Panasonic has been top of the picture-quality pile for the past five-plus years, ever since the Pioneer Kuro (now known as the "K-word") bowed out of the frame. Panasonic inherited technology and engineers in Pioneer's shakeup and has been inching toward beating the K-word ever since, but never quite got there. I would argue that 2013 is the year Panasonic has finally cracked it.
The VT60 is an excellent plasma with the best dark-room image quality you'll see this year not powered by light-emitting diodes. It is a shade better than the Kuro we've been using as a reference these long years, it beats the Samsung F8500 in critical dim-room viewing situations, and it's demonstrably better than the outstanding ST60. It boasts industry-leading black levels, illuminating shadow detail, and rich, saturated colors.
There are a couple of problems, however. The first is price: the VT60 is exactly twice the cost of the ST60, and its picture is by no stretch of the imagination twice as good. In other words, this is a TV not just for videophiles, but, like the Kuro and the F8500, it's a TV for relatively wealthy videophiles.
Another problematic decision looms for those who can afford it: Panasonic's own ZT60, a step-up model that outperforms the VT60 in brighter rooms. In dark rooms the two are dead even, but videophiles in this tax bracket who simply want the best picture quality they can get, money no object, won't bat an eye at the extra $500 the ZT60 demands.
The VT60 is the better value, however, and offers better features and sound quality, as well as availability in a 55-inch size. And its silver medal in the all-time picture quality Olympics is still no mean feat.
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 60-inch Panasonic TC-P60VT60, 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-P55VT60||55 inches|
|Panasonic TC-P60VT60 (reviewed)||60 inches|
|Panasonic TC-P65VT60||65 inches|
Design has never been Panasonic's strongest point, and the VT60 looks like every other top-of-the-line plasma TV the company has made for the past four years: piano-black bezel, flush glass, silver trim, and a silver stand. You could argue that the stand's new V (for VT! Viera!) shape is distinctive, and you could also convincingly argue that it's somehow lost in time. It's covered in chrome and would look better appointing the hood of a '59 Buick ("Vuick"?) than the base of a '13 television. The stand is also fixed, so it won't swivel, but it does come with plastic clips to hide the cabling.
The TV comes with two remotes: the familiar, simple-to-use wand with its large, friendly buttons and a smaller touch pad with a few select keys. The touch pad is upgraded from the one that shipped with the VT50 last year to include a microphone for voice search. It's relatively easy to use, though it lacks some essential buttons such as Menu.
The television has two sets of menus -- 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). The Settings icon from within the Smart TV Home system takes you to a configuration page for Smart TV itself. Once you find them, though, Panasonic's 2013 settings offer easy navigation and sleeker design compared with what you got in previous years.
|Key TV features|
|Display technology||Plasma||LED backlight||N/A|
|Screen finish||Glossy||Remotes||Standard, touch pad|
|Smart TV||Yes||Internet connection||Built-in Wi-Fi|
|3D technology||Active||3D glasses included||Two pairs|
|Refresh rate(s)||96Hz, 60Hz, 48Hz||Dejudder (smooth) processing||Yes|
|Other:Integrated camera and voice control; Optional touch pen (model TY-TP10U, $79); additional 3D glasses (model TY-ER3D5MA, $79)|
Panasonic has traditionally been about picture quality first, features second, and while the VT60 acquits itself well enough on the first front, the company has also tried to counter the competition's ever-expanding lists of extras with the VT60. This is Panasonic's first real attempt at a plasma TV Swiss Army Knife.
On the other hand the higher-priced ZT60 cuts back on the features, losing the onboard camera and front-facing speakers. Otherwise the two have basically identical feature sets..
The VT60 and flagship WT60 LED are the first and only Panasonic TV to offer an onboard camera. It pops up from the top center of the screen, and when active, it serves two main purposes. The most important is Skype, eschewing the need for an expensive aftermarket camera like the $90 TY-CC20W, while another is facial recognition (more on that below). The camera opens automatically when you access Skype, and also pops up when you use the My Home Screen voice command. The camera stays engaged when up, so if you're nervous about having an open camera on your television -- or simply don't want to spoil the aesthetics of your TV -- you need to manually lower it.
Skype worked as well as you'd expect, and the camera gave about two seats' worth of coverage from a distance of 6 feet. The camera includes color and brightness settings, but sadly no zoom feature. As most Skype conversations I've ever had have had fairly lousy video quality, including a digital zoom wouldn't affect call quality in any meaningful way and would enable people to see your face much more clearly. For that reason, Skype on a laptop, phone, or tablet, which allows close-ups much more easily, is often preferable.
New for 2013, Panasonic finally includes 3D glasses in the box; you get two pairs, compared with four with the Samsung PNF8500. 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 2012 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 VT60 complies with the full HD 3D standard, so it will work with third-party glasses like the aforementioned Samsungs ($20).
One unique extra for all 2013 Panasonic plasmas is a touch-pen accessory ($79), which allows users to draw on the screen, though this is more of a business tool than an in-home one.
If you have a smartphone, Panasonic's improved Viera Remote app enables some functions like basic control if you misplace the remote and "swipe and share" to display photos on the big screen. It also allows direct access to relatively advanced calibration functions, although I didn't test this feature.
Smart TV: The most noticeable change to Panasonic's smart TV suite is the brand-new interface. It lacks the dynamism of Samsung's Smart TV offering and with the default inclusion of a calendar and an analog clock on the main screen, it looks downright frumpy. Not even HTC is doing analog clocks anymore.
As with last year, the interface offers multiple "pages," and all show the currently playing input in an inset window along with the grid of apps. You can place any app anywhere you want on the grid, a welcome change from interfaces from makers like Samsung 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.
The onboard camera comes back into play here, and the TV can switch to your customized screen after recognizing your face. However, depending on the lighting it could take several goes to find your face, so it's usually easier to just navigate to your page yourself. Unfortunately you have to press the Home key twice to switch between pages, rather than simply navigating among them directly.
The app selection is superb and very similar to last year's with Netflix, Amazon Instant, and Hulu Plus all present. If you want to dive into the nonpreinstalled selection in the Viera Marketplace, there's also Vudu, Pandora, TuneIn radio, Rhapsody, and full episodes and photos from a Panasonic-sponsored series on National Geographic TV about World Heritage sites. There are also apps for use with the optional touch pen, a smattering of kids apps, and the requisite crappy games.
The TV does include a Web browser, but with better browsers on phones, tablets, and laptop PCs, who really needs one on their TV? Navigation is a little better with the touch pad, but sometimes pages don't render properly, and using voice search results in a two-step process that is frustrating at best -- especially when it mishears your search terms!