Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
Ever since we gave the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U an Editors' Choice award as our favorite plasma HDTV so far, we've been bombarded by variations of the same question: "Is the more expensive TH-50PZ850U better?" After finally getting the chance to review the 850U, our answer is "no." The TH-50PZ850U is the company's flagship plasma, the most expensive in its lineup, but the less expensive 800U we tested delivered slightly better picture quality, mainly due to its superior color accuracy. Don't get us wrong; the 850U still put up a great picture, and some viewers may well appreciate its wider, albeit less accurate, color gamut. The flagship model's biggest step-up feature is Viera Cast, Panasonic's first attempt at connecting one of its TVs directly to the Internet, which currently allows the TV to display digital photos from Google's Picasa service, YouTube videos, and stocks and weather info. Problem is, we're not sure how many high-end HDTV shoppers care about viewing crud-quality YouTube videos on their beautiful HDTVs. In the end we think sticklers for picture quality will opt for the 800U series, and YouTube will not figure into the decision.
The TH-50PZ850U looks exactly like the TH-50PZ800U with the exception of the coloring of its "lips" below the screen--dark gray on the 800 and black on the 850--so if you've read that review, feel free to skip down the page unless you like the feeling of deja vu.
In photos the television looks a lot like every other HDTV on the market: a glossy black rectangle. In person, however, it's a lot more striking and less glossy. In fact, the black frame around the screen isn't glossy at all; it's simply fronted by a big pane of glass that lends the panel a somewhat more-sophisticated look than a typical set, where the frame is raised a quarter-inch or so from the surface of the screen. Below the screen, the Panasonic's frame has what resembles a pair of pursed lips that protrude forward, bearing the logo and hiding a set of inputs behind a flip-down door.
The stand looks identical to the sloped number common to lower-end 2008 Panasonic plasmas like the TH-46PZ85U and the TH-42PX80U, but unlike those stands, this one swivels, courtesy of a lazy-Susan-like base hidden underneath. Including stand, the TH-50PZ850U measures 49.9 inches wide by 33.4 inches high by 15.3 inches deep and weighs 92.6 pounds; divested of stand its size shrinks to 49.9 by 31.2 by 4.1 inches and its weight to 81.6 pounds.
Panasonic's remote remains the same as last year, and we remain fans of its layout. The medium-length wand groups the distinct sets of right-size buttons in an easy-to-feel arrangement. Unlike the clicker included with the 800, the 850's clicker includes limited backlighting--just the channel, volume and keys to control other gear light up.
A familiar yellow-on-blue menu system leads to the television's setup functions, and although the graphics lack the panache of a Sony or a Samsung menu, navigation was intuitive enough. We liked that the company renamed its previously confusing "Normal" command to "Reset," which more accurately describes what it does to your picture settings.
Like many flagship products, the TH-50PZ850U is a guinea pig for a new feature not found on less expensive models. In the case of the Samsung LN46A750, for example, that feature was interactive content, a sort of www-lite, and the Panasonic's Viera Cast, available only on the PZ850U series, could be described in the same way. The service currently allows you to view YouTube videos, photos uploaded to Google's Picasa photo sharing service, news and stock information courtesy of Bloomberg (although unlike the Samsung, there's no way to create a custom portfolio), and local weather. Panasonic says it will add more content in the future, and in the next year or two we expect to see some iteration of VieraCast migrate down to less expensive Panasonic TVs.
We already tested Viera Cast extensively, as recorded in this blog post, so we won't go into it too much here except to say that, while it's cool to have that kind of stuff built-in, a cheap laptop hooked up to the TV itself can do a better job. If you really want YouTube on your TV without a PC or AppleTV, however, Viera Cast might be worth it to you.
Unlike the less expensive TH-50PZ800U, the flagship TH-50PZ850U is not THX certified. We're not exactly sure why, but we guess it has something to do with keeping prices down; perhaps the cost of including the THX license and Viera Cast would have driven the price into a place that, unlike Pioneer, Panasonic didn't want to go. It may also have to do with differing color gamuts (see Performance). Regardless, it's pretty confusing for a flagship product to lack a major picture quality feature that its step-down cousin includes.
The 850U does have a wider color gamut compared with the 800U, and in place of the THX mode there's a picture mode the company calls "Studio Reference." This model also features the ability to fine-tune the color temperature and a host of other picture parameters like gamma, courtesy of a "Pro Setting" picture menu that's only available when you select the "Custom" picture mode. Otherwise the feature set is basically identical to that of the TH-50PZ800U.
Naturally the high-end TH-50PZ850U has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, or 1080p, which is fast becoming a standard feature on all flat-panel HDTVs. As we've said before, however, the difference between 1080p and lower resolutions is difficult to discern, even at this relatively large screen size.
We appreciated the ability to adjust all of the five picture modes, including Studio Reference, and the fact that the Custom mode is independent per input. Additional picture controls include a color management option that we left off; a "C.A.T.S." mode that changes contrast on the fly and so should be left turned off; two species of noise reduction; and a black level control. There's also a "24p direct in" option that changes the set's refresh rate from 60Hz to 48Hz for compatibility with 1080p/24 signals; check out Performance for more details.
Panasonic also touts Game mode, which is little more than an easy way to select a particular input. A quick press of the "Game" button on the remote toggles between any of the inputs that have been labeled "Game" in the input naming menu. Pressing that button does not engage the Game picture mode (which is simply another collection of adjustable picture settings) nor does it affect video processing or lag time between controller and screen--although, to be fair, such modes on other HDTVs have little value as far as we can tell.
The TH-50PZ850U offers five aspect ratio controls for HD sources, more than most HDTVs on the market. There's also a setting called "HD Size 2" that allows the TV to display every pixel of 1080i and 1080p sources without overscan or scaling, and we recommend using it unless you notice interference along the extreme edges of the screen, which can occur on some HD sources. Unlike the 800U we tested, the 850U we received for this review had "HD Size 2" selected by default. A selection of five modes is also available for SD sources.
A new menu for 2008 deals with burn-in or, as the company calls it, "image retention." There's a pixel orbiter that moves the entire image gradually around the screen, along with an option to set the 4:3 mode to include gray bars to either side of the picture (as opposed to black, which cause image retention more easily than gray). On the off chance that the plasma retains an image, there's a scrolling bar that slides across the screen as a sort of eraser.
We would have liked to see an energy saver mode on this TV, but there is one extra that really helps ameliorate power consumption. When you first plug in and set up the TV, it asks you whether you're in a store or home environment. Choosing "home" engages the Standard picture preset by default across all of the inputs, which saves quite a bit of power over the Vivid preset. This savings is reflected in our Juice Box measurements below, where default was measured in Standard mode.
The Panasonic TH-50PZ850U lacks picture-in-picture, but it does include a thoughtful "Surf Mode" control, which can be set to restrict the TV's tuning options. You can set it to "all," "favorite," "digital only," or "analog only."
The jack pack of the TH-50PZ850U is as well-equipped as any high-end HDTV we've seen, starting with three HDMI jacks on the back panel and a fourth available out front. A VGA-style PC input is also onboard (1,366x760 maximum resolution), along with two component video inputs, an AV input with composite or S-Video, an RF input for antenna or cable, as well as an optical and an analog audio output. In addition to that last HDMI input, the front panel also sports a second AV input with composite and S-Video, as well as an SD card slot for displaying digital photos on the big screen. The 850U's card slot can also play back MPEG-2 and AVCHD video files, although we did not test this feature.
Naturally, the LAN port needs to connect to the Internet to use the Viera Cast functions. Unlike Samsung, Panasonic doesn't sell an official wireless adapter, although we were told that standard third-party adapters, such as wireless bridges, would work fine.
The Panasonic TH-50PZ850U can produce a superb picture, anchored by some of the deepest blacks we've seen, and while we do complain about its color accuracy compared with the HD standard, its color is still better than many high-end HDTVs on the market.
As we mentioned above, the TH-50PZ850U offers a Studio Reference mode that, as expected, turned out to deliver the most-accurate out-of-the-box picture. We ended up calibrating the set's grayscale in Custom mode, however, since it was the only one that allowed any tweaking of white balance. In the end we were able to improve color temperature and color accuracy a bit, although most of our other settings were similar to studio reference. Check out our full picture settings for details.
For our comparison and image quality tests we lined the TH-50PZ850U up next to its 800U brother, along with the Samsung PN50A650 and the Pioneer PDP-5080HD, all three 50-inch plasmas. We also threw in the Samsung LN52A650 to represent LCDs. (Before you ask, no, we haven't received our review sample of the Pioneer PDP-5020FD yet, so we couldn't use it to compare. Naturally we'll try to hang onto these Panasonic panels long enough to use them in a comparison during the PDP-5020FD review.) For our main round we treated ourselves to Gattaca on Blu-ray, courtesy of our reference Sony PlayStation 3.
Black level: The Panasonic TH-50PZ850U exhibited the one of the deepest shades of black we've ever witnessed on any display. The letterbox bars above and below the film, along with shadows and blackness in dark scenes, such as when Vincent and Jerome go out in the middle of the night to watch the rockets lift off, appeared inky and true. Compared with the other displays in the room, only the Pioneer mustered a deeper shade of black, and just barely; the 850U was even the tiniest bit deeper than the 800U, although there's no way we could have differentiated if the displays weren't side-by-side; and of course the two Samsung displays were lighter. Shadow detail, such as the edge of Vincent's hair, the folds in Jerome's jacket, and the details around their silhouettes against the night sky, looked natural, with the appropriately shallow rise from black to lighter shadows.
Color accuracy: Panasonic makes a big deal about the Digital Cinema Color on the 850U series, and color is the most noticeable difference between its picture and that of the 800U. The primary and secondary color points of the 800U hew very closely to the HDTV standard, and so its color is technically very accurate, while the color points of the 850U are not. Like many displays, its color gamut is wider than the HD standard, so the red blood in the centrifuge, for example, looks even redder and deeper on the 850U than on the 800U. Greens, such as the forest and shrubs that are visible when the janitorial crew is motored into the compound, looked both greener and seemingly a bit yellower to our eyes on the 850U. We switched off the Digital Cinema Color mode and the two displays came closer to one another, but there was still a pretty noticeable difference. Our measurements for the Geek Box below were taken with the more-accurate (again, compared to the HD standard) Off position for that mode.
An argument can be made that the wider color gamut on the 850 looks better, but that's largely subjective. Our goal, as always, is to evaluate color accuracy, in this case compared with the HD standard, and by that definition the 800U, along with the two Samsung displays in our comparison, were a good deal more accurate than the 850U.
Other areas of the Panasonic's color performance were very good. The 850's relatively linear grayscale was apparent in skin tones, such as Irene's face at the beach house, appeared natural if a tiny bit redder than the reference 800U. Color decoding wasn't at fault--it was basically right on; instead it was the very slightly reddish grayscale in mid-dark areas. Colors near black stayed quite accurate otherwise, however.
Video processing: Panasonic built the same 48Hz refresh rate option we complained about on the 800U into the 850U, and our complaints still apply. When fed a 1080p/24 source, the set flickers quite noticeably, especially in the brightest areas. The flicker is not subtle -- to the point why we wonder why Panasonic even included this mode at all. Needless to say, despite the fact that refreshing the screen in an even multiple of 24 did seem to smooth the characteristic 2:3 pulldown "hitch," we preferred watching the set in standard 60Hz mode.
As expected from any 1080p flat-panel, the 850U resolved every detail of 1080 resolution sources, although as always we had a very difficult time seeing any difference between this 1080p display and the same-size 1,366x768 Pioneer. Like many HDTVs we've tested, the Panasonic failed to properly deinterlace 1080i film-based material, despite its "3:2 pulldown" setting being set to "on." It actually failed this test worse than the 800U did, showing more artifacts in test patterns and more moire and breakup, for example, in the seats during the test disc's pan around Raymond James stadium as well as the grille of the RV from Chapter 6 of Ghost Rider. This failure isn't a huge deal however; for example, we didn't notice any deinterlacing artifacts when watching Gattaca in 1080i.
We complained about ineffective noise reduction in our review of the TH-46PX85U, but as with the 800U, the 850U's image was quite clean and not plagued by excessive noise, even with NR turned off.
Uniformity: As with nearly all plasmas we've tested, the TH-50PZ850U's image remained perfectly uniform across the screen, and viewing angles were superb, with none of the drop-off in contrast or color accuracy typical of LCD. As with the 800U, the 850U introduced very little false contouring.
Bright lighting: According to their spec sheets both the 800U and the 850U have the same antireflective screen, and all told we couldn't see any difference between them. Neither did quite as good a job of attenuating glare from daylight when we opened the blackout shades in our test lab, and objects reflected in the screen appeared a bit brighter and thus more distracting on the Panasonics than on the Pioneer. That said, the screen on the Panasonic was much better at dealing with reflections than many plasmas we've seen, including the Samsung PN50A650, and also significantly better than the Samsung LCD.
Standard-definition: With lower-quality sources, the TH-50PZ850U performed about average. It didn't quite resolve every detail of the DVD format, according to the resolution chart on the HQV DVD, and as a result details in the bridge and grass from that disc looked a bit softer than the other displays in our test. On the other hand, the Panasonic did a fine job of removing jaggies from diagonal lines and a waving American flag, and its 2:3 pulldown detection kicked in effectively, if not quite as quickly as some sets we've tested. Its noise reduction performed well with low-quality material too, cleaning up the motes in skies and sunsets as well as the Pioneer, albeit not quite as well as the Samsung LCD.
PC: As with most Panasonic HDTVs we've tested, the 850U's analog VGA input has a maximum resolution that doesn't match the native resolution of the display--an issue that's pretty disappointing on a TV this expensive. The maximum accepted resolution of 1,360x768 looked OK, with the expected softness in text and other onscreen objects, although we missed having an "auto-adjust" feature to center the image properly; we had to use the manual controls to do that. HDMI was a different story, with the display achieving the full resolution of 1,920x1,080 and rendering text and other areas as perfectly as we expected, so naturally we recommend that people connecting PCs to this TV go digital.
|Before color temp (20/80)||6198/6933||Good|
|After color temp||6349/6545||Good|
|Before grayscale variation||+/- 259K||Good|
|After grayscale variation||+/- 100K||Average|
|Color of red (x/y)||0.658/0.329||Average|
|Color of green||0.275/0.644||Average|
|Color of blue||0.149/0.055||Good|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||Y||Good|
|480i 2:3 pull-down, 24 fps||Y||Good|
|1080i video resolution||Pass||Good|
|1080i film resolution||Fail||Poor|
|Panasonic TH-50PZ850U||Picture settings|
|Picture on (watts)||163.8||284.36||N/A|
|Picture on (watts/sq. inch)||0.15||0.27||N/A|
|Cost per year||$50.98||$88.30|
|Score (considering size)||Good|