Panasonic VT50 (TX-P50VT50B) 50 Inch Flagship 3D Plasma TV Review
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Panasonic are calling it the 'New Reference'. What will we think?
The model we have for review is the Panasonic P50VT50B 50 inch Full HD 3D Plasma TV with a Freeview HD tuner and full UK specifications. Also available is the Panasonic P55VT50B 55 inch Full HD 3D Plasma TV and the Panasonic P65VT50B 65 inch Full HD 3D Plasma TV which have not been reviewed here but should offer the same features and a similar performance.
It’s that time of year again when videophiles the world over huddle over their monitors desperately seeking reviews of the new high-end TVs hitting the market, in the hope that a domestic display can finally prove a worthy successor to the - now long gone - Pioneer Kuro. That we chose to bring up the K word in the very opening paragraph of the review is perhaps setting the Panasonic VT50 up for a fall. Then again, Panasonic were proudly showing off the VT50 at their recent European convention under a sign reading ‘The reference 2D/3D picture quality’ so they’ve only themselves to blame. But is it reasonable to expect a TV to produce images to rival the Pioneer in the year 2012? With ever increasing legislative pressure on the manufacturers to produce displays to ever decreasing power constraints and the fact the market has driven prices down for large flat panel displays to the extent where they’re forced to use wide tolerance components and it begins to look like a big ask. Not to mention that now, more than ever, they also need to consider the aesthetics of their products more carefully and so have to cram the innards in to as thin a chassis as is possible. We remain optimistic however and now, three generations since Panasonic launched their energy efficient Neo PDP panels, we’re getting the sense that something special may be about to emerge.
Steve Withers had an early taste of what the 2012 Panasonics might have to offer when he got the chance to run the rule over the VX300 but that’s a professional display monitor costing far more than the VT50 can command at retail. Still, it was scored as Reference for a reason and the hope is that some of the tech and drive system inside the VX300 will have trickled down in to the 2012 VIERAs and particularly Panasonic’s new flagship. The early signs are promising as Steve found out with the excellent ST50 plasma and with whispers that the VT50 incorporates some extra Kuro tech to achieve even deeper blacks, we can’t help but feel more than a little excited as we embark to our test bench. With a whole new drive system that promises to iron out previous issues such as dynamic false contouring and the 50Hz bug, whilst bringing about the fringe benefits of better motion clarity, deeper blacks and a brighter, more punchy image we’ve high hopes indeed that Panasonic might just have cracked it.
Of course, these days, it’s not just all about the picture quality and all the manufacturers are scrambling to look the smartest. Smart TV is the future, at least that’s what they want us to believe, and Panasonic have, over the last few months, been pushing their Smart VIERA concept based upon the platforms of Easy Operation, Design, Picture Quality, Networking and ‘Eco’. The first of those ideas is becoming increasingly important as more and more internet features launch and for the first time, this year Panasonic have included a HTML5 capable Web Browser that should be ably assisted by the dual core processor only found in the GT and VT50s, together with the flagship WT50 LED. We can speak from bitter experience that navigating round a web page is a painful process with a standard TV remote control and to this end Panasonic have produced a Touch Pad Controller that will essentially act in the same way as the scroll pad on a laptop. If they can deliver, it’s certainly going to help the connected TV revolution and might even change our minds that the television is as valid a device for internet browsing as the PC’s, laptops, tablets and smartphones they compete against.
So, can Panasonic pull it off and bring together great design, exciting features, energy efficiency and amazing picture quality. We’ll not find out by speculating, that’s for sure, so down to business. All aboard the Panasonic VT50, it should be an exciting journey! The full in-depth review follows the Summary and Scoring and the Test Results can be found from a tab at the top and bottom of the page
It would be easy to make a case for the Panasonic VT50 as being the new Reference Television. It’s our belief that there is simply no other available that combines these incredible levels of dynamic range with such glorious colour reproduction and general excellence in video processing. Black levels are quite simply awesome and the VT50 is capable of hanging on to them when all else around is bright and colourful. For movie watching, the flagship Panasonic has no contemporary equal. But that’s not the whole story and it’s a shame we can only report minor improvements with 50Hz material over its predecessors. The fabled ‘50 Hz Bug’ is there and the observant will notice edge break-up on medium to fast panning shots but we were able to mitigate it somewhat by using the Intelligent Frame Creation feature. Some will also have problems with occasional instances of dynamic false contouring also, although in our experiences, this area of 50Hz processing has seen some improvements but this is largely a limitation of plasma technology. We accept that plasma images aren’t for everyone but it’s our firm belief that they still produce the finest pictures.
We have to remind ourselves that nothing is perfect but for the combination of utterly outstanding pictures, an excellent and coherent feature set plus more than a drop of style, the VT50 has no current competition. It truly is the benchmark by which we will be judging this year’s crop of televisions and, for that reason, we take pleasure in awarding the Panasonic VT50 a coveted AVForums Reference Status Award.
The design of the VT50 is classic yet distinctive with a sliver trim adorning the outer edges of the one-sheet-of-glass design. Fortunately the trim has been chamfered so that light is refracted away from the screen which is surrounded by the frosted black bezel. The way the VT50 sits atop the stylish gradated swivel stand gives it the impression of it being suspended in the air and we think it would look great in just about any home environment. The remote control has had a shiny new make-over too and although it doesn’t veer away drastically from the classic Panasonic handsets of years gone by, it does show that their design department are most definitely pulling out the stops in an effort to keep up.
In terms of connections, the VT50 plays it straight with 4 HDMI inputs, 3 USB sockets, PC and LAN connections as well as ports for the supplied adapters servicing legacy connections. Some may not be pleased by the omission of a RS-232 port but the VT50 should be controllable over a network. Supplied in the box were two pairs of Panasonic’s new RF TY-EW3D4MA 3D eyewear that were a joy to wear both because of their lightness and neutrality of colour. Also exclusive to the VT50, in the plasma range, is the all new Touch Pad which works in much the same way a scroll pad on a laptop does. It does make navigating web pages much more fluid, to a point, but its fine control issues can frustrate and you may find yourselves reaching for the standard remote before too long. It’s a good idea that’s ergonomically pleasing but just needs a touch of refinement to make it truly indispensable.
The most fitting application for the Touch Pad is with Panasonic’s new Web Browser app that is HTML capable and billed as a headlining built-in feature. Quite why Panasonic have made it an optional download, tucked away in the News and Lifestyle section of the VIERA App Store is a mystery to us. Not only that but you’ll need to have the stamina to create a VIERA Connect account and share your financial particulars with a third party in order to gain access to the download but its free which makes it all the more perplexing. Once downloaded, pages load quickly thanks to the dual-core processing on board and having a browser custom designed for a 1920 x 1080p resolution certainly has its merits. We did experience some alignment and playback issues with embedded video but we certainly think it shows lots of promise and we look forward to Panasonic issuing some refinements and improvements to both the browser and Touch Pad.
Not that the Browser is the only means of diversion aboard the VT50, there’s plenty of other features packed in there too. Including Skype Video Calling, USB PVR recording capabilities and built in Wi-Fi. The wireless connectivity is a big plus given that a lot of people don’t have their TVs near their internet connection and once we had connected, we found Servio to play very nicely with the VT50 and we were able to stream AVCHD, AVI, MKV and MP4 video files without issues. File support is well expanded over last year and the VT50 makes quite a capable streaming device.
Panasonic’s GUI and Menu structures are pretty much as was from 2011, save for some very interesting additions aimed at the videophile market. We like their layout and items are placed intuitively. They’re responsive too but we wouldn’t have minded if they'd have been XMB sluggish, given that Panasonic have now provided us a full, 6-Axis 3D Colour Management System to get our teeth in to. Not only that but there are even selectable colour gamuts to target and, for the first time, the ability of a Panasonic plasma to accept and display full chromatic resolution, with 1080p Pure Direct engaged.
Almost ironically, the out of box accuracy in the THX Cinema and Professional picture modes was so good we hardly had any just cause to try out the new controls but having experimented using the CMS with the expanded gamut ‘Remaster’ supplies, we’re happy to report it all looks to work as intended. Last year’s problematic parametric gamma control also seems to have had the bugs ironed out and we were able to massage gamma response to our hearts content, without introducing banding or any other such nasties. It’s a great job from Panasonic here that will undoubtedly find favour with the enthusiasts out there.
The Panasonic VT50 is just as good a performer in 3D as it is in the ‘old fashioned’ two dimensions, Whilst our test patterns showed it had no problem in resolving full vertical and horizontal resolution in low and mid contrast scenes, it did suffer in challenging high contrast situations. In real world terms this manifested as a little bit of crosstalk in the most challenging scenes but we’ve never seen a 3D TV that doesn’t struggle with that kind of material and the general absence of crosstalk and fluidity of motion still makes it a top 3D performer.
Neither energy consumption nor input lag have seen any noteworthy reductions over last year’s VT and we measured a controller latency between 16 and 32milliseconds , averaging around 24ms. We recorded power consumption at an averaged, calibrated draw of 240W for 2D pictures and close to 350W with 3D material.
We know we might take some flak for bestowing Panasonic's flagship plasma with our highest accolade but it's time for a reality check. The market has driven flat panel prices to rock bottom, whilst the legislators seem intent on crippling plasma technology with increasingly stringent energy regulations. Our televisions are now capable of running competent web browsers and of making HD video calls. We can access masses of video on demand content whilst also keeping up with our friends on Facebook or Twitter. We have 3D pictures in the home at least the equal of those in the average cinema. This is 2012 and things have moved on drastically in the last 4 years. What a television has to do now, just to compete, is staggering and the fact that Panasonic can produce so capable a display in all those facets yet still be relatively affordable is nothing short of a minor miracle of modern day engineering. Yes, there are some annoyances, it's not perfect but it's a close to it as any TV we've seen in a long time.
The Panasonic VT50 will leave you gasping in awe because for movie watching it has no equal. With its mighty dynamic range, deep rewarding blacks and astonishingly accurate colour palette, there simply is nothing that competes on the market today. It won't be for everyone but for anyone interested in seeing video at its best, it's a must see!
Design and Connections
The first thing to remark upon when first casting our eyes at the VT50 is that it quite closely follows the styling of its predecessor but it does up the ante, design wise, by the addition of a sliver trim around the outer the edges of the ‘one-sheet-of-glass’ that sits across the panel within. We had some reservations about the trim prior to seeing it in the flesh but, rest assured, it’s nowhere near as shiny or reflective as some have feared and the fact that it is chamfered in such a way to refract light away from the screen means it doesn’t detract in any way from the pictures displayed on it. We think it actually adds a very attractive accent to the VT50’s looks giving it distinction and identity. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and all that, but we think most will be impressed and as the bezel that surrounds the screen is a reassuring, frosted black we have our favoured picture framing colour. The bezel measures around 2.5cm to the top and sides and just over 4cm at the bottom where the Panasonic logo sits in the middle. We’re pleased to note that they haven’t chosen to illuminate the logo, as we see in many other top tier TV’s, and it furthers the idea that Panasonic would like to woo the videophile market with the VT50. The base stand gradates from light to charcoal grey from back to front and looks very stylish but it feels as though this is one area where Panasonic have skimped slightly as it’s very lightweight and plastic to the touch, even if it is pleasing to the eye. The DT50 LED TV came with a very study base so something of a role reversal here, although it is a minor complaint and the TV feels plenty secure enough upon it, even when swivelled to its maximum.
The chassis feels well-engineered and robust with its metallic backplate on the insides of which Panasonic have attached two sub woofers to bolster the audio performance in their all new ‘8 Train Speaker System’ that also has eight dome-type ‘microspeakers’ with reflectors accompanying the woofers. That the speakers are an improvement over the outgoing system isn’t in really in question, bass response and clarity at low listening levels are certainly improved, but don’t kid yourself that it’s a viable alternative to a dedicated audio set up, that simply isn’t going to happen in a television just 2.5cm deep. The backplate houses 2 visible fans, we did poke our eyes in to the chassis to see if there were any more hidden away but it appears not. We know some won’t be happy with the news of fans but they are very quiet in the way a good HTPC fan should be. There was just the faintest whoosh detectable with our head craned behind the back of the chassis but we honestly couldn’t hear a thing from a couple of foot sat in front, even with the volume slider down very low. Room acoustics will play a part here and some will hear them more than others but, as far as we – and our viewing environment - is concerned, it’s a non-issue. Likewise there will be owners that may be able to hear the trademark plasma power supply buzz but with the sample provided it was no more audible than the fans from a couple of feet away.
The Panasonic VT50 ships with not one, but two, means of control with both a standard remote control and the new Touch Pad Controller in the box. The remote is exactly the same as we saw with the ST50 and DT50 and it’s a very shiny affair, indeed, but despite the gloss job the layout is very familiar from Panasonic’s of years gone by. It’s just a touch more lightweight than previous incarnations and has the tendency to show up greasy fingerprints more easily but we’ve no major issues with it. Perhaps last year’s were a tad more comfortable to hold for extended periods but then most people aren’t television reviewers or calibrators and thus unlikely to be bothered by that. All the most frequently used buttons are still conveniently located around the centre and it’s easily operable with one hand. Couch potatoes will like the dual, angled IR emitters at the front end which means it doesn’t need to be aimed with any great precision for successful operation. Most of the keys are illuminated red when the Light button of the remote control is pressed and we like a backlit remote.
The new Touch Pad Controller resembles an inverted mouse (PC not rodent) and fits in the hand nicely. There’s a simple assortment of buttons including Standby, OK, Exit, Return and Volume and Channel up and downs. There are also dedicated buttons to bring up VIERA Connect, VIERA Tools and the Options Menu. Clearly you can do all of that with the standard remote so the sole purpose for the existence of the controller comes in the eponymous Touch Pad that dominates the top half. The pad allows users to tap, slide and scroll their way through menus and web pages and works well, up to a point. There’s no doubt it makes the navigation of the internet a far more rewarding experience but it does lack a degree of fine control that can make using the on-screen keyboard frustrating to use. Owners can choose to set a sensitivity with choices of Min, Mid or Max and we found the higher sensitivity setting our preferred choice. From the same area in the Setup Menu, one can also choose whether a tap of the pad doubles up as the OK button or otherwise and commence with the necessary Pairing action before first use, if it wasn’t done during the initial set up process. We’ll talk a little more about the Touch Pad in the Features section but our overall thought is that it’s a good idea and a very nicely crafted little gizmo that needs some work on the sensitivity for fine movements.
Also in the box of the 50VT50 were two pairs of Panasonic’s brand new RF 3D eyewear, product code TY-EW3D4MA. As both Steve and I commented in the recent reviews, the ‘3D4M’s’ are a joy to wear being extraordinarily light, with a weight of only 26g (about an ounce). The glasses have nice large lenses and are extraordinarily lacking in tint. To activate there’s a switch located at the top of the frame above the bridge that can also change the 3D mode to show 2D images; although quite why anybody would want to watch 3D in 2D wearing glasses they don’t need to escapes us. The 3D4MA’s are not USB rechargeable, unlike the 3D4ME’s (you’ve got to love that product code) that a mini USB connector and are of a plain black design. As a point of note, whatever we tried we couldn’t get the 3D4ME’s to pair but fortunately the ones in the box worked nicely. They’re not going to make you more attractive to your preferred gender but they do the job nicely and the finest testament we can pay is that it’s easy to forget you’re wearing them.
In terms of connections the VT50 doesn’t buck many trends although the omission of a RS232 port may provide a few headaches for custom installers. There’s the, almost standard, 4 HDMI ports on the side connecting panel along 3 USB inputs. As usual the HDMI ports are perilously close to the edge of the bezel so angled adapters may be required if your cables are quite chunky. The HDMI2 input is ARC (Audio Return Channel) compliant but will only take Stereo back to your AV receiver from anything other than the internal tuners. The top USB input is designated for use with the built-in PVR functionality by means of connecting an external hard drive. The down facing connections feature the terminals for both the Freeview HD and Freesat HD connections; a D-SUB PC port; S/PDIF audio out; a LAN port and inputs for legacy connections in AV1 and AV2 by way of the supplied adapters. The AV2 connection doubles up for component and composite video and the AV selection menu lets you manually select which type of signal is being sent, whilst the AV1 input is the domain of SCART sources. There’s also a small jack port for service engineers to hook up their laptops to but hopefully you’ll never need to discover if it works or not.
Menus and Set Up
By far the most interesting items in the menus, from a picture quality enthusiasts perspective, need to be unlocked in the Setup Menu by activating the Advanced(isfccc Professional Viewing Modes that contain the most complete set of calibration controls in any TV to date. Quite how effective they are we will discover later, as some of last year’s could introduce banding and other problems in to images; in particular the 10 point parametric Gamma controls. For the first time Panasonic have included a full 6 axis 3D Colour Management System (CMS), meaning we should have full control over both our Primary and Secondary colours to hit our points against whichever colour gamut we so choose because, again for the first time, there’s even the option to select a target gamut with choices of Rec.709, SMPTE-C, EBU and Remaster. It doesn’t stop there, either, as in addition to the two point White Balance sliders there’s a finer 10 point control too. Yet another new option exists in the 1080p Pure Direct setting that promises to allow for the passing of a full 4:4:4 video signal over HDMI, allowing for slightly enhanced chromatic resolution. The acceptance of 4:4:4 is new ground for Panasonic PDP and another sign they’re taking the enthusiast market seriously. We’ll look at how the VT50 copes with all the new processing challenges later but let’s hope Panasonic aren’t over-reaching themselves with this most generous set of options. Hopefully the new dual-core Pro 4 processing can provide enough grunt.
But we’re getting ahead ourselves in the excitement as before you get anywhere near all those juicy options, you need to go through the initial set up that sees the new owner presented with options to tune services from the in-built DVB, Analogue and Satellite tuners; make a connection to their home network; elect whether the TV is located in a shop or the home; choose a language for the menus; to set a PIN and some identity details in case of theft and, unique to the VT50, the option to pair the Touch Pad with the TV. Owners can elect to skip everything but the language options if they’re impatient. The whole process takes around 10 minutes and once up and running you’ll be greeted by the same attractive blue/yellow themed GUI that made its first appearance last year
Panasonic has added a further sub-menu to the main Menu screen so we’re now presented with menus for Picture, Sound, Network, Timer and Setup. The Timer Menu contains just 2 or 3 options, depending on whether you are tuned to the internal tuners - and thus able to schedule recordings to a connected USB hard drive – or watching from an external sources so perhaps could be annexed by the Setup Menu, perhaps call it the Setup and Timers Menu but that’s just our preference for stripped back menus although, to be fair, the Panasonic GUI is a relative joy to navigate with just about everything in the place one would expect.
Before we go on, a word of praise for Panasonic in removing the noxious advertising from the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) and it’s now much easier to read and navigate, as result. It displays a 2 hour/6 channel view in the Normal or Info views and with it set to Full the channels on display expands to a generous 10. We’d still prefer the option of having video and/or audio streams running at the same time the EPG is up but we’ll take the removal of advertising, for now.
We couldn’t help ourselves but share most of Advanced Settings earlier but don’t underestimate the importance of optimising the basic Contrast, Brightness, Colour and Sharpness options on he first page of the Picture menu. As well as the two unlocked Professional pre-sets others include Normal, Dynamic, Game, Cinema. Also new for 2012 there’s now two THX modes – THX Cinema and THX Bright Room as well as the THX3D Cinema mode. These modes (along with the Professional options) should provide the most accurate pictures a non-calibrated TV can deliver. Completing the set of options on the first page of picture options we have Colour Balance, Vivid Colour and C.A.T.S. If you opt for the best Viewing Modes, the Colour Balance option will disappear. Otherwise Warm will be closest to accurate. Neither Vivid Colour nor C.A.T.S does anything good for pictures as vivid colour unnecessarily increases colour luminance (brightness) and the C.A.T.S. function automatically adjusts the overall brightness of the picture dependant on the viewing conditions, which can cause some distracting picture fluctuations. The P-NR (picture noise reduction) and 3D-Comb options on Page 2 proved similarly unnecessary but some will like the fact there’s Picture in Picture functionality and the option to shut down the Screen Display is useful for when listening to the radio or some music and not risking any pesky image retention
Along with all those lovely calibration options, in the Advanced Settings, there are selections for Intelligent Frame Creation (IFC), 24p Smooth Film, Clear Cinema, 3D Refresh Rate, 16:9 Overscan and DVI Input Setting. We’ll deal with IFC, 24p Smooth Film and Clear Cinema later on but we’d advise 16:9 Overscan be set to Off for high definition sources. The DVI Input can be set to Normal/Full where Normal represents video level signals (16-235) and Full corresponds to PC levels (0-255) but if the input is straight HDMI – rather than a HDMI to DVI connection – the VT50 will automatically operate in Normal mode. Again, we’ll deal with the 3D Refresh Rate option later in the review. Finally, in the Advanced Settings, the Side Panel control increases or decreases the brightness of the side panels when watching 4:3 content, whilst the Pixel Orbiter and Scrolling Bar functions are designed to prevent and combat image retention respectively.
Finally, as far as the picture options are concerned, there are a number of 3D settings available. Users can manually alter the ‘strength’ of the 2D>3D conversion mode (Min/Mid/Max) but it is only selectable once enabled in the next option down, 3D Adjustment. At the bottom of the 3D options we can access the built in warning message concerning the viewing of 3D images by way of Safety Precautions. Just below the 3D Adjustment option you can select to alter the Picture Sequence if you feel, and we quote the manual, ‘that the sense of depth is unusual’ – isn’t it always ‘unusual’ with 3D? There’s an Edge Smoother option too that we’ll check out later on and the 3D Detection can be set to Off, On or On Advance. The ‘Off’ setting speaks for itself where ‘On’ detects particular 3D signals (Frame Sequential, SBS etc) and displays them automatically and ‘On Advance’ detects all 3D signals and shows them without any notification or user intervention necessary. If it all sounds a little perplexing, don’t worry, with our review sample set at On Advance we encountered no problems.
Next down from the Picture Menu are the Sound settings that contains three modes - Speech, Music and User – with all the usual bass, treble and balance settings in addition to a volume control for connected Headphones. Opting for the User mode opens up an Equaliser feature and there are also controls for the Surround mode, the Auto Gain, the Volume Correction and for setting the distance from the speakers to the wall. For what it’s worth we settled on the Music mode with V-Audio ProSurround engaged for movies and the VT50B sounded well enough by flat panel standards. Rounding up the Sound options, next we have a Voice Guidance feature for the visually impaired and , similarly, Audio Description for use with the Freesat and Freeview tuners. Finally, users can elect to turn on or off NICAM and the SPDIF selection allows for either sound to be sent as PCM or decoded to Dolby Digital Bitstream.
The Network Menu is hardly full of surprises and has options for a Connection Test, selection for connecting wired or wireless; Wireless Network Settings; IP/DNS Settings; Network Link Settings that has various options for control of the TV over a Network, either by Windows 7 PC or mobile device (Tablet/Smartphone). Finally, users can search for a Software Update over the network, elect whether to have a message displayed when an update is available and check upon the Network Status. The Timer menu doesn’t deserve a paragraph of its own, although we should have probably grouped it with Setup, as Panasonic probably should also. When tuned to the digital terrestrial or satellite connections, an option for Timer Programming appears allowing for the manual scheduling of recordings from them to an external hard drive. The other two options, Off Timer and Auto Standby probably don’t need further description as their titles are explicit enough.
Everything else you can think of – and probably plenty more besides – is placed in the Setup Menu and we’ll quickly go through all of the options, stopping off where we think a brief explanation is required. From the top, first we come to TV Guide settings that governs whether the EPG shows as Full Screen, Normal - which will display the operations guide where Full Screen wont - or Info which has the same layout as Normal but with programme information in the space where the operation guide was. Next up is Eco Navigation which when set to on activates all of the power saving functions - C.A.T.S, Standby Power Save Etc. Then we have Recording Set Up and Bluetooth Set Up followed by the previously mentioned Touch Pad settings. Below there, under the Link Settings sub-menu, we can activate VIERA Link, Panasonic’s name for HDMI CEC (Consumer Electronic Control). Following that, HDMI Content Detection which works with VEIRA Link to select the best Viewing Mode with equipment that supports the feature. In our experience it seems to go to Cinema so leave it off. Next we have the power saving Standby Power Save and Intelligent Auto Standby options.
Coming out of the Link Settings we have various Tuning Menus, Language options and Display Settings that houses various options including Input Labels allowing for the customisation of the input names, e.g. HDMI 1 can be relabelled Blu-ray etc. Right at the bottom of the Setup Menu there are two further sub-menus, System Menu and the ambiguously titled Other Settings. The System Menu contains various bits of information on different statuses – Software, Device Information etc as well as being the place to perform a factory reset. The likely most interesting option in Other Settings is the Power on Preference allowing the choice between the TV tuner, with TV selected or either the HDMI1 or AV1 input, when set to AV, provided the equipment connected is powered up. Unlike previous attempts from Panasonic the Power on Preference seems to reliably work.
Being this is Panasonic’s flagship entrant to the market, we shouldn’t be short of subject matter to discuss here and indeed we aren’t. One of the headline features on Panasonic’s very own website mentions ‘Enjoy online content on VIERA Connect with Web Browser’ and whilst, strictly, there’s nothing factually incorrect about this statement, one may be inclined to believe that the Browser was a readily accessible tool. Not so, and it is actually squirreled away in the VIERA App Store, at the bottom, in the News and Lifestyle section, as a download. You will also need to create a VIERA Connect account and be willing to share your bank details with a third party in order to be permitted to download. We know a lot of people are: a) going to miss the browser’s existence altogether; b) be put off by having to enter details to create an account and c) not like the idea of sharing their financial particulars, although we’re not suggesting there’s any issue with the third party banking agency, just that we know some don’t trust online transactions. Ironically it’s a free download, in any case, so why ask for your details? Not the way to promote a premium feature Panasonic!
Should you have the stamina to go through that process with either the standard remote control or the Touch Pad, you’ll be greeted with a nice clean interface that looks suitably tailored to the 1920 x 1080p panel. Web pages load very quickly, whether wired or wirelessly connected, and with the Touch Pad controller, easy enough to navigate around swiftly, to a point. As mentioned earlier, the pad has issues with making fine movements so whilst it was easy enough to get the ball on the green, getting it in the cup was more problematic – if you take the analogy - and we often resorted to using the standard remote for those final few centimetres. The same goes for the on-screen keyboard too. We suppose the ability to create favourites easily accessible from the home page will mean, as time goes by, the Browser will become easier to use and the built-in Google search engine does work nicely so it’s certainly a step up from our previous experiences with browsers built in to a TV but we became disillusioned with it quite quickly soon after discovering a lot of issues getting embedded video from both AVForums and YouTube to work properly; the AVF videos wouldn’t centre properly and YouTube was totally hit and miss whether it would play at all. There’s promise there but the Touch Pad needs refinement and some bugs need ironing out before we’d consider using it again over a more dedicated solution. An alternative to the Touch Pad is to use the VIERA Remote app available for Android and iOS and Steve Withers certainly seemed happy enough with that combination in his ST50 review.
Bearing in mind our frustration with YouTube through the Browser, it was a relief the tailor made app had no such difficulties and the same can be said for BBC iPlayer; both directly available from the VIERA Connect home page. Those two most popular of Video on Demand (VoD) services are joined by the likes of Netflix, Ace Trax, Fetch TV, BBC News, Euro Sport, CineTrailer, Dailymotion, Euronews and the ‘LastFMesque’ AUEPO personal radio service. Twitter and Facebook junkies are catered for with the Social TV app that allows for their streams to be fairly discretely hidden under a tab whilst you’re watching TV. Not for us, but some will like it no doubt.
One thing that is resolutely built-in is the Wi-Fi connection. Well, strictly speaking, it’s attached to the back of the chassis on the outside, but you take the point. We’re hoping to see more and more that built-in Wi-Fi becomes a standard in Smart TVs but as this is a top-tier product, nothing less should be expected. The connection to our router proved solid from both in a position two walls away and in the same room. We couldn’t really lug it about any more but we’d expect it would service an average sized family house well enough. The Wi-Fi adapter is a big boon for the Media Player, particularly as with our experiences using a media server over the wired connection were unsuccessful – just as we found with the DT50 LED. We don’t lay claim to being networking experts but we’ve not encountered the scenario with a multitude of other TVs we’ve tested, in the exact same configuration, so we assume there’s a bug somewhere. Out of the media servers on our Windows 7 PC we found Servio to work the best and had no issues in streaming a multitude of video files including AVCHD, AVI, MKV and MP4. The manual also lists ASF, FLV, 3GPP, PS, MOV and TS containers as supported but we had none to check with. Audio support now includes FLAC to compliment the MP3, AAC and WMA/WMA Pro codecs and for photos, the VT50 can display jpg, jpeg and the 3D mpo formats. The same files supported over DLNA streaming are also listed for a USB connected device so, all in all, it’s a capable little player.
Update: 03/04/2012: Since publishing this review the VT50 has had a software update and is now working very well over a wired connection.
Rounding things of, by purchasing the TY-CC10W HD camera/mic attachment owners will be able to use the VT50 for Skype video calling and the PVR facilities will require a USB storage device with a minimum of 160GB capacity up to a maximum of 3TB.
Picture Quality – 2D
The big new thing for the Panasonic’s this year is their completely revised panel driving system - 2500Hz Focused Field Drive (FFD). First of all it’s a very nice big number for the marketing department to wield but, more importantly, we’re hoping it may finally see an end to the problems of dynamic false contouring (DFC) and 50Hz edge break up we’ve witnessed since the birth of Neo-PDP. The new driving system relies on the ultra-fast panel response time said to be 1/2500th of a second (hence the 2500 FFD name) allowing for a much reduced pixel address time, than previously, and a more even distribution of light through the sub-field phases, i.e. cleaner and sharper looking motion. It should also give the added benefits of deeper blacks and a brighter appearing image, as well as the ability to produce more gradations in darker portions of the picture. Panasonic claim an effective 24,576 ‘Equivalent Steps of Gradation’ and it’s 4 times that of the previous generations, so it should have some very positive benefits on shadow detailing, not that we’ve had particular issues with the Panasonics in that area before.
So, how does 2500 FFD perform? Let’s start with the REALLY good. Black levels are simply insane and by far the largest deciding factor on how they’ll look in your home will be the ambient lighting conditions of your room. The black is so deep, in fact, we couldn’t get anything like a reliable accurate reading with a full black pattern on screen but we did manage to measure it at 0.0095 cd/m2 on an ANSI checkerboard pattern. We don’t necessarily even trust that measurement, however, but what we do trust is our eyes and, in a blackened out room side by side with a 2010 Panasonic plasma, it absolutely wiped the floor with its predecessor. Are we saying their up with the best of the Kuro’s? Probably not quite on full screen black patterns but the dynamic range is up there with them and you’d need to be in the proverbial bat-cave room to pick them apart.
It’s no good producing a panel with incredible blacks if the details near black are swallowed up in them but the VT50 also showed incredible levels of shadow detail and distinction in darker scenes. What we did notice about the new driving system however, is that it does produce more dither in the picture to produce those extra gradations. It’s only noticeable in dark scenes and isn’t overly visible from more than about 6ft from the screen, but it is there and some may be slightly put off by it. Panasonic’s are fabled for their clean images and whilst this mostly holds true for the VT50, there is an increase in PWM noise near black, similar to the LG plasma’s but less noticeable.
Having been so impressed with the improvement in dynamic range 2500 FFD has brought about, we next moved on to feeding the VT50 the previous generations’ bête noir, 50 Hz material and specifically 50Hz material with lots of panning shots. We can sense your collective groans from here as we report that 2500 FFD has made not an iota of difference to the edge break-up issues – or 50Hz bug, as it’s known – whatsoever. Just as with the last few generations of Panasonic, we witnessed half way lines and leading and trailing edges of players break up and multiply as the ball was hoofed over the midfield in football matches. It just doesn’t manifest in football, of course, just that material is an easy way of spotting things and, besides, like a lot of people we enjoy watching sports. With the Olympics and Euro 2012 awaiting us this summer we’ll be watching plenty of broadcast sporting action – as will the majority of people – and we certainly won’t be spending the summer watching movies in the day or scrutinising motion resolution tests that don’t really mean much in the real world. The fact is, the VT50 doesn’t handle fast panning scenes at 50Hz with any great distinction and only by engaging IFC at Max can the effect be virtually neutralised. Which we wouldn’t encourage anyone to do as it looks abominably unnatural.
If the 50Hz bug was as big an issue as ever, we definitely witnessed a reduction in Dynamic False Contouring at 50Hz. Again, it’s still there, but we had to be looking out for it to spot it. The most common thing to notice DFC with is on skintones, which will exhibit red and green stripes to the contours of cheekbones, arms etc, often – but not always – under panning. Having spent a ridiculous amount of, highly enjoyable, time going through our Blu-ray collection and streaming ‘extra high quality HD’ from the Netflix USA site, we can confirm the DFC issues are largely confined to 50Hz material, if not totally. Again, setting IFC to its Max strength largely put paid to the contouring at the expense of looking otherwise very odd.
And those are the negatives because everything else about the VT50 is spectacular. When you add the supremely accurate colour palette and totally achromatic greyscale, with its consistent tonal response, to the incredible black levels and astonishing dynamic range we have here a television that is putting out pictures that leave the competition standing. When we say competition, let’s be clear the Kuro can longer be considered so, and we would happily state that with Blu-ray material in particular, we haven’t enjoyed ourselves so much in a long time – and possibly ever. From the moody contrast heavy scenes of The Dark Knight through the crisp white wastelands of Fargo, the VT50 simply astonished with its level of detail and pop. Switching to Slumdog Millionaire showed off the VT50’s accomplishment in showing a full dynamic range of colour, even when all those kaleidoscopic items of clothing were placed in the dark underpasses and dingy sewers in the Dharavi slums of Mumbai. We literally treated the kids to an afternoon of Disney delights, both modern and classic, and the artistry and care put in their making was given full justice by the flagship Panasonic. Truly, the VT50 is a beast when it comes to movies.
So what to make of the overall picture quality? That’s a tough one alright and whilst we’d be more than happy to take the VT50 full time, those odd instances of 50Hz break-up and dynamic false contouring are most certainly frustrating. There will be plenty for whom those issues will go unnoticed, of course, but we’re writing this for the enthusiast market as well and some of those will be troubled by the continued neglect for 50Hz material, as we are. We still think its producing the finest pictures of anything out there currently but it has a weakness that will be fatal for some.
Green Blobs/Uniformity Issues
The topic generating most consternation of all on the Forums was one we’d not traditionally associate with plasma technology and that is the one of screen uniformity. We have no idea on the actual scale of the problem – internet forums give a false sense of perspective – but we do know enough of our members suffered issues with green splats and tinges and purple clouding to know instances were reasonably common. Following feedback from us, Panasonic undertook a testing campaign and issued an EEPROM update to those that were suffering in an attempt to alleviate the problems. It has seemed to work (or otherwise) to various degrees of success but what it has done, seemingly, is alerted Panasonic in time for them to sort out the manufacturing issues with the 2012 ranges. Steve Withers gave the ST50’s screen uniformity a clean bill of health and we’re very happy to report the same goes for the TX-P50VT50. Not a tint, not a smear, not a splodge. Perfect.
Picture Quality - 3D
Whilst our 3D test pattern showed the Panasonic VT50 to display full horizontal and vertical resolution at 1920 x 1080 pixels, this only seemed to apply in low to average brightness scenes. When we brought up one of the bright on-screen menus, the vertical lines blurred somewhat. In real world terms this manifested as a little bit of crosstalk in the most challenging high contrast scenes but we’ve never seen a 3D TV that doesn’t struggle with that kind of material and the general absence of crosstalk and fluidity of motion still makes it a top 3D performer.
Colour performance was ably abetted by the neutrality of the glasses and the new THX 3D viewing mode appeared nicely accurate, if a touch warm. We’d advise against using the 3D Refresh Rate settings in the menu which attempts to combat fluorescent lighting by adjusting the frequency at which the shutters operate as it induced some strange movement artefacts. If you’re going to watch 3D, you should be doing so with the minimum amount of ambient light in any case and if you’re particularly sensitive to flicker, we’d advise demoing a passive 3D set, if 3D is a major buying factor.
We found 3D gaming to be a genuinely immersive pleasure with the VT50 and we will miss the sense of depth afforded to the likes of Uncharted 3 and Batman Arkham City when it’s gone but we’re still not personally sold on it as a medium for film. The natural pop the gamma and black levels the VT50 gives 2D images is plenty enough for us but we know others feel differently; for those, the 3D capabilities of the Panasonic VT50 should leave them more than satisfied.
As is always the case with Panasonic plasma’s, gaming pursuits proved extremely pleasurable with the VT50. Whilst it didn’t quite match the ST50’s response, the VT50 averaged an extremely respectable 24 millisecond of lag which was unperceivable to us. We don’t lay claim to being Major League Gamers but we’ve tested enough displays to know the VT50 will keep all but the hardest of the hardcore gamers happy. Plasma technology has the trait of showing up the low motion deficiencies inherent with games running under 60 frames per second natively, and the VT50 is no exception but it never bothered us. If you’re the type to be bothered by this - and you probably know who you are - you’ve been warned.
Panasonic rightly considered they’d done enough in terms of preserving energy with last year’s plasma series and they’ve used the increases in efficiency developed since to boost picture brightness. We certainly wouldn’t mind them gaining a little more efficiency over this next 12 months and putting it in to more luminance in the Professional modes but we’re happy enough for now. As it stands, we recorded power consumption at an averaged, calibrated draw of 240W in Professional mode for 2D pictures and close to 350W with 3D material in our preferred THX 3D mode. Our testing equipment isn’t capable of measuring a draw under 0.5W and so we can safely assume the Panasonic was drawing under that in standby as it didn’t register anything in that state.
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ISF CCC controls
Special controls which allow precise calibration of the display, usually by an ISF certified calibrator.
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THX Certification and THX mode
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10,383 word review viewed 184,496 times.
Flag-ship 3D Plasma TV
Suggested price: £2,400
Reviewed 26th March, 2012 by Mark Hodgkinson
To get the best out of your TV or projector, consider getting it calibrated.
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