I bought a new TV for my mom to replace her 21-year-old Sanyo CRT TV that my parents bought when I was a pre-teen. By the way, the Sanyo is still working, though the picture isn’t what it used to be. Initially, I was going to do it the polite way and wait for the old TV to die before I got a new one, but as the old TV has shown no signs of decline in the past two years, I lost hope of that ever happening. I guess I should have known better than to count on the death of a Japanese product from the early 90’s. (BTW, how’s your Game Boy working? Mine’s still going strong.)
When you ask a non-techie shopper what TV they are going to buy, the answer is most likely going to be “LED”. In the minds of most consumers, LED TVs are the state of the art in TV technology. A major reason for this association is that, of all the TV types available today, LED TVs simply appeared the latest. They are also a bit thinner and much more energy-efficient than other types of TVs, which contributes to the modern impression they make on shoppers. For these reasons, an LED TV was my default choice as well. I had to be convinced to choose otherwise.
I was persuaded away from LEDs because I noticed a funny thing during my occasional visits to TV stores in Wroclaw: every time I noticed a TV with picture that impressed me, I would glance at the label and it would read “plasma”.
Plasma displays have two big advantages over LCD and LED displays. One is black level. The basic way LCDs work is by having a huge white backlight that is always on. The white light from the backlight is then blocked with an array of tiny colored filters and liquid crystals. To display black, an LCD has to block the white light with liquid crystals that turn black. (It is important to understand that “LED displays” are actually LCD displays with an LED backlight. In a “classic” LCD display, the backlight is a white CCFL; in an LED display, the backlight is composed of a large number of LEDs that give off a white light.) Since the backlight is very bright, light from the backlight tends to “leak” through the liquid crystals. This means that it is very hard for an LCD to display true black. In most cases, the best it can do is very dark grey. (LCD/LED TVs in stores are always set to show bright, colorful images, so you won’t notice this deficiency.)
On the other hand, a plasma display has no backlight. It is more like a matrix of tiny neon lights – small cells filled with a mixture of gases that turn into glowing plasma when you apply voltage to them. Turn off the voltage and the light is gone. Because of this, it is relatively easy for a plasma display to reproduce true black.
Another advantage of plasma displays is uniformity. LCD and LED displays commonly suffer from “backlight bleed” – light from the backlight “bleeds” around the edges of the panel, which means that when looking at a dark scene in a movie (e.g. a night sky or a dark interrogation room), you can notice patches of light instead of a uniform black area. This is not an issue with plasma displays.
The main advantage of LED displays over plasma displays is power consumption. An LED display will use up 50% less power than a plasma display of the same size. This may seem like a lot in relative terms, but for a 40” display the difference is about 60 watts. If you watch TV for 4 hours every single day, you will save 87 kilowatt-hours over a period of one year. This works out to about $15 per year. You decide whether it’s worth paying $15 per year for superior picture quality.
(More detailed comparison of display technologies from Wikipedia.)
My impressions of the Panasonic TX-P42-ST50-E
I’m not going to write a complete review of the TV. For that, I’ll refer you to the glowing reviews at HDTVtest.co.uk and AVForums. The consensus among the Internet experts is that this is a mid-range plasma TV with better picture quality than last year’s high-end models.
Below, I’ll report my general impressions and include some information that I wasn’t able to find anywhere, despite extensive research. I hope you will find it useful in making your purchasing decision.
Note: The information presented here refers to the European version of the Panasonic ST50. The North American version has different firmware and slightly different features.
- Black level. This TV produces incredibly deep, inky blacks – much better than I’ve seen on any LCD display. If I may say something slightly controversial, I think there’s little point in improving the black level any further. It’s already better than what you get in a movie theater. (In case you haven’t noticed, movie projectors cannot reproduce 100% black, although they are very close.) Watching dark content such as concert footage or movies with night-time scenes (such as Drive, with night-time car chases and aerial shots of the L.A. skyline) is pure pleasure on this TV. I can’t wait to re-watch Star Wars on it. Space is going to look amazing on this set.
- Color fidelity. Even without calibration, color accuracy on the Panasonic TX-P42-ST50-E (in the “True Cinema” mode) seems subjectively very good, as checked by inspecting several familiar photographs. This is a very good TV for browsing photos. (You can use the calibration settings posted by David Mackenzie of HDTVtest.co.uk to make the colors even more accurate.)
- Motion interpolation. Like most modern TVs, the Panasonic TX-P42-ST50-E can make motion more fluid by inserting additional frames between the actual frames in the source. This is a controversial feature. Some people enjoy the extra fluidity; others feel it makes movies feel less “film-like”. I have found I am in the first camp. The standard movie frame rate is quite jerky (just try playing a game at 24 fps – it will be playable, but not fluid by any means). For me, the effect is simply tiring on a large screen, especially when sitting close to the TV. So I have set “Intelligent Frame Creation” to “Mid” and so far I’ve been quite happy.
- [Added Jun 18 2012:] Burn-in. After about a month of watching a 24-hour news channel for 2-3 hours a day, the channel logo is now permanently visible in light grey when you display a uniform background (especially on white). To be fair, I only noticed the image when I tried the built-in “burn-in remover” feature (which shows a solid white bar moving across the screen). I don’t think this is classic burn-in because no image is visible on a black background (I checked in a very dark room). I tried running the burn-in remover for 5 hours. It has made the channel logo more faint, but it hasn’t removed it. It’s not terribly annoying because the TV is almost never used to display solid colors. The biggest concern is that it will keep getting worse.
- Sound quality. Customers like slim, sexy TVs. Slim TVs means tiny speakers. Tiny speakers means crappy sound. Panasonic has crammed 8 teeny speakers and a miniature subwoofer into this TV. The 8 speakers sound worse than the single speaker in the old 14” Grundig TV in my kitchen. As an experiment, I plugged in an external amplifier and a very cheap set of Onkyo speakers and the difference was night and day. Don’t get me wrong – you can still watch stuff on this TV; it’s just that the sound seems to be coming from far away (maybe because the speakers are facing down and not forward?) and thus the clarity is not very good. From what I’ve seen, this is pretty much the norm with slim TVs.
- Reflections. The display is glossy, but I was actually surprised at how well the anti-reflective coating absorbs reflections on this TV. There’s certainly no “mirror effect”, such as you can see on many laptop screens. As long as your display is not facing a window, you should be totally fine.
- Remote control. From the point of view of someone who’s interested in user interfaces, the remote control is a disappointment. It’s an array of buttons, just like the remote that came with my mom’s 21-year-old Sanyo. Have we really learned nothing about user interfaces in 21 years? Why can’t I have a volume knob to make precise and quick adjustments to volume instead of having to press a button many times? Where’s my pointing device to quickly select options on the screen instead of using the awkward arrow keys? On the plus side, the infrared LED on the remote seems to be pretty powerful, so the remote works pretty much whichever way you point it (at least with fresh batteries). This is a welcome feature, as it can be quite annoying to lift the remote and point it at the TV every time you want to do something, especially if you’re the kind of viewer who often rewinds a movie in order to catch every line of dialogue.
- Multimedia playback from USB devices. There have been reports that this TV has difficulty playing MKV and AVI files. I have found this to be completely false, at least on my (European) version of the TV. So far, I have tried about 20 different movies in MKV, MP4 and AVI containers, and the TV has played
them all back very reliably90% of them without any problems. I did encounter a problem with one very large (8 GB) MKV movie encoded in 1080p, which worked on my PC but not on the TV. It is possible to seek back and forward by about 10 seconds by pressing OK and then the Left or Right arrow, which is useful if you miss a line. External subtitles in SRT format are supported (the name of the subtitle file has to be the same as the name of the movie file) as well as internal MKV subtitles. Polish characters are supported (there is a menu option to set the character set). The font used to render subtitles is good-looking and very readable, so no problems there, even if your eyesight is not perfect. Subtitles can be turned on and off with the Subtitle button on the remote.
- DLNA playback. The Panasonic TX-P42-ST50 can access media stored on your PC, eliminating the need to plug in a USB device. It’s simple enough on the TV end: I connected the TV to a router (both using Wi-Fi and an Ethernet cable) and it just worked. However, it took me two hours to get Windows 7 to share my media with the TV – the process is totally unintuitive and involves both reconfiguring your network sharing options and enabling some non-obvious settings in Windows Media Player. Even though I eventually succeeded in this, I was having constant trouble whenever I added a new folder to the shared library: it would take a long time for it to appear on the TV. Finally, I installed a free application called Serviio (by Petr Nejedly) which works perfectly. It allows you to share any folder on your PC with your TV.
- Subtitles with DLNA playback. One drawback to DLNA playback on the Panasonic TX-P42-ST50 is that external subtitles in SRT files are not supported – only internal MKV subtitles work. (This might be a limitation of the DLNA standard, not of the TV.) To remedy this problem, you can download a free application called MKVmerge (part of MKVToolNix), which can combine a video file (MKV or MP4) and an SRT file into a single MKV file with built-in subtitles. Initially, I was reluctant to take this route, but it turned out to be pretty painless: just drag and drop two files, click “Start”, wait 30-60 seconds and you’re done. Another quirk is that with DLNA playback you cannot turn on subtitles with the Subtitles button on the remote, like you can with USB playback. Instead, you have to press the Option button and choose Subtitles.
- Internet access. The TV can run third-party apps. Several apps are included with the TV. The selection depends on your country. (In Poland, the best one is iPlex.pl, which allows you to watch older and less popular movies free of charge in exchange for watching commercials for about 5 minutes.) One troubling thing I noticed about the third-party apps is that each one seems to have a different interface. Instead of using the pause button on the remote to pause a video, they’ll force you to press OK, then use the arrow keys to find the “pause” option on their own special menu. Of course the special menu is different in each app. Good luck explaining to a non-techie why something as simple as a pause button cannot work the same way everywhere. The situation is even worse with more “advanced” features like rewinding or finding a show to watch. A couple of words come to mind when contemplating this, the mildest being “idiocy”. As a side-effect of this “explosion of creativity”, many apps simply feel slow, probably because the TV’s CPU is unable to cope with all those custom animations. Panasonic should just enforce common interface guidelines for all apps; otherwise, we’ll have braindead developers each doing their own dance and thinking they look sexy.
- YouTube app. There is a YouTube application (of course, with its own way of doing things), but I’m not quite sure if it will be of use to anybody. People usually find YouTube videos on various websites, blogs etc. Since no one in their right mind is going to browse the Web on this TV, there is the question of how exactly the YouTube app is supposed to be used. Perhaps it could be useful as a kind of “view later” feature, where you add videos to a playlist on your PC, and then watch them later on a big screen. However, even this limited functionality is not supported well due to the poor user interface of the app and the fact that, amazingly, it does not support the playback of HD videos. You can probably see why I tried it once and then never launched it again.
- Recording (PVR).The Panasonic TX-P42-ST50-E has a PVR feature, which allows you to record digital TV. You can record on demand or you can tell the TV to record a later show for you (you can even choose the show to record on the TV Guide screen on digital TV, which is pretty convenient). There are, however, several important limitations to this feature:
- It only works on USB hard drives (USB flash memory is not supported). I was able to successfully use this feature with a USB-powered WD Passport drive.
- Before you can use it, you have to allow the TV to reformat the drive. This means you have to give up the whole drive for recorded programs.
- Only digital broadcasts can be recorded. On the plus side, the quality of the recording is great. I was able to record digital terrestrial TV (DVB-T) broadcasts in HD and the quality is indistinguishable from the original. I think the TV simply saves the original MPEG stream.
- The recorded videos are inaccessible on other devices, even on other units of the same TV. The drive is formatted with the UFS file system, which means it is inaccessible on Windows. The video files themselves are encoded and have not been successfully reverse-engineered so far. So there is no way to view the recorded videos on your PC.
- You cannot watch one channel and record another at the same time. You can only watch the channel which is being recorded. To watch another channel, you have to stop the recording. This means the PVR feature will be useless if you want to record a football game while your wife watches Downton Abbey.
- The TV has to be left on standby. If you set it to record a show and then another person turns the TV off completely, you’re out of luck.
- Noise. First, the good news. Unlike last year’s Panasonic 42” plasmas, this model has no fans (bigger versions do have them). The bad news is that there is a buzzing sound (voltage transformers?) which ranges from inaudible to easily audible (this is when the TV is displaying bright images). At its worst, I can easily hear it in a quiet room at a distance of about 3 meters. The noise is not very high-pitched, so the annoyance factor is not high, in my opinion. If this was a computer display, the noise would of course be totally unacceptable, but, seeing as you rarely use a TV to watch things with no sound, it does not seem a big problem because in most cases whatever you’re watching will mask the sound completely. In any case, I’ve seen DVD drives that made more noise, not to mention the ambient noise you get when watching a movie in a cinema (I’m talking about you, popcorn lovers!). Since the buzzing sound has been reported by other users (usually as not very annoying), I believe it’s a property of the model and not an issue with my specific unit.
- Heat. The back of the display gets warm in the upper left and right corners. The amount of generated heat seems modest for a display of this size. Certainly this is no heater.
- Build quality. The set, manufactured in the Czech Republic, feels very solid and well-finished. Nothing feels cheap or flimsy. The build quality certainly inspires confidence in the reliability of the product.
- Power consumption. Because this is a plasma display, it uses up about twice as much power than an LED display of the same size.
- Minor annoyances. When watching with headphones on, it’s hard to control the volume because the headphone volume control is buried deep in the menu system.
When I bought the Panasonic TX-P42-ST50-E, I had already read Internet reviews of it, so I was not surprised to see the flawless cinematic picture quality of this TV. I was, however, pleasantly surprised at how well it handles digital content. Having read user comments about the limited video format support in previous Panasonic models, I was fully prepared to shell out $100 for an external media player such as the WD TV Live. This has turned out to be completely unnecessary, which is great because it eliminates the need for another device with yet another remote control.
If you are looking for a modern TV with top-notch picture quality and good support for digital media playback at a reasonable price, you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t at least check out the Panasonic TX-P42-ST50-E.
My only reservation concerns the buzzing noise that can occasionally be heard when displaying bright images. If you are highly sensitive to noise, it’s probably a good idea to make sure you will be able to return the TV in case you find the buzz too irritating. Personally, I don’t have a problem with it, and I’ve spent significant amounts of money and time to silence my PC, so chances are you won’t either.