Last year after reviewing numerous TVs, my holiday recommendation for bang-for-the-buck was the Panasonic ST30 series. This year I won't be surprised if -- after reviewing however many other 2012 TVs come down the pike -- that recommendation will go to the ST50. Yes, you can get a cheaper TV, but the ST50 is pretty affordable even now, and it's worth the money for any buyer serious about picture quality who can't wait for holiday price drops.
The ST50 handily outperforms its predecessor, with deeper blacks, more accurate color, and an improved bright-room image. The picture is so good, in fact, that it scored the same as the flagship VT30 I lauded last year, and in person it's tough to tell the two apart. If anything, the ST50 looks better. It sets a lofty standard for HDTV picture quality this year, and one I feel confident only a few TVs will approach. I doubt any of them will do it for less money.
My first thought upon unboxing the ST50 was, "man, that looks just like a Samsung plasma, just not quite as nice." And that's an improvement over past Panasonics. The edge of the frame is that jewel-like transparent plastic pioneered by Samsung and LG.
Panasonic differentiates the shape of its frame with a thicker bottom edge and slightly angled bottom corners -- we prefer normal corners and edges of equal width. The ST50 is still plenty sleek and modern-looking, however.
Like all plasmas, the ST50 uses active 3D technology. New for this year, Panasonic's active 3D glasses support the universal standard. In practical terms that means other companies' glasses that also support the standard should work with this Panasonic, and also that no 2011 or earlier Panasonic glasses will work with this TV. At $65 each, the new Panasonic 2012 3D glasses actually cost twice to three times as much as Samsung's cheap models (the $25 SSG-3050GB and $20 SSG-4100GB), so I wouldn't be surprised if that price fell soon. All universal glasses use the Bluetooth standard; check out the CES writeup for more.
Panasonic also tried to jazz up its remote, but the newly glossy face serves mostly to show fingerprints. We like the rest though, from the nicely differentiated button sizes and groups to the extensive backlighting to the new dedicated Help key that takes you straight to an easily navigable onscreen version of the full user manual.
These days just about every TV has four HDMI ports, so while I don't think the ST50's total of three will cramp most users' hookup plans, it's still notable. Included breakout cables support the one analog composite/component input, and there's a pair of USB ports and a rare SD card slot for media.
Unlike the step-up VT50, it lacks 96Hz refresh rate, but according to our test, the ST50 still delivered proper film cadence on 1080p/24 sources anyway via its 60Hz setting (I wouldn't be surprised if the VT50 performed better in other ways, however).
Its Pro section gets a two-point grayscale control and a few gamma presets, along with a bunch of less-useful stuff like Black Extension and AGC, both of which should be set to zero. LG and Samsung offer 10-point (or higher) grayscale settings, along with full color management, in their plasmas, and the latter would be particularly helpful in Panasonic's case.
Last year I ranked Panasonic's Smart TV interface, called VieraCast, highest for its simple layout and ease of use. The company didn't change a thing for 2012 on the ST50 (although other models I saw demoed with app folders and a gallery view).
The Panasonic TC-PST50 series not only improves upon its predecessor ST30 in every way, it actually deserves the same lofty 9 we gave to the flagship VT30. Its black levels are just as deep as the VT30's -- and deeper than any other 2011 plasma -- its color accuracy and gamma are superb, albeit not quite reference, and its bright-room performance is better than we've seen on any plasma TV, ever. Color isn't quite perfect, and matte-screen LCDs are still a better choice for very bright rooms, but I found few faults with the ST50's 2D picture. The 3D was less impressive, with crosstalk being the biggest issue, but it definitely wasn't a deal breaker.