Editors' note, March 3, 2010: Testing conducted on 2009 Panasonic plasma TVs, similar to this one, has revealed that black-level performance has become noticeably less impressive within what is typically the first year of ownership. As a result, we don't feel confident that the initial picture quality of this TV, as described in the review below, can be maintained over the course of its lifetime, and therefore find it difficult to recommend. Its Performance score has been accordingly reduced by one point to better indicate comparative picture quality after 1,500 hours of use. Click here for more information.
Separately, the Features rating has been lowered to account for changes in the competitive marketplace, including the release of new 2010 TVs. Aside from these changes to ratings, the review has not otherwise been modified.
For HDTV shoppers who recognize that burn-in and product lifespan, two bugaboos that have plagued the public perception of plasma TVs since their introduction, are largely not worth worrying about today, one potential hurdle on the path to plasma remains: power consumption. Plasma has always used significantly more power than LCD. Panasonic aims to narrow that gap with a new plasma display panel it calls, naturally, Neo PDP. The least expensive of the company's numerous 2009 plasma models to boast the new panel is the TC-PS1 series.
In our testing, we found that the S1 series model does indeed suck less juice than before. Its picture quality is also very good, starting with deep black levels that nearly rival the all-time champ in that department, Pioneer's Kuro models. Picture quality nitpicks include less-than-accurate color, which thanks to the company's minimal user-menu controls, cannot be adjusted. Despite these issues we found a lot to like about the TC-PS1 series, not the least of which is its appealing price point.
Series note: The 2009 Panasonic TC-PS1 series is available in six screen sizes. We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 42-inch model, TC-P42S1 ($1,199 street), but our remarks on picture quality also apply to at least two other models in the series, the 46-inch TC-P46S1 ($1,499) and the 50-inch TC-P50S1 ($1,799)--all three share identical specs but for screen size. The three larger models in the series, at 54, 58, and 65 inches, also share similar specs, but the screen size differences are great enough to warrant another hands-on evaluation of a larger model when it becomes available.
The new Panasonic design looks a lot like the old, albeit more rounded on the corners and the edges. The TC-PS1 series sports the hidden speakers that have become fashionable in HDTVs lately, with sound coming from underneath. Glossy black covers the entire frame, with a slim strip of silver shaped to mirror the gently curved bottom edge of the panel. Once we tore off the Energy Star sticker, the only other interruptions among all that black gloss were the Panasonic and Viera logos along with an indicator light and a big power button that nonetheless blended nicely into the frame. The company's glossy black stand looks the same as last year, and still lacks swivel capability.
The remote is similar to last year's but not as good. Panasonic's marketing guys got to the button designers, judging from the unnecessarily prominent trio of keys--Viera Link, Viera Tools, and SD Card--that arc above the central cursor control. Each provides direct access to functions we'll warrant most users won't access frequently, and the trio relegates the more important, yet now tiny, Menu key to a secondary spot near the top of the clicker. We still like the feel of the keys, and appreciate the size, color, and shape differentiation that helps us forget that none of the buttons is illuminated. The remote cannot control other devices via infrared (IR) commands, but it does allow some control of compatible HDMI devices connected to the TV via Viera Link (aka HDMI-CEC).
Panasonic tweaked its menu design for 2009. The same yellow-on-blue color scheme is in evidence (albeit a lighter shade of blue) and navigation is basically unchanged, but the main menu actually has a couple of icons now, and edges throughout are a bit more rounded. Overall it's still one of the more straightforward, basic-looking menus on the mainstream market, but we wish the company would see fit to include onscreen explanations of more advanced items. A new Tools menu showcases some of the TV's functions, although we'd like if it offered access to a few more useful ones, such as picture modes.
Aside from 1080p resolution, the power-saving Neo PDP panel represents the S1's major feature improvement over the company's entry-level TC-PX1 series. See the Performance section below for details on how much power the TC-P42S1 we tested actually saved. The S1 models lack the THX display certification, 1080p/24-friendly refresh rate and VieraCast interactive add-ons found on the step-up G10 series.
Compared with a lot of other name-brand HDTV makers, Panasonic offers far fewer picture adjustments. Yes, the basics are there, including Contrast, which the company was calling Picture for years. We liked that all four of the global picture modes, including the dim-by-design Standard mode (see below), are adjustable and that the fifth, called Custom, is independent per input. The company's Game mode is basically just a picture mode; it doesn't eliminate video processing like some other makers' Game modes.
Beyond the basics there are three color temperature presets, of which Warm came closest to the D65 standard, although unfortunately no further provisions for tweaking the grayscale exist. A "C.A.T.S." function senses ambient light and adjusts the picture accordingly; a pair of On/Off settings affect video noise; and another allows you to set black level (the Light option exposed the correct amount of shadow detail). That's about it--there's no gamma, color management, or other more advanced settings.
You can choose from five aspect ratio options with high-def sources, including a Zoom mode that allows adjustment of horizontal size and vertical position. The Full mode can be made to match the pixel counts of 1080i and 1080p sources, without introducing overscan, if you select the HD Size 2 option from the Advanced menu. We recommend using this setting unless you notice interference along the extreme edges of the screen, which can occur on some channels or sources.
Panasonic also offers ways to avoid temporary image retention, aka burn-in, and address it should it occur. A pixel orbiter slowly shifts the image around the screen, and you can elect to have it happen either automatically or in user-set periodic intervals. You can choose bright or dark gray bars alongside 4:3 programs. And if you do see some burn-in, chances are the scrolling bar function, which sweeps a white bar across a black screen, will clear it up after a while.
The TV lacks picture-in-picture and cannot freeze the image temporarily to catch a phone number, for example. It can, however, accept SD cards with digital photos into a slot on the left side, which allows it to play back the images on the big screen.