Editors' note, March 3, 2010: Testing conducted on 2009 Panasonic plasma TVs, similar to this one, has revealed that black-level performance has become noticeably less impressive within what is typically the first year of ownership. As a result, we don't feel confident that the initial picture quality of this TV, as described in the review below, can be maintained over the course of its lifetime, and therefore find it difficult to recommend. Its Performance score has been accordingly reduced by one point to better indicate comparative picture quality after 1,500 hours of use.
Separately, the Features rating has been lowered to account for changes in the competitive marketplace, including the release of new 2010 TVs. Aside from these changes to ratings, the review has not otherwise been modified.
The company that brought you our favorite television of 2009, the Panasonic TC-PV10 series, built much of the same excellent picture quality into its most expensive showpiece, the TC-P54Z1. Then it added wireless capability and squeezed the panel into an inch of depth, which helps justify the extra 2 grand cost over the 54-inch V10. The Z1's combination of picture quality, style, and features is enough to earn it one of the highest overall scores we've awarded to a TV at CNET, and the company deserves credit for advancing the plasma state of the art with this model. Of course, that state of the art is due for another advancement with the introduction of new 2010 models, including the TC-PVT25 series in a few months. None of those sets offers the thin, wireless chops of the Z1, however, so well-heeled style seekers might want to take the plunge anyway.
Editors' note: Many of the Design and Features elements are identical between the TC-P54Z1 and the TC-PV10 series we reviewed earlier, so readers of the earlier review may experience some deja vu when reading the same sections below.
At 1 inch deep, the Panasonic TC-P54Z1 is the thinnest plasma TV available, beating the Samsung PNB860 series by half a pinky-breath (0.2 inch). How's that for bragging rights?
The most obvious difference between this flat-panel TV and most others isn't depth, it's the color. Panasonic bucked the industry-standard glossy black plastic finish for smart-looking brushed silver metal strips above and below the screen. To either side it placed glossy black vertical bands, which combined with the silver create the illusion of an even-wider wide-screen panel. The Z1 presents unique, classy overall appearance, which ably conveys the impression of high cost.
Silver, albeit plastic this time around, also graces the matching speakers and (nonswiveling) stand. The latter two are detachable, naturally, for custom-install purposes. The TV measures 56.3 inches wide with speakers attached, 51.3 without, and 35.2/32.3 inches high by 15/1 inches deep with/without the stand. The included tuner box for wireless access (see Features, below) is about the size of a standard DVD or Blu-ray player, the wireless transmitter resembles a small antenna, and the wireless receiver screws to the rear of the panel (increasing its depth by an inch and giving your installer an excuse to charge extra for cutting into your wall) and peeks out below the left side.
The remote control, which communicates with the tuner box via radio frequencies and thus doesn't require line-of-sight (standard infrared, or IR, control is also supported), also differs from step-down Panasonic clickers with its glossy finish and more extensive backlighting. In general we liked its layout, although we wish the main Menu key was as prominent as the trio of keys--Viera Link, VieraCast, and VieraTools--placed above the central cursor control. We like the feel of the remote's buttons, and appreciate the size, color, and shape differentiation. The remote cannot control other devices directly via IR commands, but it does allow some control of compatible HDMI devices connected to the TV via Viera Link (aka HDMI-CEC).
Panasonic tweaked its menu design for 2009. The same yellow-on-blue color scheme is in evidence (albeit a lighter shade of blue) and navigation is basically unchanged, but the main menu actually has a couple of icons now. Overall, it's still one of the more straightforward, basic-looking menus on the mainstream market, but we still wish the company would see fit to include onscreen explanations of selections. A new Tools menu showcases some of the TV's functions, including THX mode and VieraCast.
Panasonic's most expensive plasma for 2009 has a predictably exhaustive list of bullet points on its spec sheet; however, the most remarkable is wireless connectivity between the panel and its source components. The external tuner box houses the Z1's HDMI, AV, Ethernet, and other necessary ports, and communicates with the display with the aid of a wireless transmitter. A matching receiver pipes signals into the TV's sole HDMI jack, and hence on to the screen and speakers. Line-of-sight is required between the transmitter and receiver, which are tethered to the box and TV, respectively, by rather short cables (one standard HDMI and a proprietary one for power). See the performance section for details on how the system worked in our testing.
Aside from connectivity, the Z1 essentially matches the features of the step-down V10 series. It can refresh the screen at 96Hz, which allows the TV to properly maintain the cadence of film when fed a 1080p/24 source--typically from a Blu-ray player (the refresh rate remains fixed at the standard 60Hz for non-1080p/24 sources). The Z1 also has a 48Hz setting, but we recommend using 96Hz instead since the 48Hz option can introduce flicker. (Here's where we mention that, like all Panasonic plasmas, the Z1's spec sheet includes mention of a 600Hz subfield drive. Our best advice is to ignore this spec--it has no visible bearing on picture quality, aside from a slight improvement in motion resolution that's extremely difficult to see.)
The Z1 models also offer THX Display Certification. When you engage THX picture mode, the Z1's color accuracy, shadow detail, and numerous other picture characteristics improve over the default settings without you having to make a bunch of adjustments. THX comes close to a "one-step calibration," but in the Z1's case it's not as effective as using the Custom mode and Pro adjust settings.
Digital Cinema Color allows the Z1 to show a wider color space than the traditional HDTV color space. Since Blu-ray Discs are produced in the HDTV color space, however, we prefer to leave DCC turned off--in fact, DCC is defeated and rendered nonadjustable if you select THX mode.
VieraCast, which debuted on the TH-PZ850U series in 2008, is Panasonic's interactive TV feature. It offers access to YouTube videos, photos stored on your Picasa account, stocks and headlines courtesy of Bloomberg, and local weather. It connects to the Internet via an Ethernet port on the back of the TV. Panasonic regrettably does not include wireless capability nor sell a wireless dongle, although, according to the company, third-party wireless bridges or powerline adapters will work fine.
For 2009, Panasonic has added the capability to access Amazon Video on Demand via VieraCast. The pay-per-view movie and TV service is integrated nicely into the television. It includes access to so-called high-definition content and can supplement or supplant cable or satellite PPV offerings with its significantly larger catalog. We also appreciate that, unlike some implementations of Amazon VOD, VieraCast lets you preview content before purchase. One downside of using the system is that it disables many of the TV's aspect ratio controls and doesn't allow access to the THX picture mode, but happily the other picture modes are all available and fully adjustable. The Z1 also offers the ability to interface with compatible networked cameras to use the system for household monitoring.
It's worth noting that at CES 2010 Panasonic announced new capabilities for its VieraCast system, including Netflix streaming and the capability to make voice and video phone calls via Skype. It's still unclear if and when the Z1 and other VieraCast-equipped TVs will receive the new upgrades.
Panasonic offers fewer picture adjustments than lot of other HDTV makers, but the Z1 includes more advanced adjustments, thanks to the Pro Setting menu, than step-down models. We liked that all five of the global picture modes, including THX, Studio Ref., and the dim-by-design Standard mode, are adjustable and that the sixth, called Custom, is independent per input. The company's Game mode is basically just a picture mode; it doesn't eliminate video processing like some other makers' Game modes. The Studio Ref. mode, which isn't found on step-down models, supposedly delivers an image closer to that of a studio monitor.
There are five color temperature presets, of which Warm2 came closest to the D65 standard. The Pro Setting menu, which is only available in the Custom mode, offers white-balance controls to tweak grayscale, although they're less complete (lacking control for green) than on other HDTVs. That menu also includes a gamma control and numerous other settings, and its presence really helped improve the TV's picture.
Adjustments available on all picture modes include a "C.A.T.S." function, which senses ambient light and adjusts the picture accordingly; a Color management toggle that made color decoding worse when engaged; a trio of On/Off settings affect video noise; and another lets you set theblack level (the Light option exposed the correct amount of shadow detail). The setting to control 2:3 pull-down happily affects both standard- and high-definition sources.