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Panasonic Viera TC-P50G20 Series 50 Inch Television Review

by The Review CrewMay 30, 2010

A lot has changed since we gave the Panasonic TC-P50V10 our Editors’ Choice award last year. The most relevant to the review you’re reading now can be summed up with the eminently Google-able phrase “Panasonic black levels.” The short story? Testing revealed that 2009 Panasonic plasmas lose their excellent black-level performance–the crucial ability to produce as dark a shade of black as possible–over less than a year of typical use. They become, literally, grayer, and lose the very edge that made them stand above the pack in the first place.

“But what about 2010?,” you ask. We don’t know yet. Panasonic claims that 2010 models, like the TC-PG20/25 series under review here, have modifications that “result in a more gradual change in the Black Level over time.” How gradual, and how much of a change, the company won’t say, and we won’t be able to say ourselves for at least a few months. Rest assured that we are running a long-term test on our sample, and we’ll update this review when and if that black level shifts.

According to our observations right now–which is the only way we can fairly review any product–the TC-PG20/25 series delivers superb picture quality. Its black level is among the best available today, matching what we measured on new 2009 models and surpassing any other (non-Kuro) plasma we’ve tested so far. The company has also improved the antiglare screen significantly and fixed THX mode, in addition to revamping its VieraCast Internet service with new content such as Netflix and Pandora. The result is an excellent-performing HDTV with a good blend of features for a highly competitive price. If the history outlined above doesn’t deter you, plenty of good reasons exist for choosing this Panasonic plasma. If it does, check back in a few months for an update.

Series information: We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 50-inch TC-P50G20, but this review also applies to the other screen sizes in both the TC-PG20 and TC-PG25 series. All have identical specs, and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality. The only difference between the two, according to Panasonic, is the G25′s ability to interface with a network camera (see below for details).

Panasonic avoided any major style statements with this understated black plasma. The only departure is a subtle horizontal accent strip in the midst of the lower frame, running above the slightly curved bottom edge. The 3.5-inch panel depth is chunkier than the 2010 plasmas of LG and Samsung, but plenty “flat” enough in our book.

The company uses an improved clicker compared to 2009, with more backlit keys and a larger “Menu” button, and we appreciate the well-differentiated layout. Its only downside in our view is an inability to control other gear directly via infrared. The company has updated its blue-and-yellow menus to include onscreen explanations and a persistent navigation column of icons on the left, and as a result they feel more modern and are easier to use than last year, if not quite up to the level of a Sony or Samsung.

Panasonic kept the basic feature set nearly the same as the TC-PG10/G15 series last year, reserving step-ups like 3D and flicker-free 1080p/24 compatibility (see Performance) for the significantly more expensive TC-PVT20/25 series. What remains is robust enough, though, especially at this price point.

Options include the same kind of proprietary wi-fi dongle used by Samsung and LG; naturally we’d like to see built-in Wi-Fi (a la Vizio and higher-end Sony sets) but again we’re not surprised at its omission. We’re also intrigued by the optional network camera, which allows G25 owners relatively cheap in-home monitoring capability. We didn’t test either option for this review.

Just about every TV maker has Netflix, and when Panasonic turns on this feature in July it will join the ranks of “good enough” streaming. We’d still like to see the excellent picture quality of Vudu’s HD service, found on many other makers’ TVs, available too, but Amazon VOD has solid high-def picture quality in its own right. DLNA won’t be missed by most buyers, and it’s nice to see Pandora onboard to handle audio duties.

Panasonic’s VieraCast system got a face-lift for 2010, adding widgets such as Fox Sports and Twitter, as well as a Skype option (all coming by the end of May 2010). Our favorite change is that the home page can be customized somewhat, allowing you to place the apps and streaming services you want on the first, second, or third page in any of seven slots arranged around the central picture window. Most other TVs’ Internet service interfaces, aside from Vizio and Yahoo widgets, don’t let you re-arrange content to the same extent.

VieraCast still seems a bit archaic compared to the others, takes over rather than overlays whatever you’re watching, and inexplicably lacks a nonbusiness (and non-German) News component, but we do appreciate the well-integrated feel, relatively snappy response time, and the above-average functionality of the custom apps, namely Bloomberg and Weather. We asked for an explanation regarding those two random German apps–Tagesschau, a news service, and Bild.de, with “News, Sport and celebrity gossip from Germany and the world”–but have yet to hear back by press time.

We also like the option of using a USB keyboard, although a couple of older wireless ones we tried (a Logitech MX3200 and a Microsoft Wireless Entertainment Keyboard 7000) didn’t interface with the TV. Many other wired or wireless USB keyboards should work, however, and Panasonic told us “Logitech MK700, DiNovo, Logicool, or Microsoft keyboards work well.”

Panasonic has equipped the TC-PG20/25 series with an array of picture settings that finally places it on a par with other makers’ TVs. The Pro Settings menu, available only in the Custom picture mode, offers niceties like a fine color temperature menu (a measly four points is still better than none) and an array of gamma choices, both of which allow tweakers some leeway. We also like that, unlike on LG’s so-equipped TVs, Panasonic’s THX mode can be adjusted. Said tweakers will also note the new-for-2010 “blur reduction” setting described thusly: “Improves motion picture quality. Additional sub-fields are created to reduce motion blur.” See Performance for details.

Watchers paranoid about burn-in (we aren’t) will appreciate the scrolling bar designed to erase it, and the pixel orbiter intended to prevent it in the first place. We’d like to see a brightness-limiting energy-saver mode, as well as an onscreen companion to the thick paper manual.

Three HDMI inputs total falls one short of most 2010 HDTVs we’ve tested but should still be plenty for most setups. The SD card slot can handle video, photos, and music, like the USB ports, and the second USB is a nice addition if you use the first for the optional Wi-Fi dongle.

Performance
The TC-PG20/25 delivered excellent overall picture quality. Deep black levels were a strength, color accuracy was very good in THX mode, and the typical uniformity advantages of plasma over LCD–excellent off-angle fidelity, uniform brightness and color across the screen–were in abundant evidence. The main hiccup we encountered was the inability to handle 1080p/24 content properly.
The THX mode was clearly the most accurate before adjustment. It evinced a smooth grayscale that fell within the D65 ballpark (although it was minus-blue overall), decent gamma (2.07 average, versus a target of 2.2) and, unlike last year, plenty of light output (37 ftl) with some headroom for adjustment. Best of all, there was no overt greenish tinge thanks to improved color decoding. We’d love the option to tweak THX further and improve these areas, but the Pro adjust menu, which contains the relevant settings, was inactive in THX mode.
We tried calibrating the Custom mode, which does allow tweaks to the Pro adjust menu, but while we were able to improve the grayscale compared to THX, other areas of picture quality–namely gamma, color decoding and primary/secondary color accuracy–were significantly worse. In the past, such as on the V10 last year, our adjustments in Custom yielded very good gamma results, but not this time around.

THX was still better overall than Custom, so we used it, with some tiny tweaks, for our evaluation. We checked out the Blu-ray of Invictus, with the comparison lineup below, for our main image quality tests.

Black level: Our nearly new TC-PG20/25 sample performed extremely well in this area, with the kind of deep, inky blacks we’ve come to expect from the company’s plasma TVs. It lagged behind the Pioneer and the LG LE8500 in this area, but outperformed the others, including the slightly-aged V10 from last year. The differences were most visible in dark scenes, such as the shot down the road outside Mandela’s house at the 40 minute mark. The black of a leather jacket, the night sky, the shadows under the trees and the letterbox bars appeared just a bit inkier than on the V10 and both of the Samsungs, and a good deal deeper than the LG PK750 plasma. In brighter scenes the differences between the various displays’ black levels narrowed significantly, as usual, although they were still visible in the letterbox bars.

We measured a black level of 0.001 footlamberts (ftl) for the Pioneer and LG LH8500, 0.007 on the G20/25, 0.016 for the V10 (at about 1,200 hours), 0.018 for the Samsung B650, and 0.024 for the LG PK750. We ran the G20/25 for about 100 hours after we received it and that measurement didn’t shift. If behavior from the 2009 models is any indication, we don’t expect any change for at least a few hundred hours (typical TV use is 1,900 hours/year), but if/when we measure one, we’ll update this review.

Details in shadows on the G20/25 series appeared a bit less natural than on some of the sets in our lineup. We attribute this issue to the TV’s lighter gamma in dark areas, which made the shaded bush alongside Mandela’s wall, and the shadowed faces of Pienaar and Nerine in Chapter 15, for example, a bit brighter than on the Pioneer or the LG LE8500. This wasn’t a major issue however, and shadows and near-dark areas still looked realistic overall, mainly owing to the G20/25′s deep blacks.

Color accuracy: In THX mode the G20/25 performed very well in this area, although due to its less-than-perfect grayscale it still fell a bit short of our reference display and a couple of the others in our lineup (including the V10 and the PK750). We noticed skin tones, like the faces of Pienaar’s family in Chapter 9, seemed very slightly paler and shifted toward green, although not nearly to the extent we saw on last year’s THX mode, for example. The light blue shirt of Mr. Pienaar and the red couch cushion exhibited a similar slight shift. We’d be hard-pressed to notice the difference without the benefit of a side-by-side a comparison, however.

Primary and secondary color accuracy was excellent, as evinced by the green of the grass and trees around the white players’ field in Chapter 1, for example. The TV’s deep black levels and solid color decoding contributed to some of the most saturated, punchy colors in our lineup. We also appreciated that black areas stayed a relatively neutral color on the G20/25, as opposed to veering into blue as we saw on the Samsung LCD and the PK750, for example.

Video processing: Panasonic makes a lot of marketing hay out of it 600Hz subfield drive, but as we observed last year, its benefits (much like the antiblurring effects of 120Hz, 240Hz etc LCDs) are exceedingly difficult to discern. When we engaged the Blur reduction setting, our motion resolution test showed that the G20/25 was delivering all 1080 lines of the source. When we turned off the control, the result dipped down to somewhere between 700-800 lines. Although the difference between the two settings was impossible for us to see outside of specialized test patterns, there’s no obvious reason not to turn the control on–it introduced no negative effects we could see.

As we noted above the G20/25 series is not blessed with the 96Hz refresh rate found on the step-up VT20/25 models, so as we observed with Panasonic’s predecessor plasmas from 2009, the G models cannot properly handle 1080p/24 sources. We confirmed this with our favorite scene for such a test, the flyover of the Intrepid from “I Am Legend,” where we observed the characteristic stuttering motion of 2:3 pull-down (as opposed to the correct cadence of film we observed on the V10) when the G20/25 was set to its default 60Hz mode under “24p direct in.” Switching to the other option, 48Hz, caused the display to flicker significantly and become essentially unwatchable, especially in brighter scenes.

In our 1080i deinterlacing test, it’s worth noting that the G20/G25 only passed in film mode when we chose the “on” position for the 3:2 pull-down control. When the control was set to the default “Auto” position, the TV failed.

Bright lighting: Panasonic has improved its antireflective screen quite a bit compared to 2009, and the difference was clearly visible by comparing the G20/25 to the V10 in a well-lit room. The screen preserved black levels better and further reduced the brightness of reflections, such as the faces of viewers or even lamps caught in the screen. It beat the LG models in both of these areas, although it wasn’t as good as the Pioneer. Compared to the Samsungs, the G20/25′s screen did a better job reducing reflections, but didn’t preserve black levels nearly as well.

Standard-definition: The 2010 G series is one of the worst standard-def performers we’ve tested recently. It didn’t quite resolve all of the horizontal detail of the DVD format, and the shots of the stone bridge and grass appeared a bit soft. Jaggies in moving diagonal lines and a waving American flag were more prevalent on the G20/25 than on the Samsung or LG plasmas. Noise reduction was also less effective; in the Panasonic’s strongest setting, we still saw motes and video noise in low-quality shots of skies and sunsets. The TV passed the 2:3 pull-down test in “On” mode, but the default “Auto” was again ineffective.

PC: Via analog VGA the TC-PG20/25 accepted a maximum input signal of 1,366×768, which is disappointing for a 1080p TV. Text in that resolution looked relatively soft, and we missed having an autoadjust function to fill the screen properly, but after some tweaking it looked passable. Via HDMI the TV handled every line of a 1,920×1,080 source with no edge enhancement or softness and excellent overall quality.

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The Review Crew
The Review Crew is a group of beat editors, writers, and consultants that have been working together for years. They know just about everything about everything collectively and have published their collective work under the Review Crew brand moniker for almost 20 years.
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