In a year when the first two big-screen OLED TVs are hitting the market and the best LCD to date will likely have an even better successor, Panasonic's VT50 plasma still has the best flat-panel picture you can buy -- for now. Even if one of those contenders manages to unseat it atop the picture-quality heap, videophiles who invested in Panasonic's flagship can reassure themselves that OLED and Elite owners are getting ripped off. The VT50 itself is not cheap by any means, but it's sure to cost much, much less than those others.
By "not cheap" I mean "$1,000 more than an ST50" as of press time. And while the VT50's picture is amazing enough to drop even the most jaded of jaws, the ST50's isn't much worse. It's certainly not a Cleveland worse, at least to most viewers. If you, however, count yourself among the few who might actually consider spending that much extra to get the best TV since the Kuro, the Panasonic VT50 is a tempting target for a big chunk of living-room wall. If you count yourself value-conscious, the ST50 is a pretty good way to settle.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 65-inch TC-P65VT50, but this review also applies to the other screen size in the series. The two have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality.
For the last couple of years Panasonic has fronted its best "V" series plasmas with a single sheet of glass that visually merges the picture and the frame into a single plane. On the VT50 the effect is beautiful, enhanced by the thinner bezel around the screen and the slim edge of silvery metal. I think this is Panasonic's best-looking plasma ever even when it's turned off, and one finally able to compete with the flagship designs of LG and Samsung. In fact, I like the VT50 best among the three.
One flaw is the comparatively cheap-looking two-tone stand, however, which provides more motivation than usual to simply have your VT50 wall-mounted.
The VT50 comes with two remotes: the standard clicker found on models like the ST50 and a little puck with a thumb touch pad just like a laptop computer's. Unlike the touch remote included with Samsung's high-end TVs, this one's actually as responsive as I'd expect from a modern touch pad, making it fun to use in many circumstances. It was at its best zooming through groups of thumbnails on the Netflix and Vudu apps; for browsing the Web, while better overall than the standard remote, it has its issues (see below). It's also Bluetooth instead of infrared, so it doesn't need a line of sight to operate.
There's a sensitivity adjustment (I stuck with medium) but even so I can envision people who aren't touch-pad veterans becoming frustrated with it. And, of course, if you're keen to minimize coffee table clutter with a universal remote, the puck will probably just end up gathering dust.
Panasonic also tried to jazz up its standard remote this year, but the newly glossy face serves mostly to show fingerprints. We like the rest of the changes, though, from the nicely differentiated button sizes and groups to the extensive backlighting to the new dedicated Help button.
Panasonic's menus remain unchanged: an all-business yellow-on-blue that still seems a bit dated compared with Samsung's or Sony's UI, but gets the job done. One great addition is the Help section with an onscreen user manual, which isn't as complete as the included print version but still covers most of what new users will want to know.
|Key TV features|
|Display technology||Plasma||LED backlight||N/A|
|Screen finish||Glossy||Remote||Standard and touch-pad|
|Smart TV||Yes||Internet connection||Built-in Wi-Fi|
|3D technology||Active||3D glasses included||No|
|Refresh rate(s)||96Hz, 60Hz||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|
Panasonic's best plasma for 2012 gets a few extra features over the less-expensive GT50 series. There's an Infinite Black Ultra Panel with a new predischarge spark intended to help achieve even deeper black levels, and an improved louvre filter for keeping black areas of the picture darker under bright overhead lighting. Panasonic also reserves its 96Hz refresh rate, designed to better handle 1080p/24 sources, for the VT50 alone.
Both the VT50 and the GT50 offer THX certification, which the step-down ST50 series doesn't. Both also get a couple of more esoteric picture-quality-related extras, namely double the "shades of gradation," a 24p smooth mode (not to be confused with a higher refresh rate), "facial retouch," and "pure image creation."
Beyond features aimed at picture-quality snobs, the VT50's flagship cred is established primarily by the touch-pad remote. Like the GT50 it also has a dual-core processor and more connectivity than the ST50.
I was disappointed that, despite its high price, the VT50 does not include any 3D glasses; Samsung's flagship PNE8000 plasma, for example, comes with four pairs. Like all 2012 Panasonic active-3D TVs, the VT50 complies with the Full HD 3D standard, so in addition to Panasonic's own 2012 specs it also plays well with others, including the $20 Samsungs. Check out my comparison of active-3D TV glasses for reviews of each.
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 much about Viera Cast for 2012. I like that you can easily shuffle the services you want most, like Netflix, into prominent positions, and navigation was faster than on the ST50 -- likely thanks to the dual-core processor. The VT50 also gets multitasking; when I hit the tools key a virtual page flips up to reveal the most recently used apps, providing quick access.
Panasonic's content selection is top-notch since it added Vudu, although I'd like to see a dedicated 3D app like the ones LG and Samsung offer. There's a new-ish Social Networking app that can 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 has a solid selection of apps, although I didn't appreciate having to sign in to an account to download even the free ones. There's also a real shopping section with overpriced Panasonic gear and other sundry hardware like keyboards (which help if you're the one guy who really enjoys tweeting on your TV).
The company says it will add new apps soon, including a partnership with MySpace touted at CES and an exclusive with Disney digital books. It also offers a remote-control app for iOS, Android, and BlackBerry.
The Web browser is almost as good as the ones on Samsung and LG TVs as long as you use the touch-pad remote, but that's not saying much since no TV browser can hold a candle to any phone, tablet, or laptop browser. Clicking over to CNET.com, I found I couldn't navigate down the page until it finished loading, which took forever (about a minute). I tried to scroll down by moving the cursor to the bottom of the page but it wouldn't respond. Instead I had to use the scroll bar on the far right.
Entering text via the onscreen keyboard, a painful necessity, was actually much easier via the standard remote since the touch clicker has a tendency to overshoot, and the lack of autofill is incredibly annoying. Load times were hit or miss, and while I actually did get a video at comedycentral.com to load eventually (after an even longer forever), about a minute in the audio dropped out and then the video quickly followed. At Hulu.com an ad loaded after about 20 seconds but my clip didn't arrive at all.
Finally it's worth noting that, like many TV makers, Panasonic now reserves a spot on smart TV home page for an ad (currently Shutterfly on my VT50 sample). For the first time I've seen, however, the TV also shows 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: The VT50 offers more picture settings than any other TV I've tested in its Custom mode, but its THX modes are also quite good by default. I really appreciated that both THX Cinema and THX Bright Room offer basic adjustments -- an improvement over LG's nonadjustable THX. Unfortunately both are capped for light output on the 65-incher I tested, so there's no way to get either one any brighter.
The Custom mode houses the 2- and 10-point grayscale, a full color management system, and even a 10-point gamma adjustment. The advanced controls didn't work as well for me as Samsung's, but they outdid LG's.
Connectivity: Plenty of inputs, including four HDMI and a PC input (step-ups over the ST50), grace the VT50's back.
Picture quality (How we test TVs)
The VT50 is the best-performing plasma I've tested since 2008, beating out the Samsung PNE8000 and Panasonic's own ST50 and GT50. I don't expect any other 2012 plasma to beat it. Its black-level performance, shadow detail, color accuracy, and bright-room picture quality outdo the Samsung's handily, and while the ST50 puts up a stronger fight than the Samsung, it also ultimately falls short of the VT50's picture quality, if not value. I haven't fully reviewed the GT50 yet but it's a closer match to the ST50 than to the VT50 from what I've seen so far.
The only TVs that can compete with the Panasonic VT50 are the Sharp Elite and, yes, that hoary veteran the Pioneer Kuro (circa 2008). Ignoring size differences (the Kuro maxed out at 60 inches) and the fact that you can't get one anymore, I actually would still rather watch the Kuro than this Panasonic -- but it's very close. The VT50 is a better TV overall than the Sharp Elite, however, despite the latter's arguably superior black-level performance. My vote goes to the Panasonic for its more accurate color and perfect screen uniformity.
Of course if you sit anywhere but the sweet spot in front of the middle of the screen, the Panasonic's advantages increase. The only reason I'd recommend the Sharp Elite instead is if you need the Elite's better light output to combat ambient light in the room, you really value 3D performance, or you really want the 70-inch Elite's larger screen.