Panasonic Viera TC-P50S30 Plasma HDTV
Panasonic is well known for its high-quality, high-value plasma TVs, but how good can its $1000 50-incher be? Really good, as it turns out. The TC-P50S30 offers nearly identical performance to the highly rated TC-P50ST30—the only real difference is that the S30 has no 3D capabilities. If you're looking for a 50-inch flat panel with only $1000 to spend, look no farther.
This 1080p flat panel is not 3D capable, but like most of Panasonic Viera plasmas, it does use fast-switching phosphors and 600Hz subfield drive for sharp motion detail. (Don't compare a plasma's 600Hz subfield drive with an LCD's 120 or 240Hz refresh rate—these numbers describe two completely different things, so comparing them is meaningless.)
Perhaps the TC-P50S30's most important feature is its ability to access a variety of media sources, including online providers such as Netflix, CinemaNow, Amazon Instant Video, and Pandora Internet radio, as well as content on networked DLNA devices in your home. If you have a wireless network, you can add an optional WiFi adaptor to the TV and eliminate the Ethernet cable, though I've generally found a wired connection to be more reliable. Also, the set's SD Card slot and two USB ports let you display photos and videos stored on these types of memory.
Panasonic touts this plasma's ability to reproduce Deep Color (finer gradations in color) and x.v.Color (a wider color gamut). However, I find these features superfluous, since there is no commercial content produced with them. On the other hand, many camcorders now capture images with the x.v.Color gamut, so if you're into shooting video, it's a useful feature.
The remote is typical of Panasonic TVs, with large, well-separated buttons, though unlike the company's more expensive TVs, this remote is not illuminated. A basic set of transport controls let you operate a Blu-ray player using HDMI CEC (Consumer Electronic Control), which Panasonic calls Viera Link.
The menu system is well-organized, with the main menus listed on the left and the selected menu's parameters and values on the right. Entering the menu system always opens the Picture menu, not the previously selected menu. The Return button backs out of the menu one level at a time, while the Exit button closes the menu all at once; it's nice to have both options.
At first, I found the menu navigation a bit confusing. You enter the selected menu by pressing the OK button, but you can't select a control that way—you must hit the right or left button, which changes the setting of the control. In the Picture menu, the selected control drops to the bottom of the screen while the rest of the menu disappears, which is as it should be. However, it times out after only 6 seconds of inactivity, returning the full menu to the screen; I wish the timeout was longer.
I started by connecting the set to the Internet with an Ethernet cable and checking for a firmware update; there was one available, so I ran the update procedure with no problems.
In the Cinema picture mode, the default Brightness setting was correct, and the Contrast setting clipped only the highest white level. Interestingly, cranking the Contrast to its maximum value didn't change the clipping, so I set it to the point at which the peak white level measured just under 30 foot-lamberts (see "HT Measures"). The Color control was a bit high, but Tint was right on the money, and Sharpness could be set fairly high without visible edge enhancement.
The Aspect Adjustments submenu includes several controls that affect the aspect ratio and amount of the image that is cropped from the edges. The Screen Format defaults to Full, which is correct, but the HD Size control defaults to Size 1, which causes some overscanning; be sure to change this control to Size 2 to eliminate overscanning in high-def images. The same is true of the H Size parameter, which controls overscanning in standard-def images.
Unlike many other manufacturers, Panasonic's grayscale calibration controls are found in the service menu, not the user menu, which is a bit of a pain for reviewers. Also, the basic picture settings and grayscale calibration settings apply to the picture modes, not the TV's inputs as with many other brands. Thus, if you tweak the Cinema mode, the same settings will apply to any input to which you assign that mode.
Starting with Blu-ray, I played some of Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds Live at Radio City, a superb concert video. The detail was excellent in everything from audience long shots to close-ups of Dave's stubble and the texture of the guitar straps. Likewise, color was great, with natural skin tones and blond guitar wood despite the magenta stage lighting. Shadow detail was very good in the dark backgrounds behind the performers, and the blacks were reasonable, though not outstanding.
Planet Earth is a wonderful BBC Blu-ray with lots of exquisite nature photography; I watched some of the "Pole to Pole" episode. The black of space in the opening shot was not that great, though of course, it seemed to get better as the sun appeared to illuminate the Earth's surface. I did notice some banding as the sun reached the planet's limb. Detail was superb in the mountain textures, forest foliage, and long shots of bird flocks. I really enjoyed the color of cherry blossoms in Japan, robin's egg-blue sky, and various shades of green on a wooded hillside that then turned to fall yellow, orange, and red.
Turning to DVD, I watched some of Star Trek: First Contact played from our Oppo BDP-83 at 480i and at 1080p. Clearly, the Oppo did a better job upconverting standard def, with sharper detail and fewer artifacts. Either way, the black in the opening title sequence was okay, but not great—interestingly, the black of space seemed a bit darker than the letterbox bars, though that was probably due to the disc and not the TV. Colors were fine in both cases.
Broadcast content from Dish Network looked very good, especially HD. The color on Law & Order on TNT was natural and detail was excellent, while the black between scenes was passable. Standard def was quite a bit softer, though the color was just as good.
Finally, I checked out some online content from Netflix. I don't like the Panasonic interface to this service as much as Samsung's—for example, each category (TV shows, action movies, etc.) offered only 25 different titles, whereas the Samsung interface offers many more.
Millennium is a 1989 time-travel movie that's supposed to be in HD from Netflix, but it was much softer than high def. The more recent TV series 30 Rock looked much sharper, though still not quite to the level of broadcast or Blu-ray. Colors were generally good, though 30 Rock looked a bit oversaturated, which is probably due to the source.
Of the flat panels Home Theater has reviewed, the Samsung UN46D6000 ($1300) comes closest to the TC-P50S30 in price and capabilities. I prefer the Samsung's online-content interface, and it achieves much deeper blacks. However, like all LED edgelit LCD TVs, it suffers from uneven illumination in dark scenes. Also, the Panasonic offers far better off-axis performance than any LCD TV, no matter how expensive.
Another choice at $1300 is the step-up TC-P50ST30, which offers virtually identical 2D performance with the addition of 3D capabilities. If your budget can stretch to $1300, I'd recommend the TC-P50ST30, but if you need to stay no higher than $1000 and can live without 3D, the TC-P50S30 is the way to go. Even better, I've seen both models on sale for hundreds less, and you can't go wrong with either one.