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Panasonic Viera TC-P50G20 Plasma HDTV


LCDs are now soaking up a larger and larger percentage of the market, and it’s been hard slogging for plasma displays. But that doesn’t faze Panasonic. As the sole remaining major Japanese plasma manufacturer, it offers a huge range of models. Yes, Panasonic also does LCDs, but only in smaller sizes. If you see a Panasonic HDTV that’s 46 inches or larger, it will be a plasma.

While those of us who cover the field recognize the dramatic advances in LCD technology in the last few years, many of us appreciate the things that plasmas still do better than LCDs. Exhibit A is the subject of this review—the new Panasonic Viera TC-P50G20.

Inside and Out
Panasonic’s G20 series is strictly 2D and offers 50- and 54-inch models. As of this writing, they are exclusive to Best Buy stores. If you shop for either set elsewhere, you’ll have to opt for another Panasonic line. The G25 models appear to be nearly the same as the G20s and include identical prices for sets of the same size. The only differences are the addition of a Viera Link connection for a home network camera on the G25s, as well as additional 42- and 46-inch G25 models. Both lines are THX certified and ENERGY STAR qualified.

The TC-P50G20 has a relatively plain, gloss-black bezel. At 3.5 inches deep (without stand), it isn’t a member of the thinner-isin club. Along with Panasonic’s higher-end models, this set is equipped with the company’s newest Infinite Black Panel (Infinite Black Pro in the 3D designs). According to Panasonic, this updated screen filter is better at rejecting reflections and offers deeper blacks.


There are five preset Picture modes: Vivid, Standard, THX, Game, and Custom. Each of them (including THX) is individually user adjustable and assignable to different inputs. But the settings are global for each mode; you can’t tweak them separately for each input. I recommend that you use the THX mode for your most critical viewing, as I did.

The Panasonic offers a range of video controls, many of which are best left in their default, or off, positions. The most accurate Color temperature setting was Warm2. There are white-balance controls (W/B, high and low, for red and blue) and six Gamma options. The 3:2 pulldown control is an Auto/On/Off film mode. The Black level control worked best in the Light position, and a set of Aspect adjustments produced minimum overscan with an HD source when the Screen format control was set to Full and the HD size control to Size 2.

A Color management adjustment suggests the presence of a full color management system, but here it’s simply an On/Off control that I left off. A three-level Panel brightness control had little effect, either visible or measured.

For 1080p/24 sources, a 24p Direct in setting gives you the choice of either 48 hertz (frames per second) playback (each 24-fps frame flashes twice, with no 3:2 pulldown) or 60 Hz (the set converts the 24-fps source to 60 fps with 3:2 pulldown). With earlier Panasonic sets, the 24-fps setting decreased brightness and added visible flicker on scenes with large expanses of white or a uniform color (a bright blue or clouded sky, for example). The flicker was relatively subtle here, but I noticed the reduced brightness. Because of this, I did much of my viewing in the 60-Hz mode. The increased judder that the 3:2 pulldown caused didn’t bother me.

All of the controls are not available in all picture modes. For example, the THX mode offers most of the basic video adjustments as well as many advanced settings, but it locks out both the user-level white-balance adjustments and the Gamma settings. Since the THX mode’s fixed white balance was only fair, my first reaction was that these limitations might drive me to the Custom mode, which offers these adjustments. But as with earlier Panasonic sets, the TC-P50G20 has a full set of white-balance controls in its service menu (labeled Cinema). A calibrator can use these to fine-tune the gray scale for the THX mode.

You can view still photos and full-motion images and listen to music through the set’s USB and SD card inputs. Viera Link is Panasonic’s version of the industry-wide CEC (Consumer Electronics Control). Via the TV remote, it offers simultaneous control of all Panasonic HDAVI Control–equipped components.

810panaplas.rem.jpgViera Cast provides access to select Internet apps through a LAN connection directly to your computer or to a home network. At present, the available apps include Netflix Streaming Video, Picasa, Pandora, YouTube, Amazon Video on Demand, and a number of others. This list will continue to grow as Panasonic signs agreements with additional content partners.

The remote is an improvement on past Panasonic designs. It doesn’t offer direct input selection, but most of the important controls are now backlit. The backlighting on many of the buttons doesn’t include the lettering that identifies them, but the small icons on the buttons themselves are a reasonable substitute. Even without the backlighting, most of the important buttons are large and have distinct shapes. With some practice, you can easily locate them, even in the dark.

On Screen
The Panasonic’s video processing is merely satisfactory. As you can see from the Video Test Bench chart, it failed both our 3:2 and 2:2 HD (1080i-to-1080p) pulldown tests. We have to make a pass/fail decision in a film mode Auto setting, if available. I conducted these tests in the Auto setting of the 3:2 pulldown control. When I changed the control’s setting to On, the set passed the 3:2 tests. But it still didn’t pass 2:2 in any setting. I also checked 3:2 and 2:2 in SD (480i to 1080p—not shown in the chart), and the results were the same. Since no setting improved the Panasonic’s 2:2 performance, the On setting is the best option for the 3:2 pulldown control.

The Panasonic passed the Video Clipping test, which checks whether the set passes above white and below black. The response didn’t extend very far below black, but it went low enough for proper adjustment of the brightness (black level) control.

While HDTV manufacturers aren’t giving a lot of love these days to standard-definition performance, the Panasonic performed reasonably well on some of the most grungy-looking channels on my cable box’s analog band. However, apart from 24/7 news and an occasional program on the Syfy channel, I don’t get around much there anymore.

The digital SD cable channels where I spend more time, such as History International and National Geographic, often looked impressive enough to fool some viewers into thinking they are watching HD—apart from some occasional jaggies.

It was on true high-definition programming, both from cable and Blu-ray, that the TC-P50G20 showed the right stuff. Its subjective color and resolution were beyond criticism. These days, most HDTVs perform more than competently in both of these important aspects (provided the set has been properly adjusted and offers adequate controls for a good calibration). But the Panasonic’s color and detail equal or exceed any other HDTV I have tested. For a $1,500 set, that’s remarkable.

The recent HBO series The Pacific isn’t quite up to the dramatic standards that 2001’s Band of Brothers set. No realistic war drama can be upbeat, but there’s a lot less character development and a lot more angst here than there is in Band of Brothers. The cinematography and overall picture quality are superb. The show manages to look both slick and gritty at the same time. The colors are deliberately muted to near-sepia tones, and the Panasonic extracted exceptional detail from this material.

Shows as dissimilar as House, Fringe, and baseball on ESPN all looked outstanding. The trailers on HDNET made me want to see the movies—even though I know they won’t look as good in the theater as their trailers do on the Panasonic.

The best Blu-ray Discs looked even better. As I write this, I’m only halfway through the extended International Edition of the Chinese epic Red Cliff. While the battle scenes are intense, they’re more than a little unrealistic. (Lone warrior defeats dozens of the enemy, while hundreds of other enemy soldiers stand around watching. Check. Happens every day.) The characters are also a little confusing at first.

It took me a good third of the movie to tell who from Woo. But the cinematography is luscious. On the 50-inch Panasonic, it was eye-popping. The brilliantly colored and detailed Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl also jumped off the screen, and Armageddon has never looked better than it does in its new Blu-ray transfer on the Panasonic.

I hardly need to note—but I will—that like plasmas in general, the TC-P50G20 can run circles around any LCD when it comes to the lack of motion blur. Many current LCDs offer frame-interpolation features that smooth motion blur but totally compromise the intended look of filmbased material. Plasmas don’t need this band-aid to provide smooth motion. You can also fully enjoy the Panasonic’s picture from as far off axis as anyone would care to sit—something no LCD we’ve seen can manage.

The Panasonic’s picture always had plenty of snap. There was never any sign of the infamous gray fog that cripples the dark scenes on some HDTVs, particularly low-end LCDs. Most dark scenes, which typically have enough bright highlights to keep them from sliding into murkiness, looked good. Shadow detail was impressive. On the Blu-ray Disc of Sunshine, I saw more of the structural details on the dark side of the space ship Icarus than I do on most displays.

It was only on the darkest images, such as some of the night shots in The Pacific, fadeouts to a completely dark screen, or the black bars on a 2.35:1 widescreen movie, that the Panasonic’s blacks are more grayish than the Infinite Black claim suggests.

The latter was the source of some disappointment. This letdown had little to do with the quality of this Panasonic’s blacks per se. On average, they were about the same as the last few Panasonic sets we’ve reviewed and thus very good. For the most part, the currently available sets that can do better—or at least those we have tested—are far more expensive.

Rather, my disappointment came from excessive expectations. Rumors arose in the past year (now unofficially confirmed) that many of Pioneer’s KURO engineers had moved over to Panasonic when Pioneer got out of the video business. Based on that, we—and other video enthusiasts—were hopeful that Panasonic’s Infinite Black technology meant that KURO was back, with only the name changed. But for this year at least, that is definitely not the case—at least not in the G20 line.

It was probably wishful thinking on my part to expect a $1,500 set to offer the sort of performance that once commanded a $5,000 price. Set makers this year, including Panasonic, are putting most of their engineering resources into 3D. But for the future, we can hope that Panasonic will give us the true black-level break-through we know it’s capable of.

Despite our unrealistic hopes for this latest Panasonic’s black level, the TC-P50G20 plasma remains an exceptional value. With its good blacks and excellent shadow detail, plus exceptional color and resolution, I can’t imagine anyone regretting the decision to make this their next HDTV. On the contrary, caveat emptor. Which in English means, bring one home only if you’re prepared to watch entirely too much television.



Type: Plasma
Screen Size (diagonal, inches): 50
Native Resolution: 1080p
3D: No
HD Tuners: OTA
Wall Mount or Stand Included?: Stand
Dimensions (W x H x D, inches): 48 x 30.3 x 3.5 (without stand); 48 x 31.9 x 13.2 (with stand)
Weight (pounds): 57.3 (without stand); 63.9 (with stand)
Price: $1,500

Inputs: Video: HDMI 1.3 (3), component video (2), PC (RGB VGA), composite video (2), Antenna/Cable, USB (2), LAN, SD Card slot
Outputs: Audio: Optical digital (1)

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