Panasonic TX-P50ST50 £1200
13th Jun 2012 | 14:00
It's another great day for plasma TVs
Plasma, it seems, is continuing to lose the PR battle with its arch LCD rival - at least where the mass television market is concerned. It hasn't helped, either, that the new energy rating system for TVs doesn't exactly work in plasma's favour, with most plasma TVs measuring Cs at best versus the A and A+ grades routinely boasted by LCD TVs.
The Panasonic P50ST50, though, is out to prove that plasma still has a big part to play in the modern TV world. For starters it looks surprisingly svelte for a plasma set, proving that the technology doesn't have to be fat and old-school.
It's also got some fearsome specifications to shout about, including a mind-boggling 5,500,000:1 native contrast ratio (no dynamic contrast backlight shenanigans here), a response time of just 0.001ms that destroys the response times of all LCD TVs, not to mention such up to the minute features as active 3D playback and a healthy online feature set, courtesy of Panasonic's Viera Connect platform.
Perhaps even more importantly, the plasma panel at the Panasonic Viera TX-P50ST50's heart is a radical reboot of last year's debut NeoPlasma panels. This delivers - in particular - improvements to energy efficiency that Panasonic has bravely used to help the TV deliver more picture brightness, rather than taking the more politically correct route of just going for a lower energy rating.
The 50-inch Panasonic P50ST50 is priced at around £1,200 in the UK and $1,400 in the US. It's joined by the 65-inch Panasonic P65ST50, 55-inch P55ST50, and 42-inch P42ST50.
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As for rivals, Samsung and LG are both still in the plasma market alongside Panasonic, with the upcoming Samsung P51E6500 looking to be the closest match in price and specification terms.
LCD alternatives are 10 a penny really, except that LCD panel size trends mean you'll be looking at 46/47-inch or 55-inch sizes rather than the 50-inch screen of the Panasonic P50ST50.
The single most important thing to know about the Panasonic P50ST50 is that it uses plasma rather than LCD technology - a fact that instantly generates a series of expectations about where its performance strengths might lie.
Contrast is generally an area of real strength for plasma TVs, especially Panasonic models. And this trend looks like it's going to continue on the Panasonic P50ST50 if its vast quoted contrast ratio of 5,500,000:1 is anything to go by. This is a 'native' contrast ratio figure too, meaning that it isn't achieved by dynamically shifting the overall image brightness (and thus reducing image stability and the dynamic range of dark scenes) as happens with LCD TVs.
We'd also expect a plasma TV to show fast motion more clearly than LCD TVs, on account of plasma's much faster screen response time. Plasma screens also support viewing from much wider angles than LCD ones. Indeed, during our tests you could sit almost at right angles to the Panasonic P50ST50 before the image degraded to any significant extent.
Experience would suggest, too, that the Panasonic P50ST50 should be able to show its active 3D pictures with significantly less crosstalk ghosting interference than most LCD TVs. But while we're on the subject of 3D, it's a little disappointing to find that Panasonic doesn't include even a single pair of active 3D glasses for free with the Panasonic P50ST50.
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Presumably Panasonic took the decision that it wanted to keep the P50ST50's price as low as possible rather than charge more to include a set or two of the £60/$80-ish active 3D glasses. But experience and consumer research suggest that unless people can enjoy a TV feature right out of the box, they're much less likely to ever try that feature at all.
Plasma technology isn't all about benefits, of course. You would also expect plasma TVs to be less bright than LCD ones - even though they use markedly more power. Panasonic doesn't quote a brightness figure for the Panasonic P50ST50, but its quoted average power rating of 180W is up to three times as high as the figures quoted for some of Panasonic's own LCD/LED TVs.
Panasonic TVs struggle to deliver the same highly fashionable ultra-thin looks that LCD TVs can, too. However, while the Panasonic P50ST50 certainly isn't nearly as svelte in either its bezel or its rear end as the latest LCD supermodels from LG and Samsung, it's still pretty attractive in its dark grey colour scheme, offset by a trendy see-through accent along all four of its edges.
Certainly it's a big improvement over the rather dull aesthetics of most previous Panasonic plasma TVs.
The Panasonic P50ST50's connections show few signs of any 'old-fashionedness' either. For instance, its three HDMIs are all built to the latest 3D-supporting v1.4 standard, and it's got two USBs through which you can play a good set of multimedia file formats.
The support level here is much higher than it was with last year's Panasonic models, with all of the following file types now in play: JPEG, AVCHD, SD-Video, MOV, AVI, DivX, MKV, ASF, MP4, FLV, 3GPP, MP3, AAC, WMA, FLAC, PS, and TS. Do note, though, that you'll need to run Windows 7 as a media server for a few of these formats.
Any mid-range or higher TV now is likely to have some sort of online functionality, and so it is with the Panasonic P50ST50, which provides both LAN and built-in Wi-Fi options for logging the TV into Panasonic's Viera Connect online service. You can also, of course, employ both these options for streaming files from a connected DLNA PC.
Viera Connect's appeal continues to grow, slowly but surely. The single most significant addition to it this year, to date, is the Netflix movie streaming subscription service, which joins the likes of BBC iPlayer, AceTrax, Fetch TV and YouTube in providing you with on-demand video servers.
Viera Connect is also to be commended on having secured a couple of startlingly good-looking games from Gameloft (Asphalt 5 and Let's Golf 2), and for covering all the key social networking bases.
There's a growing number of small (and thus less actually useful) apps too, although the number of these isn't as distractingly overwhelming as it is on the latest smart TV services from Samsung and LG.
Panasonic has got considerably better in recent times at making sure its TVs have the sort of calibration tools desired by the enthusiast end of the AV market. The adjustments on the Panasonic P50ST50 aren't bad by any means, and include gamma and white balance fine-tuners. But you don't get the full colour management options - or THX endorsement and presets - found on the Panasonic's higher-spec GT50 and VT50 plasma TVs.
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The plasma panel inside the Panasonic P50ST50 is one of Panasonic's very latest designs. Indeed, the ST50 range is the cheapest point at which you can get your hands on one of these panels. What this new panel does, predominantly, is improve colour balance and black level response while also driving down energy consumption.
Intriguingly, Panasonic claims to have put this increased efficiency to use in boosting the P50ST50's brightness rather than simply pursuing a reduced overall energy consumption rating. Why? Because it sees plasma as the picture enthusiast's choice, where a likely buyer will prefer more picture dynamism to saving a few bob on their electric bill.
If you want to go down a more eco-friendly route, the argument continues, then there's always Panasonic's A-rated LCD TV range.
Also of note on the Panasonic P50ST50's spec sheet is its 2000Hz Focused Field Drive technology. This is a vast improvement over the 600Hz systems previously found on Panasonic's plasma TVs - and actually, so far as we can tell, 600Hz remains the maximum figure employed by any rival plasma brands this year.
What these fancy numbers all mean, hopefully, is that the Panasonic P50ST50 will suffer considerably less with judder than typical plasma televisions, as well as enjoying enhanced brightness and colour saturation.
While Panasonic's claims of a radical overhaul of its panel design for the P50ST50 inevitably raised hopes of some level of picture quality improvement, the results surpass even our most optimistic expectations.
Particularly dazzling is the set's contrast range. At the same time as clearly boosting - by some margin - the Panasonic P50ST50's brightness vs last year's equivalent models, Panasonic has also managed to greatly improve the depth, naturalism and richness of its black level performance. So much so that its black level response looks at least the equal of last year's flagship Panasonic VT30 plasma TVs.
Film fans in particular will - or should - find this stellar contrast performance enough in itself to lure them away from almost all LCD rivals, which leave the dark scenes found at some point in almost all films looking decidedly grey by comparison.
While on the subject of plasma vs LCD black level comparisons, the Panasonic P50ST50 also demands credit for the gorgeous uniformity of its black response. Where many (indeed, most) LCD TVs suffer patches of clouding - where the screen's brightness during dark scenes seems higher in some parts of the picture than it does in others - the Panasonic P50ST50's blackness is equally profound from one corner to the other.
This contrast range and black level uniformity both make it far easier for you to become totally lost in what you're watching.
The fact that each plasma pixel in the picture produces its own individual illumination, meanwhile, means there's much more shadow detail in play during dark scenes than you get with pretty much any LCD television, helping dark scenes look as detailed and textured as bright ones.
The same self-emissive properties further make it possible for an extremely bright pixel to sit right alongside a very dark one in the same frame, so there's no need to average out the light like you have to with LCD TVs, to some extent.
To put all this in less technical terms, the Panasonic P50ST50's dazzling contrast performance helps it deliver arguably the most cinematic pictures we've seen from such an affordable TV.
Not that contrast is the set's only strength. It also does a great job reproducing motion, easily avoiding the blurring problem LCD has to work so hard to counter, and also suffering way less with judder than previous Panasonic TVs have tended to do.
This is even the case if you don't employ Panasonic's Intelligent Frame Creation (IFC) processing - but feel free to give this processing a whirl, because at its lower power levels, at least, it proves unusually clever at reducing motion artefacts even further without generating lots of unpleasant side effects.
More good news finds HD pictures looking terrifically crisp and clean, as the screen maps 1080p feeds immaculately to its native Full HD pixel count at the same time as its image processing serves up some of the subtlest colour blends ever seen from a mid-range plasma.
In fact, as little as two or three years ago the level of noise-free clarity now available on the Panasonic P50ST50 would have only been seen on Panasonic's vastly more expensive professional-grade TVs.
Standard definition feeds are upscaled to the 50-inch Full HD screen impressively well for a mid-range TV. You'll probably find a little more precision and a little less noise if you step up to one of Panasonic's GT50 or VT50 models, thanks to those having more powerful dual-core processors. But the Panasonic P50ST50's standard definition efforts are nonetheless excellent for its price level.
The Panasonic P50ST50's 3D pictures are enticing too. They look exceptionally well detailed for a start, delivering fully on the active 3D format's talents where HD rendering is concerned.
They're also considerably brighter and more colourful than those of last year's 3D plasmas, helping you enjoy a more palpable sense of depth - especially during dark scenes. There's a touch of judder around still, especially during camera pans, but this too is reduced from last year's plasmas.
Surprisingly there is a touch of crosstalk noise over distant objects; something we wouldn't have expected, given plasma's track record in this department. This is possibly down to the extra brightness Panasonic has brought to the 3D party, or maybe it's just more noticeable because one or two rival LCD screens recently have got so good at suppressing the ghosting problem.
In any event, though, the Panasonic P50ST50's crosstalk is not at all overpowering, and so shouldn't be considered any kind of deal breaker, even if you're one of the handful of dedicated 3D fans out there.
If the Panasonic P50ST50 has a genuine weakness, it's that its images aren't as vibrant and bright as those of a typical LCD TV - even despite Panasonic's recent brightness-boosting efforts. In a relatively dark environment, this isn't a problem at all; on the contrary, the pros of Panasonic's contrast-over-brightness focus pay are abundantly obvious in a low-light environment.
But if you have a very bright living room, especially one with lots of direct sunlight flooding in, then the Panasonic P50ST50's pictures might look a little dull at times, even using the set's most dynamic picture preset.
Another minor Panasonic P50ST50 flaw finds fizzing noise appearing over skin tones from time to time if somebody is moving across the screen. We only noticed this on a handful of occasions during the days we lived with the TV, though, and even when it appears it's only for the briefest of instants.
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There's definitely room for improvement here. For starters, Panasonic has stuck to more or less the same remote control design that it's been using for the past few years - a slightly lazy decision, if you ask us, which leaves the remote feeling poorly organised, with no real flow to the button layout.
There are also some cases where the weighting/emphasis given to certain buttons seems out of kilter with their usefulness. Overall the feeling you get is that Panasonic has just shoe-horned all of its latest features on to a remote that wasn't designed for it, rather than investing time in making a remote properly suited to a TV fan's 2012 needs.
The Panasonic P50ST50 also feels a bit out of date with its menu system. There's no Smart Hub home screen like you get with LG and Samsung's latest TVs, meaning you have to manage three separate (and separately accessed) menu systems - one for picture adjustments, one for your own multimedia playback, and one more for the Viera Connect online service.
The presentation of the set up and multimedia menus is pretty drab too, compared with what we're used to from other brands - although things are much better in this respect when it comes to the Viera Connect online service.
The marketplace, where you can download extra apps or buy hardware accessories, is particularly well organised and presented, and it's also handy that you can choose your own running order for where your apps appear on the main Connect services menu.
We still feel, however, that this main Connect menu needs to start handling more services on a single screen, to reduce the amount of burrowing down through different tiers that you currently have to struggle with.
Please note that the Panasonic P50ST50 does not ship with the touchpad remote that's included with Panasonic's flagship TVs, and nor can this remote be bought as an option. You can, though, control the TV via Panasonic's mostly good iOS and Android Viera remote apps.
The Panasonic P50ST50 is a very robustly built TV, as well as not being as skinny as most LCD TVs. So you can't help but hope that it will be able to use bigger and therefore better speakers.
However, it joins most skinny TVs in sounding rather low on bass and slightly narrow with its middle range. While these issues can be heard during raucous action scenes, though, the set's audio is perfectly acceptable for normal TV fodder.
In a year where some of its rivals - most notably the Korean ones - seem to be going more expensive with their TVs, the £1,200/$1,400 or so you'll need to bag a Panasonic P50ST50 really doesn't seem much at all, given its 50-inch screen size and the amount of picture quality and features it has to offer.
It also looks a steal when you consider that it performs pretty much as well as last year's flagship - and thus much more expensive - VT30 Panasonic plasma TVs.
The Panasonic P50ST50 gets off to a fine start by managing to be both slimmer and more glamorous than you'd usually expect a Panasonic plasma TV to be. It's decently well connected too, including all the options you need to put the TV at the heart of a modern multimedia home.
You can play most sorts of multimedia files from USB flash drives or SD cards, stream in from a DLNA PC, or delve into either Panasonic's ring-fenced Viera Connect online service or other pages of the world wide web via a built-in browser.
What really makes the Panasonic P50ST50 special, though, is its picture quality, since Panasonic's latest plasma panel design produces contrast and clarity to die for. The set works best in relatively dark rooms, but aside from this it's an unmitigated success.
With a pretty aggressive price point by plasma TV standards, it's remarkable how much picture quality Panasonic has been able to eke out of the Panasonic P50ST50. As a serious 50-inch movie machine it's pretty much unbeatable for its money, but it's also no slouch with normal TV fare. Its multimedia facilities are good too, while its online service is blossoming into one of the most well-rounded and well-focused systems around.
The set's pictures lose a bit of punch if they have a lot of ambient light to contend with, and it's time for Panasonic to have a rethink about the remote control it ships with its smart TVs. A few more video services on Viera Connect wouldn't go amiss either - especially LoveFilm. Other than that, all we can think of is some very low-level dotting noise over skin tones from time to time.
LCD TVs might be getting better and better every year, but the Panasonic P50ST50 shows that plasma isn't resting on its laurels either. In fact, if you're remotely into movies, its wonderfully contrast-rich, finely detailed and gorgeously nuanced pictures are simply unbeatable at the £1,200/$1,400 price level.
This will be reason enough in itself for many people to buy a Panasonic P50ST50, but if you add to the equation its fine multimedia tools and increasingly comprehensive online services, it starts to look nigh on irresistible.
If you can cope with a 4-inch drop in size, the Sony 46HX853 offers the best picture quality the LCD TV world has to offer right now. Stand out talents include stellar black levels (though still not quite as good as those of the Panasonic P50ST50) alongside excellent brightness (better than that of the Panasonic P50ST50) and colour handling. With an aggressive price tag to boot, this set could prove to be a turning point in Sony's TV fortunes.
If you like to combine good picture quality with incredible space-saving designs, meanwhile, LG, Panasonic and Samsung all have sets to tempt you. The Panasonic L47DT50 looks gorgeous and performs well without hitting quite the same punchy heights as the best of its rivals.
Samsung has the 46ES8000 for you to think about, with its brilliantly aggressive pictures, stunning design and groundbreaking control and online features to tempt you. It's considerably more expensive, though, despite being four inches smaller.
As for LG, the closest model in terms of price and range position is the 47LM670T. This again features a dazzling 'no bezel' design, very bright and colourful images, and a huge array of online content, but it lacks the contrast and motion clarity of the Panasonic P50ST50.