It doesn’t take much skill to read the writing on the wall these days: 1080p HD TVs are the last of the dinosaurs, and 4K Ultra HD is the comet that killed them. If you’re not convinced by the fact that major companies like LG have already signaled the end of HD TV production, the new generation of strikingly affordable 4K Ultra HD TVs should do the trick. And while price-conscious brands like Vizio and Hisense are leading the charge, the biggest brands are getting into the act as well.
Daytime viewing is where LCD TVs do their best work, and the CX600 is no exception.
Enter Panasonic’s new TC-50CX600U 4K Ultra HD TV, a budget-friendly set from the storied TV maker that’s available in a 50-inch model for just under a grand. That’s the kind of price you’d pay for a mid-tier 1080p HD TV just a year or two ago, and the CX600 comes loaded with Panasonic’s capable new Firefox smart interface. So, is it time to trade in your HD TV for a model of the next era? The answer is more complicated than you might think.
Out of the box
As you might expect from a TV at the lowest rung of Panasonic’s 4K Ultrar HD lineup, there’s nothing especially fancy here, just a flat panel set on a rectangular unibody stand, but the smoke-chrome trim around the edges does offer some sexy reflection in the right light. The TV sets up in minutes, and looks attractive enough on a TV stand, sporting a relatively slim bezel and a depth of 2.5-inches that puts it in the middle of the pack for LCD TVs.
In the box are the usual accessories, including a plain Jane remote control wand and batteries, along with a manual and promotional materials.
Features and design
While the set is among the most affordable 4K UHD TVs in its class, Panasonic doesn’t skimp when it comes to inputs, loading the CX600 with a trio of HDMI 2.0a inputs, including one with ARC for better communication with connected devices. All are equipped with the latest HDCP 2.2 copyright protection and support 60Hz 4K UHD content. Three USB inputs are carved into the side, including a single 3.0 input to allow for direct connection to a 4K UHD device. Other inputs include a standard Component/Composite RCA input, an Ethernet port, and a optical digital audio jack.
Behind the screen, the TV boasts Panasonic’s Quad-Core Pro processing engine, supporting a 60Hz native LED LCD panel, which is essentially the bottom of the barrel when it comes to refresh rates. That tends to make fast-motion content a little jagged at times, but Panasonic does have one of the least offensive motion processors on the market, and it’s offered here in strengths of weak, mid, and strong. Engaging the mildest setting smooths things out pleasantly enough, with only a slight touch of the wrenching Soap Opera effect.
There’s no full array local dimming on board the edge-lit CX600. Panasonic’s Adaptive Backlight Control does attempt to aid in black levels, though the feature tends to distract more than enhance. Those craving convincing contrast and richer black levels will have to step up in price to one of Panasonic’s upper tier models, which can run you an extra grand or more. Either that or look into one of Vizio’s M-series models.
There’s not much else that stands out about the CX600’s design, apart from the remote which is distinctive only for its lack of distinction. At this price you’ll give up any form of touch pad or motion control — hell, we would have settled for a backlit keypad, but no dice there either. Still, the unit does its job well enough, evoking only a minor quibble in the location of the Netflix button, which is set right above the upper navigation key and sent us into the app unsolicited several times in the first few days.
While the CX600’s design may be lackluster, the same cannot be said for the sparkling new Firefox Smart TV interface, which is a striking improvement over Panasonic’s previous multi-pane system. The latest smartphone interface to migrate to TV land, Firefox puts Panasonic closer in line with Samsung’s Tizen and LG’s webOS 2.0 systems, though it’s not quite as slick as those options.
The lightning-fast Firefox Smart TV interface is a striking improvement over Panasonic’s previous multi-pane system.
That said, the system is snappy and intuitive, dousing the screen in pastel colors as you dive through three main branches, including Live TV (be it broadcast or cable), Apps, and Devices. The latter index can also be reached through the TV’s main interface, but the smart option also serves up any DLNA connected devices over your wireless network. One feature we missed here is the ability to automatically detect connected devices, though it’s not really expected at this level.
Navigation to and from the interface is as easy as clicking the Home and Exit keys respectively, with near instant connection, and on-the-nose instructions help you orient yourself in no time. Perhaps the coolest adaptable feature is the ability to “pin” devices, apps, and even channels to any of the three sections for customizable access.
All the basic apps are present, save Hulu, which is oddly omitted in the app store as well. Netflix and Amazon come pre-loaded for your HD or UHD viewing pleasure, as does YouTube, the VOD movie service Vudu, and the Firefox browser you’ll never use to surf the Internet. Social apps like Twitter and Facebook can be downloaded from the marketplace. This being a “Netflix Recommended” TV, it’s no surprise that Netflix loading is lightning fast, but YouTube, and Amazon are pretty speedy as well.
There’s no doubt the CX600 has a lot of things going for it, especially for a 4K UHD TV at this price point. That’s an important qualifier, though, as the high resolution requires some concessions over comparable HD TVs at this price which may not be palatable to more discerning viewers.
Those compromises include black levels that are pretty so-so, even for a lower-tier TV, and shadow details that leave a lot to be desired on your murkiest content. In order to coax proper detail in the darkest corners of movies like Harry Potter 7, or Prometheus, we were forced to crank up the brightness levels to a point that invoked glowing barriers at the sides of the screen, as well as some artifacts on select content. Backing things down a bit offers a fair compromise, but you’ll pay for it with a loss of dimension in dark clothing, corners, stairwells, and even the sides of faces dissipating quickly into the dark ether. As such, cinephiles who spend hours on end in darkened rooms will need to think twice before diving into this model.
The TV does avoid the blooming we see in many LCD panels with the brightness backed down, but off-axis viewing is just as atrocious as we’ve come to expect from more affordable LCD fare. Milky clouds expand on the screen with each step you take away from center, and looking from a sharp angle transforms letterbox bars on films into a pale sepia tone.
However, for viewers who spend most of their viewing time in the light, the CX600’s other talents may be enough to forgive its transgressions in the dark. Daytime viewing is where LCD panels do their best work, and the CX600 is no exception. Colors are vivid, without making images look unnatural, and the screen is blazingly bright, even with the backlight lowered to half mast.
And then, of course, there’s the big selling point: yes, 4K UHD resolution. While the effectiveness of 4K resolution for smaller screen sizes has been the subject of serious debate, what isn’t debatable is the CX600’s ability to render 4K content in razor-sharp detail. Even when it comes to content that wasn’t natively recorded in 4K, such as Breaking Bad, the CX600 impresses. In Walt’s first meeting with Lydia at the coffee house, for instance, the display delineated everything from the cratered dimples on Walt’s face, to the textured ribbons of the paper napkin with stark clarity that is notable even from across the room.
Adding an addendum for audio performance, we’ll cut right to the chase and say it’s awful, even for a flat screen TV. Bottom line, if you don’t want your sound coming out flat and tinny, use a sound bar or stereo system.
One more gripe to tender: You can only purchase this TV from Panasonic directly at this time. Panasonic tells us to expect the TV to appear at Newegg.com and Jet.com soon, but the fact that you can’t purchase Panasonic’s latest TVs at such major retailers as Amazon and Best Buy has us scratching our heads.
Panasonic’s new TC-50CX600U offers brilliant colors, an ultra bright screen, and, at $900 (at time of publishing) for a 50-inch screen, represents one of the most affordable 4K UHD TVs on the market. However, those looking for a quality performance in the dark will want to look at comparable models equipped with full array local dimming such as Vizio’s M series, or step up to the glory of Panasonic’s critically acclaimed upper tier.
- Bright, accurate colors
- Affordable 4K Ultra HD resolution
- Intuitive smart interface
- Solid feature set
- Mediocre shadow detail
- Poor off-axis viewing
- 60Hz refresh rate not great for fast content
- No Hulu app