This latest LG offering into the 3D and internet-connected TV market is an interesting one, and one worth paying special attention to. Why? First, it’s a good TV. It does everything a fully-featured TV is supposed to, and that alone makes it deserving of a second look. But beyond that, this TV marks an interesting development in—and reaction to—the realities of the 3D TV market in 2011.
So now—if you don’t already know—you’re probably asking yourself what the heck this guy is rambling on about. To answer that, let’s start with a short course in 3D history.
• First, there was reality—that began in 2D, maybe even 1D, because I don’t think the first life forms were capable of stereoscopic vision.
• Then there was Cyclops. Same problem.
• Skipping ahead a bit, movie makers in the 50s introduced anaglyph 3D in theaters. They required that movie-going stooges put on silly glasses with red and blue tinted filters to separate the right and left images into their respective eyes.
• In the latter 2000s a few movie studios even hoisted those glasses on an unsuspecting public by stuffing Blu-ray boxes with them and calling the result 3D. Even through our red/blue-induced nausea we knew better.
• Finally—with a few steps in between—the [email protected] consortium agreed on a 3D Blu-ray standard, and the era of 3D HDTV was launched in 2010. The public rejoiced. Well …
… Back to the present. Most, meaning 95 percent, of the 3D TVs on the market today use a system commonly referred to as active 3D or active shutter glasses. Those TVs flash alternating left and right images every 60Hz or so, while a set of battery-operated shades on the viewer’s face shuts out or lets in the TV image through active LCDs built into the lenses. I’m pretty thoroughly amazed by that process—the thought that each lens is covered with tiny liquid crystals that flex themselves open and closed on command to help create a 3D image in my brain. Ingenious stuff this technology.
Yet, as impressive as that process is, it’s also a bit clunky. Many of the glasses are big, ugly and very expensive. Aside from a few promotional exceptions, active shutter glasses run around $150 a set. And what’s worse, the glasses for your TV may not work with your friend’s TV, even if they’re the same brand.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just take the glasses from a 3D cinema and use them on our home TVs?
Enter the LG 55LW5600
LG Display (the company that makes the glass TV panels for LG Electronics as well as some other companies) caused a bit of a stir late last year, and later at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, when it began promoting a new technology for 3D TVs—Film Patterned Retarder or FPR. An FPR TV is different from other 3D TVs in that the TV is displaying both the left and right images at the same time, but a polarizing filter over the screen essentially separates the two images. The viewer uses passive polarized glasses which filter out the appropriate left/right images, and the result is 3D in the brain.
The immediate benefit of that system is that it’s cheaper—the TV itself it cheaper than other LED-based 3D LCDs, and the glasses are dirt cheap. The TV ships with four sets. Additional glasses cost about $10, or you can use the polarized glasses that you walked out with after seeing “Avatar” or the Justin Bieber movie (I’m not judging you). Also, you never have to worry about turning the glasses on or syncing them with the TV.
So what’s the problem? Well, that’s where the devil is in the details, so to speak, and the details are in the resolution. Because the TV is using a polarizing filter to split the frame, each left or right image is actually only made up of half the TV’s total resolution. That means that the 1080p image is divided in half, or 540p for each eye. LG engineers answer this issue by saying that, yes, it’s 540 in each eye, but you’ve got two eyes, so the result is still 1080. Well, maybe.
The real question is whether that even matters. When most viewers are perfectly content with the 480p they get on DVDs or the hyper-compressed whatever resolution they stream from Netflix, is a little resolution loss going to matter in the long run? We’ll get to that later.
Now that the 3D tech lesson is over, let’s get back to this particular TV.
The 55LW5600 is, all-told, a fully-featured TV. For starters, it’s an edge-lit LED model that uses a system to provide local dimming, which improves contrast. It’s not as efficient as a fully back-lit LED that offers real local dimming control, but edge-lit TVs allow for the incredible thin designs we love.
This model is a 120Hz model, which seems almost outdated right now, as some companies are pushing TVs with claims of 540Hz, though, the benefits of faster and faster refresh rates is debatable. A 240Hz model is planned for release later this year, if that seems like a feature that’s important to you.
Connections include 4 HDMI inputs, 2 component inputs, a 15-pin RGB, plus the standard analog inputs. An RS-232 connection is available for control systems. The glossy black bezel is narrow, but not as narrow as some, and there’s an attractive clear edge all around. It rests on a swivel base that goes together fairly easily.
Aside from 3D, the other important feature, possibly more important than the 3D, is the smart TV aspect. Like all the major TV makers this year, LG has created a robust platform for hosting internet apps and a graphic interface for accessing them. The TV includes an Ethernet port for a wired connection, or you can use the included USB Wi-Fi adapter for wireless.
Pressing the HOME button the remote brings you to the main page where all your apps are listed, plus you can get to the input menu and TV setup guide from this spot. The HOME page is organized into four main areas: a picture-in-picture screen; a menu of premium content apps such as vudu, Netflix and Facebook (you can select 5 to display); the LG Apps area which is sort of like an app marketplace; and toolbar with access to a browser, media search, and a few other apps.
To make navigating all those options easier, LG includes a Wii-style remote called the Magic Motion Remote. Once it’s registered to work with your TV, you just wave and point the wand to direct a crosshair cursor around the screen and press an enter button to access a feature. Using the remote takes a little getting used to, but for most functions it’s vastly better at the than the traditional remote for complex menus. Note: make sure you’re pointing it directly at the center of the screen when you register it; otherwise the cursor will always be off center.
In the LG Apps area, you can select new apps to add, and there’s a fair assortment of news and games—45 while I had the TV, but the variety isn’t nearly as great as you’ll find on Samsung TVs or set-top-boxes like Roku and the Logitech Revue. For example, one of the most important apps to many users is the streaming music service Pandora, but that’s not available on this TV. Instead you’ll find vTuner, an internet radio service. You can also access your own music via networked DLNA drives.
The 55LW5600 includes ample picture controls to tune up the TVs, plus several extras that are best left turned off. The menu controls are easy to use, despite the awkwardly designed primary remote.
In most test patterns, the LG did pretty well. The TV has fairly good blacks, is bright and uniform over the screen. Some edge-lit TVs show slight hot spots around the perimeter, but I didn’t notice any with this sample.
2D TV—the stuff most people will spend most of their time viewing, looked good. The TV has a fairly wide viewing angle in 2D, so it should do well in a room that’s wider than it is deep.
But onto 3D—let’s start with the facts. I verified with test patterns that the TV was indeed displaying less onscreen resolution in 3D. Does that matter? Well, most of the time, not so much. I spent a lot of time staring at 3D images from Blu-ray discs, and then from video-on-demand (provided by my Veriozon FiOS box), and for the most part, Blu-ray 3D content looked good. Resolution is not always the most important picture factor, and this TV does a good job with the other factors such as color and black level. In some scenes I could discern scan lines when I was really looking for them, but most of the time the images looks great, and the 3D effect was also impressive. Ghosting was not at all apparent when viewing from a conservative angle in front of the TV; however, when I moved too far off center, ghosting came into the image. When I moved high or low (to simulate sitting on the floor or standing) the 3D effect began to disappear. Still, my overall impression of the LG’s 3D performance was good.
Then I turned to VOD. Cable TV providers (and I include FiOS in this group) display 3D differently than Blu-ray players. Cable cuts the images resolution in half and displays the program in a side-by-side method. When you combine that with the resolution reduction the LG TV also contributes, you end up with something less than standard definition TV. Depending on the program the results will be fair to terrible. Most of the content I viewed, mostly sports, leaned toward terrible.
So here’s the problem. On the 3D front, this TV can reproduce a very good 3D picture from a 3D Blu-ray source–not a perfect 3D picture, but a very good one. If all you plan to watch are Blu-ray movies, then you’re making very little compromise for the convenience of cheap, easy-to-use glasses. If you plan to watch 3D VOD movies or cable-channel sports, then you’ll be in for a disappointing experience. If you’re looking for a good 2D internet TV and may occasionally pop a 3D movie in the player, then this model will work out well for you.
Even at the list price of $2,399, the 55LW5600 is less expensive than most other 3D LED LCDs in that size. When you factor in the price of glasses for a family, and even more for guests, you’re looking at an even bigger price difference. That’s a compelling argument for a shopper looking for overall value. Is it the best picture experience, or 3D picture experience on the market? No. The TV does have some picture shortcomings inherent in the technology, but I’m sure there are a lot of people who could sleep well at night still knowing this.