The GT30 Series is the middle child in Panasonic’s 2011 family of 3DTVs, falling between the entry-level ST30 Series and the top-shelf VT30 Series. In addition to 3D capability, all three lines offer the VIERA CONNECT Web platform (formerly known as VIERA CAST), a supplied WiFi USB adapter, and DLNA streaming. Stepping up from ST30 to GT30 gives you THX certification (for 2D and 3D content), a more attractive cabinet design, and additional HDMI and USB inputs; stepping up even further to VT30 gives you a higher-quality Infinite Black Pro 2 panel, a bezel-less front face, RS-232, and one pair of 3D glasses. The GT30 Series includes screen sizes of 65, 60, 55, and 50 inches; we reviewed the 50-inch TC-P50GT30, which is the follow-up to last year’s TC-P50GT25 and has an MSRP of $1,899.95.
Like all Panasonic 3DTVs, this 1080p plasma is an active 3DTV that employs frame-sequential 3D technology, in which the TV alternately flashes a full-resolution left-eye and right-eye image. To view the 3D image, you need a pair of 3D glasses that contain shutters that open and close in sync with the signal to direct the appropriate image to each eye. Panasonic doesn’t include any 3D glasses with this TV; each pair has an MSRP of $180 (at the time of this writing, the glasses were on sale through Panasonic for $162). The TV supports 2D-to-3D conversion to produce a simulated 3D image from standard 2D content.
Setup & Features
Compared with its predecessor, the TC-P50GT30 has a bit more visual flair, although Panasonic is still a step behind companies like Samsung and LG in the style department. This TV has a gloss-black bezel with a chrome accent all the way around the border, down-firing speakers, and a square, swiveling base. It’s quite thin for a plasma, with the panel measuring just 1.5 inches deep (the speaker section at the very bottom measures 2.3 inches deep); the weight is 56.3 pounds without the stand. The remote has the same design as previous models. It offers a clean, logical layout and provides backlighting for a majority of the buttons. Apparently, someone forgot to tell the remote people that the company has changed the name of the Web platform to VIERA CONNECT; my review sample had a nice, big VIERA CAST button in the center. Hey, it gets the job done, but it might confuse someone who doesn’t know about the name change.
The connection panel includes four side-facing HDMI inputs, as well as one PC, one component video, and one composite video input – all of which are single, down-facing jacks that require special adapter cables (included). One RF input is available to access the internal ATSC and Clear-QAM tuners. For network connectivity, you can choose between wired Ethernet and the supplied USB WiFi adapter, which comes with an extension cable in case you need to position the antenna away from the TV for optimal reception. An SD card slot and three USB ports are available for playback of digital media files. The USB ports also support the addition of the aforementioned WiFi adapter, a USB camera, and/or a USB keyboard.
In terms of picture adjustments, the TC-P50GT30 has the standard complement we’ve come to expect from a higher-end Panasonic TV – more generous than an entry-level TV but not quite as extensive as you get with other high-end offerings. Naturally, since this is a THX-certified display, the setup menu includes a THX picture mode that’s designed to provide the best-looking image out of the box, but it limits the amount of fine-tuning you can do. Unlike last year’s GT25 that only offered a THX mode for 2D content, the GT30 has distinct 2D and 3D THX picture modes that can be independently adjusted. The THX modes provide access to basic adjustments like contrast, brightness, color, tint, and sharpness, as well as the C.A.T.S. feature that automatically adjusts brightness based on room lighting, five color-temperature presets, and various forms of noise reduction. If you’d like to perform a more advanced calibration, you must select the Custom picture mode, which grants you access to a Pro menu that includes advanced white balance (high and low controls for red, green, and blue; this is the first time green is included), color space (normal/wide), gamma adjustment (six presets), contour emphasis (edge enhancement), and panel brightness (with low, mid, and high options). The primary omission is an advanced color-management system that allows you to individually tailor the six color points.
Gone from this year’s setup menu is the Blur Reduction option that’s designed to improve the TV’s motion resolution; it has been replaced with a new feature called Motion Smoother. This new function also improves the TV’s motion resolution, but it does so by employing frame interpolation, which produces smooth, judder-free motion with film sources. Yep, Panasonic has finally joined other plasma manufacturers in offering a smoothing function. If you like the “soap opera effect” (as some of my colleagues like to call it) wherein film sources look more like video, this is great news. If you don’t, well, it’s not a big deal because you can just leave the function turned off. By the way, you can’t use Motion Smoother in THX mode. Panasonic still includes the option to output 24p film sources at either 48Hz or 60Hz. The 48Hz option gives you 2:2 pulldown (repeating each film frame twice), which produces a slightly less-juddery image than the 3:2 pulldown used for 60Hz output. However, 48Hz also creates very obvious and highly distracting flicker, so I don’t recommend that you use it. (This model doesn’t include the more desirable 96Hz mode that’s offered in the VT30 Series.)
The 3D setup menu also has a new addition: the 3D Adjustment setting lets you adjust the left-eye versus right-eye depth to produce a more desirable 3D effect. As in last year’s model, you can swap the two images if it seems like the depth perception is off, engage a diagonal line filter to remove jaggies, and set the level of depth in 2D-to-3D converted images (minimum, medium, or maximum). Gone is the ability to manually select the 3D input format; now the only choices are two auto-detect modes: One simply uses the 3D signal indicator, while the other uses the signal indicator and “image analysis” to correctly identify the 3D input signal.
The audio setup menu lacks any preset sound modes or advanced equalization. You get bass, treble, and balance controls, as well as bass boost and a basic surround mode. The AI Sound feature is designed to equalize the volume level across all channels and inputs, while Volume Leveler deals specifically with reducing level variations between the different inputs. T
his TV lacks advanced audio-processing options by Dolby or SRS.
In its appearance and navigation, VIERA CONNECT isn’t that different from VIERA CAST. Once the TV is connected to your network, you can launch VIERA CONNECT by hitting the aforementioned VIERA CAST button on the remote. The primary video source continues to play in a center window, surrounded by eight boxes that contain the various Web-based services. Out of the box, the interface includes three pages of services through which to navigate, and you customize where each service is placed in the grid. Default services include Netflix, Amazon VOD, CinemaNow, Skype, Facebook, Pandora, YouTube, Fox Sports, MLV.TV, and more. At CES, the company announced that Hulu Plus would be available, but it was not yet offered on my review sample (Panasonic estimates a launch date of late July/early August). The new distinguishing feature is the VIERA CONNECT Market, an apps store where you can add new services and games. At this stage, the store isn’t as well stocked as Samsung’s apps store, but Panasonic hasn’t been in the game as long. The Market interface is cleanly laid out and easy to search. All and all, I found VIERA CONNECT to be very user-friendly in its execution. I would recommend the addition of a USB keyboard if you plan to use a lot of Web features. The Panasonic remote does not include a full keyboard, nor does it have the Wii-style motion control that LG now offers with some TV models, both of which make it easier to input text when joining your wireless network, entering passwords, and chatting with friends via the social-networking tools. (iPhone/iPod Touch owners can download Panasonic’s VIERA Remote app, which doesn’t have all the controls found on the TV remote but does allow for easier text input.) Not surprisingly, there’s no THX picture mode for the VIERA CONNECT video sources, but all of the other picture modes and picture adjustments are available.
I began my review session with 2D content viewed in the Panasonic’s THX mode. As advertised, the THX mode delivers the most attractive, natural-looking image out of the box, although it’s not exactly textbook accurate. With last year’s GT25 model, I preferred the Custom mode because I found the THX mode’s gamma and panel brightness to be too high, which revealed a lot of noise in blacks and other low-level areas. This time around, I was much happier with the THX mode’s performance. The gamma is still too light (more on that later), but the panel brightness and low-level noise are no longer a concern. The TC-P50GT30 serves up a clean image, with very little digital noise in backgrounds and light-to-dark transitions. As for panel brightness, I felt the THX mode struck a great balance between black level and brightness. The picture was amply bright to produce well-saturated HDTV and sports content in a well-lit room, yet it still had the black-level performance to excel with movies in a darker environment. For comparison, I used LG’s 47LW5600, an edge-lit LED/LCD that uses local dimming to improve its black level. With demo scenes from The Bourne Supremacy (Universal), Flags of Our Fathers (Paramount), Signs (Buena Vista), and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Buena Vista), both TVs served up deep blacks that worked well for movie playback. The LG did produce a deeper shade of black in certain circumstances, but generally speaking, black bars and black level were comparable. However, the Panasonic had a clear advantage when reproducing the bright areas within darker scenes: Brighter content remained bright and punchy. To get comparable brightness through the LG, I had to turn up the backlight a lot, which hurt the black level. So, overall, the Panasonic’s image had better overall contrast, which produced a nice sense of depth (this would prove beneficial with 3D content, too).
Read more about the performance of the Panasonic TC-P50GT30 plasma on Page 2.
In the color realm, the TC-P50GT30’s colors were rich but natural, and the Warm2 color temperature looked generally neutral with both bright and dark content. Blacks didn’t have the overly blue tinge that I often see in LCDs, and skintones looked accurate. The Warm2 mode had a slight greenish-yellow push; switching to Warm1 removed it, but the overall color temperature was a bit cooler. For those who desire a more technically accurate white balance, you’ll have to switch to the Custom picture mode to access the advanced adjustments.
With HDTV and Blu-ray content, the overall level of detail was excellent, and the TC-P50GT30 did a better job with standard-def film sources than last year’s GT25, producing a cleaner image with fewer artifacts and better detail. By default, the TV’s 3:2 mode is set to Auto; in this mode, the TV fails to properly deinterlace 480i and 1080i content, resulting in a lot of jaggies and moire. However, when I switched the 3:2 mode to On, it correctly detected the cadence and cleanly rendered my standard demo scenes from Gladiator (DreamWorks) and The Bourne Identity (Universal) for 480i and Mission Impossible III (Paramount) for 1080i. The Panasonic doesn’t correctly handle as many assorted cadences as other TVs I’ve tested, so you might see some artifacts when you move beyond traditional film sources.
To check for motion blur, I used the resolution test patterns on the FPD Benchmark Software Blu-ray disc. With Motion Smoother turned off, this plasma still produced clean lines in the HD 720 pattern and some visible line structure in the HD 1080 pattern–good enough, in my book, to justify leaving the smoothing function turned off. But, should you choose to turn on Motion Smoother, the motion resolution gets even better. The HD 1080 lines were crystal clear. The “Weak” Motion Smoother mode is fairly subtle in its judder reduction, while the “Strong” mode produces a smoother effect, for those who prefer it. Motion Smoother performed more reliably with my DirecTV signal than many de-judder modes I test, but I still chose to leave it off.
Next, I moved to 3D content, starting with 3D Blu-ray content from Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (Fox), Monster House (Sony), and Monsters vs. Aliens (DreamWorks). The LG 47LW5600 is a passive 3DTV, so I had an opportunity to compare the two competing formats. LG’s passive approach uses Film Patterned Retarder (FPR) technology that incorporates the left- and right-eye images into the same frame, with a polarized filter and polarized glasses directing the appropriate image to each eye. (Each eye only receives half of the image’s vertical resolution.) The stated benefits of the passive approach were on display with the LG: The package comes with four pairs of lightweight, battery-free 3D glasses; there was no flicker when watching 3D in a well-lit room; and the 3D image was brighter than that of the Panasonic’s
THX 3D mode. However, in the Custom mode with the panel brightness set to high, the TC-P50GT30 produced a significantly brighter 3D image with razor-sharp detail and virtually no crosstalk. The one downside to this setup is that the color is clearly oversaturated, but I must confess, I kind of liked it for 3D. The combination of the rich color, excellent detail, and good brightness made for an engaging 3D experience.
Purists would probably appreciate a color-management system to precisely dial back each color, but the best you can do is simply turn down the general color control. It’s worth noting that the LG also kept crosstalk to a minimum, although it was more noticeable when sitting off-axis. The most obvious difference between the two TVs was the fact that LG’s FPR technology and polarized glasses produce a noticeable horizontal line structure. These lines were especially obvious in the snow-filled scenes of Ice Age, while the Panasonic image was clean and crisp. When I switched over to DirecTV 3D content, the LG’s lack of vertical resolution became very obvious. Cable/satellite providers use a side-by-side 3D format in which both images are embedded beside one another in the same frame. So, horizontal resolution is already cut in half. The LG image didn’t look terrible, but it didn’t look nearly as detailed or have as much depth as that of the Panasonic.
One of the nice things about a high-quality plasma is its innate ability to produce a deeper black level without having to employ a special performance tool like local dimming. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve seen some outstanding local-dimming-based LED/LCDs; but, as a reviewer, it’s almost a relief to sit down with a good plasma because I don’t have to spend time trying to discern how local dimming is affecting the image. Is there too much glow around objects? Can you see the black level shift in unnatural ways? So, you can imagine my surprise when I noticed subtle brightness fluctuations in the TC-P50GT30’s image. The brightness didn’t fluctuate across the entire image; instead, specific (often small) areas within a scene would suddenly get a step brighter or darker. While I couldn’t pinpoint an exact circumstance in which this occurred, it seemed to happen more often in backgrounds that contained a lot of mid-level grey or muted blue. I also saw it more with HDTV than with Blu-ray or DVD. In much of the content I watched, I didn’t see this problem at all. However, in certain sources, I saw it regularly. For instance, in the TV show Castle, I often saw it during interrogation scenes in the interview room, which has a muted grey color palette. This is a fairly subtle quirk; but, once you notice it, you’re likely to keep noticing it.
As I mentioned above, the THX mode isn’t quite as accurate as it could be. The gamma, in particular, appears to be too light. In my favorite black-level demo from The Bourne Supremacy (chapter one), the Panasonic revealed a bit too much detail in the dark backgrounds, making them seem slightly overexposed. The LG TV’s 1.8 gamma setting best matched the Panasonic’s 2.2 setting. If you find this objectionable, you can switch to the Custom mode and adjust the gamma and AGC controls to tailor the appearance of black areas.
The Infinite Black 2 panel does a good job of reducing glare off the screen while allowing blacks to look darker during the day; however, it’s still a reflective screen–which can present problems when trying to watch darker content in a well-lit room. You want to be mindful of the position of lamps and other light sources in relation to the TV.
With the GT25 model, I complained that the 3D glasses were big and uncomfortable. That’s less of an issue this year; Panasonic now offers rechargeable glasses in small, medium, and large sizes, and the medium-sized TY-EW3D2M glasses were much more comfortable. The cost of the glasses is still a stumbling block compared with the inexpensive glasses used with passive 3DTVs. In an effort to be more competitive, Samsung has decided to give away two pairs of glasses to consumers who buy its 2011 3DTVs and has dramatically cut the cost of additional pairs to $50. Unfortunately, Panasonic has not yet followed suit.
Competition and Comparison
Compare the Panasonic TC-P50GT30 with its competition by reading the reviews for the Samsung UN55D8000, Vizio E3D470VX, Sharp LC-60LE925UN, and Toshiba 55WX800U. Learn more about 3D HDTVs by visiting our 3D HDTV section.
With both 2D and 3D content, Panasonic’s TC-P50GT30 is a very good performer, and its well-rounded features package hits all of the desirable bases: Web-based video-on-demand, an included WiFi adapter, DLNA streaming, and even Skype video conferencing. This plasma TV is equally well suited to the casual TV viewer and serious movie fan. The issue with subtle brightness fluctuation is disappointing but not a deal-breaker, as it isn’t a constantly occurring problem.
While the passive 3DTV approach certainly has its benefits and its merits, at this stage, I think the more discerning videophile will be happier with the performance offered by a good active 3DTV model like the TC-P50GT30. Yes, you have to pay more for the 3D glasses and the format does have some limitations, but you get a better-looking image with a wider assortment of content.