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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Panasonic TC-PST60 series review: Affordable TV with amazing picture quality

The good: Reasonable price; incredibly good picture quality with exceedingly deep black levels, great shadow detail, accurate colors, solid bright-room performance, and superb off-angle and uniformity characteristics; sleek styling with metal accents; plenty of Smart TV content; includes two pair of 3D glasses.
The bad: Worse 3D quality compared to many competing TVs; not as suited to extremely bright rooms as some LCD models; consumes more power than LCD TVs.
The bottom line: The midlevel price and outstanding quality of the Panasonic TC-PST60 series make it our strongest TV recommendation ever.
I've written TV reviews for more than 10 years, but I'm pretty sure this one is the most important. I'll cut to the chase: If you value picture quality and don't have money to burn, you should buy the Panasonic TC-PST60.
Yes, it's a plasma. That's the main reason why its picture is so good. And despite what you may have heard, there's very little reason not to get a plasma TV. Once you decide to go plasma -- don't worry, you'll be fine -- the next question is which one. That's what makes the ST60 so important. It's Panasonic's least-expensive 2013 TV set to boast this extremely high level of picture quality, and Panasonic is the only TV manufacturer even trying to make premium-performing TVs affordable these days. Given the company's financial trouble, the future of its plasma TV business is far from certain.
Yes, I expect a few TVs to deliver even better pictures than the ST60 this year, but they'll all cost a lot more. And yes, a couple of cheaper 2013 TVs, in particular Panasonic's own S60 series, might perform well enough to earn an "excellent" picture quality score from us. But I'll be extremely surprised if any 2013 TV surpasses the ST60's combination of jaw-dropping performance and practical affordability.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 55-inch TC-P55ST60, but this review also applies to the other screen sizes in the series. All sizes have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Panasonic upped its focus on external appearance again in 2013 with what it calls "glass and metal design." While metallic touches on a TV might not be as impressive as they are on asmartphone, the ST60's chrome edging feels decidedly higher-end than the clear acrylic of the ST50 from last year.
The TV's glossy black frame, at a bit over an inch along the top and sides, is the same width as last year's, and panel depth is also relatively thin at two inches. These svelte dimensions allow the ST60 to at least approach the minimalist look of a many modern LED-based LCD TVs.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
I also appreciated that the company returned to the black stand from 2012's silver one. Its profile is pleasingly low-slung, but it still doesn't allow the panel to swivel. When asked why at a press event, Panasonic's reps claimed first that swivels cause cords to detach, and then that plasmas' wide viewing angles (compared to LCD) make swiveling less necessary. I say, "cop out."
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The ST60 gets the nonilluminated remote that shipped with step-down models like the UT50. I like its logical layout and clear button differentiation. Tweaks for 2013 include are mostly improvements (dedicated "Netflix key, better labeling, and a few extra keys) but there are exceptions. "Apps" and "Home," both part of the Smart TV suite, get too-prominent keys while "Menu" is tiny. More than a few times I accidentally hit "Home" instead of the Up cursor.
The TV has two separate menu systems -- one for Smart TV and the other, accessible via that little "Menu" key, for more mundane TV settings like picture and network options -- and there's no way to get from one to the other using the menus themselves. I thought the blue "Settings" icon from within the Smart TV Home system would take me to the TV's settings, but instead it took me to a configuration page for Smart TV itself. Once I found them, Panasonic's 2013 settings menus were a big improvement over last year's version, with easier navigation and sleeker design.
Key TV features
Display technologyPlasmaLED backlightN/A
Screen finishGlossyRemoteStandard
Smart TVYesInternet connectionBuilt-in Wi-Fi
3D technologyActive3D glasses included2 pair
Refresh rate(s)96Hz, 60Hz, 48HzDejudder (smooth) processingYes
Other:Optional touch pen (model TY-TP10U, $79); Skype camera (model TY-CC20W, $90); additional 3D glasses (model TY-ER3D5MA, $79)
Aside from its augmented Smart TV experience, detailed below, the main thing separating the feature set of the ST60 and the less-expensive S60 is 3D capability. New for 2013, Panasonic finally includes 3D glasses in the box; you get two pair. The included glasses, model TY-ER3D5MA, are much nicer than Samsung's 2012 throw-ins but not quite as good as Panasonic's own separately-sold TY-ER3D4MU ($75 each). The latter are also rechargeable, while the included ones require a coin battery. Panasonic told me additional pairs of the new 5MA glasses would sell for $79 each, or $149 for a two-pack. The ST60 complies with the full HD 3D standard, so that it will work with third-party classes like the aforementioned Samsungs ($20).
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The step-up VT60 series, in addition to supposedly enhanced picture quality (a THX mode, more steps of gradation, possibly better black levels due in part to a better screen filter, and a new red phosphor for a wider color gamut), gets a few more features including a touch-pad remote, built-in camera, voice recognition, and better speakers. Unlike last year, the ST60 and all higher-end plasmas have 96Hz modes as well as 48Hz (see below).
One unique extra for all 2013 Panasonic plasmas is a touch pen accessory ($79), which as you might guess allows users to draw on the screen. It works, but I don't see how it's at all useful outside of a presentation environment.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Panasonic also talks up its improved Viera Remote app. While the ST60 lacks the level of smartphone/tablet communication synergy seen on some competitors -- such as screen mirroring and NFC -- the app still enables some functions like basic control if you misplace the remote and "swipe and share" to easily display photos on the big screen. At least that's what Panasonic told me; I was never able to get the app, officially called "Viera remote2" on the Google Play store, to "discover" my ST60. That seems like a common problem, according to user reviews. It's worth noting that the remote's advanced calibration capabilities are reserved for the VT60 and ZT60 plasmas as well as the WT60 and DT60 LCDs.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Smart TV: I'll get to the new Smart features in a minute, but first let me describe a couple of dumb additions. When you first power on the set you're greeted not by whatever source you last chose -- typically your cable box -- but instead by the home page for the Smart TV suite. Panasonic tells us this is a conscious design decision, meant to make users more aware of the existence of the Smart features and encourage their use. I consider it an annoying intrusion, so I was glad to discover you can (mostly) turn it off, so the TV starts up on the full-screen page.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
In addition, Panasonic is still the only smart TV maker dumb enough to show an actual banner advertisement when you first turn on the TV -- in the case of my review sample it was for (wait for it...) MySpace.com. The banner's presence, which lasts about 5 seconds and only appears when you first power up the TV, is enabled by default. Happily, as with last year, you can turn it off, too.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
After you've dedumbed it by disabling those defaults, Panasonic's new interface is mostly good. As with last year, there's multiple "pages" available, and all show the currently-playing input in an inset window along with a grid of apps. You can place any app anywhere you want on the grid, a welcome change from makers like Samsung that offer only partial customization. Panasonic ups the custom ante further by offering three different templates for new pages you can create, custom backgrounds (including your own pictures), and the ability to name pages -- for example, each member of a particularly tech-savvy family could set up his or her own page.
There's also some bad. For someone used to swiping left or right on a smartphone to access different pages of apps, Panasonic's method isn't intuitive; you have to press the Home key again to switch between pages, rather than simply navigating among them directly. And it's potentially confusing that one page is actually the "Full Screen TV" page, and that hitting Exit from another page doesn't take you there (you have to actively select the window). Conversely, hitting the "Return" key from within an app often exits it completely, as opposed to navigating up a level. I was also annoyed that you can't delete or change the default Info and Lifestyle pages, although you can rename them.
A few times a message appeared telling me the server was temporarily unable to process my request, so I should try again later. Navigation was relatively snappy on the pages themselves, but bogged down inside the Viera Connect market and many apps.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
All of the apps from 2012 are still available, and it's a very healthy selection. Not much worthwhile has been added this year however. Hit the "apps" key and you'll be taken to a page with a bunch of thumbnails showing pre-installed apps, such as YouTube and Netflix, a product support app, as well as a few custom utilities like a calendar, a memo app, and an event timer. It would be nice if they could tap into common cloud apps like Google calendar or Evernote, but no dice. It goes without saying that typing a note using the remote and virtual keyboard is hardly worth the effort.
Sarah Tew/CNET
Non-pre-installed apps can be accessed from the Viera Connect market, where the most useful names include Vudu, Pandora, TuneIn radio, Rhapsody, a free classical music portal, and full episodes and photos from a Panasonic-sponsored series on National Geographic TV about World Heritage sites. You'll have to create a Viera Connect account to install them, unfortunately. The rest of the apps are much less useful. They include apps for use with the optional touch pen, a smattering of kids apps and the requisite crappy games. Panasonic is still the only maker whose store also offers real merchandise, from a $20 SD card to a $526 microwave.
And yes, there's a Web browser, but as usual it's terrible compared to a phone or especially to a laptop browser. Loading CNET.com resulted in a jumble of improper text overlays, rendering the page illegible. Navigation was sluggish and quite frustrating with the remote's cursor keys. In short, you should use the browser only when no other recourse is available. If you find yourself wanting to use the browser much, it's probably worth attaching a USB keyboard with an integrated touch pad or trackball.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Picture settings: Panasonic is slowly approaching the levels of adjustability found on other high-end TVs. New for 2013, it has migrated some of the advanced picture controls found on the flagship 2012 VT50 to the ST60. These include a 10-point grayscale and 10-point gamma system as well as color management for the primary colors (the latter, along with a 2-point grayscale, is found on the S60 too). The company has also added another picture mode, "Home Theater," atop its standard four, and a cool "copy adjustments" option that allows you to migrate your picture settings from one input and/or mode to others.
Other controls include three levels of dejudder, aka soap opera effect, an unusual seven different aspect ratio settings, and the usual array of items to help prevent and treat image retention, including a pixel orbiter and scrolling white bar.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Connectivity: Three HDMI, an analog video input that can handle either composite or component connections, and a pair of USB ports is standard for this level of TV. The SD card slot is a nice -- and uncommon -- addition, however. In case you're counting, none of the HDMI ports is MHL compatible, although one can handle ARC.
Picture quality
The ST60's picture fidelity is outstanding. It compares favorably to the best TVs I've ever reviewed, with superb, inky, deep black levels; ample shadow detail; accurate color; and very good video processing. Its bright-room picture is also top-notch, thanks to an antireflective filter that far surpasses that of the step-down S60 series. As usual, if you have an extremely bright room, you may want to choose an LCD instead, but for nearly every normal room, this plasma is plenty-bright -- and has the characteristic near-perfect uniformity and off-angle performance of its breed. Its biggest flaw is 3D picture quality, but I don't even consider that important enough to include in my consideration of its overall picture quality score, which is a solid 9 out of 10.
Click the image at the right to see the picture settings used in the review and to read more about how this TV's picture controls worked during calibration.
Comparison models (details)
Panasonic TC-P55ST5055-inch plasma (2012)
Panasonic TC-P50S6050-inch plasma (2013)
Samsung PN60E650060-inch plasma (2012)
Sony KDL-55W900A55-inch LED (2013)
Panasonic TC-L55DT6055-inch LED (2013)
Panasonic TC-P65VT50 (reference)65-inch plasma
Black level: The ST60 produces among the deepest black levels I've seen from any plasma TV, and that's saying something. According to my measurements, it beats out all of the 2012 plasmas in this area aside from the VT50 itself, our current plasma reference.
In a dark room during my subjective side-by-side comparison, the only set that looked darker was the Sony in its most aggressive local dimming setting -- but due to the Sony's blooming and murky shadow detail, the ST60 looked significantly better overall.
Between the ST60 and VT50, it was a virtual tie. I placed the TVs directly next to one another, and during the darkest scene of a very dark film, the beginning of Chapter 12 from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2," they looked nearly identical. The letterbox bars were inky, the shadows in the robes of the Death Eaters dark yet rich with detail, and the hillside behind Hogwarts and the castle/school itself were rendered with all of the detail of the source.
The ST60's gamma was a bit bright overall according to our measurements, but in person that issue was almost impossible to detect. Sure, some shadows might have looked very slightly too-bright compared to the VT50, but they were so close that any difference would be impossible to discern outside a side-by-side lineup.
Watching those scenes and comparing the ST60 to the others, the ST50, S60, and PNE6500 were all lighter in the letterbox bars and other areas. The S60 actually looked the darkest of the three by a nose, but side-by-side against the ST60 it still lacked a bit of contrast and pop, and the other two a bit more-so. The 2012 sets were still superb, but the ST60 was just a bit better. Finally, every TV in the room far surpassed the DT60 in this department.
Compared with the LEDs, the dimmer image produced by the ST60 and the other plasmas in very bright scenes, like the all-white world of Harry's vision of the fetal Voldemort in Chapter 22 (1:31:48), could be seen as a disadvantage. In my experience however, the light-output limitations of plasmas in such scenes are visible only in side-by-side comparisons and don't detract at all from critical viewing in dim and dark rooms.
Color accuracy: The ST60 maintains Panasonic's superb 2012 record in this area, and if anything improves upon it. A lot of the reason is due to superior controls during calibration; the new color management system works beautifully to fix the slightly desaturated look of default Cinema, and as a result colors are rich and natural, and again nearly the equal of the VT50's.
During the Snape memory sequence (Chapter 19) for example, the skin tone of young Lily looked as pale and delicate as it should, and her fiery red hair wasn't too red. The green of the grass and blue of the sky were likewise well-represented. Tones in dark areas appeared true as well, and while not quite as neutral as on the VT50, they did look better than the slight green of the ST50 and the more obvious green of the S60.
I did see a redder tinge in the ST60 during the darkest parts of the Creation sequence from "Tree of Life," but that was mainly due to a decision I made during calibration to preserve the accuracy of brighter scenes. This issue, and a slight edge in apparent saturation, put the VT50 ahead of the ST60 in this department, but just barely.
Video processing: Both the 60Hz and the 96Hz mode handled 1080p/24 sources properly in my test. As with the VT50, I did detect slight flicker in 96Hz in bright areas, for example the clouds over Brooklyn in "I Am Legend" (24:49).
I did notice some artifacts from 1080p/24 sources in 60Hz mode. On the "Digital Video Essentials" test Blu-ray, we noticed shifting lines and minor instability in the downtown Philadelphia buildings during an upward-facing pan. I didn't see any similar issues during other program material, but assume they might crop up. In any case, I still prefer the flicker-free 60Hz mode, but it's great to have a choice between 96Hz and 60Hz this year (48Hz, as usual, created unbearable flicker).
As usual, the results of engaging Motion Smoother dejudder processing were objectionable to my eyes, although some viewers might actually want its soap-opera effect. Both smoothness and artifacting increased when I moved up in settings from Weak to Mid to Strong.
Unlike the ST50 from last year and this year's S60, the ST60 passed the Film Resolution Loss test in the default Auto setting; there was no need to manually switch it to On.
I also noticed what appeared to be slightly smoother gradations on the ST60. At the 22:09 mark during "Tree of Life," the fading light from a white galaxy appeared smoother on the ST60 (and the Sony LCD) than on any of the other plasmas (including the S60), which showed visible gradation steps of minor "false contouring" or solarization. Many other similar images in this sequence of "ToL" did show visible gradations on the ST60 as well; however, they're rare in other program material on any display. It's worth noting that Panasonic touts improved gradation only on its 2013 VT60 and ZT60 models, so I'm not sure whether what I saw is related.
Bright lighting: Under bright lights, the ST60 performed quite well, thanks to an improved screen filter. It maintained black level fidelity almost as well as the VT50, slightly better than the ST50 and about the same as the Samsung E6500, if not quite as well as the Sony.
More importantly for 2013 comparison shoppers, it totally trounced the S60 in this area. The S60's screen washed out severely under the lights and also created brighter reflections. This is the main picture quality difference between the two sets, and significant enough by itself to establish the ST60's clear superiority. In a light-controlled room the two are relatively close, but under moderate or higher lighting the ST60 stands far above its step-down line-mate.
Panasonic's screen filter acts like venetian blinds to reject light coming from above. Compared with the S60, the ST60's filter did dim the image more when seen from high off-angle vertically. In practice this difference is only visible from angles that are roughly equivalent to placing the TV on the floor. As usual for a plasma, horizontal off-angle viewing, which is far more important than vertical in typical living-room situations, looked essentially perfect -- in marked contrast to both LCDs, for example.
Compared to many LCDs, the maximum light output of the ST60 is limited. In their brightest picture settings with a window pattern, the ST60 and ST50 measured 56 and 61fL (footlamberts) respectively, while the Sony and Panasonic LCDs hit 99 and 76. With a full-screen pattern, those same numbers drop to 13 and 14 (ST60 and ST50) and 100 and 106 (Sony and Panasonic LCDs). If you have an extremely bright room or just prefer watching an extremely bright picture (like Vivid or Dynamic on your current TV), you may want to get an LED instead. That said, the light output of any of these plasmas is more than ample for the vast majority of room lighting situations.
3D: (Update April 15: This section, along with The Bad at the top of the review, was updated based upon additional testing after the review first posted.) If you care a lot about 3D picture quality, the 3D performance of the ST60 is somewhat disappointing compared to its 2D prowess.
New for this year Panasonic has added three "Hz" values (96Hz, 100Hz and 120Hz) under "3D refresh rate" in its 3D menu. Although described as designed to combat flicker from fluorescent lights, they also have a major impact on the prevalence of crosstalk. That bugaboo of 3D TVs, especially those that use active 3D technology, appears as a ghostly double-image around many onscreen objects.
The ST60's double-image was least noticeable and objectionable in the 96Hz mode. During my favorite crosstalk tests from "Hugo," including Hugo's hand as it reached for the mouse (5:01), the tuning pegs on the guitar (7:49), and the face of the dog as it watches the inspector slide by (9:24), the ST60's crosstalk was quite dim--a better performance than the E6500, although not quite as good as the Sony W900, where crosstalk was even less visible. The three Panasonic plasmas, meanwhile, were roughly equal when I placed the ST60 in 96Hz and the VT50 and ST50 in 48Hz mode.
(When the ST60 is 3D mode, the "Hz" values under "24p Direct in" in the Advanced menu are grayed-out and unable to be adjusted, apparently because they're superseded by the three 3D refresh rate settings. That's different from the 2012 plasmas, which use this setting for both 2D and 3D. The new menu design tripped me up initially, so I originally reported that characteristics like crosstalk reduction can't be adjusted on the ST60.)
Choosing the 100Hz setting worsened crosstalk considerably, and the 120Hz setting was worst of all. This adjustment didn't seem to do anything else to picture quality, and I didn't test its effects on flourescent light flicker.
The ST60's 3D was still worse than that of the VT50 and ST50, however, because of the way it handled quick motion. During the herky-jerky chase sequence beginning at about 7:19, for example, the ST60's images seemed to break up and confuse me visually, taking me out of the moment. It was worst when I paid attention to the legs of running dog, the arms of the flailing conductor, or other bursts of movement. The effect wasn't overwhelmingly distasteful, but it was still worse to watch these scenes on the ST60 than on the others. I couldn't address it with any of the settings adjustments I tried--for example reducing light output/contrast or changing any of the 3D refresh rate or motion smoother settings.
In the default Cinema mode, the ST60's color and shadow detail were fine, and black levels looked a bit deeper than any of the other plasmas while picture brightness was about the same. The ST60 did have a slightly more noticeable bluish cast than the others, however, so overall the VT50 especially showed better color. Note that I don't calibrate for 3D, so any of these characteristics might be improved if you do so.
Panasonic's new throw-in 2013 glasses aren't as good as the TY-ER3D4MU's from 2012. Their thin temples do little to block light from the sides, and they didn't fit over my prescription glasses as well. They're still fine, however, and fit better than the $20 Samsungs. I didn't notice any overt picture quality difference between any of them.
Power consumption: [Note that this test and all of the chart numbers below apply only to the 55-inch TC-P55ST60; not to any of the other sizes.] The 55ST60 uses significantly more juice than any similarly-sized LCD-based TV, and almost exactly the same as the 2012 model after calibration. The default Standard mode draws a bit more power than last year, but it's also a bit brighter. That's a good thing because past Standard modes were way too dim.
The current Energy Star specification is still version 5.3, which still imposes a hard cap of 108 watts for any size of TV. According to Energy Star's April 2013 list of qualified TVs, no 2013 Panasonic plasma earns the blue sticker.
Editors' note: CNET has dropped TV power consumption testing for 60-inch or smaller LCD- and LED-based TVs because their power use, in terms of yearly cost, is negligible. We will continue to test the power use of larger LCD or LED models, as well as all plasma models.
Juice box
Panasonic TC-P55ST60Picture settings
DefaultCalibratedPower save
Picture on (watts)168.6249.29N/A
Picture on (watts/sq. inch)0.130.19N/A
Standby (watts)0.10.1N/A
Cost per year$37.04$54.73N/A
Score (considering size)Average
Score (overall)Poor
Annual energy consumption cost after calibration
GEEK BOX: TestResultScore
Black luminance (0%)0.00373Good
Avg. gamma (10-100%)2.14Good
Avg. grayscale error (10-100%)1.931Good
Near-black error (5%)1.415Good
Dark gray error (20%)2.519Good
Bright gray error (70%)0.989Good
Avg. color error1.465Good
Red error1.053Good
Green error0.67Good
Blue error3.566Average
Cyan error1.328Good
Magenta error1.085Good
Yellow error1.089Good
1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)PassGood
1080i De-interlacing (film)PassGood
Motion resolution (max)1200Good
Motion resolution (dejudder off)800Average
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