Older plasma displays are notorious energy hogs compared to LCD panels. Walk by one that’s been on for a few hours and it almost feels like a Vermont wood stove in January. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but owners know they do convert quite a bit of precious electricity directly to heat. Enter the new generation of Panasonic plasma HDTVs, carrying Neo PDP technology that supposedly uses 33 percent less power to achieve the same brightness as the old 2007 models. Readers of Digital Trends know we have prefered plasma to LCD due to the rich, deep colors and super-fast response, which is just right for sports. Now let’s see if a more earth-friendly design makes us even bigger fans, or if a comparable LCD is the value buy.
Features and Design
Panasonic will have a mind-boggling array of plasma HDTVs in 2009 – 17 in total. These will range from the 720p X1 Series, up through the 54-inch 1080p Z1 with a Neo PDP panel that’s an amazing one-inch thick. This was a huge hit at January’s CES and is due this summer for $6,000. The Z1 is also THX-certified, and web-enabled with Viera Cast to accept downloads from Amazon Video On Demand. The S1 Series, which ranges from 42- to 65 inches, is Internet-challenged, but is the first in the lineup with the new, more energy-efficient panel. In this case, it’s not the killer Z1’s one-inch thickness, or the two-inches of the new V10 Series, but a portly 4.2 inches thick with cabinet – making it thicker overall than the 42PZ85U this model replaces (3.7 inches). However, the ’09 edition is substantially lighter, at 57.4 pounds, compared to the PZ85U’s 66.1 pounds. Even with that weight loss, plasmas are much heavier than their LCD counterparts, so prepare when taking it out of the carton. More good news: the price of this set has dropped $400 from the 2008 edition, and it’s Energy Star 3.0 rated, along with other improvements we’ll get into in the performance section.
There are no design wows here. The Viera TC-P42S1 is a very traditional-looking HDTV – forget Samsung’s Touch of Color styling or LG’s sexy frames. The bezels have a gloss black finish, and the non-swiveling stand is also gloss black. Unlike many flat panels, you have to attach the supplied stand, but it’s a simple task requiring eight screws; just have a Philips screwdriver handy. Having a friend nearby to put the nearly 60-pound unit into position would be a good thing too.
The front looks very clean, with no lines or compartments for front inputs. The lower bezel has a nice slope, the power on/off button, a remote sensor and the Contrast Automatic Tracking System (C.A.T.S.) sensor which adjusts panel brightness to match ambient lighting.
The right side has six main controls (channel up/down, volume and so on) that you’ll never use; that’s what the remote is for. On the left side is an HDMI input for a camcorder or game system, composite A/V input, and an SDHC card slot to view photos using the Viera Image Viewer. Unfortunately, it doesn’t handle AVCHD camcorder videos. You have to spend more for the new G10, V10 and Z1 Series models to get this feature.
The rear has the jack pack with another two HDMI inputs (three total), two component and A/V inputs, along with digital audio out. No shockers here, but another HDMI input would be a plus.
Panasonic Viera TC-P42S1
What’s In The Carton
The TC-P42S1 comes with the plasma panel, along with metal posts and screws to attach the supplied stand. You also get a plain-vanilla remote, batteries, power cord, cleaning cloth and a trilingual Quick Start Guide (58 pages in English). Like almost every other HDTV, you’ll need your own HDMI cables to connect your equipment. A green note: Panasonic touts the energy savings with the S1; how about cutting down on all the tape used to hold all the pieces into position in the carton?
Once the HDTV was in position, connections made, it was time to give it a workout.
Performance and Use
We attached a Verizon FiOS cable box and Panasonic DMP-BD30 Blu-ray player to the set. Before getting into the content, we were very pleased seeing the default picture setting was “standard,” rather than the over-the-top vivid used by many other brands. Panasonic suggests using vivid in a bright area, but we wouldn’t use it even if our lives depended on it. That’s a bit harsh, but avoid this setting just as you would a visit from the IRS. Standard is used in fairly dim rooms, and colors are very natural. The cinema setting is available for dark viewing areas, plus there’s a game mode and custom, where you can tweak contrast, brightness, color, tint, sharpness, color temperature and black level among others. This is more than enough for the average viewer who rarely even touches picture parameters. That’s why we’re glad standard is the default. However those looking for Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) options, or Panasonic’s Studio Reference setting, look elsewhere. (With this set you don’t really need it but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.)
The supplied remote is nothing to get excited about; it can’t learn the codes of other remotes. It lets you command compatible Panasonic gear over HDMI Viera Link HDAVI controls. The menu system is very straightforward, and easy to navigate. In keeping with enhanced efficiency, there are Eco Power settings that turn the set off if no signal or operation is detected for a predetermined period of time.
Along with energy saving, Panasonic claims the new Neo PDP panels are brighter than last year’s models, have deeper blacks, more shades of gradation, last 100,00 hours, and offer a 40,000:1 contrast ratio (versus 30,000:1 for the older PZ85U). That all sounds great in a press release, but how do TV shows and movies really look? We tested against a 50-inch TH-PZ750U, which was a top-of-the-line model in 2007, to find out.
We’ll tell you one thing right off the bat: Panasonic did a very good job eliminating room reflections, a major issue for older plasma HDTVs. We used the P42S1 in mixed lighting, including fluorescents, and there was barely an issue. Yes, there were some reflections, but they were much less annoying. That’s a welcome improvement, since we have a hard time recommending plasmas if they’re used in predominantly bright, sunlit rooms.
We watched a wide variety of TV programs in standard mode with a few tweaks for personal preferences; you don’t have to be in custom to do this. The Stanley Cup hockey finals serves as a good test for motion, and the set handled the action with ease. Panasonic states the Neo PDP panels have a 600 Hz subfield drive compared to 480 Hz for older screens. Motion detail seemed a bit crisper versus the ’07 panel, however, either one blows away any LCD HDTV, so keep that in mind, sports fans. Overall, TV shows were a mixed bag, but that’s more due to the source material. ESPN HD and Versus looked fantastic, Judge Judy, not so good (no snickering, please). The TV simply reproduced the signal—for better or worse—which is what it’s supposed to do.
Black is the most critical component for a great HDTV image. Über-expensive Pioneer Kuros had the deepest blacks we’ve ever seen, but unfortunately the company is leaving the field bloody and bowed. Panasonic keeps ratcheting up black levels at much more affordable prices, and the new panels have “Infinite Black,” which means the screen goes totally dark in well, dark scenes. Enhanced contrast ratio also boosts the inkiness of the image. Although it doesn’t quite reach Kuro levels, the TC-P42S1 has the richness and color saturation we love so much about plasmas. No other LCD 1080p comes close, other than those with LED backlighting, which are far more costly.
Panasonic Viera TC P2S1
The Dark Knight is one of our favorite BD discs, and since it’s so dark, it’s a good test for solid blacks. Close-ups of the Joker’s make-up are also challenges for any HDTV, given the black rings around his eyes, white face, and red lips. It looked right on the money. The colors of scene where Gotham General is blown sky high were also great: The red, white and blue of the hospital’s sign was spot on. And the nurse’s uniform worn by Heather Ledger was as white as a detergent commercial. Needless to say, the yellow-orange explosions and black smoke were as lifelike as could be – given it was all Hollywood make-believe.
The television’s two basic speakers provide decent sound quality, given that the speakers are in the rear, not incorporated into the front bezel. The 20-watt setup filled a good-sized room without too much distortion, but the simulated surround was basically useless, and Panasonic should spend the bucks bringing back the BBE Viva HD 3D system used in older models.
About those power claims: In the real world, last year’s TH-42PZ85U had a maximum power consumption of 573 watts; the new 42S1 is rated 485 watts, a 15% reduction. Not bad, but not as efficient as an LCD.
Although we have some minor issues with the TC-P42S1, they are just that: minor. You’ll really like this one for movies and HDTV sports. Black levels are very good, colors have that realism LCDs can never really match, power consumption is down, and the anti-reflective filter is a marked improvement over 2007 models. Straight two-channel stereo sound is OK, but the surround is really bad. If a 5.1-channel system is not in the cards, just add a sound bar and you’ll be set for years. And given the recession, you can find this model under $1,000 at legit online dealers. By comparison, a decent 120Hz 1080p LCD HDTV costs about $100 more. For us, that means game over.
- Excellent black levels
- Picture quality still tops 1080p LCDs
- Anti-reflection filter works very well
- Decent stereo sound
- Could use another HDMI input
- Saves power but still not as efficient at LCD displays
- Simulated surround is terrible
- Non-swiveling stand