With its 2012 lineup, Panasonic wants to confirm that it is the TV maker capable of the best plasma TVs — with mid-tier to flagship models delivering superior blacks and exceptional picture quality with respect to any other brand. Even mid-tier sets such as the relatively inexpensive ST50 series HDTVs are capable of doing better than flagship plasma TV models from Samsung and LG in this respect. It seems that when it comes to picture quality, it is all Panasonic versus Panasonic!
Yet, while picture quality is the most important deliverable of any TV, there is more to the overall value than just the picture; price, styling and features all play an important role in the overall value equation. The whole issue is: Which of the new Panasonic plasma HDTVs deliver the best overall value?
In the first part of this article, we look at the features on offer by the ST50, GT50, and VT50 series. In the second part of this Panasonic plasma TV review, we analyze in detail these series to determine where each series fits best in the ‘overall value’ equation, taking into account features, picture quality, and price.
Introducing the new 2012 Panasonic plasma HDTV Sets
Many are under the impression that plasma TVs had reached their apex in picture quality at a time when Pioneer was still in the plasma TV market.
Yet if you thought plasma HDTVs did not get any better, you are in for a BIG surprise! Plasma TVs have been becoming significantly better year after year, delivering a superior picture to that of any other display technology for the same price.
In this respect, it is Panasonic the TV maker that has consistently delivered the TVs with the best picture quality, mainly thanks to the exceptionally deep blacks of its plasma TVs.
It is true that in 2009, Panasonic had its share of problems with its fading blacks, but with the TV lineups that followed, Panasonic soon re-gained that lost confidence by videophiles looking for the best TV picture. In particular, last year, the Panasonic VT30 was crowned as the best plasma TV videophiles could ever get hold of, delivering the deepest blacks ever recorded by any TV. With the new 2012 plasma TV lineup, Panasonic wants to confirm that it is the TV maker with the best plasma TVs capable of a superior picture to that of the competition. Panasonic has done an incredible good job, delivering not only flagship and premium plasma HDTVs capable of a superb picture, but even its mid-tier ST50 series is capable of a picture that often exhibits superior characteristics to that of flagship models from Samsung and LG.
And if the mid-tier Panasonic plasma HDTV series is capable of such a picture performance, what about less expensive TVs from the same Panasonic lineup such as the TC-PUT50: Are these also capable of a superior overall value to what’s available from Samsung and LG?
Well, there is no doubt that the Panasonic TC-PUT50 step-up 1080p 3D TV series represents great overall value for the budget home entertainment market. While at under $1,400 for a 60-inch TC-P60UT50, you cannot expect to enjoy the same feature set and refined styling as premium models, the UT50 still comes with one of the best Smart TV suites on the market — an improved version of the much acclaimed 2011 VieraCast, and which for 2012 Panasonic has re-branded as VieraConnect.
And while the UT50 picture quality falls shy of the more expensive models from the same Panasonic lineup, this Panasonic plasma HDTV series is still capable of delivering a better picture than most of the more expensive mid-tier and premium models from other brands.
However, the UT50 Panasonic plasma HDTVs miss on a number of important features, including the latest Infinite Black panel from Panasonic with the new louver filter. They also have limited user adjustable picture settings which would hinder most serious home theater enthusiast from calibrating these sets for the best picture. In other words, despite its great picture, the UT50 lacks the necessary features and characteristics to represent a serious videophile-grade TV.
Mid-tier, Premium, and Flagship Panasonic Plasma HDTVs
If what you are after is a videophile-grade HDTV, you have to move on to the next level of Panasonic plasma HDTVs, the mid-level ST50 series, the GT50 premium HDTVs, and the VT50 flagship series for 2012. These three Panasonic plasma HDTV series exhibit superior overall picture quality characterized by inky deep blacks and great shadow detail. And unlike previous years, the new 2012 HDTVs from Panasonic also enjoy accurate colors without the greenish skin tones, red push, and lack of saturation we have seen on recent past Panasonic plasma HDTVs.
These Panasonic plasma TVs also enjoy solid bright-room performance thanks to the use of a new ‘louver’ filter, something which the less expensive series such as the UT50 referred to above lack. And this apart from excellent off-angle and uniformity characteristics associated with plasma displays.
For 2012, Panasonic has also come with more attractive styling, one that is more in line with Samsung and LG than the typical ‘dull’ Panasonic styling we have been accustomed to during these past years.
Yet there is more to the new Panasonic plasma HDTVs. Panasonic HDTVs are generally not renowned for their feature set or extensive user picture settings; in this respect, Samsung and LG have always taken the lead. But with 2012 Panasonic plasma HDTVs, there is a wind of change as the new HDTVs come with an extensive and well-chosen feature set, and a comprehensive range of user-adjustable picture controls. It is true that in these areas, the new Panasonic plasma TVs still lack behind the competition, but we do not think you will need more.
TC-PST50 Mid-Tier Panasonic Plasma HDTVs: The least expensive videophile-grade HDTVs
Do not let the fact that the ST50 3D TV is Panasonic’s mid-tier series; it still has the potential to be crowned as the best overall TV series for 2012.
The ST50 Panasonic plasma HDTV series is the best-selling 3D plasma TV series for 2012, with the 55-inch TC-P55ST50 being the best-selling plasma HDTV irrespective of brand. This is no surprise; the ST50 comes at a surprisingly affordable price for a TV of this caliber and feature set. Other screen sizes within the series include the 55-inch, 60-inch, and 65-inch. These are also proving to be extremely popular — following closely behind the 50-inch model in terms of sales rank. Online prices range from $1,100 for the 50-inch to under $2,100 for the 65-
Design and Features:
The ST50 brings with it considerable improvement in the overall design, characterized by a slim profile that is under 2-inch deep and a pleasing clear plastic edge around the set bezel, a feature originally pioneered by Samsung and LG.
The mid-tier Panasonic plasma HDTV series comes accompanied with a re-designed backlit remote that is extremely functional thanks to the use of clearly differentiated button sizes; included on the remote is a help button that gives you direct access to an on-screen version of the full user manual.
Main upgrade over the less expensive Panasonic plasma HDTVs is the use of the new Infinite Black Pro display panel with its new louver filter. The new panel is designed to improve picture quality while the louver filter improves the TV picture performance under bright room conditions. The new panel is said to enjoy an extended lifetime, a brighter picture, faster switching phosphors and is more energy efficient. The Infinite Black panel used on the ST50 is the same type of panel used on the premium GT50 series; however, ST50 Panasonic plasma HDTVs lack the extended shades of gray supported by both the GT50 and the VT50 for a finer and more precise shadow detail.
This series is the least expensive Panasonic plasma HDTV series that comes with built-in Wi-Fi with DLNA supporting photo, movie and music playback, 3D-real sound for improved and more realistic TV sound, and 24p Cinematic Playback using 48Hz refresh rate. The latter however suffers from too much image flicker and is practically useless except for 3D playback, in which case it helps produce a solid 3D picture with hardly any noticeable crosstalk.
The ST50 series also includes Panasonic Pro settings with its two-point grayscale control and gamma presets. This limited advanced picture control contrasts heavily with the more comprehensive 10-point grayscale settings and full color management found on corresponding Samsung and LG HDTVs. You have to jump onto the Panasonic VT50 flagship series to enjoy these advanced picture settings.
Included with the ST50 is a three-setting motion smoother dejudder processing for 24p movie content; activating this setting even on its lowest setting also helps improve motion resolution.
Picture settings remain one of the main limiting features of the ST50 series, rendering these Panasonic plasma HDTVs among the least user-adjustable TVs within their category irrespective of brand. The only picture mode that provides advanced user-adjustable controls is the Custom picture mode. Luckily, the Cinema picture mode on these Panasonic plasma HDTVs comes with relatively accurate out-of-the-box settings.
As with the rest of the 2012 Panasonic plasma 3D TVs, the ST50 series active 3D glasses technology supports the Full HD 3D glasses universal standard, meaning you are not bound to use Panasonic relatively expensive 3D glasses — which at around $50 per pair cost almost twice as much as corresponding Samsung 3D glasses. Unlike Samsung, Panasonic does not include free 3D glasses with its TVs.
The universal standard uses Bluetooth rather than Infrared, leading to a more stable and precise operation of the active 3D glasses for improved 3D performance.
As indicated in our introduction, Panasonic’s Smart TV suite, VieraConnect is an updated version of last year VieraCast and comes with a number of additions to the VieraCast content lineup, most important being the added Vudu service.
It is rated as one of the best, with a top-notch content lineup, comes with a simple layout, and is easy to use and navigate. Navigating apps is not as responsive as on dual-core processor GT50 and VT50 HDTVs. On the other hand, once an app load, response time becomes less of an issue, with no significant difference between single-core and dual-core Panasonic plasma HDTVs.
Using the built-in Web browser with the standard remote is a no-go; this applies to any TV browser irrespective of brand, yet Samsung and LG TV browsers performs a little bit better than Panasonic.
As is now the trend with other Smart TV systems, Panasonic VieraConnect also comes with annoying banner ads that shows up when you first power up; luckily, this add can be disabled.
TV Sound: ST50 Panasonic plasma HDTVs share the same TV sound system used on the more expensive GT50 and VT50 series. This consists of an 8-speaker driver system (four-drivers per channel) mounted along the bottom edge of the TV plus an ultra-slim 22-mm deep subwoofer mounted on the rear surface of the panel. The whole setup delivers 4W rms per channel plus 10W rms for the subwoofer.
Sound is relatively good for a flat-panel TV but we you still need to connect your ST50 to a separate audio system for the best sound.
Connectivity on the ST50 features 3 HDMI — one less than most mid-tier HDTVs, composite/component video input through breakout cables, a pair of USB2.0 ports, an SD card slot for media files, digital audio out, and Ethernet.
TC-PGT50 Premium Panasonic Plasma HDTVs: Panasonic least expensive HDTVs with THX display certification
The GT50 represents Panasonic premium series of plasma HDTVs for 2012. Like the ST50, this series comes in four screen sizes, the 50-inch, the 55-inch, the 60-inch, and the 65-inch. Best-selling set within the series is the 50-inch TC-P50GT50; prices at the time of this write-up range from $1,400 for the 50-inch to $2,550 for the 65-inch.
This means that moving from the ST50 to the GT50 series calls for a premium of $300 to $450 for which you mainly get THX display certification and dual-core processing. Still we say this is an extremely valid HDTV option that is considerably cheaper than the flagship VT50. The irony is that GT50 Panasonic plasma HDTVs are doing worse in TV sales than VT50 HDTVs, indicating the many in the market for a high-end HDTV are preferring to skip the premium series in favor of the more expensive flagship Panasonic HDTVs.
The real problem with the GT50 Panasonic plasma HDTV series is that it has the misfortune of being sandwiched between two Panasonic TV series that have a lot to offer, the ST50 with its exceptional overall value and the VT50 series with is superior performance. Even so, there is still a lot to like about Panasonic GT50 HDTVs; it has a superior design to that of the ST50 and a picture quality that is just a hairline apart from that of the flagship. This makes the GT50 series a worthy option especially if what you are after is a high-end HDTV in a screen size not covered by the VT50 series.
GT50 HDTVs sport a stylish thin metallic edge around the set thin bezel that replaces the clear plastic trim found on the cheaper series. Overall aesthetics are not as impressive as the VT50 single pane of glass design but the metallic trim still looks extremely pleasing, giving the GT50 a more high-end feel.
The provided supporting vertical stand comes in a two-tone dark gray finish on a square base; it is a like-it or hate-it design that in our opinion does not do full justice to the rest of the set aesthetics.
The GT50 includes the same standard remote as found on the mid-tier series. These HDTVs also make use of the same menu structure as the ST50, and shares practically the same feature set but add a few extras, the most important of which in terms of picture quality is the presence of three THX picture modes — THX Cinema and THX Brought room for 2D viewing, and THX 3D Cinema for 3D viewing.
Other important picture quality related upgrades include 24K shades of gradation for finer and more precise shadow detail, pure Image Creation — said to help recreate a more precise representation of diagonal lines and edges while eliminating compression noise for a more natural looking images, and facial retouch — a feature that makes use of face recognition software designed to deliver more correct rendering of skin tones.
One final upgrade over ST50 Panasonic plasma HDTVs we already referred to in our introduction is the presence of a dual-core processor. However, dual core processing does not seem to lead to any improvement in the overall picture quality with respect to mid-tier series HDTVs. Rather, as we will explain further on in this review, the real beneficiary of dual core processing is VieraConnect.
User-adjustable advanced picture settings on the GT50 series still remain lacking, with the GT50 being one of the least adjustable HDTVs within its class. In particular, like the ST50, it lacks the 10-point grayscale setting and full color management support found on even less expensive HDTVs from the competition. While with mid-tier Panasonic HDTVs, such an absence is to a certain extent excusable, in the case of a premium HDTV series such as the GT50 targeting the high-end videophile market, this absence may represent a series handicap.
On a positive note, the THX Cinema and THX Bright Room picture modes as implemented on these Panasonic plasma HDTVs support basic picture adjustments; this is a most appreciate enhancement over the non-adjustable THX picture modes found on corresponding LG HDTVs.
GT50 series Panasonic plasma HDTVs share the same VieraConnect suite as found on ST50 HDTVs. One major difference though between the two series is that thanks to the presence of dual core processing, navigating and loading apps is more responsive than on ST50 HDTVs. In addition, dual core processing has given GT50 HDTVs multitasking support; this means that you have the possibility to freely swap between several web pages on your TV screen and also between different loaded apps.
As with the ST50, the VieraConnect version on the GT50 comes with a built-in web browser. As explained earlier on, operating the TV browser with the provided standard TV remote is far from practical. However, you can always download the Viera Remote app to use your smart phone or tablet device as a TV remote; using the remote app leads to a more intuitive control of the TV while making text input during web browsing much easier.
Connectivity: GT50 Panasonic plasma HDTVs come with an extra HDMI input over the ST50 for a total of four, an extra USB2.0 port for a total of three, and a PC input; remaining connectivity is the same as on the ST50 series.
TC-PVT50 Flagship Panasonic Plasma HDTVs: Delivering the best in picture performance
The VT50 series represents Panasonic top-of-the-line plasma HDTVs for 2012; it is being regarded by many as the champion in TV picture performance — capable of delivering one of the very best TV pictures irrespective of display technology, characterized by exceptionally deep blacks and highly accurate colors.
Unlike the ST50 and the GT50, the flagship series of Panasonic plasma HDTVs covers just two screen sizes, 55-inch and 65-inch; both are proving extremely popular, doing better than GT50 series equivalents in sales despite the more expensive price tag.
VT50 Panasonic plasma HDTVs are selling online at between $300 and $950 more than GT50 equivalents, with the 55-inch selling at just under $2,000 while the 65-inch is selling at $3,370. Definitely, at these prices, the VT50 series represents an expensive option. Yet, it is still several thousand dollars cheaper than the upcoming OLEDs TVs and more than $1,800 cheaper than the exorbitantly expensive 60-inch Sharp Elite PRO-60X5FD LED TV, regarded by many professionals as the only other champion in TV picture quality.
As expected, the Panasonic flagship series comes with a few major enhancements over the less expensive ST50 and GT50 HDTVs.
From a design perspective, the VT50 series gets Panasonic’s single sheet of glass design, a design which Panasonic has for the last few years reserved for its flagship models. The use of a single sheet of glass that extends over the set thin bezel creates a striking visual impact; the effect is further enhanced by the sleek metallic trim around the edge, leading to one of the best TV designs Panasonic has ever made.
These TVs come with two TV remotes, the standard remote as found on ST50 and GT50 HDTVs, and a small touch pad remote called Viera Touch Pad controller; this come in handy during web browsing and while navigating the Viera Connect apps.
Panasonic VT50 HDTVs come with a number of important feature upgrades over the GT50 series, the most important of which is the use of an improved display panel called Infinite Black Panel Ultra, designed to achieve even deeper blacks — blacks that are visibly superior to that of the competition. Included is an improved louver filter designed to maintain dark areas even darker under bright direct overhead lighting. The overall result is superior black level performance.
Black level performance represents an important picture quality attribute as it helps render better those difficult-to-define quality aspects like picture depth, scene detail especially in scenes where lots of dark and light content is shown simultaneously, and color richness—i.e. the perceived color saturation. Indirectly, a better black level also leads to better rendering of picture contrast.
Other features include 96Hz playback to help render better 24p movie content and support for ISFccc picture calibration. The latter means that a professional calibration technician can calibrate these Panasonic plasma HDTVs to deliver the best picture quality for your home theater environment under different ambient light conditions. The ISFccc calibration process includes adjustment for contrast, tint, sharpness and color levels with a high degree of accuracy. Once calibrated, the settings are locked to avoid any accidental changes and stored as ISF Day and ISF Night modes for best image quality under different light conditions; these ISF picture settings are added to the TV preset picture modes.
The flagship series makes use of the same VieraConnect suite as employed on the less expensive ST and GT series. In a similar manner, 3D support on the flagship is the same as on the other two series. Rather disappointing here is that even at this price level, Panasonic has once again failed to provide free 3D glasses with its expensive HDTVs.
Like the GT50 series, the VT50 support 24K shades of gradation, come with 24p motion smoother, dual core processing, and multitasking support among others.
Unlike the rest of the Panasonic plasma HDTV lineup, VT50 HDTVs come with a most comprehensive set of user adjustable picture settings — one that is more in line with that of the competition. Apart from the adjustable THX picture modes already referred to under the GT50 series, the Custom mode provides adjustments not only for 2-point grayscale adjustment as found on the less expensive series but also a 10-point grayscale setting, a full color management system, and a 10-point gamma adjustment.
Connectivity on the VT50 series is the same as that of the less expensive GT50 premium series.