The Panasonic TH-50PZ850U lacks picture-in-picture, but it does include a thoughtful "Surf Mode" control, which can be set to restrict the TV's tuning options. You can set it to "all," "favorite," "digital only," or "analog only."
The jack pack of the TH-50PZ850U is as well-equipped as any high-end HDTV we've seen, starting with three HDMI jacks on the back panel and a fourth available out front. A VGA-style PC input is also onboard (1,366x760 maximum resolution), along with two component video inputs, an AV input with composite or S-Video, an RF input for antenna or cable, as well as an optical and an analog audio output. In addition to that last HDMI input, the front panel also sports a second AV input with composite and S-Video, as well as an SD card slot for displaying digital photos on the big screen. The 850U's card slot can also play back MPEG-2 and AVCHD video files, although we did not test this feature.
Naturally, the LAN port needs to connect to the Internet to use the Viera Cast functions. Unlike Samsung, Panasonic doesn't sell an official wireless adapter, although we were told that standard third-party adapters, such as wireless bridges, would work fine.
The Panasonic TH-50PZ850U can produce a superb picture, anchored by some of the deepest blacks we've seen, and while we do complain about its color accuracy compared with the HD standard, its color is still better than many high-end HDTVs on the market.
As we mentioned above, the TH-50PZ850U offers a Studio Reference mode that, as expected, turned out to deliver the most-accurate out-of-the-box picture. We ended up calibrating the set's grayscale in Custom mode, however, since it was the only one that allowed any tweaking of white balance. In the end we were able to improve color temperature and color accuracy a bit, although most of our other settings were similar to studio reference. Check out our full picture settings for details.
For our comparison and image quality tests we lined the TH-50PZ850U up next to its 800U brother, along with the Samsung PN50A650 and the Pioneer PDP-5080HD, all three 50-inch plasmas. We also threw in the Samsung LN52A650 to represent LCDs. (Before you ask, no, we haven't received our review sample of the Pioneer PDP-5020FD yet, so we couldn't use it to compare. Naturally we'll try to hang onto these Panasonic panels long enough to use them in a comparison during the PDP-5020FD review.) For our main round we treated ourselves to Gattaca on Blu-ray, courtesy of our reference Sony PlayStation 3.
Black level: The Panasonic TH-50PZ850U exhibited the one of the deepest shades of black we've ever witnessed on any display. The letterbox bars above and below the film, along with shadows and blackness in dark scenes, such as when Vincent and Jerome go out in the middle of the night to watch the rockets lift off, appeared inky and true. Compared with the other displays in the room, only the Pioneer mustered a deeper shade of black, and just barely; the 850U was even the tiniest bit deeper than the 800U, although there's no way we could have differentiated if the displays weren't side-by-side; and of course the two Samsung displays were lighter. Shadow detail, such as the edge of Vincent's hair, the folds in Jerome's jacket, and the details around their silhouettes against the night sky, looked natural, with the appropriately shallow rise from black to lighter shadows.
Color accuracy: Panasonic makes a big deal about the Digital Cinema Color on the 850U series, and color is the most noticeable difference between its picture and that of the 800U. The primary and secondary color points of the 800U hew very closely to the HDTV standard, and so its color is technically very accurate, while the color points of the 850U are not. Like many displays, its color gamut is wider than the HD standard, so the red blood in the centrifuge, for example, looks even redder and deeper on the 850U than on the 800U. Greens, such as the forest and shrubs that are visible when the janitorial crew is motored into the compound, looked both greener and seemingly a bit yellower to our eyes on the 850U. We switched off the Digital Cinema Color mode and the two displays came closer to one another, but there was still a pretty noticeable difference. Our measurements for the Geek Box below were taken with the more-accurate (again, compared to the HD standard) Off position for that mode.
An argument can be made that the wider color gamut on the 850 looks better, but that's largely subjective. Our goal, as always, is to evaluate color accuracy, in this case compared with the HD standard, and by that definition the 800U, along with the two Samsung displays in our comparison, were a good deal more accurate than the 850U.
Other areas of the Panasonic's color performance were very good. The 850's relatively linear grayscale was apparent in skin tones, such as Irene's face at the beach house, appeared natural if a tiny bit redder than the reference 800U. Color decoding wasn't at fault--it was basically right on; instead it was the very slightly reddish grayscale in mid-dark areas. Colors near black stayed quite accurate otherwise, however.
Video processing: Panasonic built the same 48Hz refresh rate option we complained about on the 800U into the 850U, and our complaints still apply. When fed a 1080p/24 source, the set flickers quite noticeably, especially in the brightest areas. The flicker is not subtle -- to the point why we wonder why Panasonic even included this mode at all. Needless to say, despite the fact that refreshing the screen in an even multiple of 24 did seem to smooth the characteristic 2:3 pulldown "hitch," we preferred watching the set in standard 60Hz mode.
As expected from any 1080p flat-panel, the 850U resolved every detail of 1080 resolution sources, although as always we had a very difficult time seeing any difference between this 1080p display and the same-size 1,366x768 Pioneer. Like many HDTVs we've tested, the Panasonic failed to properly deinterlace 1080i film-based material, despite its "3:2 pulldown" setting being set to "on." It actually failed this test worse than the 800U did, showing more artifacts in test patterns and more moire and breakup, for example, in the seats during the test disc's pan around Raymond James stadium as well as the grille of the RV from Chapter 6 of Ghost Rider. This failure isn't a huge deal however; for example, we didn't notice any deinterlacing artifacts when watching Gattaca in 1080i.
We complained about ineffective noise reduction in our review of the TH-46PX85U, but as with the 800U, the 850U's image was quite clean and not plagued by excessive noise, even with NR turned off.
Uniformity: As with nearly all plasmas we've tested, the TH-50PZ850U's image remained perfectly uniform across the screen, and viewing angles were superb, with none of the drop-off in contrast or color accuracy typical of LCD. As with the 800U, the 850U introduced very little false contouring.
Bright lighting: According to their spec sheets both the 800U and the 850U have the same antireflective screen, and all told we couldn't see any difference between them. Neither did quite as good a job of attenuating glare from daylight when we opened the blackout shades in our test lab, and objects reflected in the screen appeared a bit brighter and thus more distracting on the Panasonics than on the Pioneer. That said, the screen on the Panasonic was much better at dealing with reflections than many plasmas we've seen, including the Samsung PN50A650, and also significantly better than the Samsung LCD.
Standard-definition: With lower-quality sources, the TH-50PZ850U performed about average. It didn't quite resolve every detail of the DVD format, according to the resolution chart on the HQV DVD, and as a result details in the bridge and grass from that disc looked a bit softer than the other displays in our test. On the other hand, the Panasonic did a fine job of removing jaggies from diagonal lines and a waving American flag, and its 2:3 pulldown detection kicked in effectively, if not quite as quickly as some sets we've tested. Its noise reduction performed well with low-quality material too, cleaning up the motes in skies and sunsets as well as the Pioneer, albeit not quite as well as the Samsung LCD.
PC: As with most Panasonic HDTVs we've tested, the 850U's analog VGA input has a maximum resolution that doesn't match the native resolution of the display--an issue that's pretty disappointing on a TV this expensive. The maximum accepted resolution of 1,360x768 looked OK, with the expected softness in text and other onscreen objects, although we missed having an "auto-adjust" feature to center the image properly; we had to use the manual controls to do that. HDMI was a different story, with the display achieving the full resolution of 1,920x1,080 and rendering text and other areas as perfectly as we expected, so naturally we recommend that people connecting PCs to this TV go digital.
|Before color temp (20/80)||6198/6933||Good|
|After color temp||6349/6545||Good|
|Before grayscale variation||+/- 259K||Good|
|After grayscale variation||+/- 100K||Average|
|Color of red (x/y)||0.658/0.329||Average|
|Color of green||0.275/0.644||Average|
|Color of blue||0.149/0.055||Good|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||Y||Good|
|480i 2:3 pull-down, 24 fps||Y||Good|
|1080i video resolution||Pass||Good|
|1080i film resolution||Fail||Poor|
|Panasonic TH-50PZ850U||Picture settings|
|Picture on (watts)||163.8||284.36||N/A|
|Picture on (watts/sq. inch)||0.15||0.27||N/A|
|Cost per year||$50.98||$88.30|
|Score (considering size)||Good|