Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
When it comes to black levels, you apparently get what you pay for. Pioneer's PDP-5020FD is the company's cheapest flat-panel plasma HDTV for 2008, yet it still costs significantly more than the poshest plasmas produced by Panasonic. We really liked the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U we reviewed earlier this year, and despite the Pioneer's capability to produce a darker shade of black--the most-important ingredient in overall picture quality--we don't think the newest "Kuro" is worth the steep price of entry for most high-end HDTV shoppers. Don't get us wrong; the PDP-5020FD is still a superb TV, and deep-pocketed videophiles who prize the absolute blackest black available will find plenty of reasons to spend the extra money for that inky goodness. However, with this TV's color accuracy issues and lack of adjustability, we expect more than a few of those deep-pocketed videophiles to spring for the Elite version instead.
If you liked the look of last year's PDP-5080HD, you'll like the external appearance of this year's PDP-5080FD. There's basically no difference. The 2008 model has the same-size, equally unadorned glossy black rectangle surrounding the screen, below which is the included speaker. Aesthetes can remove the speaker for a cleaner, nearly all-picture look, an option we love, although we're not the biggest fans of the stark, nonswiveling stand. Overall, we preferred the appearance of the Panasonic plasmas, with their flush pane of glass, but Pioneer's clean look is no slouch.
Speaking of flushness and lack thereof, nitpicky videophiles, among whom we count ourselves, may complain that the inner edge of the frame adjacent to the Pioneer's screen reflects bright light. This thin strip of reflection, which isn't visible on last year's PDP-5080HD, can certainly be distracting, especially in a darkened home theater. It's frankly surprising that the designers at Pioneer would let such a flaw creep into an expensive TV ostensibly aimed at home theater enthusiasts.
Including stand and speaker, the PDP-5020FD measures approximately 48.5 inches wide by 34.1 inches high by 13.8 inches deep and weighs 86 pounds. By itself, the panel measures 48.5 inches by 28.5 inches by 3.7 inches and weighs 74.1 pounds.
Pioneer's remote control was redesigned after last year, and we really don't like it. Gone are the different shapes for secondary functions; instead, almost all of the keys on the new remote share the same square shape, tiny size, and are arranged in a staid grid. While that may make the clicker look cooler in some designer's opinion, it sure doesn't help navigate the scads of buttons. Sure, we liked the direct access to each of the inputs and the glow-in-the-dark keys, but we can't forgive the unforgiving grid.
The menu system underwent an even more thorough overhaul. Instead of overlaying the menu atop the picture, as nearly every other HDTV does, the Pioneer shrinks the live TV image into a small window in the middle-left sector, and fills the remainder of the screen with menu text, onscreen explanations, and guide icons on a black background. We liked the new menus, which are exceedingly easy to read, and appreciated the fact that during picture adjustments the standard overlay arrangement returns, so you can see the effects of your adjustments. We also appreciated the Tools menu, which provided easy access to many of the most-used functions.
For such an expensive HDTV, the Pioneer PDP-5020FD certainly doesn't have as many extras as most competing high-definition sets. However, it does have a 1080p native resolution--although, even at this screen size it's difficult to tell the difference between 1080p and lesser resolutions.
Pioneer has positioned the non-Elite models in its lineup to appeal to the average person, according to the company, and so has stripped out a number of picture controls that were available last year. The PDP-5020FD lacks color temperature presets, a noise reduction control, a gamma control, and numerous other more-esoteric settings that the 2007 models included. If you want a bunch of picture adjustments on your 2008 Kuro, you'll have to pony up for the Elite version (more info).
The PDP-5020FD offers seven total picture presets; five of which can be adjusted using the available basic picture controls and apply to every input, while one of the five is labeled Standard and it's independent per input. We found Movie mode to deliver the most-accurate color temperature (the rest were much bluer), but since it's not independent per input, you can't use tweak Movie for various components.
The company's recommended picture mode is Optimum, which automatically adjusts the picture according to room lighting and content. Other adjustments include a Smooth mode that introduces dejudder processing and an Advanced mode that switches the TV to a 72Hz refresh rate designed to work with 1080p/24 sources. See the Performance section for more details.
An excellent selection of six aspect ratio modes is available for high-definition sources and five for standard definition, along with an Auto feature that attempts to set the correct aspect ratio for you. As we'd expect, there's also a dot-by-dot mode that scales 1080i and 1080p sources perfectly without any overscan. If you're interested in using this mode, which we highly recommend, be sure to disable the "Auto Size" option in the Setup>Option menu, or else the TV will default to Auto (which doesn't seem to like dot-by-dot much) every time you turn it on.
Pioneer added its Home Media Gallery to the TV this year, which lets it interface with a USB thumbdrive or your home network via an Ethernet port to view photos, or play music and video files on the TV. Pioneer's implementation doesn't include as a media-rich experience like Samsung's LN46A750, which has built-in Shockwave tutorials, weather reports, and other more advance features, but it still offers a decent DLNA option with a wide array of supported file format. Other features include picture-in-picture with a side-by-side option, and a variety of options to combat potential burn-in, including a pixel orbiter, a scrolling white bar to wipe out retained images, and a mode that "simultaneously optimizes the related settings to alleviate image retention."
While we appreciated the addition of a pair of power-saver modes, which somewhat limit peak light output and therefore energy consumption, a more-important feature is the same kind of store/home choice found on Panasonic and Samsung panels. When we first plugged in, the TV it asked us whether we were in the store or at home, and when we chose "home" the TV was automatically set in the Standard picture mode, which is designed to meet the new Energy Star guidelines coming later this year. According to our tests, Standard did indeed consume less power (about 100 watts less) than we tested on last year's default mode, although compared with the ultra-dim Standard mode on the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U, the Pioneer is a moderate energy hog. See the Juice Box for details.