In some ways Panasonic's TC-L65WT600, the company's first 4K LCD television, is the polar opposite of our favorite TV ever, the Panasonic TC-PST60 plasma. The plasma is relatively cheap; the 4K LCD is extremely expensive. The plasma is going extinct; the 4K LCD is the future. The plasma delivers numerous picture quality benefits; the 4K LCD's main benefit -- extra resolution -- is barely visible at best.
That last point is why we've been saying for nearly two years that 4K TVs are stupid. Anybody buying one 65 inches or smaller and expecting to see an improvement in detail -- or any other aspect of picture quality -- with normal HD sources will be disappointed. We tested this Panasonic alongside another 4K TV of the same size, the Samsung UNF9000, extensively to look for any such improvement compared with a same-size 1080p TV, and it simply wasn't there.
New for this review, I also had the chance to see how much of an improvement actual 4K content provides. In short, barely any. I used some of the best 4K video available today, viewed from a close seating distance in a side-by-side comparison, and once again it was difficult to pick out the 4K TV from the 1080p one. Yes, at times the 4K Panasonic looked just a bit sharper, but most of the time it didn't.
The WT600 is actually the first TV to include an input that complies with the HDMI 2.0 specification -- bringing it closer than any other current 4K set to being future-proof out of the box. I don't consider that a major reason to get one now, however, in part because numerous other 4K TVs with HDMI 2.0-compliant inputs will likely be announced at CES 2014 in January.
If you must get a 4K TV now, I'd still prefer the Samsung to the Panasonic. One reason is that at this price, the Samsung's hot-swappable input/processor box offers an even more future-ready promise, including HDMI 2.0 compliance. Another is that the Samsung has a better picture. Of course, neither holds a candle to the value proposition of any of the best 1080p TVs, or beats the picture quality of the best plasmas.
Update 11/27/2013: The text of this review had been modified to reflect Panasonic's statement regarding HDMI 2.0 compliance, and to include a brief demo of 4K content at 60 frames per second. The rating has not been changed, however.
The WT600 embodies the same "glass and metal" credo as the WT60 and, to a lesser extent, a few other Panasonic TVs. I guess that means more silver than most TVs -- and more plastic, in the form of a chintzy, transparent, light-up lip below the screen. The silver comes courtesy of a none-too-subtle, sharp-cornered frame thinner than those of the company's plasmas, yet slightly thicker than Samsung's or Sony's high-end LCDs. Those two companies went with mostly black, a design choice I much prefer myself. The silvery WT600 and twin WT60 LCDs look less luxurious and high-end than the ZT60/VT60 plasmas to my eye.
I like the look of the stands on the LCDs, however, which consist of ribbons of metal shaped into a vague trapezoid with rounded corners. They don't create as low a profile as the Samsung or Sony stands, however, and don't allow a swivel. In contrast to the stark white butt of the WT60, the WT600 wears modest black on its backside.
The WT600 ships with two remotes that, aside from their silver color, are identical to the two included on high-end plasmas. One is a small touch-pad-based clicker with just a few select keys. It employs Bluetooth so you don't need line of sight to the TV and has been upgraded with a microphone for voice search. I found it responsive enough and easy to use, with the same kind of quick, fun, swoopy navigation I experienced with the Samsung's 2013 touch pad. I especially appreciated the option (absent from the Samsung) to tap the pad to select something, just like on a laptop computer. I also liked the nook under the remote where my index finger rested above a hard button I could also use to select.
On the other hand, the remote lacks numerous essential buttons, such as Menu, and the ones it does have are cryptically labeled with confusing icons. It's definitely designed as a secondary clicker for use with apps (particularly the Web browser) and Smart TV, not as a full-blown universal remote replacement like Samsung's.
The second clicker is the standard illuminated multibutton variety. Tweaks for 2013 are mostly improvements (dedicated Netflix key, better labeling, and a few extra keys) but there are exceptions. Apps and Home, both part of the Smart TV suite, get too-prominent keys, while Menu is tiny. More than a few times I accidentally hit Home instead of the Up cursor.
|Key TV features|
|Display technology||LCD||LED backlight||Edge-lit with local dimming|
|Screen finish||Matte||Remotes||Standard, touch-pad|
|Smart TV||Yes||Internet connection||Built-in Wi-Fi|
|3D technology||Active||3D glasses included||2 pair|
|Refresh rate(s)||240Hz||Dejudder (smooth) processing||Yes|
|Other: THX picture modes; built-in camera; additional 3D glasses (model TY-ER3D5MA, $79)|
Like most of the other 4K TVs out there, the WT600 tries to help justify its high price with scads of features. Of the picture-affecting kind, the most credible feature is the local-dimming-equipped LED backlight. Like that of every 4K TV that doesn't cost $40K, those LEDs are arranged in an edge-lit configuration.
Rather than post an actual refresh rate, Panasonic's spec sheet (PDF) lists something called "2400BLS." Those last three letters do indeed signify some level of BS, but such fake refresh rate numbers are common practice nowadays -- all it means is that the WT600 has a 240Hz refresh rate panel, augmented by backlight scanning. Despite these high-end specs, its motion performance wasn't quite as good as it could be (see below).
The WT600 uses active 3D technology, despite the improvement 4K resolution affords passive 3D. Unlike Samsung, which puts four pairs of active 3D glasses in the box, Panasonic only includes two. The included glasses, model TY-ER3D5MA, are much nicer than Samsung's throw-ins but not quite as good as Panasonic's own separately sold TY-ER3D4MU from 2012 ($60 each). The WT600 complies with the full HD 3D standard, so it will work with third-party glasses like the aforementioned Samsungs ($20).
The WT600 joins that select group of expensive TVs to include a built-in camera. It pops up to work with Skype, Panasonic's video memo app, and a facial recognition feature that can be set to automatically select your custom Smart TV home page if it ganders your mug. A manual push-down is required to get it to disappear, and I appreciate the manual swivel that could point it down into the room. I tested neither the camera nor Panasonic's voice interaction feature for this review. The most in-depth testing I did of the latter involved a few simple tries with the Web browser in my review of the Panasonic ZT60.
Smart TV: The first thing to know about Panasonic's 2013 Smart TV suite is something unbelievably dumb: there are built-in banner ads that pop up briefly when you first turn on the TV and also when you adjust volume (above). Thankfully, someone at the company was smart enough to build in a way to make them never show up again.
The design of the Smart suite is somewhat clunky compared with that Samsung's and LG's smart TV suites, but at least you can customize it to your heart's content -- adding pages, swapping app shortcuts in and out, and even changing the background. Content is also very healthy, albeit sans the HBO Go app found on Samsung TVs. All of the apps from 2012 are still available, with no major additions.
One minor difference between Panasonic's TC-L65WT600 and others is that Panasonic claims to be the only one with a Web browser that renders pages in 4K resolution. Even if you actually care about TV Web browsers, don't get too excited. By default, Panasonic's browser didn't look any sharper than Samsung's. Only when I manually zoomed out did the browser render web pages in 4K, and things like Google Maps satellite views looked impressive indeed. On the other hand text at that resolution was too small to read unless I sat very close, and page renders took longer. Even with the Panasonic browser's 4K resolution, I'd take Samsung's browser any day instead, with its much better design and vastly superior responsiveness to the touch pad.
For more details on the WT600's Smart TV features I'll refer you again to the ZT60 review.
Picture settings: The WT600 offers the same exhaustive number of picture controls as the company's other high-end TVs. There's a pair of THX-certified modes, one for "Cinema" and one for "Bright Rooms." Advanced tweaks include a 10-point gray scale and 10-point gamma system as well as color management for the primary and secondary colors. The company has also added a cool "copy adjustments" option that allows you to migrate your picture settings from one input or mode to others. Other notable controls include three levels of dejudder, aka soap opera effect, an unusual seven different aspect ratio settings, and three positions for AI picture (local dimming).
Connectivity: The biggest extras the WT600 boasts over competing 4K TVs are found on the back, in the form of its fourth HDMI input and a DisplayPort input. Strangely, the other three HDMI inputs won't handle 4K video at all.
Since this review first published, Panasonic visited CNET's lab with a PC that included some 4K60p content. I can verify the content played back fine, and looked very good--it was the same "Japanese Nature" footage from the USB drive at 4K30p I describe below. Unfortunately it was impossible for me to tell whether the extra frame rate led to any improvement; the main point of the demo was to prove to CNET that, yes, the TV can handle 4K60p. Panasonic took the PC back tom Japan after the brief demo, and I have yet to acquire any other 4K60p video.
I didn't yet test the DisplayPort 1.2 input, which is also 4K 60p-ready. Kudos to Panasonic for including these higher-frame-rate ports out of the box, but further testing will be needed to see just how much the higher frame rate helps improve picture quality.
Joining those ports are a single component-video port that also handles component video, a pair of USB ports (they can also handle 4K video), and an SD card slot.
Once you get to HD resolution on a TV, other factors like contrast, color, and uniformity have a much greater impact on how good the image looks. I'd rather see TV makers address those points than simply throw more tiny pixels on the screen, which is why CNET and many others -- including these poll respondents and industry experts -- are more excited by OLED than by 4K. But 4K TVs are here now, and it looks like their prices will hit mainstream levels long before those of OLED TVs.
The WT600 is the third 4K TV I've reviewed this year, after the Seiki and the Samsung UNF9000. Testing occurred at the same time, in the same side-by-side comparison lineup, as the Samsung. As always, I compared the TVs after calibration in a dark room using HDMI distribution amplifiers capable of providing simultaneous signals to each TV without degradation.
Unless otherwise noted, all of my observations regarding the impact of 4K resolution were conducted at a seating distance of 77 inches (6.4 feet). That's much closer than the 9 feet most viewers sit from their TVs, but equal to the THX recommended distance for immersive home theater on a 65-inch TV. I'll use those recommendations to specify the lower bound of what I mean by "normal seating distance." On a 55-inch TV that distance is 65 inches (5.4 feet), and on an 84-inch TV it's 101 inches (8.4 feet). Moving farther away, of course, makes the benefits of high resolution dwindle further.
Everything I saw indicated that even at these relatively large screen sizes and theatrical viewing distances, the improvement afforded by 4K resolution with standard video content (as opposed to PC games or still photos) is subtle at the best of times, and usually nonexistent.
Beyond resolution, the Panasonic is a good performer for an LED LCD, but its picture doesn't match that of Samsung's F8000 and F9000 series, or Sony's KDL-55W900A. Unfortunately, I haven't yet tested Sony's 4K TVs beyond a hands-on with the 84-inch showpiece, so I can't speak to how they compare.
The WT600's major weakness involved excessive blooming and muted highlights, faults of its local-dimming design. Color wasn't quite as accurate as on the F9000, and video processing was also a notch below. On the other hand its matte screen handled reflections better, and its picture maintained impressive fidelity from off-angle for an LED LCD.
The Ultimate Test (sort of)
Video sources with true 4K resolution are very rare these days, but I was able to test a few of them for this review. The most important 4K test I performed on the WT600 comes closer than ever to "The Ultimate Test" or what I consider the best evaluation of 4K's actual, real-world improvement over 1080p at this size and seating distance. It's unfortunate I couldn't conduct the same test on the F9000, but I had to return it to Samsung before I had the chance. From what I saw, however, it would have shown exactly the results.
The test consisted of playing the same content side by side on the WT600, a 65-inch 4K LED LCD TV, and the Panasonic TC-P65ST64, a 65-inch 1080p plasma TV. That content originated on a pair of Redray 4K video players -- professional-quality source devices, essentially hard drives with video outputs -- that play back the proprietary, high-bit-rate Redcode Raw codec. One was connected to the WT600 and outputting 4K (at 4,096x2,060 pixels, so scaled somewhat by the WT600), while the other was connected to the S64 and downconverting that same 4K footage to 1080p. According to Red's rep, "In general the downscaled RED codec should look better than any H.264 content commercially available to consumers, including Blu-ray content." From what I could see on the S64 and other 1080p TVs, there's no reason to doubt that statement -- the downscaled video looked spectacular.
My conclusion? Despite this excellent 4K calculator indicating I'd see a 118 percent improvement watching the 4K material compared with the 1080p, it was still difficult to tell the two apart. From my 77-inch seating distance the difference between 4K and 1080p was visible occasionally in some material. The Red players came loaded with six different videos, and I could see differences in select scenes of three of them. The other three looked basically identical on both TVs, whether because of lighting or too-quick cuts or less-detailed subject matter or softness for another reason.
Of the three that did reveal some differences, the "Red 800" demo montage stood out. It seems designed to show the benefits of Red's 4K cameras and codec, and indeed it contains some of the most sumptuously detailed video I've ever seen. At times on this video, the WT600 seemed just a bit sharper to my eye, and experienced reviewers at CNET to whom I showed the demo, including Ty Pendlebury, Matt Moskovciak, and Joshua Goldman, agreed, picking it out as the 4K TV after watching closely and comparing the TVs for a period of time. But all of them also agreed that the difference was tiny at best, and in many scenes it was invisible.