Plasma panels are hotter than pistols these days, and the 50-inch category, where true HDTV performance begins, is really on fire. Panasonic's PT-50PD3-P, a 50-inch, 16:9 wide-screen plasma panel, has the resolution to do HDTV sources justice, but it comes at a premium price. Nonetheless, if you've a nice big patch of open wall and extra cash for an outboard video processor, this panel makes a pretty fine piece of video art. The PT-50PD3-P, like most plasma units, is essentially all screen. Its measurements alone--29 inches tall by 48 inches wide by just 3.9 inches thick--make for a cool, high-tech look even before the display lights up. A narrow, dark-gray border surrounds the screen, and a few of the panel's functions (Power, Input, and Volume) are located below the screen on the left.
Panasonic uses the same remote for all of its plasma panels, and it has not changed in several years. The control is small, well laid out, and simple to use.
The model number PT-50PD3-P denotes a package including the stand. The panel itself actually has model number TH-50PHW3 printed on it, which sometimes appears as TH-42PW5U. In addition, the professional version of this panel appears under model number TH-50PHD3U. Finally, Panasonic now has a newer iteration of this set with model number PT-50PHD4-P, which we will review soon.
The PT-50PD3-P's feature set and connectivity options are nearly identical to those of its smaller cousin, the PT-42PD3-P, but this 50-incher has better resolution. Its 1,366x768-pixel resolution is technically high enough to display the full resolution of the 720p HDTV format, which is less common than the 1080i format among HDTV broadcasters. The panel can accept any video, including standard TV, DVD, HDTV--both 720p and 1080i--and numerous computer signals. Its internal processor scales all material to fit the pixels.
Panasonic includes three selectable color temperatures (warm, normal, and cool), which vary from a reddish tone to a progressively bluer overall color palette. There are also three different picture modes--Standard, Dynamic, and Cinema--all of which have their own preset levels for contrast, brightness, and the like. A variety of aspect ratios are available to size incoming video for the wide screen. The most obvious missing performance feature here is 3:2 pull-down in the video processing; see the Performance section for more details.
Adjustable sidebars and a screensaver feature both aid in preventing burn-in. The sidebars can be set to off (a.k.a. black), dark, medium, or bright. We recommend that if you do view 4:3 material on the panel, you bring the Picture setting--in other words, the contrast--down to no higher than the midpoint. In addition, you should set the sidebar level to medium in order to help prevent any vertical lines from permanently burning into the screen.
Connectivity options on the PT-50PD3-P are somewhat limited. A single set of five BNC connectors accommodates either RGBHV or component video (Y, Pb, and Pr), so you can't connect two high-resolution video sources--such as a progressive-scan DVD player and an HDTV receiver--at once. Other connectors include one 15-pin, VGA-style RGB input; one S-Video input; one composite-video input with stereo audio ins; and one 9-pin, Serial RS-232 control-port connection. There are also left and right stereo speaker outputs for external speaker hookup. As is typical of display devices everywhere, the PT-50PD3-P comes set up for an extremely bright picture. Contrast was much too high, and blacks looked completely washed out. In addition to impairing the picture, high initial levels can permanently burn into the screen, especially if the image is left static for a long time.
After a full calibration, the panel looked remarkably better. As is the case with Panasonic's 42-inch plasma model, the color decoder is quite good. This set's sharpness control does introduce serious edge-enhancement artifacts with 480i sources--such as satellite, cable TV, or interlaced DVD players--and should be set carefully. The warm color-temperature preset was at least in the ballpark of 6,500 degrees Kelvin, but we were still able to improve color fidelity by calibrating the grayscale.
The PT-50PD3-P is a good performer as far as plasma panels go, with one major exception: It does not have 3:2 pull-down detection in the video processing. We found significant motion artifacts when viewing the slow-pan opening sequence of Star Trek: Insurrection; the problems appeared as moving lines in the overturned boats and the roofs of buildings. We also checked a variety of scenes on The Professional, and chapter 12, for example, displayed artifacts around the jogger's shoulder on the yellow/orange jacket.
For the best performance from all NTSC sources, you will need to mate this panel to an outboard video processor with 3:2 pull-down, such as the $899 (list) DVDO iScan Pro. At the very least, you'll want to use a good progressive-scan DVD player to ensure artifact-free viewing.
After a separate calibration for 1080i HDTV sources, we watched some scenes from Appointment with Death on Cablevision's HBOHD channel. HDTV looked good, particularly with bright material, but not as good as on the smaller, lower-resolution PT-42PD3-P. Specifically, we saw more false-contouring artifacts--smudging and lack of definition in dark areas--on the 50-inch panel. Black-level performance, although not quite as good as that of its smaller cousin, is nonetheless better than that of most other 50-inch plasma panels that we've seen.
In terms of comparison, the NEC 50MP2 50-inch panel has better video processing, including 3:2 pull-down. On the other hand, that set doesn't handle black nearly as well.