The second 50-inch plasma available with 1080p resolution, the Panasonic TH-50PF9UK has a bit of catching up to do. The first was Pioneer's Pro-FHD1, which earned the highest picture-quality marks we've given out in a long time. The Panasonic also delivers excellent images, although it's not quite as impressive as the Pioneer overall. More importantly, both cost significantly more than their lower-resolution 50-inch plasma brothers, and their extra resolution only translates into an appreciably sharper picture if you plan to sit very close to the big screen--say, six feet or less. In other words, most buyers will be better served getting standard-resolution 50-inch plasmas, but if you must have millions of pixels and you like the Panasonic's industrial chops, then it might be worth the extra cash to you.
While Panasonic has announced a few "consumer" 1080p plasmas, the first being the 50-inch TH-50PZ700U due this summer, the TH-50PF9UK reviewed here was designed primarily for professional use. It's still perfectly safe for use in the home, however, and it provides more picture-quality adjustments and a much cleaner, minimalist look than the company's consumer models, as evinced by the current PX50U series. The trade-off? Panasonic's pro plasmas come with just a couple of inputs, no speakers, and no stand, although you can purchase them separately. The stand will cost around $150, and the speakers, if you choose to add them, about $250. (The full list of accessories can be found here.)
In outward appearance, the TH-50PF9UK is identical to its lower-resolution sibling, the TH-50PH9UK. Its utilitarian exterior is finished in a very dark gray, and other than the Panasonic name below the center of the screen and the power light all the way to the left, there is nothing else to distinguish it. The all-screen look results in relatively tiny overall dimensions for a 50-inch plasma: 47.6x28.5x3.7 inches (WHD) for the panel itself, with a weight of 81.6 pounds.
As we mentioned, stereo speakers are an optional accessory. You must also opt for either the tabletop stand or the wall-mount kit to support the panel.
The remote is intelligently designed and, as a result, very easy to use. We especially appreciated the separate keys for each input slot. Unfortunately, the clicker is not backlit at all and cannot control other devices. Internally, the menu system hasn't changed on the industrial models for many years and remains extremely simple and easy to navigate. The exception is that a couple of picture-affecting controls, such as 2:3 pull-down and noise reduction, are relegated to the setup menu when they really should be found in the picture menu.
The major selling point of this plasma TV is its 1080p native resolution, which translates to 1,920x1,080 pixels. That's more than twice as many as most 50-inch plasmas, and it allows the Panasonic to display every detail of the highest-resolution HDTV formats, 1080i and 1080p, as well as handle very high-resolution computer signals. All other input signals, as usual, are converted to match the native resolution.
The TH-50PF9UK doesn't offer much in the way of a feature package. Interestingly, it does have a PIP feature however, which allows you to watch any two sources simultaneously, but that's about it for conveniences. There's no tuner, ATSC or otherwise, so to watch standard or high-definition TV, you'll need to connect an external source, such as a cable or satellite box. Likewise, the lack of speakers means you'll need to connect your A/V sources to an external audio system or buy Panasonic's optional speakers to hear anything.
We were annoyed that the TH-50PF9UK can't switch aspect ratios with HD sources, which is an issue if you're watching high-definition on a channel that's sized improperly--like a lot of TNT's programs--and your cable or satellite box can't change aspects. Luckily, there is a "dot-for-dot" option in the pic/size menu that displays all the way to the edge of the image without scaling. Still, we'd really like the option to resize the image with HD sources, especially for channels that show interference at the extreme edges. There are four aspect-ratio choices available for standard-definition sources.
The Panasonic TH-50PF9UK does have several picture-enhancing features worth mentioning. First off, 2:3 pull-down is available in the video processing but must be engaged for all inputs individually in the setup menu, as Off is the default setting. The setup menu is also where you'll find the noise reduction control. Selectable color temperatures are on tap and include Warm (the closest to the broadcast standard of 6,500K), Normal, and Cool. Panasonic also gives you its typical three picture mode choices: Dynamic, Standard, and Cinema, and adds a fourth called Super Cinema. Independent memory per input allows you to use any mode you wish at any input and still be able to make changes to the picture controls (with the consumer models such as the TH-50PX60U, you must assign a picture mode to an input in order to set it up independently of other inputs). In the advanced menu, there are fine-tuneable grayscale controls and selectable gamma settings--we found gamma 2.2 to be the best. Increasing the Black Expansion control simply loses or "crushes" detail in dark areas, so we left it at the default 0 setting. The Input Level setting appeared to have the same effect on bright areas, so again we left it at 0. AGC, which adjusts black levels in the fly, is best left off.
Connection options are definitely limited compared to other HDTVs on the market. The panel comes with one component-video input that is also configurable to RGB (for computers or other RGB gear); a DVI input that can also accept HDMI sources when you connect an inexpensive adapter cable (it can take 1080p video or computer sources up to 1,920x1,200); a 15-pin VGA input for computers (1,600x1,200 maximum resolution) that can also serve as a second component-video input with the addition of an inexpensive adapter; and an RS-232 control port. It's also worth noting that the component ports don't use standard RCA-style connectors. You'll have to buy inexpensive adapters, available at any RadioShack, to turn the BNC-style jacks into RCA jacks that will fit most A/V gear. Also of note, the TH-50PF9UK doesn't include any standard-definition composite- or S-Video connections.
The good news is that the TH-50PF9UK has hot-swappable inputs housed on removable boards. The set comes with two boards preinstalled--the component-video input on one and the DVI input on the other (the VGA input is fixed). There is also an empty bay for adding a board your choice. At this point, we recommend holding off on purchasing an HDMI board because, as of this writing, Panasonic's current HDMI board cannot accept a 1080p input signal, and the company would not tell us when they expect to have a 1080p-compatible HDMI board available. The only way to connect a 1080p source to this television is via the DVI or the component-video inputs. As we mentioned above, however, you can easily connect an adapter to get 1080p HDMI sources into this set via DVI. The only disadvantage is that you won't get color or tint controls via DVI (no loss since they're both accurate anyway at default settings) and that DVI doesn't pass details below black (again, not a major loss).