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Best 50" picture quality in the U.S.
on June 7, 2011
With SONY and JVC no longer manufacturing their phenomenal high-end CRT HDTVs, and Pioneer out of the Plasma business, the pursuit of picture quality is not as simple as it once was. Rest assured, however, that there are still a handful of manufacturers (i.e. Panasonic, Samsung, LG, ...) still investing in Plasma technology, because LCD is a giant leap backwards in terms of picture quality. When Pioneer - the previous undisputed leader in picture quality - left the industry, they sold their Plasma technology to Panasonic. While the amount of Pioneer technology (if any) present in Panasonic's current line-up is a matter of debate, most critics will agree that Panasonic currently holds the crown for picture quality.
Viera Size Segmentation (VT30 vs. GT30 vs. ST30)
I was in the market for a VT30 this year... however, in the United States, Panasonic's size options are quite restrictive. In Europe, all lines of plasma from the X up to VT are available in 42", which is the perfect size for me.
In the United States, each of the 3D model lines has a different starting size:
VT30: 55" - 65" (Industry leading black level, less buzzing, better speakers, 96 Hz mode for 24p, ISF calibration, ...)
GT30: 50" - 65" (Better black level, +1 HDMI port and VGA input, THX certified)
ST30: 42" - 65" (Entry-level 3D TV)
S30: 42" - 60" (1080p 2D plasma, worse motion clarity than ST30 and no 3D support)
X3: 42" - 50" (720p 2D plasma)
Unfortunately, I can barely fit a 50" TV where I have my GT30. I made the conscious choice of buying a TV slightly larger than I would have liked, because the GT30 buys you THX mode (which does a _really_ good job with skintones), an extra HDMI port, and a slightly lower black level than the ST30.
Getting back to picture quality, I have a SONY Super Fine Pitch FD Trinitron (CRT) set in my bedroom that I use as a benchmark for image quality.
The GT30 does not have the pure black level or white performance of the CRT (or even many local dimming LCDs). However, color accuracy and black gradiation (i.e. being able to see fine details in shadowed scenes) are actually better than my calibrated CRT.
Unenhanced motion clarity is indistinguishable between the two sets, and the GT30 earns a lot in this respect when it comes to displaying 24 fps material (48 Hz mode causes flickering, but even with simple 3:2 pull-down, the TV displays 24p video well).
Panasonic has added a more advanced Motion Smoother this year, with two levels - it creates artificial motion enhancement similar to LCD 120/240 Hz, and therefore has limited appeal.
Typically I do not care about the physical appearance of a television (which is why I still prefer high-end CRTs to flat panels), but the design of this TV is definitely worth mentioning... compared to last year's GT25 model, this TV is lightyears ahead.
The bezel has been shrunken on all sides of the panel, and the depth is equally impressive. Were it not for the speakers, and clunky stand, this TV would be about an inch deep. As a result, the television requires "break out" cables to attach analog audio/video devices, and the total number of analog inputs has been reduced to 3 (Component, Composite and VGA D-Sub). This does not bother me at all, since the only analog device I have connected to any of my TVs is a Nintendo Wii. The extra HDMI port more than makes up for it.
I would also like to give kudos to Panasonic for putting the power button on the FRONT of the TV this year (it was on the side last year).
Long-term Value (Viera Connect)
Viera Connect is a promising new feature for 2011, that is essentially an evolution of Viera Cast.
Consumers can look forward to a growing software base in the future (as Software Engineers like myself develop software for the new open platform). The beauty of this new platform is that it operates independantly of official firmware release schedules. This is important, because firmware updates for aging products are few and far between - 2010 and older Viera models will likely NEVER receive support for Hulu, etc...
With this TV, two or three years from now, consumers can still download new or updated Viera Connect applications from the Viera Connect marketplace. Another thing I found nice about Viera Connect's marketplace, is that you can buy TV accessories (such as 3D glasses, SD cards, etc...) directly from software built-in to the TV, and rest assured that the product is compatible with your particular model.
Sound quality leaves room for improvement. This being the second-to-highest model from Panasonic, lacks the sub-woofer and higher quality speakers found on the VT line.
Adding insult to injury, US Viera televisions do not have analog audio out, so to improve the audio quality you must connect them to an A/V receiver (which also draws a lot of power) that supports optical S/PDIF.
In future years, I hope that Panasonic will consider improving the sound quality on the GT line.
Power consumption is good, but definitely not great. This is the only performance measurement that local dimming LED backlight LCDs come out on top in. That said, Panasonic has redesigned the construction of their panels this year, to improve phosphor response time (reduces 3D cross-talk), and improve luminous efficiency. Remember that this TV uses tinted 3D glasses, which darkens the picture... so brightness is important in 3D.
As a result, brightness is up, and power consumption is down vs. last year's model. Unfortunately, one consequence of the new design is "fluctuating brightness," which occurs when the TV transitions from a bright scene to a dark scene - in extreme cases, it can take the TV multiple frames to recognize the change in brightness and adjust its image processing. This was irritating at first, but I hardly notice it anymore.
On a final note, I have noticed a lot of people complaining about plasma buzz. I feel obligated to point out that the buzz is especially bad within the first 100-200 hours of operation, and decreases somewhat over time.
There are a number of factors that play into the buzzing, including altitude, viewing distance and picture settings. Granted operating altitude is not easy to change, but the buzzing can be reduced by sitting farther from the TV set, and dialing down the contrast setting (buzzing is directly related to how bright an image is).
A lot of people have TVs too large for their viewing distance and have contrast set way too high, and only ever realize it when plasma buzzing or dithering becomes a nusiance.
Pros and Cons
Plasma image quality
* Pure black level is not as good as CRT or local dimming LCD, but...
images with light and dark areas really shine
--> No blooming between nearby light and dark areas (LCD)
--> No image geometry warping related to brightness (CRT)
* Excellent motion clarity without artificial techniques like 120/240 Hz
* Accurate skintones
* Almost no picture setting tweaks required to get exceptionally good image quality
Consistent black level
* Panasonic claims that the black level will not rise after 1000+ hours of operation with 2011 models, due to manufacturing changes.
Power consumption vs. Screen brightness SIGNIFICANTLY improved over 2010 models
* In fact, it is so good that the 50" GT30 actually qualifies for Energy Star 4.0
* New in 2011, free/paid applications can be downloaded through the TV and the selection of applications will grow over time.
Viera model lines segmented by size in the US
* Could mean buying a TV that is too large
Average speaker quality on ST30/GT30
* US Viera models do not have analog audio out
--> Requires a dedicated power-hungry A/V receiver to improve on TV's speakers...
* Improved in 2011, but still nowhere near local dimming LCD performance
* Movie enthusiasts may find the delay in bright image processing frustrating...
--> I have found the issue has almost no negative impact on gaming performance, or general TV viewing.
* Given the state of the Netflix app on Viera Connect as of June 2011, audio noticably stutters...
--> Mitigated by the fact that Viera Connect will allow users to download an updated version of the
Netflix app whenever the bug is fixed.
For those who are interested, I have had my GT30 professionally calibrated in THX mode.
If you do not want to shell out $300+ to schedule a calibration on your set, but still want the best picture quality possible, the most important thing you can do is dial the color setting down to around 45. The default THX settings over saturate colors, and if you become used to the over saturated colors, you will never appreciate the advantages of a properly calibrated THX mode. Also, do not use C.A.T.S.! If you have a viewing environment that has varying levels of external light, you would be much better off maintaining two sets of picture settings. In my case, between night and day, all I need to do is adjust my contrast from 60 to 45. C.A.T.S. can detect differences in brightness, but it messes with more than just the white level.
You may be tempted to set the Black Level setting in "Advanced picture" properties to dark because it looks more natural, but this causes black crushing (loss of detail in dark video). Try to learn to live with lighter blacks (this can be especially difficult if you are used to high-end CRTs) and you will begin to appreciate the amazing black performance of Plasma technology.