When the first round of THX-certified displays began to appear on the market from companies like Panasonic and LG, they demanded a price premium over other similarly-sized panels, which begged the question: is THX certification worth the extra money? Opinions were mixed. As Panasonic moves into its second generation of THX-certified plasmas, the company has rendered the question somewhat moot by offering more THX-certified models at lower price points. This year, three of Panasonic's lines will feature THX certification: the top-shelf Z1 Series (with a one-inch depth and wireless HD transmission), the step-down V10 Series (a two-inch depth), and the mid-line G10 Series reviewed here.
The G10 Series includes four models, sized from 42 to 54 inches. The TC-P46G10 is a 46-inch, 1080p panel with an MSRP of $1,700. This TV may not have the super-slim profile or wireless HD options found in the more expensive lines, but it still boasts an impressive array of performance specs and features for the price - beginning with Panasonic's VIERA CAST• Web platform, which allows you to stream Amazon video-on-demand (including HD content) and access YouTube, Picasa Web albums, Bloomberg stock information and local weather forecasts. The G10 Series uses Panasonic's newest Neo PDP, which purportedly offers a better contrast ratio and motion resolution than previous-generation panels. Other noteworthy features include three HDMI inputs, a choice of 48Hz or 60Hz output for 24p film sources and an SD card slot for photo and AVCHD video playback.
The TC-P46G10's connection panel includes the full complement of HD-capable inputs: three HDMI, two component video and one PC/VGA. The HDMI inputs accept both 1080p/60 and 1080p/24. Panasonic has put the VGA and one HDMI input on the side panel, along with the SD card slot for photo/video playback. A single RF input provides access to the internal NTSC/ATSC/Clear-QAM tuners. The Ethernet port for VIERA CAST• is located around back; the TC-P46G10 does not have built-in wi-fi for connection to your network.
All THX-certified displays feature a THX picture mode in which adjustments like contrast, brightness, color, tint, color temperature, etc. are (supposedly) set to their optimal levels based on SMPTE standards. The consumer need only switch to the THX picture mode (which you'd think would be the default, but it isn't) and not have to worry about using a disc like Video Essentials (DVD International) to fine-tune the image quality. This holds true with the TC-P46G10's THX mode. It is without a doubt the best and most natural-looking of the available picture modes (which also include vivid, standard, custom and game modes; you can set different parameters per input for the custom mode, though not the other modes), but there was one setting that jumped out at me: the contrast is set to its maximum. This high setting doesn't crush whites; however, with plasma displays, we usually recommend that you turn down the contrast in order to prevent short-term image retention, especially during the initial usage period. THX obviously isn't as concerned about this and admittedly image retention has become less of a concern with each new plasma generation. Additionally, Panasonic includes a pixel orbiter that automatically and imperceptibly shifts the image to prevent uneven pixel wear. I therefore took THX's lead and left the contrast setting as is.
Panasonic does allow you to make changes to the THX mode, which is something LG didn't permit in its previous THX displays. However, there aren't many advanced picture adjustments at your disposal to dramatically alter the image; absent are the advanced white balance, gamma and individual color-management adjustments you'll find in higher-end displays - probably because Panasonic feels that the inclusion of an "accurate" THX mode renders these advanced options unnecessary in a mid-priced TV.
The TC-P46G10 has five aspect-ratio options: 4:3, Zoom, Full, H-Fill and Just. The menu includes two HD size options: size 1 adds a little overscan, while size 2 is pixel-for-pixel for 1080i/1080p content. In the THX mode, this menu item is locked at a "THX" setting, which is pixel-for-pixel for 1080i/1080p signals, so you can't add overscan to the image. The TV also includes an "H Size" function that allows you to slightly stretch the horizontal edges with 480i content. In addition to the aforementioned pixel orbiter, the "anti image retention" menu lets you dictate the brightness of 4:3 sidebars (from light gray to black) and offers a scrolling bar to help counteract any short-term image retention that may occur.
On the audio side, the TC-P46G10 includes the standard options we've seen in past Panasonic models, minus the BBE VIVA HD3D surround processing. You get bass, treble and balance controls, basic surround processing, and AI sound and volume leveler features. In general, the audio quality in this new TV was fuller and less tinny than I've heard from previous Panasonic TVs.
One last set-up note: thank you, Panasonic, for finally renaming the reset function. At the top of both the picture and audio menus, there used to be a selection called Normal, with yes or no options. Click yes, and all of your settings are reset to the defaults. Panasonic has finally changed this menu option to "Reset to Default" to avoid confusion.
With Blu-ray and HDTV content, I could find very little fault with the TC-P46G10's picture quality in the THX mode. It serves up a natural-looking image, with wonderfully neutral skin tones and colors that are rich without being artificial or cartoonish. If anything, the color may be a bit too subtle for consumers who have grown used to the overly vibrant colors they see in a lot of today's HDTVs. The overall level of detail is excellent, and the TV did a great job rendering fine shadow detail in darker scenes from Ghost Rider (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) and The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Buena Vista Home Entertainment). I was particularly impressed with the smooth facial contours and minimal digital noise in backgrounds and light-to-dark transitions.
Read more about the performance of the TC-P46G10 on Page 2.
The picture's excellent contrast ratio leads to a well-saturated image. The THX mode is the dimmest of all the picture modes, but it still has a solid amount of light output for a dark to moderately-lit room. HD scenes don't look flat or washed-out, but instead have a rich, inviting quality. Even when I moved the TV from my theater room to my bright living room, I was still satisfied with the THX mode's image saturation, but it admittedly lacked the pop that you'll get with a brighter TV. For a really bright viewing environment, you might want to set up the custom picture mode, which is much brighter by default and delivers in the "pop" department while still offering a relatively clean, natural image, although it is not as accurate as the THX mode.
I compared the TC-P46G10 with my reference TV, the higher-end Samsung LN-T4681F LED LCD, and it more than held its own. With the Samsung set to its minimum backlight level, the image contrast between the two TVs was comparable; obviously, the LCD can be a lot brighter when you turn up the backlight. The Panasonic has a more neutral out-of-the-box color temperature; the white snow of Planet Earth on Discovery HD was a truer white, with less red than the Samsung. However, the Samsung's color points are slightly more accurate. Watching the NBA playoff series between the Lakers and the Rockets, Houston's red jerseys were a deeper shade than they should be, but the Lakers' yellow and purple closely matched those of the Samsung. Both TVs push toward an overall green hue in the image, but it's not excessive. Where the Panasonic can't quite compete is in its black level. Don't get me wrong, the TC-P46G10's black level is very good - good enough, as I said earlier, to give the picture a lot of depth and saturation in a dark room - but the higher-end Samsung has the benefit of local-dimming LEDs, so black areas of the picture look truly black, as opposed to the slightly grayer shade produced by the Panasonic.
The TC-P46G10 has a wider viewing angle than the LCD, so image saturation remains constant, regardless of where you sit in the room. In the motion department, Panasonic claims a full 1,080 lines of resolution, even with fast-moving signals. To put this claim to the test, I used the moving line-resolution test from the FPD Software Group Blu-ray disc. The TC-P46G10 didn't fully preserve the clarity of each individual line in the 1,080-line pattern during the motion test, but it did a much better job than most displays I've seen. Also, the map-pan and Japanese-character test patterns were exceptionally clear. In other words, motion blur isn't generally an issue with plasmas, and it's even less so with the TC-P46G10.
In the processing arena, the TC-P46G10 gets the job done but doesn't exactly excel. With 1080i content, the TC-P46G10 passes the resolution and jaggies tests on the HD HQV Benchmark Blu-ray disc (Silicon Optix) as long as you remember to enable 3:2 pulldown in the menu, which appears to be turned off by default. When feeding the TV a 1080i signal from my Pioneer Blu-ray player, it was sometimes slow to pick up the 3:2 cadence in the staircase descent at the beginning of chapter eight of Mission: Impossible III (Paramount Home Entertainment), creating moiré in the stairs. There was also some shimmer in the RV grille at the end of chapter 12 in Ghost Rider. I didn't notice any blatant artifacts with 1080i HDTV signals, though. As for standard-definition content, the level of detail in up-converted 480i sources is good, but the video processor's deinterlacing is inconsistent. The TV was again slow to pick up the 3:2 cadence in the film test on the HQV Benchmark DVD (Silicon Optix) and produced jaggies and other digital artifacts with my real-world Gladiator demo (DreamWorks Home Entertainment, the Coliseum flyover in chapter 12). However, it then did a surprisingly good job with the torturous window blinds in chapter four of The Bourne Identity (Universal Studios Home Video) and looked generally clean with 480i SDTV signals. Still, you'll probably want to mate this TV with a good-performing Blu-ray or up-converting DVD player just to be safe.
This was my first experience with VIERA CAST•, and it proves to be a worthy feature, especially now that it includes Amazon VOD. The VIERA CAST• home page is cleanly laid out and even displays the currently selected video input in the center window. There are boxes for Amazon, YouTube, Picasa, Bloomberg, local weather and the Viera Concierge service for assistance with your TV, plus an empty "Coming Soon" box. Compared with the YouTube interface I just used on an LG Blu-ray player, Panasonic's interface is a little slow to navigate and cue up content, and there's no option to view the video full-screen (then again, with many YouTube videos, you really don't want to view them that large anyhow). As for the Amazon VOD service, the interface is intuitive and user-friendly, with HD Movie Rentals wisely listed as the first browsing option. After an initial set-up process that requires you to go online, you can browse and order content directly from the TV; you don't have to add content to an online cue as you do with the Netflix streaming service. In regards to video quality, I only have a 1.5Mbps connection speed, and I was quite impressed with the quality of a streamed Californication episode in HD; it was significantly better than the streaming quality I got through the Netflix service. Yes, compression artifacts are still evident, but the picture resembles HD, which is more than I can say for the barely SD quality I saw with Netflix. Of course, the Netflix service is a much better value if you're already a Netflix customer, as you can watch unlimited streamed titles. With Amazon, you must pay for every individual TV show or movie you want to view.
I didn't review last year's PZ800 Series, the first to include a 48Hz option for 24p Blu-ray content. However, I read a lot of professional and consumer reviews expressing annoyance at the obvious flicker created in this mode. Unfortunately, the problem still exists with the TC-P46G10's 48Hz mode, especially in brighter scenes or a brighter picture mode. Yes, 48Hz does produce slightly smoother movement than the traditional 60Hz frame rate, but I found the pulsing or strobe-like flicker to be much more distracting than judder, so I left the TV in 60Hz mode. A few plasma manufacturers now incorporate some type of smooth mode in which motion interpolation creates that super-smooth, video-like motion we see with many 120Hz LCDs; Panasonic does not include a mode like this. Personally, I'm okay with that omission, but many people seem to enjoy the effects of motion interpolation, which is why it's appearing on more and more displays.
Panasonic continues to improve its anti-reflective filter; the TC-P46G10's glass reflects less light than that of the TH-P4277U I own, but it's still an issue when watching darker scenes. Fine detail is lost, and you can see room reflections in the glass. It was interesting to compare the reflectivity of the Panasonic and Samsung screens. The Samsung screen, while appearing more reflective than the Panasonic, is designed to reject ambient light to make blacks look deeper in a brighter viewing environment ... and it succeeds. The disparity in blacks between the two TVs was even more pronounced during the day.
As I mentioned in the Hookup section, the THX mode locks the aspect ratio in a pixel-for-pixel mode for 1080i/1080p content. This is desirable when viewing 1080p Blu-ray content, but it's not always ideal when watching 1080i HDTV content; you can't add overscan to eliminate the occasional noise that's evident around the edges of an HDTV signal (the THX mode adds overscan for 720p, so that's not an issue).
Finally, the remote and TV didn't always play nicely with one another. One moment, I would have to press a button several times before the TV would respond; the next, it would jump too quickly through menu options.
With the $1,700 TC-P46G10, Panasonic may have negated the need to ask "Is THX certification worth the extra money?", but I'm going to answer the question anyhow: yes, it is. This plasma HDTV offers a beautiful, theater-worthy picture with minimal set-up effort. Its performance is not quite to the level of the best high-end panels, but it will be tough to find better at this price point. Add in the great complement of features, like VIERA CAST• and an SD card slot, and the TC-P46G10 is an easy recommendation.