Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
Ever since we gave the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U an Editors' Choice award as our favorite plasma HDTV so far, we've been bombarded by variations of the same question: "Is the more expensive TH-50PZ850U better?" After finally getting the chance to review the 850U, our answer is "no." The TH-50PZ850U is the company's flagship plasma, the most expensive in its lineup, but the less expensive 800U we tested delivered slightly better picture quality, mainly due to its superior color accuracy. Don't get us wrong; the 850U still put up a great picture, and some viewers may well appreciate its wider, albeit less accurate, color gamut. The flagship model's biggest step-up feature is Viera Cast, Panasonic's first attempt at connecting one of its TVs directly to the Internet, which currently allows the TV to display digital photos from Google's Picasa service, YouTube videos, and stocks and weather info. Problem is, we're not sure how many high-end HDTV shoppers care about viewing crud-quality YouTube videos on their beautiful HDTVs. In the end we think sticklers for picture quality will opt for the 800U series, and YouTube will not figure into the decision.
The TH-50PZ850U looks exactly like the TH-50PZ800U with the exception of the coloring of its "lips" below the screen--dark gray on the 800 and black on the 850--so if you've read that review, feel free to skip down the page unless you like the feeling of deja vu.
In photos the television looks a lot like every other HDTV on the market: a glossy black rectangle. In person, however, it's a lot more striking and less glossy. In fact, the black frame around the screen isn't glossy at all; it's simply fronted by a big pane of glass that lends the panel a somewhat more-sophisticated look than a typical set, where the frame is raised a quarter-inch or so from the surface of the screen. Below the screen, the Panasonic's frame has what resembles a pair of pursed lips that protrude forward, bearing the logo and hiding a set of inputs behind a flip-down door.
The stand looks identical to the sloped number common to lower-end 2008 Panasonic plasmas like the TH-46PZ85U and the TH-42PX80U, but unlike those stands, this one swivels, courtesy of a lazy-Susan-like base hidden underneath. Including stand, the TH-50PZ850U measures 49.9 inches wide by 33.4 inches high by 15.3 inches deep and weighs 92.6 pounds; divested of stand its size shrinks to 49.9 by 31.2 by 4.1 inches and its weight to 81.6 pounds.
Panasonic's remote remains the same as last year, and we remain fans of its layout. The medium-length wand groups the distinct sets of right-size buttons in an easy-to-feel arrangement. Unlike the clicker included with the 800, the 850's clicker includes limited backlighting--just the channel, volume and keys to control other gear light up.
A familiar yellow-on-blue menu system leads to the television's setup functions, and although the graphics lack the panache of a Sony or a Samsung menu, navigation was intuitive enough. We liked that the company renamed its previously confusing "Normal" command to "Reset," which more accurately describes what it does to your picture settings.
Like many flagship products, the TH-50PZ850U is a guinea pig for a new feature not found on less expensive models. In the case of the Samsung LN46A750, for example, that feature was interactive content, a sort of www-lite, and the Panasonic's Viera Cast, available only on the PZ850U series, could be described in the same way. The service currently allows you to view YouTube videos, photos uploaded to Google's Picasa photo sharing service, news and stock information courtesy of Bloomberg (although unlike the Samsung, there's no way to create a custom portfolio), and local weather. Panasonic says it will add more content in the future, and in the next year or two we expect to see some iteration of VieraCast migrate down to less expensive Panasonic TVs.
We already tested Viera Cast extensively, as recorded in this blog post, so we won't go into it too much here except to say that, while it's cool to have that kind of stuff built-in, a cheap laptop hooked up to the TV itself can do a better job. If you really want YouTube on your TV without a PC or AppleTV, however, Viera Cast might be worth it to you.
Unlike the less expensive TH-50PZ800U, the flagship TH-50PZ850U is not THX certified. We're not exactly sure why, but we guess it has something to do with keeping prices down; perhaps the cost of including the THX license and Viera Cast would have driven the price into a place that, unlike Pioneer, Panasonic didn't want to go. It may also have to do with differing color gamuts (see Performance). Regardless, it's pretty confusing for a flagship product to lack a major picture quality feature that its step-down cousin includes.
The 850U does have a wider color gamut compared with the 800U, and in place of the THX mode there's a picture mode the company calls "Studio Reference." This model also features the ability to fine-tune the color temperature and a host of other picture parameters like gamma, courtesy of a "Pro Setting" picture menu that's only available when you select the "Custom" picture mode. Otherwise the feature set is basically identical to that of the TH-50PZ800U.
Naturally the high-end TH-50PZ850U has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, or 1080p, which is fast becoming a standard feature on all flat-panel HDTVs. As we've said before, however, the difference between 1080p and lower resolutions is difficult to discern, even at this relatively large screen size.
We appreciated the ability to adjust all of the five picture modes, including Studio Reference, and the fact that the Custom mode is independent per input. Additional picture controls include a color management option that we left off; a "C.A.T.S." mode that changes contrast on the fly and so should be left turned off; two species of noise reduction; and a black level control. There's also a "24p direct in" option that changes the set's refresh rate from 60Hz to 48Hz for compatibility with 1080p/24 signals; check out Performance for more details.
Panasonic also touts Game mode, which is little more than an easy way to select a particular input. A quick press of the "Game" button on the remote toggles between any of the inputs that have been labeled "Game" in the input naming menu. Pressing that button does not engage the Game picture mode (which is simply another collection of adjustable picture settings) nor does it affect video processing or lag time between controller and screen--although, to be fair, such modes on other HDTVs have little value as far as we can tell.
The TH-50PZ850U offers five aspect ratio controls for HD sources, more than most HDTVs on the market. There's also a setting called "HD Size 2" that allows the TV to display every pixel of 1080i and 1080p sources without overscan or scaling, and we recommend using it unless you notice interference along the extreme edges of the screen, which can occur on some HD sources. Unlike the 800U we tested, the 850U we received for this review had "HD Size 2" selected by default. A selection of five modes is also available for SD sources.
A new menu for 2008 deals with burn-in or, as the company calls it, "image retention." There's a pixel orbiter that moves the entire image gradually around the screen, along with an option to set the 4:3 mode to include gray bars to either side of the picture (as opposed to black, which cause image retention more easily than gray). On the off chance that the plasma retains an image, there's a scrolling bar that slides across the screen as a sort of eraser.