When Panasonic detailed its 2011 plasma TV lineup at CES this January, we immediately pegged the TC-PST30 as the one model that "might hit the value sweet spot." After putting it through its paces we're going to eliminate the uncertainty from that phrase. The TC-PST30 may lack the THX certification of its more-expensive brother the TC-PGT30, but picture quality between the two is largely a wash, and excellent overall in both cases. Both share identical, well-stocked feature sets, highlighted by improved Internet suites, Wi-Fi dongles and 3D capability (albeit sans included glasses). The ST30's only major downside, and the reason why some buyers might spring for another model, is pedestrian styling. At each of its six sizes the Panasonic TC-PST30 series is our early favorite for best plasma TV value of 2011.
Editors' note (September 1, 2011): The reviewed size of this TV is undergoing long-term testing, the results of which don't affect this review but may be interesting nonetheless. Click here for details.
Series information: We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 50-inch TC-P50ST30, 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.
|Panasonic TC-P42ST30||42 inches|
|Panasonic TC-P46ST30||46 inches|
|Panasonic TC-P50ST30 (reviewed)||50 inches|
|Panasonic TC-P55ST30||55 inches|
|Panasonic TC-P60ST30||60 inches|
|Panasonic TC-P65ST30||65 inches|
|Panel depth||2.8 inches||Bezel width||1.75 inches|
|Single-plane face||No||Swivel stand||Yes|
The ST30 cuts a chunky, plain appearance among the slim, sleek TVs available today. Panasonic attempts to spice up its thick, glossy black bezel with a subtle area of coloration, but to our eye it looks more like an extended smudge. The TV is understated enough to blend into most room decors, so that's a plus.
|Remote size (LxW)||9x2 inches||QWERTY keyboard||No|
|Illuminated keys||31||IR device control||No|
|Menu item explanations||Yes||Onscreen manual||No|
Panasonic's menus and remotes are basically unchanged from 2010. The menu system looks and acts quite a bit less sophisticated than Samsung or Sony, and we didn't appreciate having to scroll through so many pages in the Picture menu. 3D Settings seems misplaced in the Setup menu, and onscreen support beyond basic explanations is nonexistent.
We like the remote more than Samsung's thanks to the better button differentiation, but not quite as much as Sony's slicker clicker. We missed having a dedicated Netflix button, and noticed that despite officially renaming its Internet suite for TVs "Viera Connect," the button on the remote still says "Viera Cast."
|Display technology||plasma||LED backlight||N/A|
|3D technology||Active||3D glasses included||No|
|Screen finish||Glass||Internet connection||Wi-Fi adapter|
|Refresh rate(s)||60Hz, 48Hz||Dejudder (smooth) processing||Yes|
The ST30 is missing the THX mode of the GT30, but otherwise their feature sets are pretty much identical. Unlike the step-up VT30 it lacks 96Hz refresh rate but, according to our test, it delivered proper film cadence on 1080p/24 sources anyway. New for 2011 Panasonic has added dejudder processing to its plasmas. See performance for more details.
Panasonic includes a Wi-Fi dongle with the ST30, occupying a USB slot but happily allowing you to use a wireless connection with this TV without paying an extra $80 or more for a dongle. On the downside, and unlike the VT30, it doesn't any include 3D glasses, although given Samsung's recent move, we wouldn't be surprised if that changed soon.
In the meantime the new 2011 glasses are still quite expensive at $179 list per pair. Improvements over the 2010 glasses, model TY-EW3D10, include an on-off switch to make it easier to determine whether they're powered up, a closed design, and significantly lighter weight. We wish they used Bluetooth sync like Samsung's 2011 glasses. On the other hand we appreciate their prior-year backward compatibility; you can use Panasonic's 2011 glasses with the 2010 TVs, and the 2010 glasses with the 2011 TVs.
|Amazon Instant||Yes||Hulu Plus||No|
Like Samsung and LG, Panasonic redesigned its Internet suite for 2011 TVs, adding an app store, greatly expanding content offerings and changing the name--it's now Viera Connect for TVs, although the old VieraCast moniker still applies to 2011 Blu-ray players.
Vudu video and Hulu Plus are still missing, and we could nitpick about the absence of Rhapsody since Napster gets a spot, but otherwise the selection is solid. Unfortunately the Netflix interface doesn't allow search and uses the old, horizontal scroll instead of the new tiled layout, but at least you get genres.
Notable apps include Shoutcast for Internet radio and one that works with the $159 Withings Wi-Fi body scale. At CES Panasonic touted Gameloft's Asphalt 5 racing game, a smartphone staple, to show off the platform's capabilities.. It became available mid-April, so we gave it a spin on the ST30. The graphics and gameplay were acceptable in short bursts on the big screen, and definitely a step above most games we've seen on Internet-connected TV platforms. But that's not saying much. There's very little substance to the game, and worse we experienced mild cramping after just one race, due to the awkwardness of using the remote's numeric keypad to steer. Annoyingly you can't modify the controls at all. The game costs $4.99 and requires an SD card to install--it really should be $0.99 at most.
Overall we preferred the layout and simplicity of the Viera Connect interface to Samsung's significantly more ambitious, and more cluttered, Smart Hub. Panasonic seems to enforce a straightforward menu structure and default font in many of its app and widget designs, and as a result using them feels easier and more cohesive. We didn't miss having a web browser or video search capability, and as with last year we liked the ability to arrange and re-order app tiles among the various screens.
On the downside, response times were slower than Samsung's in many cases, but not slow enough to be annoying. We also wish you could activate apps from within the market, as opposed to having to back out to the main Viera Connect interface.
|Adjustable picture modes||5||Fine dejudder control||No|
|Color temperature presets||5||Fine color temperature control||2 points|
|Gamma presets||6||Color management system||No|
Among the five picture modes, you only get the full gamut of picture adjustments, which includes the two-point grayscale control (calibrators rejoice: green is available this year!), gamma and a few others, when you're in the Custom setting. You'll need to input a 1080p/24 source to activate the 24p mode at 48Hz, but due to the flickering we don't recommend it.
Speaking of gamut, we'd like to see a color management system on this TV, but no dice. The two-step Motion Smoother dejudder control is OK, but most dejudder-equipped LCDs offer at least three and/or a custom mode as well.
You do get full picture control with Netflix and other streaming services--the TV basically treats Viera Connect as a separate "input." Panasonic also offers 2D-to-3D conversion among its smattering of 3D settings, but it won't convert streaming video.
|HDMI inputs||2 back, 1 side||Component video inputs||1|
|Composite video input(s)||1||VGA-style PC input(s)||0|
|USB port||2 side||Ethernet (LAN) port||Yes|
The ST30's jack pack is a bit subpar. We were disappointed by the lack of a VGA input. Three HDMI is one less than most TVs at this level offer, and people who have lots of HDMI gear may find themselves wanting more.
The Panasonic TC-PST30 showed excellent picture quality overall, overcoming the paucity of adjustable picture controls with deep black levels and very good video processing. Compared to the more expensive GT30, which has THX mode, it actually delivered superior gamma and similar black levels, at the expense of some image brightness and color saturation--enough to earn the two the same performance score (between the two, ignoring price, we give the slight edge to the ST30 for dark-room videophiles due to its better gamma). Compared to the best 2010 plasmas from LG and Samsung the ST30's somewhat worse color accuracy was a liability, but its deeper black levels make up the difference.
As usual we ended up liking Cinema best among the various picture presets, but were disappointed to see that Panasonic again limited the amount of picture control available in that mode, leaving only Custom with access to the Pro Settings menu. So for our calibration we tried both Custom and Cinema, and ended up going back to Cinema.
The short story is that while Cinema is a bit dim--Panasonic mystifyingly limits its peak light output to about 32 fL, short of our target 40--it's still much more accurate than anything we could tease out of Custom. The latter mode was plagued by poor color decoding (red and green push) and washed-out gamma, as well as more low-level video noise (dither) after calibration, and none of the available controls could deal with those issues. In the end we'd prefer to get full picture control that actually worked, but had to settle for the dimmer and less saturated, but otherwise superior, Cinema mode.
As with previous Panasonic reviews we've included both our Custom and Cinema picture settings (linked above) so you can see the differences for yourself. And for the record, in a first for a CNET review, we didn't change one single setting from the Cinema defaults during our calibration (in other words, none of the changes we tried with the available controls improved picture quality), which is why the Pre and Post charts look so similar.
For our image quality tests we checked out "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" on Blu-ray using the comparison lineup below.
|Panasonic TC-P50GT30||50-inch plasma|
|Panasonic TC-P50GT25||50-inch plasma|
|Samsung PN50C8000||50-inch plasma|
|LG 50PX950||50-inch plasma|
|Samsung UN46D6400||46-inch edge-lit LED-based LCD|
|Vizio XVT553SV||55-inch full-array LED-based LCD|
|Pioneer PRO-111FD (reference)||50-inch plasma|
Black level: The Panasonic TC-PST30 delivered a deep black shade of black overall, which was most visible in dark areas like the letterbox bars and the recesses of Voldemort's banquet hall, and the clothing of its denizens, in Chapter 2. We found it essentially impossible to tell the difference between the three Panasonic plasmas (despite the slight numeric difference between the GT and ST's 0 percent black measurements), and the ST30 surpassed the black levels of the Samsung C8000 and the LG. The UND6400 looked just a bit darker in some scenes but it was difficult to spot even in our side-by-side lineup. (In our GT30 review, which we've since modified, we originally wrote that the ST30 appeared "visibly lighter" but that was due to improper adjustment, since corrected, of the ST30).
One difference between the ST30 and the others was its dimmer image in Cinema mode. Highlights and bright areas looked a bit duller in our dark room as a result, a difference that was most noticeable in mixed dark and light material. The white hair of the diners and the lights of the chandeliers, not to mention Voldemort's pale face, all looked dimmer in comparison on the ST30, which robbed the scene of some impact and contrast. The snowy ground in Chapter 19 provided another example, and again the ST30 appeared too dim. Of course using Custom could address this issue at the expense of some color and gamma accuracy, and as usual this issue would be much less apparent outside of a side-by-side comparison.
The ST30 outperformed the GT30 handily in terms of gamma accuracy, a strength that showed up as realistic shadows with plenty of detail, as well as faces in well-lit areas that has the right amount of shading without appearing too washed out.
We kept an eye out for "floating blacks" or fluctuations in black level, but didn't notice any during "Harry Potter," nor during the scenes in "Tron: Legacy" that caused them to appear on the GT30. We also didn't see any overt fluctuation of black level on test patterns with the ST30. The issue might still be apparent in some scenes, especially at different picture settings, but in our experience it's quite subtle, at best.
Color accuracy: The inability to properly calibrate the ST30's Cinema mode cost it some accolades in this category, but Cinema was accurate enough in the end. Skin tones looked realistic, for example in the faces of Hermione and Harry in Chapter 23. Colors didn't appear as saturated as we'd like to see however, so the leaves on the forest floor and the green of the trees, for example, appeared less impactful and vibrant than on some of the other displays (increasing the color control wasn't an option since Cinema on the ST30 still evinces some color decoding errors, albeit not as prevalent they are as Custom). In its favor the also ST30 delivered a very accurate shade of near-black.
Video processing: The ST30 and GT30 performed basically the same in this category.
Like its 2011 brother the TC-PST30 passed our 1080p/24 test in its "60Hz'"setting. It delivered a much smoother cadence with the proper look of film than did the GT25 from 2010, and was basically indistinguishable from the C8000 (in Cinema Smooth mode), the Pioneer and the other sets with proper 1080p/24. The ST30 handled 1080p/24 the same way in 60Hz mode, so we assume Panasonic made a processing tweak this year. As usual we found the 48Hz mode flickered too much to be watchable.
[Update June 9] On the other hand we did notice some artifacts from 1080p/24 sources in 60Hz mode. On the "Digital Video Essentials" test Blu-ray we noticed shifting lines and minor instability in the downtown Philadelphia buildings during an upward-facing pan. We didn't see any similar issues during other program material, but assume they might crop up.
Panasonic also introduced dejudder processing this year with a setting entitled "Motion smoother." It delivers two options, Weak and Strong; they looked very similar to our eye, although Weak left a hint of more judder. As usual we found both relatively distasteful.
The GT25 from last year had a "Blur reduction control" that, when engaged, delivered full-motion resolution. That control has been dropped for 2011, but Motion smoother basically does the same thing: when it was engaged, in either Weak or Strong, we saw an increase in motion resolution in our test pattern (see the Geek Box). As usual any blur was impossible for us to discern with real program material.
The ST30 passed our 1080i deinterlacing test with 3:2 pull-down set to On, but not when we used the default Auto (and, despite what the menu explanation says, this setting does affect HDMI sources).
Bright lighting: Panasonic modified the antireflective screen used by the ST30 and GT30 compared to last year, and as a result we saw deeper black levels and contrast under the bright lights than on the GT25, the LG PX950 or the Samsung C8000, but not deeper than on the Kuro or the LCDs. We did notice brighter reflections in the ST30's screen compared with the GT25, but overall we still consider its bright room image quality an improvement and among the best plasma screens we've tested.
That said its dimmer picture in Cinema mode is even more of a liability than usual in a bright room, so you'll probably want to use a different, brighter picture setting under the lights at the expense of some accuracy.
3D performance: The ST30's 3D picture quality was very good overall but compared to the other 2011 3D TVs in our lineup, it was our least favorite. Crosstalk was minimal, on par with the GT30's, although black levels on the latter were a bit better. The superior contrast of the UND6400 gave it the edge over the ST30, overcoming its slightly worse crosstalk, while the UND8000 series (subbed in for 3D in our lineup) outperformed them all.
Comparing between the four using "Tron: Legacy," for example, we saw a bit more crosstalk in the Chapter 5 dressing room scene with the D6400--visible as ghostly outlines around the girls' forms during one overhead shot, for example (28:00). On the UND8000 those outlines were much dimmer, while the Panasonics split the difference.
In other scenes, like the piping Quorra's dark suit as she looks in the mirror in Chapter 9, the UND8000 again outperformed the plasmas at reducing crosstalk, although both again showed less than the UND6400. In this scene the GT30 actually showed a bit more crosstalk than the ST30, a difference we assume has to do with the former's brighter image.
The ST30 showed the lightest blacks of the bunch, and as a result dark areas washed out quite a bit compared to the LEDs and, to a lesser extent, the slightly darker GT30. In the other hand the ST30's whites were dimmest as well, so as a result its picture was the least contrast-y and punchy among the four.
We appreciated that the ST30 (and GT30) lacked the annoying moire artifact we first noticed on the grid floor of the command room in "Avatar" (at 12:20, for example) when watching the GT25.
As usual we checked out 3D using the default settings--Cinema in the ST30's case--since we don't currently calibrate for 3D.
Power consumption: The TC-P50ST30 uses a bit less power than the TC-P50GT30 post-calibration--perhaps the latter's thinner cabinet is a factor--which allows it to creep into Average territory considering its screen size and match the "efficient-for-a-plasma" G20 from 2010. It's no power miser compared to LEDs, however. In case you're wondering, Standard is still woefully dim, albeit brighter than the GT30, while the Cinema mode we used for testing consumed 181 watts (mainly since it's dimmer than Custom, which is what we used for the "Calibrated" numbers here since it actually hit 40 fL.)
|Black luminance (0%)||0.0094||Average|
|Near-black x/y (5%)||0.3106/0.329||Good|
|Dark gray x/y (20%)||0.3076/0.3253||Poor|
|Bright gray x/y (70%)||0.311/0.3304||Good|
|Before avg. color temp.||6531||Good|
|After avg. color temp.||6519||Good|
|Red lum. error (de94_L)||2.1834||Average|
|Green lum. error (de94_L)||1.7366||Average|
|Blue lum. error (de94_L)||2.8963||Average|
|Cyan hue x/y||0.2247/0.3329||Good|
|Magenta hue x/y||0.3243/0.1584||Good|
|Yellow hue x/y||0.4108/0.494||Average|
|1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)||Pass||Good|
|1080i De-interlacing (film)||Pass||Good|
|Motion resolution (max)||1200||Good|
|Motion resolution (dejudder off)||800||Average|
|PC input resolution (VGA)||n/a||n/a|
|Panasonic TC-P50ST30||Picture settings|
|Picture on (watts)||131.93||215.77||N/A|
|Picture on (watts/sq. inch)||0.12||0.2||N/A|
|Cost per year||$29.00||$47.38||N/A|
|Score (considering size)||Average|