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Panasonic Viera TH-P50VT30 review: Panasonic Viera TH-P50VT30A

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In 2010, Panasonic offered up a scorching TV in the form of the VT20 — a flagship plasma that finally promised performance approaching that of the much-venerated Kuro.

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7.7

Panasonic Viera TH-P50VT30

The Good

Excellent HD processing. Best lit-room performance. Viera app store easy to use. Excellent black levels.

The Bad

Poor component video performance. Free-to-air TV suffers image breakup. Can't turn pixel orbiter off.

The Bottom Line

The Panasonic VT30 is a solid, though slightly disappointing, television that performs best of class in some areas, but at the absolute worst in others.

Twelve months on, Panasonic has released the second TV in this series, with the new "louvre" tech, but is it better — or is it a step back?

Design

Unusually for the Japanese company, the VT30 marks the first time that a flagship hasn't been assembled in Japan. According to Panasonic, the TV panel is still manufactured in the Japanese plasma plant, but the 50-inch version is assembled in south-east Asia — hence the "Made in Thailand" sticker. The 55-inch and 65-inch still read "Made in Japan".

If you, like us, weren't exactly fans of the metallic brown of last year's TV, you'll be pleased that the company has adopted an eminently more stylish position: piano gloss-black and a "one sheet of glass" design. The TV is also the thinnest Panasonic yet, shaving about half of the thickness off from last year's model.

Features

After this year's CES in Las Vegas, it seemed that "Smart TV" would be the next big thing, and while it's too early to tell, Panasonic has taken the opportunity to rebrand its TVs as "Smart Viera".

The TV boasts an "Infinite Black Pro 2 Panel", which promises "more subtle, delicate blacks in both dark and bright environments than last year's Infinite Black Pro Panel provided".

In addition, this television is the company's most tricked-out yet, with the new Viera Connect system offering IPTV, DLNA streaming, Skype and full THX certification for both 2D and 3D and "apps", including games and Wii-like exercise workouts.

Web surfing and Facebooking are not fun on a television, and the Panasonic wisely steers clear of these frivolities. As Panasonic was one of the first companies to include Skype, the trend continues with the VT30 — if you add the AU$199 camera — and if you Skype a Panasonic DVR owner, there is now the option to leave a message.

The TVs incorporate catch-up TV from ABC iView, joining the existing Plus 7 service, and further Australian content is promised.

Connectivity includes wireless and wired LAN, four HDMI ports, one component (with proprietary adaptor), VGA, composite and three USB ports.

Performance

We waited with quite a bit of anticipation for this television, but now, having tested it, we can say that it's not the best TV that we'll see this year. While it performs excellently in some areas, in others it's one of the worst that we've seen in a long time.

Starting with the good news, though: Panasonic's claims that the TV performs better in well lit environments holds true; when compared against the VT20 in the light, the new model retains a high level of contrast, although still not at the level of LCD, while the VT20 simply looks grey and washed out. Here is one plasma that finally suits the bright-and-airy Australian lounge room, although some amount of light control would be welcome.

The VT30 is also adept at playing 24p Blu-rays, and, in this regard, is the best performer of the company. With Mission Impossible 3 in our Toshiba test bed, motion was smooth with no moire — or jaggies — on parallel lines. Noise reduction was also a highlight with the sky from the bridge scene (Chapter 11) looking less "digital" and more "grainy", as it should. On the negative side we found that even after calibration, the TV was a little colder than the previous model, and Tom Cruise looked a little jaundiced — though not to the extremes of the Sharp Quattron. Representatives from Panasonic Australia confirmed that the TV has been "tuned for the Australian market" but were cagey on whether it was resubmitted for THX compatibility.

As we suspected from its showing with MI3, the TV also performed well in the synthetic Blu-ray tests for both video and film-based material. Noise reduction may not have been as pronounced as the Samsung D8000 but images remained clean.

DVD replay was a mixed bag for this TV, for while colour reproduction and noise reduction were very good, the set performed poorly with synthetic testing. With the HQV 2.0 test disk, and when set to the (proprietary) component input, the TV actually put on one of the worst performances we'd ever seen — flunking almost every test! If you watch a lot of testing material, such as sports DVDs, this is definitely a problem, but with normal movie-based material, we were only able to pick up a slight softness to DVD pictures — something that the VT20 was also guilty of. Noise reduction was on par with Blu-ray, though, which is to say: good.

In the past, Panasonics have struggled with movement on free-to-air TV, and the problems continue with the VT30. Leading edges can break up into red and green splodges — it's almost like watching 3D without the glasses, and video material is the worst. Some sites have called this a "50Hz problem", but we'd call it a 576i issue, given that all Australian (PAL) material is 50Hz and the issue doesn't occur with HD material.

Before we go to "feature-based" assessments, we'll make further mention of the television's black-level performance. Side by side with the VT20 in a dark room, there is only a smidgeon of difference between them — with the VT30 able to scoop a tiny bit more black out of the pot. But when viewing a "lively" source, the VT20 is able to convey a generally higher brightness overall. We were unable to detect any "rising blacks" on the VT30 — where blacks "strobe" when the overall scene increases in brightness — but we did have another problem ...

In order to counter burn-in problems, the VT30 uses a "Pixel Orbiter" function for the first time. Competing brands have used this for some time, and it means that blacks are shot through with randomised colour pixels to prevent burn-in from occurring. However, this means that you don't get true blacks, as they are now shot through with colour when viewed close up. Unfortunately, you can't turn this off on the Panasonic, with the two modes being "Auto" and "On". We're hopeful that the company can add "Off" to this list in a future update.

Panasonic's Viera Connect has had a small facelift with the VT30, and, in addition to the new video sources, now offers apps via Viera Market. Overall, the system is straightforward to use, even though typing on a remote control is still a chore when entering user names and passwords.

Hooking up a 3D copy of Monsters vs. Aliens, we found that cross-talk performance is still excellent, with no distracting "double images" appearing. Only a slight tendency to confuse moving images means that passive systems, such as the LG LW6500, are arguably easier on your eyes.

Finally, sound on any TV — bar a Bang and Olufsen or even a Bose— is never going to be a rollicking rollercoaster ride, but the Panasonic makes a reasonable pass at it. We found that vocals are quite expressive, but while it goes quite loud if pushed hard, it also distorts quite badly. Good for watching the news or an occasional film at a moderate level, then.

Conclusion

Last year, we said that the VT20 could be "seen in years to come as the 'pinnacle' of plasma design". Based on the performance of the VT30, this could still be true. While it's still a very good TV overall, and quite watchable in a normally lit room, it's no longer even the best plasma on the market. We are hopeful that some of the issues that we encountered with the component input and the Pixel Orbiter can be corrected. Given the company's reluctance to fix past issues though, we may be hoping in vain.

After such high expectations, it's with reluctance that we say the mantle has now passed to the company's rival Samsung and its D8000 plasma. Look after these honours, Samsung, because next year the Japanese company is going to be baying for your blood!