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.
Plasma has been ceding ground to LCD for years, and the latest patches of territory at risk are screen sizes above 50 inches. Panasonic, both sheriff and principal resident of plasma town, has traditionally ruled the vast-size flat-panel frontier with an iron fist, but with LCDs available in new 55-inch and, lately, 65-inch versions for competitive prices, the company has had to continually make its own big screens more affordable. The happy result, at least for HDTV shoppers with room to spare, is that larger models can be had for chunks of change that seem small by historical standards. And while the bigger sets in Panasonic's TC-PS1 plasma series might surprise you with their affordability, they still deliver better picture quality than most of their large LCD competition.
We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 54-inch Panasonic TC-P54S1, but this review also applies to the 58-inch TC-P58S1 and the 65-inch TC-P65S1. The three share identical specs but for screen size, so we expect them to exhibit very similar picture quality. Earlier this year we evaluated a 42-inch TC-P42S1, which applied to the 42-, 46- and 50-inch members of the TC-PS1 series. Although every model had identical specs, the large disparity in screen size across the series was the main reason we decided to evaluate two separate review samples.
Editors' note: The Design and Features elements are identical between sizes in the TC-PS1 series we reviewed earlier, so readers of the earlier review may experience some déjà vu when reading the same sections below.
Glossy black covers the entire frame of the TC-PS1, aside from a slim strip of silver shaped to mirror the gently curved bottom edge of the panel. Once we tore off the Energy Star sticker, the only other interruptions among all that black gloss were the Panasonic and Viera logos, along with an indicator light and a big power button that nonetheless blended nicely into the frame. The company's glossy black stand looks the same as last year's, and still lacks swivel capability. Overall the look is conservative in a way that keeps attention focused on the contents of the screen.
Panasonic's remote is quite good, except for an unnecessarily prominent trio of keys--Viera Link, Viera Tools and SD Card--that arc above the central cursor control. Each provides direct access to functions we'll warrant most users won't access frequently, and the trio relegates the more important, yet now-tiny, Menu key to a secondary spot near the top of the clicker. We like the feel of the keys, however, and the size, color, and shape differentiation helps us forget that none of the buttons are illuminated. The remote cannot control other devices via infrared (IR) commands, but it does allow some control of compatible HDMI devices connected to the TV via VieraLink (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, and edges throughout are a bit more rounded. It's one of the more basic-looking menus on the mainstream market, but we still wish the company would see fit to include on-screen explanations of more advanced items. A new VieraTools menu showcases some of the TV's functions, although we'd like to see a few more useful ones, such as picture modes.
Aside from 1080p resolution, Panasonic's so-called Neo PDP panel itself represents the S1's major feature improvement over the company's entry-level TC-PX1 series. The panel improves on Panasonic's 1080p offerings from yesteryear with better specs and lower power consumption, although it's still an electricity guzzler compared with LCDs. The S1 models lack the THX display certification, 1080p/24-friendly refresh rates, and VieraCast interactive add-ons found on the step-up TC-P54G10 and the TC-PV10 series.
Panasonic offers far fewer picture adjustments compared with a lot of other name-brand HDTV makers. Yes, the basics are there, and we liked that all four of the global picture modes, including the dim-by-design Standard mode, are adjustable and that the fifth, 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 do--not that the S1 has much processing to eliminate.
Beyond the basics there are three color temperature presets, of which Warm came closest to the D65 standard, although unfortunately no further provisions for tweaking the grayscale exist. A "C.A.T.S." function senses ambient light and adjusts the picture accordingly; a pair of On/Off settings affect video noise; and another allows you to set black level (the Light option exposed the correct amount of shadow detail). That's about it--there's no gamma, color management or other advanced settings.
You can choose from five aspect ratio options with high-def sources, including a Zoom mode that allows adjustment of horizontal size and vertical position. The Full mode can be made to match the pixel counts of 1080i and 1080p sources, without introducing overscan, if you select the HD Size 2 option from the Advanced menu. We recommend using this setting unless you notice interference along the extreme edges of the screen, which can occur on some channels or sources. If you see that interference, try switching back to HD Size 1.
Panasonic also offers ways to avoid temporary image retention, aka burn-in, and address it should it occur. A pixel orbiter slowly shifts the image around the screen, and you can elect to have it happen either automatically or in user-set periodic intervals. You can choose bright or dark gray bars alongside 4:3 programs. And if you do see some burn-in, chances are the scrolling-bar function, which sweeps a white bar across a black screen, will clear it up after a while.
The TV lacks picture-in-picture and cannot freeze the image temporarily to catch a phone number, for example. It can, however, accept SD cards with digital photos into a slot on the left side, which allows it to play back the images on the big screen.