Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered and its Editors' Choice award removed because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
For the last year or so, our reigning favorite plasma TV was Pioneer's PDP-5080HD "Kuro," which got there by dint of its game-changing black-level performance, which is still the best we've tested outside of OLED. But many of Panasonic's 2008 plasma TVs, including the TH-50PZ800U, come mighty close to the vaunted blacks of those Kuro models, and this set's THX mode adds significantly improved color and video processing performance compared with other Panasonic plasmas. The bad news, of course, is that THX will cost you hundreds of dollars over the company's step-down, non-THX TH-PZ85U series. Whether that extra scratch is worth the better picture is entirely up to you, but we can say with certainty that Panasonic's TH-50PZ800U is a worthy competitor to the Kuro, and in many ways, it performs even better. For shoppers looking for the ultimate plasma TV that may be enough, at least until the new Kuro models debut later this year.
In photos, the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U looks a lot like every other HDTV on the market: a glossy black rectangle. In person, however, it's a lot more striking and less glossy. In fact, the black frame around the screen isn't glossy at all, it's simply fronted by a big pane of glass that lends the panel a somewhat more sophisticated look than a typical set, where the frame is raised a quarter inch or so from the surface of the screen. Below the screen the Panasonic's frame has what resembles a pair of pursed lips that protrude forward, bearing the logo and hiding a set of inputs behind a flip-down door.
The stand looks identical to the sloped number common to lower-end 2008 Panasonic plasmas such as the TH-46PZ85U and the TH-42PX80U, but unlike those stands, this one swivels, courtesy of a lazy-Susan-like base hidden underneath. Including stand, the TH-50PZ800U measures 49.9 inches wide by 33.4 inches tall by 15.3 inches deep and weighs 92.6 pounds. Divested of stand, its size shrinks to 49.9 inches wide by 31.2 inches tall by 4.1 inches deep and its weight shrinks to 81.6 pounds.
Panasonic's remote remains the same as last year, and we remain fans of its layout. The medium-length wand groups the distinct sets of right-sized buttons in an easy-to-feel arrangement, and although we'd have liked to see some backlighting, we didn't really miss it after a few minutes of becoming familiar with the button arrangement.
A familiar yellow-on-blue menu system leads to the television's setup functions, and although the graphics lack the panache of a Sony or a Samsung menu, navigation was intuitive enough. We liked that the company renamed its previously confusing "Normal" command to "Reset," which more accurately describes what it does to your picture settings.
As we mentioned, the big step-up feature between Panasonic's TH-PZ85U series and the TH-PZ800U models such as this is THX Display Certification. The certification involves testing in a number of categories such as contrast ratio and color accuracy, according to THX, and the TH-50PZ800U has a special THX picture preset that, when engaged, causes the TV's picture to comply with the certification. We'll detail its effects in the Performance section below, and we describe more about the certification itself in this blog post.
Like most plasmas in Panasonic's 2008 lineup, the TH-50PZ800U has a native resolution of 1920x1080 pixels, or 1080p, which is fast becoming a standard feature on all flat-panel HDTVs. As we've said before, however, the difference between 1080p and lower resolutions is difficult to discern, even at this relatively large screen size.
Picture controls on the TH-50PZ800U aren't as extensive as seen on many higher-end HDTVs. While we appreciated the capability to adjust all of the five picture modes, including THX, and the fact that the Custom mode is independent per input, we couldn't adjust color temperature beyond the three presets. Advanced picture controls on the TH-PZ800U include a color management control that we left off in THX mode; a "C.A.T.S." mode that changes contrast on the fly and so should be left turned-off; two species of noise reduction, and a black-level control. In case you're wondering, the step-up TH-PZ850U series does include adjustable color temperature and a host of other picture tweaks, although it lacks THX certification.
Panasonic also touts the mysterious Game mode, which turns out to be little more than an easy way to select a particular input. A quick press of the "Game" button on the remote toggles between any of the inputs that have been labeled "Game" in the input naming menu. Pressing that button does not engage the Game picture mode (which is simply another connection of adjustable picture settings) nor does it affect video processing or lag time between controller and screen--although, to be fair, such modes on other HDTVs have little value as far as we can tell.
The TH-50PZ00U offers five aspect ratio controls for HD sources, more than most HDTVs on the market. There's also a setting, called "HD Size 2," that lets the TV display every pixel of 1080i and 1080p sources without overscan or scaling, and we recommend using it unless you notice interference along the extreme edges of the screen, which can occur on some HD sources. Unfortunately, selecting the THX picture mode doesn't automatically engage HD Size 2; you must go into a separate menu item to do so. We'd prefer HD Size 2 to be the default for all modes, or at least available among the standard selection of aspect ratios. A selection of five modes is also available for SD sources.
A new menu for 2008 deals with burn-in or, as the company calls it, "image retention." There's a pixel orbiter that moves the entire image gradually around the screen, along with an option to set the 4:3 mode to include gray bars to either side of the picture (as opposed to black, which cause image retention more easily than gray). On the off chance that the plasma retains an image, there's a scrolling bar that slides across the screen as a sort of eraser.
We would have liked to see an energy saver mode on this TV, but it does include one nice extra that really helps ameliorate power consumption. When you first plug in and set up the TV, it asks you whether you're in a store or home environment. Choosing "home" engages the Standard picture preset by default across all of the inputs, which saves quite a bit of power over the Vivid preset. This savings is reflected in our Juice Box measurements below, where default was measured in Standard mode.
The Panasonic TH-50PZ800U lacks picture-in-picture, but it does include a thoughtful "Surf Mode" control, which can be set to restrict the TV's tuning options. You can set it to "all," "favorite," "digital only," or "analog only."
The jack pack of the TH-50PZ800U is as well equipped as any high-end HDTV we've seen, starting with three HDMI jacks on the back panel and a fourth available out front. A VGA-style PC input is also onboard (1366x760 maximum resolution), along with two component video inputs, an AV input with composite or S-Video, an RF input for antenna or cable, as well as an optical and an analog audio output. In addition to that last HDMI input, the front panel also sports a second AV input with composite and S-Video, as well as an SD card slot for displaying digital photos on the big screen.