I've written TV reviews for more than 10 years, but I'm pretty sure this one is the most important. I'll cut to the chase: if you value picture quality, don't have money to burn, and don't game seriously enough to worry about input lag, you should buy the Panasonic TC-PST60.
Yes, it's a plasma. That's the main reason why its picture is so good. And despite what you may have heard, there's very little reason not to get a plasma TV. Once you decide to go plasma -- don't worry, you'll be fine -- the next question is which one. That's what makes the ST60 so important. It's Panasonic's least expensive 2013 TV set to boast this extremely high level of picture quality, and Panasonic is the only TV manufacturer even trying to make premium-performing TVs affordable these days. Given the company's financial trouble, the future of its plasma TV business is far from certain.
Yes, I expect a few TVs to deliver an even better picture than the ST60 this year, but they'll all cost a lot more. And yes, a couple of cheaper 2013 TVs, in particular Panasonic's own S60 series, might perform well enough to earn an "excellent" picture quality score from us. But I'll be extremely surprised if any 2013 TV surpasses the ST60's combination of jaw-dropping performance and practical affordability.
Editors' Note, November 15, 2013: Panasonic has announced that it will no longer manufacture plasma televisions after 2013, making these TVs the last of their kind. That fact doesn't negatively affect our buying advice; in fact, just the opposite. We have confidence Panasonic will remain a viable company, and continue to support its plasma TVs, for years.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 55-inch TC-P55ST60, but this review also applies to the other screen sizes in the series. All sizes have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality.
|Models in series (details)|
|Panasonic TC-P50ST60||50 inches|
|Panasonic TC-P55ST60 (reviewed)||55 inches|
|Panasonic TC-P60ST60||60 inches|
|Panasonic TC-P65ST60||65 inches|
Panasonic upped its focus on external appearance again in 2013 with what it calls "glass and metal design." While metallic touches on a TV might not be as impressive as they are on a smartphone, the ST60's chrome edging feels decidedly higher-end than the clear acrylic of the ST50 from last year.
The TV's glossy black frame, at a bit over an inch along the top and sides, is the same width as last year's, and panel depth is also relatively thin at 2 inches. These svelte dimensions allow the ST60 to at least approach the minimalist look of a many modern LED-based LCD TVs.
I also appreciated that the company returned to the black stand rather than sticking with 2012's silver one. Its profile is pleasingly low-slung, but it still doesn't allow the panel to swivel. When asked why not at a press event, Panasonic's reps claimed first that swivels cause cords to detach, and then that plasmas' wide viewing angles (compared to LCD) make swiveling less necessary. I say, cop-out.
The ST60 gets the nonilluminated remote that shipped with step-down models like the UT50. I like its logical layout and clear button differentiation. 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.
The TV has two separate menu systems -- one for Smart TV and the other, accessible via that little Menu key, for more mundane TV settings like picture and network options -- and there's no way to get from one to the other using the menus themselves (Update: There is but it's still tough to find; select the Menu icon from top row of the main Viera Connect apps page). I thought the blue Settings icon from within the Smart TV Home system would take me to the TV's settings, but instead it took me to a configuration page for Smart TV itself. Once I found them, Panasonic's 2013 settings menus were a big improvement over last year's version, with easier navigation and sleeker design.
|Key TV features|
|Display technology||Plasma||LED backlight||N/A|
|Smart TV||Yes||Internet connection||Built-in Wi-Fi|
|3D technology||Active||3D glasses included||2 pair|
|Refresh rate(s)||96Hz, 60Hz, 48Hz||Dejudder (smooth) processing||Yes|
|Other: Optional touch pen (model TY-TP10U, $79); Skype camera (model TY-CC20W, $90); additional 3D glasses (model TY-ER3D5MA, $79)|
Aside from its augmented Smart TV experience, detailed below, the main thing separating the feature set of the ST60 and the less expensive S60 is 3D capability. New for 2013, Panasonic finally includes 3D glasses in the box; you get two pairs. The included glasses, model TY-ER3D5MA, are much nicer than Samsung's 2012 throw-ins but not quite as good as Panasonic's own sold-separately TY-ER3D4MU ($75 each). The latter are also rechargeable, while the included ones require a coin battery. Panasonic told me additional pairs of the new 5MA glasses would sell for $79 each, or $149 for a two-pack. The ST60 complies with the full HD 3D standard, so that it will work with third-party glasses like the aforementioned Samsungs ($20).
The step-up VT60 series, in addition to supposedly enhanced picture quality (a THX mode, more steps of gradation, possibly better black levels due in part to a better screen filter, and a new red phosphor for a wider color gamut), gets a few more features including a touch-pad remote, a built-in camera, voice recognition, and better speakers. Unlike last year, the ST60 and all higher-end plasmas have 96Hz modes as well as 48Hz (see below).
One unique extra for all 2013 Panasonic plasmas is a touch-pen accessory ($79), which as you might guess allows users to draw on the screen. It works, but I don't see how it's at all useful outside of a presentation environment.
Panasonic also talks up its improved Viera Remote app. While the ST60 lacks the level of smartphone/tablet communication synergy seen on some competitors -- such as screen mirroring and NFC -- the app still enables some functions like basic control if you misplace the remote and "swipe and share" to easily display photos on the big screen. At least that's what Panasonic told me; I was never able to get the app, officially called "Viera Remote2" in the Google Play store, to "discover" my ST60. That seems like a common problem, according to user reviews. It's worth noting that the remote's advanced calibration capabilities are reserved for the VT60 and ZT60 plasmas as well as the WT60 and DT60 LCDs.
Smart TV: I'll get to the new Smart features in a minute, but first let me describe a couple of dumb additions. When you first power on the set you're greeted not by whatever source you last chose -- typically your cable box -- but instead by the home page for the Smart TV suite. Panasonic tells us this is a conscious design decision, meant to make users more aware of the existence of the Smart features and encourage their use. I consider it an annoying intrusion, so I was glad to discover you can (mostly) turn it off so that the TV will start up on the full-screen page.
In addition, Panasonic is still the only smart TV maker dumb enough to show an actual banner advertisement when you first turn on the TV -- in the case of my review sample it was for (wait for it...) MySpace.com. The banner's presence, which lasts about 5 seconds and only appears when you first power up the TV, is enabled by default. Happily, as with last year's, you can turn it off, too.
After you've dedumbed it by disabling those defaults, Panasonic's new interface is mostly good. As with last year's, there are multiple "pages" available, and all show the currently playing input in an inset window along with a grid of apps. You can place any app anywhere you want on the grid, a welcome change from interfaces like Samsung's that offer only partial customization. Panasonic ups the custom ante further by offering three different templates for new pages you can create, custom backgrounds (including your own pictures), and the ability to name pages -- for example, each member of a particularly tech-savvy family could set up his or her own page.
There's also some bad. For someone used to swiping left or right on a smartphone to access different pages of apps, Panasonic's method isn't intuitive; you have to press the Home key again to switch between pages, rather than simply navigating among them directly. And it's potentially confusing that one page is actually the "Full-Screen TV" page, and that hitting Exit from another page doesn't take you there (you have to actively select the window). Conversely, hitting the "Return" key from within an app often exits it completely, as opposed to navigating up a level. I was also annoyed that you can't delete or change the default Info and Lifestyle pages, although you can rename them.
A few times a message appeared telling me the server was temporarily unable to process my request, so I should try again later. Navigation was relatively snappy on the pages themselves, but bogged down inside the Viera Connect market and many apps.
All of the apps from 2012 are still available, and it's a very healthy selection. Not much worthwhile has been added this year however. Hit the apps key and you'll be taken to a page with a bunch of thumbnails showing preinstalled apps, such as YouTube and Netflix and a product support app, as well as a few custom utilities like a calendar, a memo app, and an event timer. It would be nice if they could tap into common cloud apps like Google Calendar or Evernote, but no dice. It goes without saying that typing a note using the remote and virtual keyboard is hardly worth the effort.
Non-preinstalled apps can be accessed from the Viera Connect market, where the most useful names include Vudu, Pandora, TuneIn, Rhapsody, a free classical music portal, and full episodes and photos from a Panasonic-sponsored series on National Geographic TV about World Heritage sites. You'll have to create a Viera Connect account to install them, unfortunately. The rest of the apps are much less useful. They include apps for use with the optional touch pen, a smattering of kids' apps, and the requisite crappy games. Panasonic is still the only maker with a store that also offers real merchandise, from a $20 SD card to a $526 microwave.
And yes, there's a Web browser, but as usual it's terrible compared with a phone or especially to a laptop browser. Loading CNET.com resulted in a jumble of improper text overlays, rendering the page illegible. Navigation was sluggish and quite frustrating with the remote's cursor keys. In short, you should use the browser only when no other recourse is available. If you find yourself wanting to use the browser much, it's probably worth attaching a USB keyboard with an integrated touch pad or trackball.
Picture settings: Panasonic is slowly approaching the levels of adjustability found on other high-end TVs. New for 2013, it has migrated some of the advanced picture controls found on the flagship 2012 VT50 to the ST60. These include a 10-point grayscale and 10-point gamma system as well as color management for the primary colors (the latter, along with a 2-point grayscale, is found on the S60 too). The company has also added another picture mode, "Home Theater," atop its standard four, and a cool "copy adjustments" option that allows you to migrate your picture settings from one input or mode to others.
Other controls include three levels of dejudder, aka soap opera effect, an unusual seven different aspect ratio settings, and the usual array of items to help prevent and treat image retention, including a pixel orbiter and scrolling white bar.
Connectivity: Three HDMI ports, an analog video input that can handle either composite or component connections, and a pair of USB ports are standard for this level of TV. The SD card slot is a nice -- and uncommon -- addition, however. In case you're counting, none of the HDMI ports is MHL-compatible, although one can handle ARC.
The ST60's picture fidelity is outstanding. It compares favorably to the best TVs I've ever reviewed, with superb, inky, deep black levels; ample shadow detail; accurate color; and very good video processing. Its bright-room picture is also top-notch, thanks to an antireflective filter that far surpasses that of the step-down S60 series.