You might expect a 50-inch 3D plasma set from a respected manufacturer to put on a great show. In that regard, however, the Panasonic TC-P50ST30 might disappoint you. Sure, it has all the right features—Wi-Fi, a generous selection of Internet feeds, and multimedia via USB, SD, and DLNA. But the picture quality leaves much to be desired, and the audio will make your ears hurt.
In our image-quality tests, the TC-P50ST30 had particular problems with motion. The landscape vibrated significantly in our diagonal-panning test, for instance. To be fair, that torture test is designed to exaggerate problems that would be slight in real-world use. But we saw plenty of motion problems in our real-world tests, too. Moving-camera shots from the Blu-ray releases of Mission: Impossible III (chapter 7) and The Dark Knight (chapter 9) produced shimmering. In our baseball test, one judge noted that the pitcher’s mound was vibrating.
Color and contrast problems cropped up as well. The TC-P50ST30 tended to apply red or orange tints over light colors, so pale skin tones often ended up looking sunburned. Scenes often appeared dark or oversaturated.
The audio was considerably worse than the picture. With the volume turned all the way up, the sound was horribly distorted. At 50 percent (a far more reasonable volume), we still detected considerable distortion. When a singer in Phantom of the Opera (chapter 2) sang the word “indeed,” I could hear the speakers straining with the high note. The simulated surround was acceptable but unexceptional.
At this point in every HDTV review, I remind readers that all TV speakers have their limits, and that you should buy a separate surround receiver and speakers for the full cinematic 5.1 audio experience. With the TC-P50ST30, that advice goes double.
But then again, if you buy a TC-P50ST30, you may also want to invest in special glasses. This HDTV offers active-shutter 3D, but it doesn’t provide the necessary glasses. Panasonic sells them for $150 a pair.
Panasonic does include a Wi-Fi adapter, so you can get network access even if you can’t stretch an ethernet cable from your router to your TV. However you make the connection, the TC-P50ST30 provides a good selection of Internet content, including Amazon’s and CinemaNow’s pay-per-view services, Facebook, Netflix, Pandora, YouTube, and more.
That same network connection also gives you access to the photos, music, and videos on your computer. Your PC will have to be on and running a DLNA server, but since Windows Media Player is a DLNA server, that shouldn’t be a problem. The DLNA option does an especially good job with music; you can search for the right song by genre, artist, albums, playlists, and other criteria.
The TC-P50ST30 has USB ports and an SD Card slot, so you can carry media files physically to the HDTV if you prefer. You can’t browse music on a card or drive as you can via DLNA; the television finds all of the appropriate files on the plugged-in media, saving you the hassle of searching through folders. It also offers an impressive slideshow tool, with plenty of transition effects and background-music options.
Its video and audio formats are limited, however. The TC-P50ST30 plays only .mp3 and .aac audio, and it couldn’t manage two of the video formats I threw at it. It handles more formats with DLNA, where the server can do some of the decoding. You’ll find a list of supported formats on page 30 of the manual, which is downloadable as a PDF.
Whether electronic or on paper, that manual is well laid out, and it includes several useful explanations and illustrations. It has a three-page FAQ and an index. The TC-P50ST30 also comes with a colorful and useful quick-setup guide.
Panasonic did a very good job of making this set easy to use, but not a perfect one. The main on-screen menu is large, legible, and attractive, with short but useful explanations. But it isn’t always intuitive. For instance, pressing the right arrow won’t take you to a submenu; you have to press OK for that.
As with most HDTVs, you change inputs (for example, moving from broadcast channels to your Blu-ray player) by pressing the remote’s Input button, which brings up a scrollable list. But Panasonic has improved that standard by adding the ability to edit this list. You can assign various labels to your inputs, making them easy to recognize. If you assign the ‘Not used’ label to an input, it will be skipped when you scroll through the list.
The remote control isn’t exceptional, aside from the well-done backlighting and a ridge on the back that gives it a good grip. The volume and channel controls are perfectly located, but the circle of arrows is too high. The remote is not programmable.
Another button on that remote, for Viera Tools, allows you to change some common options without searching through the more complex main menu. These options include one to convert 2D programs to simulated 3D. Since Panasonic didn’t bundle glasses with our review unit, I can’t tell you whether the effect looks any good. The Viera Tools menu also provides access to media-player settings, the video mode, and ‘Eco’ settings to turn the TV off automatically after too much time of nonuse.
Although the TC-P50ST30 has Energy Star certification, it isn’t particularly green by today’s standards, burning 138 watts when on. Plasma HDTVs generally consume more power than LCDs or LEDs do, so this result shouldn’t be surprising. When turned off, the TC-P50ST30 sipped so little electricity that the amount didn’t show up on our tests.
Macworld’s buying advice
Panasonic got a lot right when it designed the TC-P50ST30. Unfortunately, the image quality wasn’t one of those things. The picture isn’t awful, but it should be better.