Panasonic TX-P50GT60 £949
18th Sep 2013 | 09:37
Perfect plasma's sweet spot is a triumph of trickle-down tech
Who said plasma was dead? While most brands concentrate on selling us edge LED-lit TVs – even Panasonic – there's nothing like a pricey plasma to remind us of why flat TVs caught on in the first place.
Following in the wake of its barn-storming 'reference' flagship & step-down plasmas, the 60-inch TX-P60ZT65 and 50-inch TX-P50VT65, the much cheaper TX-P50GT60 has a lot to live up to. Or is this the ultimate trickle-down TV?
Last year's outing, the TX-P50GT50, impressed on both its deep black levels and its immaculate 2D and 3D, so we're keen to see if the 2013 version can be crowned as Panasonic's – and likely the industry's – best value plasma.
However, with competition getting fiercer from Samsung in the high-end plasma stakes, albeit in a static market, the TX-P50GT60 can't afford to cut too many corners.
Full HD resolution and active shutter 3D antics go without saying, but the TX-P50GT60 also adds both Freeview HD and Freesat HD tuners.
Also starring here is Infinite Black Pro, something that underlines another of plasma tech's advantages over LED panels.
One area where the TX-P50GT60 is perhaps not at its best is its looks; the bezel measures a whopping 26mm, though in plasma terms that's pretty good. No match for LED tech here, the TX-P50GT60's overall styling – a black bezel rimmed with a recessed metallic strip – will strike you as either elegantly simple or a tad industrial, depending on your preference. The depth hovers between 43mm and 49mm, which, again, is less than most plasmas but more than most LED TVs of a similar price.
Accompanying this telly in the GT60 series is the 42-inch Panasonic TX-P42GT60 (£950), which is otherwise identical. Step down to the ST6- Series and we find the 42-inch TX-P42ST60B (£900), 50-inch TX-P50ST60B (£950) and 55-inch TX-P55ST60B (£1,300), all of which retain 3D and Infinite Black Pro, but lose the THX modes and general tweak-ability. Two more fatter, HD-ready 2D plasmas, the 42-inch TX-P42X60B (£750) and 50-inch TX-P50X60B (£900), are also available.
Spend bigger and you'll end up with either the 50-inch TX-P50VT65B (£1800), 55-inch TX-P55VT65B (£2,400) or 65-inch TX-P65VT65B (£3,500) in the VT65 Series or the Big Daddy himself, the reference-class 60-inch TX-P60ZT65B (£3,800) plasma.
Inside the TX-P50GT60 is some cracking plasma tech that marks this out as a special screen indeed. It's Full HD, sports ISF and THX Certification (for both 2D and 3D), a Hexa engine that takes charge of Panasonic's neoPlasma panel, an Infinite Black Pro filter and a 300Hz Focused Field Drive.
That latter feature underlines just how confident plasma engineers are of plasma technology's continued advantage over LED TVs when it comes to motion handling; 200Hz still represents the peak performance for an LED TV.
Another improvement for Panasonic plasma tech in 2013 is a new red phosphor in each plasma cell, which should help boost the believability of colours still further.
However, what's bound to catch the eye of anyone trying out the TX-P50GT60 is its new smart TV features. The core page is now not VIERA Connect, but My Home Screen, a customisable array of screens (TV Home Screen, Lifestyle Screen and Info Screen) that can be self-designed, adding, moving and deleting shortcuts to any app or widget available somewhere on the TX-P50GT60.
Apps included on the TX-P50GT60 are presented in a grid below links to the TV's main widgets; Media Player, Media Server, VIERA Link, Web Browser, Main Menu, TV Guide and Live TV.
The grid is led by the BBC iPlayer, with other key apps including Netflix, Skype (though there's no built-in camera – you'll have to buy one from Panasonic), Eurosport Player, YouTube, Daily Motion and iConcerts – along with stacks of minor apps either in the user interface or available for free from the online app store. No Lovefilm, then. It's worth adding the Rovi TV Listings app, which is a big improvement on the TX-P50GT60's rather uneventful and slow electronic programme guide pages.
Connectivity wise, ins and outs are plentiful, but there's a hint to the TX-P50GT60's less-than-flagship position. There are inputs to fuel both the Freesat HD and Freeview HD tuners, as well as RGB D-sub for a PC and ins for component video, Ethernet LAN, composite video and Scart.
On the well-recessed side are three USB inputs, one of which can be used to make recordings from the Freeview HD tuner, plus all three HDMI inputs (we had expected four – and why all on the side?), a Common Interface slot, a SD Card slot and an optical audio output. Headphones are via a jack or Bluetooth.
Some of the always-excellent preset picture settings include Cinema, THX Cinema and THX Bright Room. Advanced settings comprise a full RGB colour management system as well as adaptive gamma control and a panel luminance setting, colour gamut, white balance and gamma levels. An Eco mode is also available that switches off all automatic features such as an ambient light sensor, VIERA Link and standby power save.
Although the TX-P50GT60 is endlessly tweakable, it's also got some excellent preset picture modes that avoid all that (though they themselves are open to tweaks). Our favourite in a dark room was THX Cinema with some extra contrast added, though the standard Cinema setting works better in a brighter room. So too THX Bright Room, though that mode does introduce a lot of flicker.
Where the TX-P50GT60's NeoPlasma Black 3000 panel truly shines is with high definition, and our test disc Prometheus. This movie is a test for any screen, but the TX-P50GT60 ekes out masses of detail from the dingy depths, though displays it in a refined-looking, crisp image with loads of depth.
That Infinite Black Pro filter works a treat here, helping to make images convincing not just when total black is apparent, but with rich colours, too; switch to Life of Pi and the tiger looks simply awesome. Motion and judder are not an issue if you engage the 24p Smooth Film feature on its mid-strength, as shown on the tricky beginning sequence of Hugo; the TX-P50GT60's rendition was absolutely pitch perfect.
For all the furore over the TX-P50GT60's cracking hi-def images, we're really pleased with how broadcast TV looks – even standard definition channels. It's perhaps this strength at upscaling that makes plasma still the best all-round choice for living rooms at the hefty 50-inch size.
Yes, edges and close-ups can be soft, but there's hardly a suggestion of noise or artefacting, and both colours and contrast remain strong. Not surprisingly, HD channels looks far crisper, but SD is so good we're not searching for HD versions of programmes, as we so often do with LED TVs.
Turning to 3D, the TX-P50GT60 puts in a decent enough performance, but it doesn't blow our socks off. The chief reason for this is flicker.
During that tricky Hugo sequence we were conscious of a constant slight flicker that interrupted the impressive detail on show, while there was also a touch of resolution loss during camera pans. It's not quite as easy to watch as a passive 3D rendition, though it's ultimately worth getting used to since the 3D effect is both more convincing and subtler despite being more detailed.
Meanwhile the active shutter 3D specs supplied with the TX-P50GT60 – model number TY-ER3D5MA – are lightweight and very comfortable.
Usability, sound and value
Our general love of My Home Screen is talked about in other Panasonic TV reviews, so for now we'll mention its few minuses. Unless you've put a link to the service you want on to one of the three customisable screens, engaging, say, Media Player means launching the Apps page then navigating to the icon.
Do that and you then get a choice of source, and type of media – video, photos or music – which is a lot more long-winded than the 'old' way on Panasonic remote controls of merely touching the VIERA Tools button. The onscreen menus for Media Player are otherwise unchanged, so we don't see why the VIERA Tools button has been dropped.
The VIERA Remote 2 app for smartphone's two-way file swaps impresses once again, with Swipe & Share 2.0 able to fetch digital files stored on networked computers as well as play files stored on the device (though only MP3, JPEG and MOV files, so downloaders can forget it). However, probably the most impressive aspect of this app is a 2012 feature that lets you browse the web then physically push a web page onto the TX-P50GT60's big screen.
Dock a USB thumbdrive and the likes of AVI, MKV HD, AVC HD, MPEG-4 and WMV video files all play without fuss, while the TX-P50GT60 also supports WAV, MP3, M4A, FLAC and WMA music and JPEG photos.
The twin 20W speakers impress. Because the TX-P50GT60 is plumper than most TVs, its engineers have managed to insert a subwoofer, too – and it's a great addition. The virtual surround sound mode widens the soundstage a tad, but what we're most impressed by is the broadness of movie scores. The first few phrases of Hugo contain bassy whisps of a cello that few TVs make audible, yet the TX-P50GT60 manages to put it at the base of the mix. As well as low frequency antics, there's plenty of treble detail and mid-range, too, in a balanced performance that does well with both music and dialogue.
A couple of pairs of Bluetooth-connected active shutter 3D specs are decent enough at this price, though it's the sheer versatility of the TX-P50GT60's images that make it a great value choice. Despite the hi-def brilliance and deep, inky blacks, it's an effective upscaling of standard definition sources that remains its biggest success – so few TVs can manage to make a ropy ITV 3 broadcast look watchable on a screen this big.
With a loveable, smart TV user interface and truly awesome hi-def images stamped with plasma richness, has Panasonic produced the ultimate 50-inch all-rounder?
It's plumper than most TVs these days, and has a wider bezel, too. Three HDMI slots is definitely one short of what we'd expect, and they're all situated on the side-panel. We noticed some flicker during 3D, as well as the over-cooked THX Bright Room mode, while more video on-demand and catch-up TV apps are required for Brits.
One of the best value, and best quality, ways to create a big-screen home cinema in one swoop, the TX-P50GT60 impresses with HD and 3D, and upscales low-bitrate sources exceptionally well. My Home Screen is likeable and just a Lovefilm app away from impressing us totally. Sure, this plasma is a tad fatter than a same-price edge LED TV and its bezel is a little wider, but beyond such shallow consideration, the TX-P50GT60's images have that rare distinction of being glorious with almost everything.
If plasmas disappear amid shrinking sales – and we sure hope they don't – be sure not to shun the TX-P50GT60 in favour of an LED TV. Snap it up – and savor it.
It's worth tracking down Panasonic's step-down ST60 Series of plasmas, which includes the 50-inch TX-P50ST60. Elsewhere, there are a good few much cheaper 50-inch plasmas from the likes of LG and Samsung that are great value despite not featuring Full HD resolution. The key thing to remember is that even a HD-ready plasma TV likely contains more detail in a moving picture than a Full HD LED screen, which is still susceptible to motion blur and resolution loss. The closest we have to plasma perfection outside of the Panasonic stable is Samsung's 64-inch PS64F8500.