Even with these missing features, the Panasonic TH-50PHD8UK is the best value for plasma shoppers who value image quality foremost. It offers more picture adjustments than its consumer brethren, the TH-50PX50U and the TH-50PX500U, which helps increase its overall performance for those who take the time to properly set it up. If you'd rather not worry about purchasing a stand or extra inputs, then it might not be for you, but if all you want is a spectacular picture with no frills and maximum customization options, the Panasonic TH-50PHD8UK is the class of the 50-inch plasma pack.
Note: Since these plasmas are usually not available from traditional vendors, salespeople may try to tell you that, as "commercial" devices, they emit a higher level of radiation. That's not true. Panasonic's professional-series plasmas are Class B digital devices approved for residential use, the same as most other electronics. When we say no frills, we mean it. The Panasonic TH-50PHD8UK is basically all screen, with an inch and a half of black masking and a charcoal-gray frame between the edge of the picture and the edge of the panel on all sides. Only a subtle Panasonic logo along the bottom and a red-and-green power indicator on the bottom left mark the frame. We really like the clean, modern look, but some people might find it too minimalist.
While most plasmas include a tabletop stand, the TH-50PHD8UK is usually sold BYOM (buy your own mount). It also lacks speakers, although you can purchase Panasonic's matching speakers if you'd rather not mate the plasma to an external audio system. The cost of accessorizing does add up: the speakers cost about $250 online, and the round-base stand (pictured) costs about $150. For a full list of stands, accessories, and speakers, check out Panasonic's Web site. Without a stand, the TH-50PHD8UK measures approximately 48 by 29 by 4 inches (HWD) and weighs 95 pounds.
Panasonic's remote is completely redesigned from last year and now includes a numeric keypad--although we don't understand why a TV with no tuner needs number keys. We liked the new clicker, although we would've liked it more if it were backlit. When programming our universal remote, we especially appreciated Panasonic's four direct-access input buttons. The television's menu system is bare bones and completely text-driven, and if you want helpful explanations, you won't find them here. But it offers a range of options not found on many consumer plasmas and overall isn't especially difficult to use. We do wish, however, that instead of separate menus for picture, sound, and setup, that the Panasonic TH-50PHD8UK had a menu home page that allowed access to all options. Like most 50-inch plasmas, the Panasonic TH-50PHD8UK has a native resolution of 1,366x768, which allows it to display every detail of 720p HDTV material. All sources, including standard TV, DVD, computer, and high-def, are scaled to fit the pixels.
As we mentioned earlier, the TH-50PHD8UK is missing a tuner and speakers, so you'll have to connect an external tuner, such as a cable or satellite box or even the tuner in a VCR, to watch television and an external audio system or the optional speakers to hear anything. It also skips all of the tuner features, such as favorite-channel lists, electronic program guides, and the like.
The Panasonic TH-50PHD8UK does offer a few conveniences, such as a versatile picture-in-picture function that includes inset, side-by-side, and picture-outside-picture (POP) options. This is one of the most flexible PIPs available, with the ability to show pretty much any two inputs, including PC and HDTV sources, simultaneously. On the other hand, we were disappointed to find that, while the plasma could switch between four aspect-ratio mode choices with standard-def sources, it couldn't change aspects with HDTV sources.
We really liked the TH-50PHD8UK's range of picture-enhancing options. Each of the three picture presets are fully adjustable and independent for each input, effectively offering three independent input memories for each source. The panel incorporates 2:3 pull-down detection in its video processing and offers three color-temperature presets. Advanced options, uncommon in most consumer displays but very welcome to picture tweakers, include custom color-temperature controls in the user menu, adjustable gamma, and even horizontal and vertical position and size controls for all inputs, not just for PC.
The Panasonic TH-50PHD8UK presents numerous screensavers for preventing and removing image retention, a.k.a. burn-in, including a scrolling white bar on a timer, an inverse color setting, and a mode that shifts the entire image slightly over time. And while any 50-inch plasma is a power hog (this particular beast is rated at 440 watts maximum consumption), we did like the several power-saving modes, including a peak brightness limiter and standby-mode power saving.
The sparse selection of video inputs is the Panasonic TH-50PHD8UK's Achilles' heel. It can connect to a total of four sources and ships from the factory with three inputs: a fixed, VGA-style PC RGB input; a removable board with composite- and S-Video ports (only one is usable at a time); and a second board that can accommodate RGBHV or component-video sources. Note that you'll need inexpensive BNC-to-RCA adapters to connect standard RCA cables. The VGA input can handle PC resolutions up to the full 1,366x768 at 60Hz. Unlike the company's consumer panels, the professional series can accept PAL and SECAM TV signals through its video inputs.
Panasonic's removable boards, however, can help alleviate the paucity of inputs. There's an unoccupied fourth slot that can be filled with an optional input board--for example, the unit we reviewed was equipped with an HDCP-enabled DVI input, and an HDMI board is available (both list for $145). The full list of boards is available at Panasonic's Web site. People with lots of sources will have to resort to an outboard switching solution, such as a component-video or HDMI-switching receiver, to connect everything to the plasma. In short, the Panasonic TH-50PHD8UK is the best-performing plasma we've reviewed. Its image quality starts with its depth of black, which contributes to more powerful color saturation and extra "pop" in demanding home-theater viewing situations. Watching dark DVDs such as the excellent Batman Begins really showed off its strengths. The night sky above Gotham and the letterbox bars above and below the picture area looked suitably inky. We saw plenty of detail in shadows, such as the subtle bat logo and the fine stitching of Batman's suit.
We did see evidence of an inability to hold a consistent level of black, however, which contributed to some loss in shadow detail. With our setup, we noticed this loss mainly in scenes with roughly equal amounts of dark and light material. One good example occurred when Batman leapt out the window, covered in bright flames; some of the bricks in the buildings in the foreground were swallowed in shadow.
The Panasonic TH-50PHD8UK's color accuracy is excellent, characterized by color decoding with no red push, which allowed us to keep the color control set properly without sacrificing the fidelity of skin tones. The set's primary colors were off somewhat however: it evinced a slightly orangish red and yellowish green, compared to the standard for HD. Its color temperature before calibration in the warm setting was average with brighter grays tending toward the blue end of the spectrum, but after calibration, the grayscale was close to perfect. Another of the TH-50PHD8UK's strengths is a smooth, accurate gamma, which resulted in flat, neutral grays at all brightness levels.
Compared to most other plasmas we've reviewed, the Panasonic reproduced difficult, often noisy areas relatively cleanly. The fog and mist in the background, as Batman races through the alley after being set on fire, looked smooth and free of major false contouring or video noise. Like all plasmas, the TH-50PHD8UK does reproduce some video noise in near-black areas, which appears as minute greenish or reddish specks, but it was essentially invisible from normal seating distances of, say, seven feet or more.
Naturally, HDTV looked even better than DVD. We watched a few HD basketball games on TNT, and the images' crispness and detail were superb, from the sheen of sweat on players' heads as they stood at the foul line to the intricacies of the wood grain in the floors. Graphics and text in particular were rock-solid, and colors had punch and vibrancy. The panel resolved component-video and DVI sources equally well according to our HD signal generator, and no sign of edge-enhancement was visible after we'd reduced sharpness to minimum. Comparing football games on a Sunday afternoon, we observed that ABC's 720p sources looked best, and although CBS's 1080i broadcast appeared a bit softer, it was still superb, a testament to the TH-50PHD8UK's excellent scaling.
|Before color temp (20/80)||6,481/7,895K||Average|
|After color temp (20/80)||6,426/6,531K||Good|
|Before grayscale variation||+/- 952K||Average|
|After grayscale variation||+/- 82K||Good|
|DC restoration||No stable pattern||Poor|
|2:3 pull-down, 24fps||Yes||Good|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||Yes||Good|