Panasonic has a reputation for producing high-quality plasma televisions, and with its 2012 models the company has not disappointed. The new lineup has single-handedly changed the level of quality we now expect from midrange televisions. The Panasonic TC-ST50 series redefined the picture quality/value equation, and the UT50 series is very close behind. As the least-expensive 2012 Panasonic plasma series with 55- and 60-inch sizes, the UT50 series is positioned as a value option, and while it misses a couple of features of the ST50 series, it still boasts very impressive picture quality.
Black levels on the UT50 series are about the same as what we saw on the superb flagship TC-P55VT30 a year ago, which is almost unbelievable in such a cheap TV, and while the sparse color controls give little wiggle room, color accuracy isn't an issue.
Two main extras go missing: the UT50 lacks the ST50's "louver" screen filter and so looks worse when the lights are on. It also has a limited number of connections, with no onboard Wi-Fi and only three video inputs in total, including just two HDMI ports. If you have lots of outboard gear you may need to use an external device for switching.
Which should you choose between the UT50 and ST50? Do you watch TV with the lights off all the time? I don't, and you probably don't either, so I feel the extra $300 or so is worth it to get the ST50's significantly better bright-room image quality. On its own merits, however, the UT50 is still an excellent TV and one of the best values of the year.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 50-inch TC-P50UT50, 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. Update 10/1/2012: The 42-inch size of this series is no longer widely available for sale, although you may be able to find it some places.
|Models in series (details)|
|Panasonic TC-P42UT50||42 inches (discontinued)|
|Panasonic TC-P50UT50||50 inches (reviewed)|
|Panasonic TC-P55UT50||55 inches|
|Panasonic TC-P60UT50||60 inches|
After years of what seemed like half-hearted attempts at design, Panasonic has finally emerged from the wilderness with its reasonably stylish 2012 range. It may be a style influenced by -- read "heavily borrowed from" -- from other manufacturers, but at least the company has realized that metallic brown isn't a good look.
In fact, Panasonic liked the design of the ST50 so much, with its Samsung-like crystal rim, that it used it again on the UT50. The two TVs differ though in that the UT50 has a glossy-black appearance while the ST50 is a dark gunmetal color -- and the UT50 has a thicker panel. If you want niceties like a swivel stand you're out of luck.
The remote control is a cut-down version of the ST50's glossy clicker. It's matte with colorful buttons, about 6 inches long, and I actually found it a bit easier to use than the ST50 remote. Panasonic's previous nuts-and-bolts approach to design is still apparent in its menu system. It's easy to use and navigate but doesn't look very flashy, with the same blue-and-yellow color scheme from previous years.
|Key TV features|
|Display technology||Plasma||LED backlight||N/A|
|Smart TV||Yes||Internet connection||Wired|
|3D technology||Active||3D glasses included||No|
|Refresh rate(s)||60Hz, 48Hz||Dejudder (smooth) processing||Yes|
|Other: Optional Wi-Fi adapter (model TY-WL20U, $50), 3D glasses (model TY-ER3D4MU, $60 each), Skype camera/speakerphone (TY-CC20W, $125); compatible with USB keyboards|
The main difference between the UT50 and the ST50 that affects the picture is the filter over the screen: the ST50 has the company's louver filter while the UT50 does not. This filter is designed to reject ambient light and make blacks deeper in bright rooms, meaning the UT50 performs worse with the lights on than the ST50.
The UT50 offers Smart TV but lacks built-in Wi-Fi, so you'll need to invest in a wireless bridge or connect Panasonic's $50 dongle if you don't want to run an Ethernet cable to the TV. If you want to hook up a 3D movie then be aware that you'll need to buy 3D glasses separately. If you are suffering a dearth of 3D material, you can engage the TV's 2D-to-3D converter.
Like all plasmas, the ST50 uses active 3D technology. New for this year, Panasonic's active 3D glasses support the universal standard. In practical terms that means other companies' glasses that also support the standard should work with this Panasonic; Samsung's $20 SSG-4100GB glasses do, for example. At $65 each, Panasonic's own 2012 3D glasses are pretty expensive in comparison, although I wouldn't be surprised if that price fell soon. All universal glasses use the Bluetooth standard; check out the CES writeup for more.
The Smart Viera name is the biggest change to this year's Smart TV offering -- its usability remains the same. The interface's eight tiles offer up the best apps available from the first screen, and these include Hulu, Netflix, and Skype. The interface is a bit sluggish and looks a bit old hat compared with the slick interfaces of LG and Samsung TVs, but it's also arguably more usable due to its simplicity.
Panasonic has one of the better video offerings with its Smart TV interface, including access to Amazon Instant that Samsung and LG TVs don't have. Check out the full comparison for more.
Like the (almost infinitely inferior) DT50 series, the UT50 offers few advanced picture controls, but this probably won't trouble most users -- it's possible to get a perfectly good picture with just Brightness, Contrast, and Color.
Of the assorted picture modes, Standard was unusually and almost unwatchably dim, obviously in an attempt to comply with Energy Star ratings. While it did offer up LCD-like power usage (117W) I'd suggest saving your eyes instead of a couple of bucks and setting the TV to Cinema.
The biggest missing feature is ample inputs. Unless you connect a switch box or AV receiver, you'll only be able to plug three devices in. The TV has just two HDMI ports and a hybrid composite/component input. While it has two USB ports for connecting external media keys and gaming peripherals, it doesn't have the once-ubiquitous PC input.
Picture quality (How we test TVs)