Panasonic TX-P50VT20 £2000
11th May 2010 | 11:24
The 3D Panasonic VT20 is here, and it doesn't disappoint
The Panasonic VT20 is Panasonic's first 3D TV, and it's a belter.
Samsung may have (just) beaten Panasonic in the race to put 3D TVs on the high-street, with its range of LCD and LED-backlit 3D screens, but the Japanese giant's arrival is perhaps more portentous.
The brand was the first major advocate for the format, masterminding the AVC Multiview codec now adopted as the standard to encode 3D Blu-ray movies, and famously sidling up alongside James Cameron when his Avatar project was looking more folly than phenomenon.
The new 3D screen shares much in common with the brand's 2D TX-P50G20. The bezel colour is different, here it's a dark bronze with silver-effect trim, but beneath the hood is much of the same picture-processing electronics, allied to a lookalike NeoPDP screen.
The TX-P50VT20 is one of only two 3D screens due from Panasonic this summer. It will be joined by the 65-inch TX-P65VT20, expected to sell for around twice the price. There is no difference between the two, bar the size of the glass.
So how does its first consumer 3D screen, the 50-inch TX-P50VT20, look – and does it have more to offer than just a couple of pairs of funny glasses?
Panasonic TX-P50VT20B: Features
Unlike its 3D TV competition, the P50VT20B has both Freeview HD and Freesat tuners which means you get plenty of non-subscription hi-def on tap.
We hooked up both tuners, and found that as a user experience the Freesat option came out on top.
The key transpires to be the EPG environment. The Freesat user interface may not win any beauty contests, but it's simple to navigate and easy on the eye. The Freeview HD EPG however, powered by Guide+ (and supplied by former copyright busters Macrovision, now called Rovi) is compromised.
The problem is that the listing space has been compacted in order to add advertising.
On a practical level this restricts the available area for information. It's also visually distracting, flashing, blinking and twitching away. There is no way to disable the ad.
Backside connectivity is good, and includes two Scart inputs, one set of component jacks with matched phono audio output, Ethernet port and three v1.4 HDMIs.
There are extra inputs on the side, including a CI card bay, SD card slot, two USBs and an additional HDMI.
The P50VT20 is one of a number of new TVs that enables basic programme recording onto an attached USB hard drive. Its use is limited though. The hard drive needs to be registered to the set, and no other channel can be selected while a programme is being recorded.
The TV is DNLA compliant. Via the Ethernet connection or optional wireless dongle, the screen can find and play content from other networked devices. Once on our network, the TV quickly located all our compliant storage devices.
Video file support includes AVI, HD MKVs and DiVX, music is restricted to MP3s. You can also go online to Panasonic's own Viera Cast content portal. Outside of YouTube and Picasa there's not much of note to be seen, however new content additions are planned.
Picture processing modes
There's no shortage of picture processing options within the screen's menus.
There's a variety of other picture processing modes available. C.A.T.S is an automatic contrast tracking function which adjusts picture content dependent on ambient light; P-NR is a noise reduction filter; 3D-Comb is a patterning filter for legacy connections.
There's also Picture-in-picture and Picture-and-picture modes.
Intelligent Frame Creation
TV brands are currently embroiled in a battle to offer the fastest possible screen frame refresh rates.
Different techniques are employed, ostensibly to reduce motion smearing artefacts on smeary LCD screens. Cynics might argue that the real goal is to produce the highest possible number on in-store sales collateral.
Plasma is a self-illuminating technology, and has an inherently faster response time than LCD, which means that it doesn't suffer from the same motion artefacts.
But that hasn't stopped Panasonic from joining the numbers game with its 600Hz Sub Field Drive. However the speed rating is a reference to the processing in the silicon rather than a screen refresh rate per se.
The Sub Field Drive is part of the screen's Intelligent Frame Creation (IFC) picture processor.
In the UK, frame refresh rates are typically multiples of 50Hz, in the US they're multiples of 60Hz.
Almost all LCD screens now offer either 100 or 200Hz. By flickering the LCD backlight you can appear to double this, which has led some brands to claim 400Hz. But ultimately, this is a pyrrhic victory. High frame rates destroy the tone and character of film material, leaving everything looking like it was shot on a camcorder. And the execution of IFC is no different here.
I spent some time with IFC engaged but became convinced that it was introducing motion artefacts rather than curing them. These artefacts are unpredictable but jarring. They also change the character of the image. This is one mode I'm happy to leave off. Incidentally, when the screen detects a 1080/24 input, the IFC control changes to 24p Smooth Film. This applies similar processing, so do give it a miss.
The P50VT20 is THX certified, which basically boils down to a picture preset optimised for movie viewing, which removes overscan and gives 1:1 pixel matching.
While this is ideal for playback of Blu-rays, it may present some problems when watching TV material as pulsing white image data, never intended to be seen, can become visible at the extreme edge of the frame. Still, correcting overscan is a must-have viewing option.
For what it's worth, some plasma buzz was evident, depending on picture content. In most circumstances this is masked by volume, but we were aware of it.
Panasonic TX-P50VT20B: Picture quality
As a standard 2D plasma, the P50VT20 comes highly recommended. Image quality is very good.
However, you will need to play around with the settings, as out of the box the image is surprisingly dull in everything bar the Dynamic mode.
The good news is that the screen doesn't penalise you for watching standard definition content – particularly if you use an HDMI input. Standard definition clarity, delivered over HDMI, is excellent. Using the Belle Nuit PAL testchart, the set had no problem resolving high-frequency 5.6MHz graticules, which means fine detail in the SD signal will make it to the screen intact.
There has been some debate about the level of Pioneer Kuro DNA in Panasonic's new range of NeoPDP panels.
While it's absolutely confirmed that Panasonic did acquire a squad of Pioneer TV engineers after that brand pulled out of the plasma TV business, we were told categorically at a recent briefing with senior Japanese engineers that Panasonic holds no Kuro patents.
This line continues to conflict with other coverage, so it may be some time before we unravel exactly what exchange has occurred. For what it's worth we don't think this screen looks at all like the last generation of Kuros.
However, black level performance is still very good. There's some crushing of blacks which means a little shadow detail is lost, but overall it delivers a fine performance.
Hi-def clarity is equally impressive. A test pattern developed by the Advanced PDP Development Centre confirmed this, with no appreciable detail loss during horizontal movement.
A scrolling character map (comprising English and Japanese text in different sizes) showed only negligible image blur regardless of picture brightness (I measured at 100, 50 and 30 per cent luminance). Phosphor lag is next to non-existent.
Greyscale performance is in line with expectations, and doesn't introduce colour compromises. This translates to excellent texture and depth in images.
Colour fidelity is best described as naturalistic. Reds can seem a little muted, but you should resist the temptation to edge them up as this just oversaturates the picture. Skin tones are generally very good, avoiding the waxy texture lesser LCD screens impart.
Despite the blather which has surrounded the BBC's bitrate reduction image throttling of its hi-def channel, I've got to say it (along with ITV HD and 4HD) looks pretty darn good.
The set's 3D performance also shines. Frame sequential (Blu-ray) 3D, Side by Side (Sky) and Top and Bottom 3D systems are all supported.
In an HDMI v1.4 system, the TV will auto detect the signal type and adjust accordingly. We auditioned the screen with Panasonic's DMP-BDT300 Blu-ray player, which sports two HDMIs. One routes straight to the screen, the other was placed in audio only mode and ran through a HDMI v1.3 AV receiver.
3D Blu-ray evaluation material is thin on the ground. We principally used a test disc containing a variety of material, including nature, travelogue footage and movie clips.
Image fidelity can be considered very good, and there's no real evidence of crosstalk, a ringing effect caused by overlapping Left/Right picture frames, and the depth in the image is tangible.
Many analysts expect that the games market will transpire to be the biggest driver for domestic 3D. And after playing Avatar the game, on the Xbox 360, we're inclined to agree.
Again using the Side-by-side format, the title gains an immersive quality which is absent from its 2D presentation.
Through the dark, contrasty Panasonic glasses, the game world appears far more convincing. There's a real sense of virtual reality as you run, drive and boat around Pandora. Picture fidelity is subjectively excellent.
We were also surprised at just how good Sky 3D looks. Unlike Full HD 3D Blu-ray, Sky uses a side-by-side half resolution format, so it's not exactly hi-def. But its showreel certainly didn't look low on fidelity. Sports footage was crisp and vivid, with crowd scenes in particular rich in detail and colour.
The screen comes with two pairs of Active Shutter glasses. They look futuristic but they're not the most comfortable 3D specs we've encountered.
The nose bridge is adjustable but unstable. They also have a pronounced colour amber colour tint, which is difficult to dial out. Interestingly, we found the most effective TV mode for watching 3D content to be the set's Dynamic mode. Normally we'd advise users to avoid this preset like the plague, but through the heavily tinted glasses it works well.
Panasonic TX-P50VT20B: Sound, Value, Ease of Use
If the set does have an obvious Achilles heal, it's with audio. Like so many other thin-screens it struggles to deliver a pleasing, rounded sound.
Back this year are the bamboo drivers last seen on Panasonic TVs two years ago, but they have a limited opportunity to push air. We'd still be looking to budget a separate sound system to bolster our viewing.
In terms of value, the £2,000 price tag looks surprisingly good for what you get. It's certainly highly competitive with other 3D sets – perhaps even better value than most.
Ease of use
When it comes to ease-of-use, the P50VT20 is perhaps not as straightforward as Panasonic likes to think it is. The menu system – which looks much the same as Panasonic TV menus have looked for years – is clunky, with options coming and going depending on what mode/setting you've engaged elsewhere.
The result is the Butterfly Effect in EPG form and will almost certainly have you scratching you're head. Tweakers can go deep into the picture parameter menus, and there is provision for ISFccc calibration.
Panasonic TX-P50VT20B: Verdict
Overall, Panasonic's first 3D TV doesn't disappoint. As a regular 2D plasma it's very good, and in 3D mode it delivers a smoother, more involving experience than (say) Samsung's 6000-series 3D LCD models.
If you're looking for a state-of the-art viewing experience, it demands to be seen.
The smoothness and clarity of 3D on this plasma is better than any we've seen on rival sets to date (although it must be said that it's early days for 3D generally).
The glasses are not the most comfortable in the world, and they chop out an immense amount of light, but the wow factor of 3D is undeniable. Perhaps more significantly, this is also a darn good 2D hi-def screen. Technically accomplished, it's great with both Blu-ray and standard def sources.
Most of our caveats are little more than nit-picking. It's high-time Panasonic got to grips with the look and logic of its user interface.
Most of its competitors have adopted rich, understandable designs which enhance the user experience. There's work to be done here. The audio also makes a good argument for budgeting in a separate sound system.
The TX-P50VT20 is an altogether superior telly that will thrill plasma technology aficionados.
Even without the embellishment of 3D, it delivers a great HD picture (although you will need to tinker to extract the best from it).
Network connectivity is fine and the brand's online content portal also shows promise. Ultimately though, this review is all about 3D – and when it comes to exploring the third dimension, this is the screen everyone else now has to beat.