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Panasonic demos 2010 plasma TVs with better picture quality, features

Panasonic gave an in-depth demonstration of its 2010 TV lineup, focusing as usual on plasma TVs, and improvements were apparent in picture quality and features.

Panasonic's new plasma TVs delivered deeper black levels than last year's models in a demo.

Panasonic launched its 2010 line of plasma and LCD TVs at CES early in January, but Wednesday in New York the company gave a formal demonstration of its new televisions shipping over the next couple of months, highlighting improvements in picture quality as well as new features.

The 2010 models we saw ranged from lower-end LCDs up to the 3D-compatible VT25 series, which won our overall Best of CES Award. The company's reps characterized this demonstration as "2D only," however, and nary a pair of shutter glasses was in sight. They said the VT25 would ship in May/June and its price was still undetermined, although pricing and availability for most of the rest of the company's TVs was confirmed.

The most notable of those other TVs was the TC-PG20/25 series. Improvements over the current G10/G15 sets include a higher native contrast ratio spec, for what that's worth, (5,000,000:1 vs. 2,000,000:1) and a better VieraCast service with Netflix and Skype. The demonstration showed off the effects of these improvements, and to my eyes the better contrast ratio, manifested as the TVs ability to show a darker shade of black, was the big story.

Picture quality demos
Panasonic had set up a G10 plasma next to a G25, both 46-inch models, and was running demonstration scenes to show off the better black levels. Even in the relatively bright room the G25's blacks looked deeper and more realistic, especially in the shots of a star field and Saturn set against the blackness of space. Part of the improvement can be chalked up to the G25's obviously superior antiglare screen, which reduced reflections more effectively than that of its predecessor, but nonetheless the difference was a marked improvement over the already excellent black level performance of the G10.

Of course a brief demo under manufacturer-controlled circumstances is no substitute for an in-depth review, and Panasonic has promised CNET will be the first major publication to receive a new production G25 sample, hopefully within the next couple of weeks. I'm not ready to declare the G20/G25 the long-elusive heir to the Kuro yet, but suffice to say I'm excited to get one into the lab for a critical comparison.

Company reps attributed the improvements we saw to the new "Infinite Black" panel--replete with new screen filter, panel structure, and "predischarge control" technology--found in the G20/G25 series and VT25, but not in step-down S2 or lower models (which have lower contrast ratio specs of 2,000,000:1 or less). That's a departure from last year, when the S1 and G10 had identical contrast ratio specs and, in our reviews, nearly identical black level performance. This year the price difference between the 50-inch G25 ($1,499 list) and the 50-inch S2 ($1,299) would appear to pay for picture quality as well as features.

Even more confusing, Panasonic used "Infinite Black" in its 2009 marketing playbook to describe the screen going black between scenes. For the record, that's definitely not the same as the passel of improvements denoted by the 2010 "Infinite Black" described here. And we're not even going to touch "Infinite Black Pro," exclusive to the VT25 series; just ignore that marketing-speak for now (along with the "600Hz subfield drive" common to nearly all Panasonic plasmas).

I also intend to subject the new model(s) to long-term testing to track any loss in black level performance over time--something Panasonic claims will be "more gradual" in the 2010 sets than it was in 2009. Otherwise, as always, my evaluation will be restricted to what I actually see in person.

One other demo paired a prototype VT25 displaying the same 2D content as another G10. It showed off improvements made to motion resolution, evident in specialized fast-scrolling test patterns that looked markedly blurrier on the G10 than the VT25. The demo also revealed less evidence of green and red phosphor trails on the VT25. Panasonic chalks up both improvements to the VT25's new short-throw phosphors, which the company says are primarily intended to improve 3D picture quality by eliminating blur and double images (known as "crosstalk").

It's worth noting that motion resolution and phosphor trails aren't problems with any current plasma as far as we're concerned, but sharp-eyed videophiles with no interest in 3D might feel more comfortable paying extra for the VT25's 2D picture enhancements. As we noted at CES, the VT25 will also feature a 1080p/24-friendly 96Hz refresh rate, just like the V10 series, while the G20/G25 will not.

(Update February 19, 2010): We also asked whether Panasonic had made any changes to user menu picture controls from 2009, and reps replied that controls for the 2010 models were basically the same. In other words, only the VT25 series gets the Pro Setting menu found on the V10 and Z1 models from 2009, which offers a few advanced controls over the standard Panasonic TV menu found on lower-end models, and no 2010 Panasonic will offer the same level of user menu control as Sony, Samsung or LG, for example.

Other demos and features
Panasonic didn't show the Netflix or Skype functionality in action, but we're confident the former will behave much like the service on current Netflix-compatible devices. Skype will require a proprietary carmer/speakerphone add-on, as yet unpriced. Reps confirmed that neither VieraCast upgrade will be available to current owners of VieraCast-capable TVs, although the new menu and other services, namely Twitter, Fox Sports, and Pandora, will (more info).

We did see the new VieraCast menu, however, which sports a layered design that allows you to place services you use most on the "top" for easy access. In another cool touch, a rep navigated and interacted with the VieraCast using a standard wireless PC keyboard, which can connect to the TV via a USB port. Especially for the heavy Twitter-on-TV typists (anyone?), having actual keys is very useful. None of the 2010 models can work with Wi-Fi networks out of the box, but a USB wireless adapter will be available for around $80.

The G25 and VT25 models, but not the G20, will also work with the company's networked camera (wired BL-C210, $199; wireless BL-C230, $299) for in-home applications like security and baby monitoring.

The company showed off its improved photo viewer as well, which can also work with the enhanced iPod dock found on two of its LCD lines. The new dock is now fully compatible with iPhone, according to the company, although our tests of the 2009 version on the TC-LX1 series showed no problems with iPhone compatibility.

As we mentioned at CES, all of Panasonic's TVs, even the 65-inch plasmas, qualify for Energy Star 4.0 (more info), and a demo showed two 42-inch plasmas side by side with wattage meters connected. The 2010 model consistently used fewer watts than its 2009 counterpart, helping back up Panasonic's talking point that its 42-inch plasma uses an average of 99 watts under normal conditions. The company claims its 2010 plasmas "now achieve four times luminous efficiency," although we still expect them to use significantly more power than similarly sized LCDs. We'll have to wait until we actually test a few to see if Panasonic narrowed the gap.

Panasonic's 2010 plasma lineup model by model
What follows is the company's complete lineup in bullet-point form, showing step-up features not available on lower-tier series. It includes the mainstream S2 and entry-level U2 and C2 models, and though the company also announced LCDs, we're not covering them here. If 2009 is any indication, we will review at least one screen size from each series this year, starting as soon as we can secure review samples.

Panasonic TC-PVT25 step-up features:

  • 3D compatible
  • Includes one pair of 3D glasses
  • 96Hz refresh option for 1080p/24 compatibility
  • Short-throw phosphors
  • Pro Setting user menu with advanced controls
  • ISFccc mode

Panasonic TC-PVT25 series models:

  • Panasonic Viera TC-P65VT25: 65-inch (summer, $TBD)
  • Panasonic Viera TC-P58VT25: 58-inch (summer, $TBD)
  • Panasonic Viera TC-P54VT25: 54-inch (May/June, $TBD)
  • Panasonic Viera TC-P50VT25: 50-inch (May/June, $TBD)

Panasonic TC-PG25/TC-PG20 series step-up features:

  • Infinite Black panel (5,000,000:1 native contrast ratio)
  • THX certified
  • VieraCast interactive suite adds Netflix, Pandora, Twitter, and Fox Sports to previous content
  • Skype video calling
  • Optional Wi-Fi connection
  • VGA-style PC input
  • Two USB ports
  • Image viewer handles video as well as photos
  • (Both series identical but for cosmetics and compatibility with the network camera)

Panasonic TC-PG25 series models:

  • Panasonic Viera TC-P54G25: 54-inch (March/April, $1999.95)
  • Panasonic Viera TC-P50G25: 50-inch (March/April, $1499.95)
  • Panasonic Viera TC-P46G25: 46-inch (March/April, $1399.95)
  • Panasonic Viera TC-P42G25: 42-inch (March/April, $1199.95)

Panasonic TC-PG20 series models:

  • Panasonic Viera TC-P54G20: 54-inch (March/April, $TBD)
  • Panasonic Viera TC-P50G20: 50-inch (March/April, $TBD)

Panasonic TC-PS2 series step-up features:

  • 2,000,000:1 native contrast ratio
  • Improved anti-reflective filter
  • Clean Touch (non-glossy) bezel

Panasonic TC-PS2 series models:

  • Panasonic Viera TC-P65S2: 65-inch (June, $2,799.95)
  • Panasonic Viera TC-P58S2: 58-inch (June, $1,899.95)
  • Panasonic Viera TC-P54S2: 54-inch (February/March, $1,599.95)
  • Panasonic Viera TC-P50S2: 50-inch (February/March, $1,299.95)
  • Panasonic Viera TC-P46S2: 46-inch (February/March, $1099.95)
  • Panasonic Viera TC-P42S2: 42-inch (February/March, $899.95)

Panasonic TC-PU2 series step-up features:

  • 1080p resolution

Panasonic TC-PU2 series models:

  • Panasonic Viera TC-P50U2: 50-inch (March, $1,099.95)
  • Panasonic Viera TC-P42U2: 42-inch (March, $799.95)

Panasonic TC-PC2 series features:

  • 720p resolution
  • Image viewer for photos (SD card slot)

Panasonic TC-PC2 series models:

  • Panasonic Viera TC-P50C2: 50-inch (March/April, $799.95)
  • Panasonic Viera TC-P46C2: 46-inch (March/April, $699.95)
  • Panasonic Viera TC-P42C2: 42-inch (March/April, $599.95)