Let me get this out of the way first: Panasonic's TC-PZT60 is now the best-performing TV we've ever reviewed. Perhaps a few of the old, supertweaked Pioneer Kuros out there might deliver slightly superior black levels, but I've never had any of those in the lab. This one beats my in-house Kuro, and every other TV in my lab. Finally.
The TC-PVT60 also beat our in-house Kuro, so the most important question for videophiles with money to burn becomes: Why did you like the picture quality of the ZT60 better than the VT60's? The sole reason is that the ZT60 looks better in a bright room. If you watch TV swathed in dimness, as any dedicated videophile does whenever possible, the VT60 and ZT60 have basically identical pictures -- starting with their virtually indistinguishable, and truly inky, black levels. Meanwhile the Samsung PNF8500 plasma and of course some of the better, brighter LED TVs look even better than the ZT60 in a bright room -- although they can't touch it in the dark.
That's why an extra $500 or so for the ZT60 over the also-superb VT60 and PNF8500 is only worth spending if you absolutely must have the very best. The narrowness of its performance advantage over those TVs hurts its value proposition, so if money is an object, that extra cash is tough to justify. At least the big spenders who pony up for the ZT60 can console themselves that compared with 4K models like the Sony XBR-X900A, or even OLEDs (if they ever come out), their TV is a bargain.
And if you demand the very best right now and can afford it, none of those caveats or qualifiers matter in the face of the ZT60's commanding performance. It simply offers the best overall TV picture quality you can buy right now, period.
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-P60ZT60, but this review also applies to the 65-inch size. The two sizes have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality.
When you first turn on the TC-PZT60, before the banner ad fires up, the lines "Studio Master Panel" and "Panneau de reference studio" appear on the screen in a cursive font pulled straight from an embroidered "Downton Abbey" doily. Further classing up the joint is a glossy black "ZT" booklet proclaiming the air-gapless joys of said panel, complete with messages from and signatures of Kazunori Kiuchi (head of TV Design division) and Hideyo Uwabata (president of TV manufacturing). Each TV also gets a unique "sequential number." The one on CNET's review sample was A00000; the bidding starts...now!
Otherwise the ZT60 is tough to distinguish from the VT60 in person. Both are black rectangles with a single pane of glass edged by chrome. I did like the ZT's subtle accents better, and the same frame width and beveled metal on all four sides make it look more symmetrical than the VT. There's also no chintzy-looking transparent strip of plastic along the bottom, and the VT is a bit wider due to its forward-facing speakers.
The two share the same brightwork below the belt. The garish V-shaped stand atop the flat metal base doesn't swivel, and suspends the TV higher than low-profile stands like the VT50's from last year.
The ZT60 also gets two remotes. 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 from the one that shipped with the VT50 last year to include 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 ability (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 buttons 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 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.
The TV has two separate menu systems -- one for Smart TV and the other 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|
|Screen finish||Glossy||Remotes||Standard, touch-pad|
|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)|
The most expensive TV in any company's lineup is usually the most loaded too, but that's not the case for Panasonic's 2013 plasmas. The ZT60 actually has fewer extras than the VT60, the most glaring omission being the pop-up camera. The ZT60 also lacks the VT60's front-facing speakers, so it doesn't sound nearly as good. It does have the same voice interaction system, however, as well as the same dual-core processor and Smart TV suite.
The picture-affecting features of the V and Z are more alike than different. The two share the same contrast ratio specification (for what it's worth), "3000 FFD" panel drive, umpteen shades of gradation, a new red phosphor, and other minor step-ups over the ST60. The $500 extra you'll spend on the Z over the V nets you two spec sheet improvements: a Studio Master Panel and Ultimate Black Filter. The company has eliminated the air gap between the panel and the front glass, and strengthened the light-rejecting filter over the VT60's. Both enhancements are said to improve black levels, especially in high ambient light, and they do.
You get two pairs of 3D glasses in the box, compared with four on 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 TY-ER3D4MU from 2012 (still $75 each). The TY-ER3D4MU glasses are also rechargeable, while the included ones require a coin battery. Additional pairs of the new 5MA glasses would sell for $79 each, or $149 for a two-pack. The ZT60 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.
I also didn't test voice interaction on this set beyond a few simple tries with the Web browser (see below). I'll update this section when I can get to those tests.
Smart TV: Like other 2013 Panasonic Smart TVs, the ZT60 comes with a couple of dumb options enabled by default. One is a pop-up banner ad that appears for about 5 seconds when you first power up the TV (above), and pops up again when you adjust volume. The other also happens on power-up, showing not full-screen video of whatever source you last chose -- typically your cable box -- but instead the home page for the Smart TV suite. Happily, both dumb defaults can be disabled.
After you do so, Panasonic's new interface is mostly good, although it's not nearly as ambitious or capable as Samsung's. Multiple "pages" are 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. 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. Overall Samsung's Smart TV interface is much more intuitive to use.
All of the apps from 2012 are still available, and it's a very healthy selection (minus HBO Go). 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. 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 radio, 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 whose store also offers real merchandise, from a $10 SD card to a $526 microwave.
The ZT60's Web browser is a big step up from that of the ST60, mainly because of the touch-pad remote. Yes, I still had to use a tedious virtual keyboard to enter URLs and search terms, but navigating the page was much easier, and I especially appreciated that the right side of the pad allowed me to scroll. Rendering was fine among the sites I saw, load times were relatively quick, and it passed this Flash support test. The biggest misstep is that there's no apparent way to remove the big bookmarks bar and inset TV window to make the browser full-screen. I tried a few voice searches that mostly went well; the exception was that my "CNN" was constantly misinterpreted as a command to "Zoom In."
Samsung's F8500 TV browser is still much better, with suggestions on its virtual keyboard, intuitive settings (I couldn't find any settings options in Panasonic's browser), and better responsiveness. Heavy TV-browser users would be well served buying an external keyboard; the Logitech K400 worked well in my testing with the ZT60, for example.