturers' products head-to-head, with scoring done by a panel of professional calibrators, TV reviewers and journalists, and invited videophiles. It also won the 2014 event, scoring equally with LG's groundbreaking 55EC9300 OLED TV, leaving the 4K and HDTV LED competition well behind. Yes, it's that good.
Most formal reviews were conducted in 2013, and most were effusive in their praise. It earns Editors' Choice or similar awards from a host of experts, including PCMag.com, Reviewed.com, Sound & Vision, DigitalTrends.com, and FlatpanelsHD.com. It also earns high ratings from other reviewers, including CNET and HDGuru.com (which gives it a perfect score). User reviews continue to be impressive.
In terms of the usual touchstones -- black levels and color performance -- that critics use to evaluate TVs, the Samsung PNF8500 is very impressive. Some historic TVs have been capable of producing blacks that were a tiny bit better -- such as last year's now discontinued Panasonic TC-ZT60 series and Pioneer's legendary and long discontinued Kuro models. Keep in mind however, that black-level purists will find the blacks produced by OLED sets even more compelling. We discuss that further in the section on OLED TVs.
Color is another strong point. Experts say that accuracy is in the upper echelon of all TVs even right out of the box -- close enough to perfection to please most, and tweakable to near perfect for the obsessive.
But contrast is what sets the Samsung PNF8500 apart from other plasma TVs. To be sure, out-of-this-world contrast specifications are one of those bits of snake oil that should be completely ignored (or even made fun of) on most TV spec sheets. Here, however, it's the real deal. The result is incredible brightness for a plasma TV, delivering most of the "pop" of an LCD set, even in a room with high levels of light. That blows away one of the chief drawbacks to plasma technology -- the loss of apparent picture quality in rooms with more ambient light. Bright-room performance is also buttressed by a screen filter that does a great job of fighting off screen reflections. Like most plasma TVs, screen uniformity is top notch, and viewing angles are wide. There are some reports of a buzzing sound in bright scenes, only noticeable if you sit less than a few feet from the screen, but this is a common complaint with many plasma sets. Temporary image retention -- another typical plasma downside -- is well exceptionally well controlled.
If the great picture quality matched with the unprecedented brightness for a plasma set weren't enough to justify the PNF8500's admittedly high price tag for a plasma set, the pot is sweetened a bit by what was the most extensive set of features in any 2013 HDTV -- plasma or LCD -- and one that's only exceeded a little by 2014 models.
Of course, Samsung's "Featuritis," as CNET calls it, is legendary, and the PNF8500 has everything imaginable stuffed in. The company's Smart Hub offers an array of streaming features that's unsurpassed in terms of providers on any set short of the latest Roku-equipped LED TVs, (such as the TCL FS4610R series, discussed in the section on best value LED TVs), none of which can be in the same conversation in terms of picture quality with this Samsung plasma TV. An On TV home screen brings that content together with content from your cable/telco/satellite provider to help make finding programs to watch easier. There's also a recommendation engine to find additional programming based on your viewing habits. On TV and the recommendation engine are ambitious, and work well, although reviewers do find the occasional glitch.
Voice and gesture control are available, though reviewers still find that gesture control is more gimmick than useful add on. Reviewers say that the included touch pad remote has some quirks and requires a learning curve to master. CNET doesn't mind, saying despite that it's one of the best included remotes they've used. PCMag.com is not as impressed: "It takes some getting used to and is not the best control mechanism for children or anybody with limited patience." Originally, only the touchpad remote was included, but Samsung now also packages an above-average standard remote with the set as well.
There's active-shutter 3D (with four pairs of glasses included); reports vary as to 3D picture quality, but most say it's at least satisfactory for casual 3D viewing. More interesting is Smart Evolution Kit compatibility, which gives set owners the option to add future improvements to their TV. As an example, Samsung this year issued a Smart Evolution Kit that let owners of this set upgrade to the 2014 version of its Smart Hub and add a more powerful processor, at a cost of around $250; the kit also includes a newer and better liked version of Samsung's touchpad remote control.
The most significant drawback to the Samsung PNF8500 is its price tag. While the picture quality will be better on this Samsung plasma TV, you can buy some top performing LED TVs for a fraction of the price (such as the Vizio E-Series profiled in our section on the best LED TVs). If you are on a tighter budget, there are plasma TVs that, while not as impressive, still produce a better picture than most LED TVs.
Samsung might have one foot out the door when it comes to plasma TV, but the company still has a decent lineup of mid-priced and bargain plasma sets in its lineup. The Samsung PN64H5000 (Est. $1,300) is new for 2014 and has racked up a nice set of endorsements including a Recommended rating at HDTVTest, an Editors' Choice award at Reviewed.com and a Best Buy rating from an independent expert reviewer. The 64-inch size is the only one offered.
Lee Neikirk at Reviewed.com is perhaps this set's most unabashed fan. "The 64-inch H5000 minced our lab tests, proving that plasma tech still has plenty to offer," he says. Neikirk adds "Deep black levels, a wide viewing angle, and beautiful colors mean a lot of picture quality value from this TV." Reviewed.com goes on to say that picture quality is on a par with the F8500. What you won't get is that set's cutting edge features, including the ability to upgrade to new Samsung technologies as those become available. There are also no streaming features, so you won't get Samsung's well regarded Smart Hub, nor is there 3D.
HDTVTest also likes this plasma TV, though perhaps a degree or two less. This review gets down further into the technological weeds than Reviewed.com's and points out some differences that tilt the scale further toward the F8500. Perhaps most important to many typical viewers is that the PN64H5000 lacks the F8500's excellent anti-reflective performance. That means that its wonderful picture quality is best in a dark room -- something that has long been a characteristic of plasma TVs.
Those who plan to sit with their nose up against the display (such as gamers) might also notice a somewhat different pixel structure. This set uses a Pentile display (used on some smartphones) that costs less to produce. HDTVTest's David Mackenzie does allow that this is something that most will get used to (and we think it is something most might never even notice). Still, he says, "To be blunt, we wouldn't be so welcoming of it on a high-end display, because it does create a 'honeycomb' look if you sit very closely (video gamers, take note)." Both of the points that HDTVTest raises can be seen in a small handful of user reviews, but the overwhelming majority give it a thumbs up. It is the best-selling plasma TV at Amazon.com
LG plasma TVs have not earned the same acclaim as plasma TVs from other makers. Still, picture quality is competitive with the best LED TVs, if not better, as long as you are willing to keep room lights off or at least down low. Value is attractive as well.
We see some good feedback on the 60-inch LG 60PB6900 (Est. $1,150). One independent reviewer grants it Best Buy honors. LCDBuyingGuide.com finds performance to be good, but notes limited brightness means that best picture quality will only be seen in a darker room. Jack Burden is not overly excited about black levels, calling them "average" for a plasma TV, though still better than what most LCD TVs can produce. There's a good smart TV platform built in, and 3D is supported, but those that are interested will need to pay extra for their own active shutter glasses (LG's glasses cost roughly $60, but you can find non-LG active glasses for as low as $15).