Ever since we called the Pioneer Elite Kuro PRO-111FD "The best flat-panel HDTV ever," we've been comparing the most-expensive challengers on the market directly against it, looking to see if any could topple the champ. When Panasonic announced the TC-PG10 series at CES, we immediately knew it would go up against the Kuro in our lab. What we didn't know is that Pioneer would stop producing HDTVs, leaving the hill wide open for anybody to claim the king's throne.
The Panasonic G10 series is the new king. No, it's not as good overall as the soon-to-be-extinct Kuro Elite, but it comes closer than ever in the arena of black-level performance, and mounts a good fight in just about every other field of picture quality, with the exception of some color accuracy issues. Panasonic steeped the G10 in extra features compared with its less-expensive brethren, adding a THX mode that's largely responsible for its excellent picture, along with VieraCast for access to a limited range of Internet extras. The downside, as always, is that it costs significantly more than lower-end models, but if you're looking for the best picture quality in a post-Kuro world, the Panasonic TC-PG10 series is the safest bet so far this year.
Like most TV makers, Panasonic differentiates its less-expensive line from its more-expensive model lines by blessing the latter with refined styling, and the step-up G10 series follows suit. It lacks the beautiful one-sheet-of-glass design found on the even more-expensive V10 series, but makes up for it somewhat with a thinner frame around the edge of the screen; this is the thinnest-framed plasma we've reviewed, with the exception of the company's "professional" models such as the TH-50PH11UK. Glossy black predominates, interrupted by a silver strip along the bottom that abuts the G10's signature design touch, a silver wash that fades into black after about a half-inch. Comparison Panasonic shoppers may care that the more-expensive G15 models lack the silver accents.
The remote control also differs from the one found on less-expensive Panasonic plasmas, and in general, we liked it. However, Panasonic's marketing people got to the button designers, and apparently mandated that an unnecessarily prominent trio of keys--Viera Link, VieraCast and VieraTools--arc above the central cursor control. Each button provides direct access to functions we'll warrant most users won't access as frequently as the Menu key, and the trio relegates that button to an easily-overlooked 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 commands, but it does allow for some control of compatible HDMI devices connected to the TV via Viera Link (aka HDMI-CEC).
VieraCast, which debuted on the TH-PZ850U series last year, offers access to YouTube videos, photos stored on your Picasa account, stocks and headlines courtesy of Bloomberg, and local weather. It connects to the Internet via an Ethernet port on the back of the TV. Panasonic regrettably does not include wireless capability nor does it sell a wireless dongle, although, according to the company, third-party wireless bridges or powerline adapters will work fine.
New for 2009, Panasonic will add the capability to access Amazon Video on Demand content in May via a free online software update (PZ850U owners will also get the update). Currently VieraCast also offers the capability to connect with networked cameras to use the system to for household monitoring.
When you engage THX picture mode, the G10's color accuracy, shadow detail, and numerous other picture characteristics improve without you having to make a bunch of adjustments. THX comes as close to a "one-step calibration" as any such mode we've seen, with the possible exception of Pure on Pioneer's late, lamented Elite Kuro displays.
Beyond the basics, Panasonic provides the capability to change the refresh rate to 48Hz, although doing so causes flicker. There are also five color temperature presets, of which Warm2 came closest to the D65 standard. No further provisions for tweaking the grayscale exist. A "C.A.T.S." function senses ambient light and adjusts the picture accordingly; a Color management toggle that made color decoding worse when engaged; a trio of On/Off settings affect video noise; and another lets you set black level (the Light option exposed the correct amount of shadow detail). The setting to control 2:3 pull-down happily affects both standard- and high-definition sources.
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 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. We appreciated that the VieraCast menu went into screensaver mode after a few minutes of inactivity.
Connectivity on the TC-PG10 series is perfectly adequate, but not overboard, 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 and an analog stereo audio output.
All told, the picture quality of the Panasonic TC-PG10 series was excellent, and surpassed that of the company's S1 model in both black-level performance and color accuracy when we engaged THX mode. Color in general was less-satisfactory than we'd like, however, and engaging THX caused slight greenish/yellowish cast when compared with our reference displays--the sole reason the G10 did not earn higher marks in this category. In other areas, however, THX brought significant improvements.