Editors' note, April 17, 2013: The replacement for this TV, the Panasonic TC-PST60 series, earned an even higher rating as well as our latest Editors' Choice award. This review has not been otherwise modified or updated beyond this note.
Last year after reviewing numerous TVs, my holiday recommendation for "bang for the buck" was the Panasonic ST30 series. This year I won't be surprised if -- after reviewing however many other 2012 TVs that come down the pike -- that recommendation will go to the ST50 series. Yes, you can get a cheaper TV, but the ST50 is pretty affordable even now, and worth the money for any buyer serious about picture quality who can't wait for holiday price drops.
The ST50 handily outperforms its predecessor, with deeper blacks, more accurate color, and an improved bright-room image. The picture is so good, in fact, that it scored the same as the flagship VT30 I lauded last year, and in person it's tough to tell the two apart. If anything, the ST50 looks better. It sets a lofty standard for HDTV picture quality this year, and one I feel confident only a few TVs will approach. I doubt any of them will do it for less money.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 55-inch Panasonic TC-P55ST50, 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-P50ST50||50 inches|
|Panasonic TC-P55ST50 (reviewed)||55 inches|
|Panasonic TC-P60ST50||60 inches|
|Panasonic TC-P65ST50||65 inches|
My first thought upon unboxing the ST50 was, "Man, that looks just like a Samsung plasma, just not quite as nice." And that's an improvement over past Panasonics. The edge of the frame is that jewel-like transparent plastic pioneered by Samsung and LG. Panasonic differentiates the shape of its frame with a thicker bottom edge and slightly angled bottom corners; I prefer normal corners and edges of equal width, so, yeah, Samsung's still looks a tad nicer to me. The ST50 is plenty sleek and modern-looking, however, from its slim panel (1.8 inches deep) to its silver-topped stand.
Panasonic also tried to jazz up its remote, but the newly glossy face serves mostly to show fingerprints. I like the rest of it though, from the nicely differentiated button sizes and groups to the extensive backlighting to the new dedicated Help key that takes you straight to an easily navigable onscreen version of the full user manual.
Aside from the great help section, the rest of Panasonic's menus remain unchanged: all-business yellow-on-blue that still seems a bit dated compared with Samsung or Sony, but gets the job done.
|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||No|
|Refresh rate(s)||60Hz, 48Hz||Dejudder (smooth) processing||Yes|
|Other: Optional 3D glasses (model TY-ER3D4MU, $65 each), Skype camera/speakerphone (TY-CC20W, $125), network camera (wired BL-C210; $199; Wi-Fi BL-C230, $299); compatible with USB keyboards|
The ST50 is missing the THX mode and dual-core processor of the GT50, but otherwise their feature sets are very similar. Unlike the step-up VT50, it lacks a 96Hz refresh rate, but according to our test, the ST50 still delivered proper film cadence on 1080p/24 sources anyway (I wouldn't be surprised if the VT50 performed better in other ways, however). The main step-up over the UT50 series is Panasonic's Neo plasma panel and an improved screen filter, both said to improve picture quality. Panasonic has added dejudder processing to its plasmas; see the performance section for more details.
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 will work with this Panasonic, and also that no 2011 or earlier Panasonic glasses will work with this TV. At $65 each the new Panasonic 2012 3D glasses cost twice to three times as much as Samsung's cheap models (the $25 SSG-3050GB and $20 SSG-4100GB). Check out our universal 3D glasses comparison for more info on glasses that are compatible with the ST50.
Smart TV: Last year I ranked Panasonic's Smart TV interface, called Viera Cast, highest for its simple layout and ease of use. The company didn't change a thing for 2012 on the ST50 (although other models I saw demoed with app folders and a gallery view). I like the ability to easily shuffle the items you want most, like Netflix, into prominent positions; I didn't like that navigation felt a bit pokey. The company's dual-core models (the VT50 and GT50 plasmas and WT50 LED) should be more responsive.
Panasonic's video content selection is top-notch since it added Vudu to last year's lineup, although I'd like to see a dedicated 3D app like the ones LG and Samsung offer. There's a newish Social Networking app that lets you combine live TV, Twitter, and Facebook on the same page. Audio gets relatively short shrift, with just Pandora, Shoutcast, and a karaoke app as of press time. The Viera Market also has a shopping section with overpriced Panasonic gear and other sundry hardware like keyboards (which helps if you're the one guy who really enjoys tweeting on your TV).
The company says it will add new apps, including a partnership with MySpace touted at CES and an exclusive with Disney digital books, soon. It also offers a remote control app for iOS, Android, and BlackBerry. The ST50 also includes a Web browser, although it wasn't accessible until I downloaded the app from the marketplace (it's under News & Lifestyle). I didn't get the chance to test it by press time.
Update June 11, 2012: The latest software update causes the TV to show you a banner ad when you first power up. It popped up and lasted about 3 seconds, but it was still annoying. I was happy to see I could disable it (here's how), but the banner is turned on by default.
Picture settings: Panasonic barely changed its options on the ST50 and remains one of the least-adjustable TVs on the market. The Cinema setting, which provides the most accurate default settings, doesn't allow tweaking much and now comes with the abhorrent Motion Smoother engaged by default. Turning it off rids the picture of smoothness, but I wish that weren't necessary.
The only mode to offer advanced controls is Custom, which unlike the others also allows different settings for each input. Its Pro section gets a two-point grayscale control and a few gamma presets, along with a bunch of less useful stuff like Black Extension and AGC, both of which should be set to zero. LG and Samsung offer 10-point (or higher) grayscale settings, along with full color management, in their plasmas, and the latter would be particularly helpful in Panasonic's case. It's also worth mentioning that the step-down UT50 series lacks the Pro section.
Connectivity: These days just about every TV has four HDMI ports, so while I don't think the ST50's total of three will cramp most users' hookup plans, it's still notable (as is the lack of a VGA input for analog computer connections). Included breakout cables support the one analog composite/component input, and there's a pair of USB ports and a rare SD card slot for media.
The Panasonic TC-PST50 series not only improves upon its predecessor ST30's picture quality in every way, it actually deserves the same lofty 9 I gave to the flagship VT30. Its black levels are just as deep as the VT30's -- and deeper than any other 2011 plasma -- its color accuracy and gamma are superb, albeit not quite reference-level, and its bright-room performance is better than we've seen on any plasma TV, ever. Color isn't quite perfect, and matte-screen LCDs are still a better choice for very bright rooms, but I found few faults with the ST50's 2D picture. The 3D picture quality was very good as long as you remember to put the TV on the 48Hz setting (see the update below).