Like it or not, Panasonic plasmas are gone, and we all have to move on. The company is now looking at an LCD-only future (at least in the immediate future, until OLED gains a foothold), and the big question is, can it really compete with the big boys of LCD in the market?
At the higher end of the price chain, Panasonic offers the THX-certified 4K AX800 Series that uses a full-array LED backlight with local dimming, designed and featured to go up against the high-end models from Samsung, LG, and Sony. We haven't had a chance to review that line yet, but some of the initial reviews look positive. [Editor's note, 10/19/14: Last week, Panasonic also announced the 65-inch AX900 and 85-inch AX850 Series of Ultra HD TVs, which will be available in November.]
Sitting below the AX800 are the AS680 and AS650 Series of 1080p LED/LCDs. These models use edge LED lighting and lack local dimming, so you can expect a drop-off in black level and contrast compared with the top-shelf line. The AS680 (which is only available in a 55-inch size) has a true 240Hz refresh rate, while the AS650 has a 120Hz refresh rate and employs Panasonic's "1500 Backlight Scanning" to further improve motion resolution. Otherwise, the two lines are identical. Both are 3D-capable and include the company's redesigned smart TV platform, called Life+Screen, with a host of streaming and connectivity features.
The AS650 Series is available in screen sizes of 50, 55, and 60 inches. Panasonic sent me the 55-inch TC-55AS650U, which currently carries an MSRP of $1,199.99.
Setup and Features
The TC-55AS650U has a sleek form factor, with only about a half inch of bezel around the top and sides and a two-tone aesthetic with black frame on the sides and brushed aluminum on the top and bottom. A pair of down-firing, 10-watt speakers is onboard, and the non-swiveling stand is essentially a three-sided piece of bent metal. I liked the minimalist look of the stand, and the TV felt sturdy in it. With the stand attached, the TV weighs 43 pounds, and the screen's depth is 2.2 inches.
The connection panel sports three HDMI 1.4 inputs (two down-facing, one side-facing, with ARC support on one of them but no MHL support), one component video input, one RF input for the internal ATSC tuner, and an optical digital audio output. The TV has built-in WiFi, or you can use the back-panel LAN port for network connectivity. An SD card slot is available for media playback, as are two USB ports that also allow for the addition of peripherals like a camera or keyboard. The TC-55AS650U has Bluetooth functionality to wirelessly connect a keyboard, mouse, or headphones.
The TC-55AS650U lacks the THX and ISF picture modes you get on the higher-end AX800 Series, but Panasonic has included all of the advanced picture adjustments we like to see, including: multiple color-temperature presents with two- and 10-point white balance adjustment; a full color management system to adjust the hue, saturation, and luminance of all six colors; nine gamma presets (1.8 to 2.6), plus a 10-point gamma detail control; a 100-step adjustable backlight; noise reduction; and a game mode to optimize response time when playing video games. Panasonic's de-blur/de-judder control is called Motion Picture Setting, and you can choose off, weak, mid, or strong to set the amount of smoothness (i.e., frame interpolation) you prefer with film sources. This TV does not include a de-blur option that does not employ frame interpolation.
The AS650 is a 3D-capable TV. Unlike Panasonic's plasma TVs that used active 3D technology, the new LCDs use passive 3D, and two pairs of lightweight glasses (model TY-EP3D20) were included in the package. You can configure separate picture modes for 3D content and employ 3D depth adjustments, left/right swaps, and diagonal line filtering.
The Sound menu includes three preset sound modes and a user mode with an eight-band equalizer. Generic surround, bass boost, volume leveler, and boundary compensation controls are available. The AS650's sound quality is surprisingly good given its basic two-speaker design. Both dynamic ability and vocal clarity were above average for a flat-panel TV.
The TC-55AS650U comes with two remote controls: the standard Panasonic IR remote with lots of buttons and the smaller Touchpad remote that communicates via Bluetooth and has just 10 buttons around a large touchpad. Both models put black buttons on a black case and lack backlighting. One of the 10 buttons on the Touchpad remote is a microphone that is used to search for content within the smart TV service, but can also control basic TV tasks like mute, channel, volume, and input selection.
Panasonic also offers a free iOS/Android control app, called Panasonic TV Remote 2. The app has layouts that exactly replicate the IR and Touchpad remotes, as well as a keyboard to enter text during Web browsing and some (but not all) apps. You can Swipe & Share media content and Web pages directly from your mobile device, and the AS650U also support screen mirroring with compatible mobile devices.
Since Panasonic has completely redesigned its smart TV platform in 2014, we will cover the Life+Screen platform in a separate review that will post soon.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...