Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
We've always been impressed by the performance of Panasonic plasmas, and it started with the company's professional models, such as the TH-50PHD8UK we reviewed three years ago. In terms of external design, Panasonic has changed exactly nothing between that model and the TH-50PH11UK reviewed here, sticking with the same ultra minimalist gunmetal gray look that makes these monitors blend so unobtrusively into TV show sets and other professional environments. Despite being designed for professionals, this display is also a perfectly good performer in the home. The downside is that you'll have to buy a stand (or wall mount) and speakers (or, more likely, use your own sound system), after which the TH-50PF11UK ends up costing a good deal more than comparable "consumer" models, such as the company's own TH-50PZ85U. In terms of picture quality, the pro monitor acquits itself very well, although not much better than the 85U and without the color accuracy of the company's best plasma, the TH-50PZ800U, which also costs less. But if you want the extra control and capabilities, not to mention that no-nonsense design and pro-level build quality, it may be worth it to go professional.
If you're looking for a serious, no-frills flat-panel monitor, look no further. The low-profile gray frame around the screen is thinner than that of any plasma TV we've tested, making this 50-inch model the most compact of its size available today. A black border surrounds the picture area itself. Nothing adorns the front aside from a Panasonic logo along the bottom edge of the screen. The panel measures 47.7 inches wide by 28.5 inches tall by 3.8 inches thick and weighs a hefty 79.4 pounds. It's built like a tank.
The TH-50PH11UK does not come with a stand or speakers. You'll have to buy those separately if you want them. The company's pedestal stand (model TY-ST08-K/S) costs about $150 online, while the stereo speaker kit (model TY-SP50P8W) costs about $280. A range of other accessories, from wall-mount brackets to touch-panel modules, is available on Panasonic's Web site.
While the remote control has a numeric keypad, we didn't get much use out of if it. The clicker features direct access to each input, a rarity on consumer remotes but a real convenience in our book, as well as a dedicated key for each menu section--picture, sound, setup, and position/size. There's no backlighting, and some cryptic keys will confuse many users, but it's better than you might expect in a professional remote.
In relation to the rest of the screen, the menu is just tiny by consumer standards, and riddled with more cryptic jargon and unusual options like "multi-display setup" (in case you want to install a 25-plasma video wall) and "initial input" (which lets you set the default input when the unit is powered on). Everything necessary is there, but you'll have to really dig to find most of it, and comprehending the many options, while worthwhile for power users, will be beyond most consumers' desires.
As a professional monitor, the TH-50PF11UK, by design, lacks a built-in tuner of any kind, so you'll have to connect an external tuner such as a cable or satellite receiver to watch TV. There's no provision to connect an antenna for over-the-air reception of TV signals, digital or otherwise. As we mentioned, the monitor is also missing speakers and a stand, so you'll need to employ the optional speakers or a third-party audio system and provide some way to prop the panel up.
Aside from those differences and the monitor's quirky connectivity (see below), its feature set is quite robust compared with the consumer world. First on the specification sheet is 1080p resolution, the highest available today, although in our testing it's really difficult to see the difference between 1080p and 720p plasmas at the 50-inch screen size.
The TH-50PF11UK's numerous picture adjustments include four adjustable picture presets that are each independent per input. One of the presets, titled "Monitor," doesn't allow changes to the contrast ("Picture") control and we found it too dim for normal use.
Advanced picture controls abound, including what remains Panasonic's only implementation of a fully-adjustable white balance menu--the company's nonprofessional plasmas lack those adjustments except for the step-up PZ850U series, which itself lacks controls for green. Other advanced controls include four gamma presets as well as three controls best left deactivated or zeroed-out: automatic gain control, black-level expansion, and input level. Panasonic uses the word "Normalize" to denote its picture reset function, so be wary if you have precious picture settings. Controls for noise reduction and 3:2 pull-down are hidden in the Signal section of the Setup menu.
Power users will appreciate a range of other advanced options. The Position/Size menu opens up the capability to move the entire image around on the screen and resize it as you can on a computer monitor--impossible with most consumer displays. You can zoom into 25 zones on the screen. There's a well-endowed picture-in-picture system that allows numerous input combinations, subpicture sizes, and orientations, and even the capability to overlap one input with another into a composite image.
You can choose from five among aspect ratio choices with high-definition sources, and there's a separate option, called "1:1 pixel mode" that maps 1080i and 1080p sources directly to the screen's native resolution, with no overscan. We recommend engaging this option. Standard-definition sources allow seven choices.
The TH-50PF11UK also includes numerous options to prevent and remedy burn-in, or image retention. "Wobbling" moved the image slowly over time, while "peak limit" suppressed peak brightness. If image retention occurs, you can engage a scrolling bar, a full-white screen, or a reverse color image and set a timer to end it automatically. There are even four different levels of brightness you can apply to the bars to either side of 4:3 images.
Like most plasmas, the TH-50PF11UK uses a lot of power, especially compared with similar-size LCDs (see the Juice box). It offers a powe- saver mode that suppresses peak light output to cut down on power consumption, somewhat. Also, there's a standby power save mode, although we couldn't measure any difference between leaving that mode turned on or off.