Editors' note, February 9, 2010: According to user reports, which first surfaced on enthusiast Web site AVS Forum, this Panasonic plasma may lose black level performance noticeably over time. Panasonic has issued statement, admitting to changes over time but saying performance is still "excellent." While CNET reviewers have not been able to verify or refute either claim, we nonetheless do not recommend buying this TV.
The capability of a TV to reproduce a dark shade of black is the number-one criteria for awarding a good picture quality score here at CNET. Often better blacks dictate higher prices, but in the case of Panasonic's newest line of entry-level plasmas, which includes the TC-P50X1, that's not the case. This HDTV reproduces superb blacks and excellent shadow detail, while costing a relative pittance for a big-screen HDTV. Unfortunately, two major problems prevent it from earning higher praise, namely that it suffers from less-than-accurate color and the presence of faint on-screen lines that may be a deal-breaker to sharp-eyed viewers. Nonetheless, the Panasonic TC-P50X1's otherwise commendable picture will appeal to numerous HDTV shoppers.
Updated August 19, 2009: Panasonic has fixed the problem with the faint diagonal lines. The company sent us a third review sample, with a manufacturing date of June 2009, and it didn't show the lines we mention below. The company didn't divulge more information on the problem, however, (check out the full story). Since the change happened relatively late in the product's lifespan, and there's no easy way to tell which new models have the lines and which do not, the rating and other conclusions of this review will remain unchanged from its original publication.
(Editors' note: Many of the Design and Features elements are identical between the Panasonic TC-P50X1 and the Panasonic TC-PS1 series we reviewed earlier, so readers of the earlier review may experience some deja vu when reading the same sections below.)
Panasonic's TC-P50X1 makes liberal use of glossy black on its exterior. Shiny black plastic covers the entire frame--which is a tad thicker than the frame on the G10 series--with the exception of a slim strip of silver shaped to mirror the gently curved bottom edge of the panel. The only other accents are the Panasonic logo, an indicator light, and a big power button that nonetheless blends nicely into the frame. Speakers are invisible from the front--they're mounted along the bottom edge of the panel and face downward--and controls and inputs are tucked into either side, hidden from view. All told, the TV's styling is understated and probably won't draw many "ooohs" and "ahhhs" from guests.
Including the matching, nonswiveling stand, the TC-P50X1 measures 48 inches wide by 32.4 inches high by 15.3 inches deep and weighs a substantial 79.4 pounds. Sans stand, the panel measures 48 inches wide by 30.3 inches high by 3.8 inches deep and weighs an even 75 pounds.
The remote is similar to last year's, but it's not as good. Panasonic's marketing guys got to the button designers, judging from the 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 still like the feel of the keys, and appreciate the size, color, and shape differentiation that 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 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, and edges throughout are a bit more rounded. Overall, it's still one of the more straightforward, basic-looking menus on the mainstream market, but we wish the company would see fit to include onscreen explanations of more advanced items. A new Tools menu showcases some of the TV's functions, although we wish it offered access to a few that were more useful, such as picture modes.
Unlike nearly every large-screen flat-panel HDTV on the market today, the Panasonic TC-P50X1 does not have 1080p native resolution (1920x1080 pixels). Instead, its pixel array is 1,366x768, aka 720p resolution. We didn't really miss the extra pixels, however, and as usual found it difficult to tell the difference between the TC-P50X1 and higher-resolution displays. Check out HDTV resolution explained for general details and the Performance section of this review for specifics. The X1 models, including this 50-incher and the 42-inch TC-P42X1, are also missing the higher-contrast, more-efficient NEO PDP panel found on step-up models like the TC-PS1 series.
Compared with a lot of other name-brand HDTV makers, Panasonic offers far fewer picture adjustments. Yes, the basics are there, including Contrast, which the company was calling Picture for years. 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.
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 more-advanced settings.
You can choose from four aspect ratio options with high-def sources, including a Zoom mode that allows adjustment of horizontal size and vertical position.
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 automatically or in user-set periodic intervals. You can chose 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 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.
Connectivity on the TC-P50X1 is adequate, but not extensive, starting with three HDMI inputs, two on the back and a third on the side. Other back-panel connections include two component-video inputs, an AV input with composite and S-video, and an RF input for cable or antenna. There's also an optical-digital audio output. We would have liked to see a standard analog audio output and, more importantly, a VGA-style PC input, but the latter feature is reserved for step-up models in the company's lineup. In addition to the HDMI pot and SD card slot, the side panel offers a second AV input with composite video.
Deep black levels are the high point of the TC-P50X1's picture quality, and we didn't miss having full 1080p resolution. We did encounter an unusual uniformity problem that will discourage sharp-eyed viewers, as well as a few color accuracy issues, but otherwise the TC-P50X1 performed very well for the price.
As with other Panasonic displays, lack of user menu controls means there's not much to do when setting up the TC-P50X1. The Cinema preset delivered slightly more accurate secondary colors compared with Custom, but the former was too dim for our standard calibration, maxing out at only 29 footlamberts (ftl). Since primary colors were identical between the two modes, and there were no other major trade-offs in choosing Custom, we used that mode for our evaluation, which enabled us to achieve our preferred brightness of 40ftl. We would have liked to tweak the grayscale as well to address its somewhat bluish cast (see the Geek Box), but that's not an option in the user menu.