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Panasonic has a reputation for producing high-quality plasma televisions, and with its 2012 models the company has not disappointed. The new lineup has single-handedly changed the level of quality we now expect from midrange televisions. The Panasonic TC-ST50 series redefined the picture quality/value equation, and the UT50 series is very close behind. As the least-expensive 2012 Panasonic plasma series with 55- and 60-inch sizes, the UT50 series is positioned as a value option, and while it misses a couple of features of the ST50 series, it still boasts very impressive picture quality.
Black levels on the UT50 series are about the same as what we saw on the superb flagship TC-P55VT30 a year ago, which is almost unbelievable in such a cheap TV, and while the sparse color controls give little wiggle room, color accuracy isn't an issue.
Two main extras go missing: the UT50 lacks the ST50's "louver" screen filter and so looks worse when the lights are on. It also has a limited number of connections, with no onboard Wi-Fi and only three video inputs in total, including just two HDMI ports. If you have lots of outboard gear you may need to use an external device for switching.
Which should you choose between the UT50 and ST50? Do you watch TV with the lights off all the time? I don't, and you probably don't either, so I feel the extra $300 or so is worth it to get the ST50's significantly better bright-room image quality. On its own merits, however, the UT50 is still an excellent TV and one of the best values of the year.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 50-inch TC-P50UT50, but this review also applies to the other screen sizes in the series. All sizes have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality. Update 10/1/2012: The 42-inch size of this series is no longer widely available for sale, although you may be able to find it some places.
|Panasonic TC-P42UT50||42 inches (discontinued)|
|Panasonic TC-P50UT50||50 inches (reviewed)|
|Panasonic TC-P55UT50||55 inches|
|Panasonic TC-P60UT50||60 inches|
After years of what seemed like half-hearted attempts at design, Panasonic has finally emerged from the wilderness with its reasonably stylish 2012 range. It may be a style influenced by -- read "heavily borrowed from" -- from other manufacturers, but at least the company has realized that metallic brown isn't a good look.
In fact, Panasonic liked the design of the ST50 so much, with its Samsung-like crystal rim, that it used it again on the UT50. The two TVs differ though in that the UT50 has a glossy-black appearance while the ST50 is a dark gunmetal color -- and the UT50 has a thicker panel. If you want niceties like a swivel stand you're out of luck.
The remote control is a cut-down version of the ST50's glossy clicker. It's matte with colorful buttons, about 6 inches long, and I actually found it a bit easier to use than the ST50 remote. Panasonic's previous nuts-and-bolts approach to design is still apparent in its menu system. It's easy to use and navigate but doesn't look very flashy, with the same blue-and-yellow color scheme from previous years.
|Display technology||Plasma||LED backlight||N/A|
|Smart TV||Yes||Internet connection||Wired|
|3D technology||Active||3D glasses included||No|
|Refresh rate(s)||60Hz, 48Hz||Dejudder (smooth) processing||Yes|
The main difference between the UT50 and the ST50 that affects the picture is the filter over the screen: the ST50 has the company's louver filter while the UT50 does not. This filter is designed to reject ambient light and make blacks deeper in bright rooms, meaning the UT50 performs worse with the lights on than the ST50.
The UT50 offers Smart TV but lacks built-in Wi-Fi, so you'll need to invest in a wireless bridge or connect Panasonic's $50 dongle if you don't want to run an Ethernet cable to the TV. If you want to hook up a 3D movie then be aware that you'll need to buy 3D glasses separately. If you are suffering a dearth of 3D material, you can engage the TV's 2D-to-3D converter.
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; Samsung's $20 SSG-4100GB glasses do, for example. At $65 each, Panasonic's own 2012 3D glasses are pretty expensive in comparison, although I wouldn't be surprised if that price fell soon. All universal glasses use the Bluetooth standard; check out the CES writeup for more.
The Smart Viera name is the biggest change to this year's Smart TV offering -- its usability remains the same. The interface's eight tiles offer up the best apps available from the first screen, and these include Hulu, Netflix, and Skype. The interface is a bit sluggish and looks a bit old hat compared with the slick interfaces of LG and Samsung TVs, but it's also arguably more usable due to its simplicity.
Panasonic has one of the better video offerings with its Smart TV interface, including access to Amazon Instant that Samsung and LG TVs don't have. Check out the full comparison for more.Picture settings
Of the assorted picture modes, Standard was unusually and almost unwatchably dim, obviously in an attempt to comply with Energy Star ratings. While it did offer up LCD-like power usage (117W) I'd suggest saving your eyes instead of a couple of bucks and setting the TV to Cinema.
The biggest missing feature is ample inputs. Unless you connect a switch box or AV receiver, you'll only be able to plug three devices in. The TV has just two HDMI ports and a hybrid composite/component input. While it has two USB ports for connecting external media keys and gaming peripherals, it doesn't have the once-ubiquitous PC input.
Picture quality (How we test TVs)
After the Panasonic TC-P50ST30 became our value pick of last year, my colleague David Katzmaier and I had big hopes for the ST50 series, but its stellar performance still shocked the both of us. Similarly, we expected the UT50 to perform about the same as the ST30 series. But no; the UT50 is almost as good as the ST50.
Black levels are among the best we've seen on any plasma, and the deepest for the money bar none. Color fidelity is a notch below reference-quality but still superb. That said, we recommend that videophiles pay for the ST50 and use our calibration settings -- it's worth the difference in price.
Click the image at the right to see the picture settings used in the UT50 review and to read more about how this TV’s picture controls worked during calibration.
|Panasonic TC-P50ST30||50-inch plasma|
|Panasonic TC-P55ST50||55-inch plasma|
|Samsung PN60E8000||60-inch plasma|
|LG 47G2||47-inch edge-lit LCD|
Black level: If you paid good money for a Panasonic VT30 or a Samsung PND8000 last year, it's time to look away. Don't worry, we'll let you know when it's safe.
The UT50 has black levels that are incredibly deep, and the fact it does it so cheaply is flabbergasting. When viewed side by side in a black room there is very little to separate the UT50 from the ST50 and the Samsung PNE8000. The UT50 didn't go as deep as either one, but it was nearly impossible to tell the black areas, like letterbox bars, apart.
Details in shadows were also very good, if a tiny bit lighter on the UT50 than on the ST50. The UT50 clearly beat the Samsung in this area, however, and overall gamma was excellent.
Despite the white-balance problem brought about by a lack of calibration controls, the UT50 wasn't susceptible to off-color blacks as can be a problem with LCDs.
OK, owners of (non-Kuro) flagship plasma TVs of yesteryear, you can look now.
Color accuracy: Though the white-balance response looks terrible on paper, the UT50's colors were reasonably accurate when compared with the ST50. While it lacked the ST50's eye-popping saturation, skin tones looked very good, and despite straining my eyeballs to see differences in shadows and skies -- where inaccurate secondary colors and low-level discoloration are most noticeable -- the TV held firm.
Video processing: The Panasonic proved to be just as capable as the Samsung E8000 when it came to processing disparate sources such as satellite TV and Blu-ray movies. The TV was able to properly decode the film test on our HQV disk without jaggies, and the flyby of the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier (pre-Space Shuttle) in "I Am Legend" showed proper film cadence in 60Hz mode. As usual, you should avoid flicker-prone 48Hz mode at all costs.
Bright lighting: While the ST50 is an excellent performer in a bright room thanks to its Infinite Black Pro filter, the UT50's lack of that filter means it doesn't perform well. The image is watchable but blacks dissolve into mush with little detail. If you have a well-lit room and seldom watch in the dark you're better off opting for the ST50.
There is one useful side effect of the UT50's lack of a louver filter though, and this applies if you are a gamer. The ST50 rejects light from above, and hence isn't viewable if you're standing up over it, which is something you would do if you're playing a Wii game or other game that requires you to stand. With the Kinect this isn't that much of an issue because the sensor won't work if you're so close you can see the back of the TV, but Wii games and Rock Band would be easier to play on the UT50.
3D: Hailed as an instant classic of 3D cinema -- though in my opinion a terribly slow kid's movie -- "Hugo" proves an excellent tester for televisions due to its use of extreme depths and high contrast.
At the 5.00 mark, for example, our hero Hugo walks towards the toy master's table to try and steal a mechanical mouse. This scene proves difficult for some TVs as his outstretched hand is highly contrasted against the dark table and his head is very far forward on the 3D axis. Sadly, the Panasonic wasn't able to reproduce the scene without doubling the image, and the ST50 showed exactly the same problem. In comparison, the passive system of the LG G2 television was able to reproduce this perfectly without any crosstalk.
In 2012, we have decided to present readers with power usage information only for plasmas and high-end televisions. Given their similarities, the UT50's power usage was akin to the ST50's, with a 210.81W reading. It's higher than an LCD for sure, but won't use as much electricity in a year as your fridge.
|GEEK BOX: Test||Result||Score|
|Black luminance (0%)||0.0037||Good|
|Near-black x/y (5%)||0.311/0.3418||Good|
|Dark gray x/y (20%)||0.3057/0.3273||Poor|
|Bright gray x/y (70%)||0.3156/0.3293||Good|
|Before avg. color temp.||6423.1051||Good|
|After avg. color temp.||6424.25||Good|
|Red lum. error (de94_L)||5.3826||Poor|
|Green lum. error (de94_L)||4.1297||Poor|
|Blue lum. error (de94_L)||3.0454||Poor|
|Cyan hue x/y||0.2291/0.3288||Good|
|Magenta hue x/y||0.3209/0.1556||Good|
|Yellow hue x/y||0.4245/0.5054||Good|
|1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)||Pass||Good|
|1080i De-interlacing (film)||Pass||Good|
|Motion resolution (max)||1200||Good|
|Motion resolution (dejudder off)||750||Average|