There's been much speculation about the fate of Panasonic's plasmas lately, and that's exactly what it is at this point: speculation. Every time one report states that a company spokesman has confirmed the upcoming end of plasma R&D and/or production, another report quickly follows that says it's not true and the company has made no decision on the matter. Perhaps it's wishful thinking on my part, but I'm going to wait to sound the death knell until Panasonic releases its own official press release stating the demise of its plasmas, and that may not come until after the factories have already gone dark. Until then, we have a new slate of 2013 plasmas to explore, beginning with the mid-level ST60 Series. For those who might be wondering if the ST60 is simply a rehashing of last year's well-reviewed ST50, let me assure you it's not. Research and development was alive and well at Panasonic during this past year, and the ST60 offers some distinct differences over the ST50, both in features and performance.
I received a sample of the 60-inch TC-P60ST60; the ST60 line also includes screen sizes of 50, 55, and 65 inches. The ST60 Series is the lowest-priced plasma series to offer 3D capability and falls squarely in the middle of the complete plasma line, below the VT60 and much-anticipated ZT60 and above the S60 and X60. This 1080p TV uses the Infinite Black Pro panel with an updated Louver filter to reduce screen reflectivity and has 2500 Focused Field Drive technology to improve motion resolution. It includes the VIERA Connect Web platform, with built-in WiFi, DLNA/USB media support, and compatibility with the VIERA remote2 control app for smartphones and tablets. VIERA Connect has received a makeover this year, with a completely redesigned interface and new apps that make use of an optional electronic touchpen (the TY-TP10U, $79). The ST60 is an active 3D TV, and two pairs of RF 3D glasses are included in the package. To top it all off, the ST60 is actually an even better value than last year's ST50; the 60-incher carries an MSRP of $1,699.99 (that was the MSRP of last year's 55-incher).
Setup & Features
Since I still use last year's TC-P55ST50 as a reference display, it was easy to do direct comparisons in performance, features, and design between the two models. On the design front, this year's model has a slightly thinner bezel and a more straightforward gloss-black finish, compared with last year's charcoal grey. The ST60 has a chrome accent strip that runs around the frame's outer edge (last year's model was clear acrylic), and the non-swiveling stand is gloss black, instead of silver. Depth and weight are also slightly reduced from the ST50: the TC-P60ST60 measures two inches deep (last year's was 2.1) and weighs 69.5 pounds without the stand (formerly 72.8).
The remote control has also received a makeover; it's about one inch shorter than last year's model, has a matte-black finish as opposed to a glossy black finish, and sadly omits backlighting and switches to almost entirely black buttons (not a wise combination). The general layout is similar to previous Panasonic TV remotes, but some buttons have been moved/added. Among the changes, Panasonic has added a dedicated Netflix button and has moved the menu button to a less prominent position, while putting the Mute button in a more intuitive location between the volume and channel buttons. A new Panasonic control app, VIERA remote2, replaces the old control app for iOS/Android devices. It offers a virtual keyboard, a touchpad, a gamepad layout, and an upgraded Swipe & Share function that lets you easily flick media content and Web pages from the smartphone/tablet to the TV.
The connection panel includes three side-facing HDMI inputs (one with ARC support), as well as one shared component/composite input and one RF input to access the internal ATSC and Clear-QAM tuners. There's no PC input. For network connectivity, you can choose between wired Ethernet and built-in WiFi. An SD card slot and two USB ports are available for playback of digital media files. The USB ports also support the addition of a USB camera (Panasonic offers the TY-CC20W) or a USB keyboard for easier text entry.
Another change will be immediately apparent when you turn on the TV and begin the setup process. This TV talks to you. The Voice Guidance system will talk you through initial setup and basic operations, if desired. Don't confuse this with voice recognition. The ST60 can't respond to your voice commands; rather, it simply verbalizes the information on the screen. Frankly, I don't really see what this adds to the experience, and I found the old-school computer voice to be a bit comical.
This year's ST Series also adds a new optional Home Screen that will appear each time you power on the TV. The Home Screen consists of a large viewing window surrounded by a customizable apps panel. You can choose from several panels: the Info Screen includes entertainment apps like YouTube, Skype, and Web bookmarks; the Lifestyle screen includes a clock, calendar, weather app, and notepad; or you can design your own panel. You can also choose none of the above and just set up the TV to show a full viewing window upon startup, although a tiny Home banner will still display briefly along the top of the screen.
The TC-P60ST60's picture-setup menu also includes some compelling new additions. Most notably, Panasonic now offers two picture modes that have the full suite of calibration controls. In last year's ST50, only the Custom mode included access to advanced picture adjustments like RGB gain/bias controls for white balance, selectable gamma presets, and adjustable panel brightness. This year, both the Custom and Cinema modes can access these controls, and Panasonic has added a lot more advanced adjustments, including a color management system to adjust the hue, saturation, and luminance of red, green and blue (but not cyan, yellow and magenta), a 10-point white balance adjustment, and a 10-point gamma adjustment. These perks were available last year in the higher-end VT50, but not the ST50. Panasonic has also added a new picture mode called Home Theater, which is akin to the Cinema mode of years past; it provides a more natural-looking image than either the Vivid or Standard mode and includes basic picture adjustments like Brightness, Contrast, Color, and Tint, but it does not grant you access to the full suite of calibration tools. Another nice addition is the ability to display 24p Blu-ray content at 96Hz to reduce judder; the ST50 only included options for 48Hz and 60Hz. The 48Hz mode produces so much flicker, I find it to be unwatchable. The 96Hz mode was previously reserved for the VT Series, but Panasonic has brought it down to the ST Series this year. Motion Smoother is also available for those who desire a de-judder control that uses frame interpolation to produce smoother motion with film sources (it also slightly improves motion resolution - more on that in the Performance section).
In the 3D realm, the TC-P60ST60 is an active 3D TV that employs frame-sequential 3D technology, which causes the TV to alternately flash a full-resolution left-eye and right-eye image. This year's 3D setup menu includes a new 3D Refresh Rate that works exclusively with 3D content and includes options for 96Hz, 100Hz, and 120Hz. The 3D setup menu also includes 3D Adjustment to adjust the left-eye versus right-eye, the ability to swap the left/right images if it seems like the depth perception is off, a diagonal line filter to remove jaggies, and the ability enable 2D-to-3D conversion and adjust the depth in three steps (minimum, medium, or maximum).
The TC-P60ST60's sound menu adds new preset audio modes (Standard, Music, Ambience, and a User mode with an eight-band equalizer), as well as bass, treble, and balance controls, a basic surround mode, Bass Boost, and the AI Sound feature and Volume Levelers. Panasonic has added a Digital Remaster control to help improve the quality of compressed audio signals. The TV's sound quality was a bit fuller and more dynamic than last year's model; I didn't have to push the volume quite so high to get decent dynamics, but I still recommend some type of external sound system.
In past years, I have appreciated the simplicity and clean layout of Panasonic's VIERA Connect platform, but admittedly it could be slow and a bit laborious to navigate from page to page. This year's redesigned VIERA Connect interface is more along the lines of what Samsung and LG are doing - i.e., the page is loaded with a lot more tiny icons. Hit the remote's Apps button to bring up VIERA Connect; at the very top is a link to the marketplace, where you can add/buy a wide variety of apps. Most of the majors are available, including Netflix, VUDU, YouTube, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, CinemaNow, Pandora, Rhapsody, TuneIn, Skype, Picasa, Facebook, Twitter, MLB.TV, and many more. (It's worth noting that some of the high-profile apps announced back at CES 2012, like MySpace TV and Disney interactive storybooks, have still not come to fruition.) Beneath the VIERA Connect Market is a row of primary services, including Media Player for USB/SD Card playback, DLNA Server, Live TV, Photo Frame, and a Web Browser. The DLNA function worked great with the PLEX software on my Mac and the AllShare app on a Samsung tablet but, sadly, the ST Series' Web browser still does not support Flash. Below that is the general list of apps that you have added or purchased; through the Settings tool, you can easily move and delete these apps to customize the page. All in all, I found the new look to strike a good balance, offering more options on the screen (so less navigation is required), but presenting everything a clean, logical way.
Read about the Performance, the Downside, Competition and Comparison and the Conclusion on Page 2 . . .
With the ST60, I'm introducing a new review methodology that I plan to use for every TV going forward. Using an X-Rite i1Pro 2 spectrophotometer and SpectraCal CalMAN 5 software, I will measure several of the TV's picture modes as they are out of the box, with no adjustment at all, in order to tell you which mode gives you the most accurate picture as is. Then I will calibrate the best picture mode(s) to let you know what kind of improvement you can get in color temperature, color balance, color points, and gamma if you opt for a full calibration.
In the case of the TC-P60ST60, I initially measured three picture modes: Home Theater, Cinema, and Custom. The uncalibrated Cinema mode was the most accurate of the three by a fairly wide margin; in fact, the overall numbers were quite close to reference standards before I touched a single control. My equipment measured an average color temperature of 6,472 Kelvin (6500K is the reference), and the red/green/blue color balance was solid, with no single color strongly dominating the rest. In previous Panasonic displays (including the ST50), I have often noticed a greenish/yellow push in the Warm2 color mode, but Panasonic has corrected that in the ST60 so that whites look more neutral. The Cinema mode's grayscale Delta Error average was just 3.72. Delta Error tells you how far the measurement is from the reference standard, with zero being right on the mark. Anything under 10 is considered tolerable, anything under five is considered very good, and a Delta Error under three is imperceptible by the human eye and thus ideal. The ST60's average Delta Error of 3.72 was already close to that goal. The color points were equally impressive, with every color but red already having a Delta Error under three (and red was at just 3.15). The only performance spec that was off the mark was gamma; 2.2 is the target, and the ST60 averaged a slightly lighter 2.18, but with a dip at the low end and a big spike at the high end.
When I calibrated the Cinema mode, the results were even better. All of the newly added advanced picture controls made it easier to fine-tune the image. I was able to lower the grayscale Delta Error to 1.68 and further improve the accuracy of the red, green, and blue color points. The color management system does not include adjustment of cyan, yellow, and magenta, but I didn't really need it. Fixing the primaries actually improved cyan and magenta a bit, though this worsened yellow. Still, at the end, all six points were below a Delta Error of three, so there's no cause for complaint. What I spent the most time trying to fix during calibration was the gamma, and I was able to smooth out the dip and spike using the new 10-point advanced gamma control. The resulting gamma average was a perfect 2.2. Needless to say, I was very pleased with the results I got from calibration, and I suspect a professional calibrator with the time to fine-tune each parameter could probably get even better results.
The sum of all that tech speak is this: even without calibration, the TC-P60ST60 is an outstanding performer that serves up a close-to-accurate image with rich color, neutral skin tones, and a truer white than that of previous Panasonic plasmas I've tested. An even higher degree of accuracy is obtainable through calibration. In direct comparison with the ST50, the ST60 had a noticeably deeper black level in my demo scenes from The Bourne Supremacy (Universal), Flags of Our Fathers (Paramount), and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Buena Vista). The ST60's more accurate gamma also helped in dark scenes, which sometimes looked a bit too bright, overexposed, and noisy through the ST50. One of my few complaints about last year's ST50 was the level of noise in dark areas, solid backgrounds, and light-to-dark transitions. In this respect, the ST60 is a better performer, producing less noise in the same demo scenes. The mid-grays in Chapter Five of Flags of Our Fathers exhibited less color shifting on the ST60 than on the ST50. I still recommend you use the TV's noise reduction control (I set it for Auto), as it does help cut down on digital noise without softening the picture.
In terms of image brightness, the calibrated Cinema mode served up 34.58 foot-lamberts in a 100 percent white window, at the Low panel brightness setting; THX recommends 35 ft-L, so the ST60 is quite close. The combination of the ST60's improved black level and very good light output results in an image with outstanding contrast, equally well suited to darker Blu-ray/film content and brighter HDTV. Of course, the overall image isn't as bright as what you can get from an LCD with the backlight turned up, but the ST60 had ample light output to produce a vibrant image, even in a well-lit room, and the screen filter did a good job rejecting ambient light to improve image contrast in brighter viewing conditions. Moving up to the Mid panel brightness setting only provided a small bump in overall brightness; moving up even further to the High setting added a lot of picture noise without offering much of a brightness boost, so I don't recommend that you use it. The beauty of having two picture modes with the full suite of advanced picture controls is that you can calibrate one mode for a dark room and one for a bright room. I set up the Custom mode for bright-room/daytime viewing; the combination of the Mid panel brightness and a higher contrast setting did bump up the brightness to 38.57 ft-L, but the tradeoff was far less accurate gamma, although the color balance and color points were still very good.
The TC-P60ST60 produces a high level of detail with HD sources, and the motion-resolution test pattern on the FPD Benchmark BD showed clean lines beyond HD720 without using the Motion Smoother function. Enabling Motion Smoother did produce even better motion resolution, with clean lines at HD1080. Of course, Motion Smoother uses frame interpolation to remove judder, and it alters the quality of motion in film sources. I personally don't like this effect and chose to leave Motion Smoother turned off, but I will say that the Low Motion Smoother setting is pretty subtle.
As with past Panasonic TVs, the TC-P60ST60's handling of 480i source material is only average. The TV failed many of the film and video processing tests on the HQV Benchmark DVD, and I noticed an above-average amount of jaggies and moire in my demo scenes from Gladiator (DreamWorks) and The Bourne Identity (Universal). The level of detail in upconverted 480i sources is good, but not spectacular. If you still watch a lot of 480i content, you might want to let your source devices handle the up-conversion.
When it comes to 3D performance, the TC-P60ST60 is sub-par. While the active 3D technology produces a rich, highly detailed 3D image, this TV produced a little more crosstalk than other plasmas I've tested. I experimented with all three of the 3D refresh rates (96Hz, 100Hz, and 120Hz) and found the 96Hz mode to produce the least amount of crosstalk, but it still did not get rid of ghosting as effectively as the 96Hz mode in last year's VT50 plasma. Of greater concern was the ST60's handling of motion; 3D content had an oddly disorienting quality of motion, which I'm only guessing has something to do with how the new 3D refresh rates are created (since this isn't a problem I've seen with any previous Panasonic plasma). I don't know how Panasonic is creating the higher refresh rates, but it doesn't look like they're simply duplicating frames, and the problem goes beyond just the super-smooth look of normal de-judder functions. It affected the sense of focus and perspective and made 3D virtually unwatchable for me in Life of Pi (20th Century Fox) and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Buena Vista). Furthermore, the TY-ER3D5MA 3D glasses that came with my review sample were too big and kept sliding down my nose. The ST60 does support the universal HD 3D standard, so you can use other manufacturers' active 3D glasses with this TV, but I really wouldn't recommend this TV for 3D.
The Infinite Black Pro panel is reflective, which can be problematic in a very bright room. Panasonic continues to improve the screen's filter to cut down on reflectivity, but you should still be mindful of where you place the TV in relation to lamps and windows. When I set the TV too close to the window in my family room, the picture was fairly washed out by the incoming sunlight, more so than an LCD with much higher overall light output.
Overall, Panasonic's VIERA Connect platform performs well and is easy to use. The new Viera remote2 control app is better than the original, but it's still not the most intuitive I've tried. The virtual keyboard does not work in a lot of the major apps, like Netflix and YouTube. The TV's built-in Web browser still doesn't support Flash, and this model lacks some advanced functions that you can find in other (usually more expensive) TVs, such as Mobile High-definition Link (MHL) support, near-field communication (NFC), voice recognition, gesture control, and a built-in camera. The higher-end VT60 Series will offer voice recognition and the integrated camera.
Competition and Comparison
Compare the TC-P60ST60 to its competition by reading our reviews of the Samsung PN60E7000, Panasonic TC-P65VT50, Vizio E601i-A3, and Panasonic TC-P55ST50. You can get more information about all of the flat-panel TVs we've reviewed here.
Once again, Panasonic has thrown down the gauntlet with its ST Series, providing stiff competition for the other TVs I'll review as the year goes on. I'm sure there will be other great performers, but I'm not sure I'll encounter a better combination of performance and price. As I write this, the TC-P60ST60's street price is below $1,500; no, that's not cheap, but it is a fantastic value for this level of performance and the TV's thorough assortment of features. For those who are shopping specifically for a 3D TV or have a room with a lot of direct sunlight, this model is not the ideal choice. For everyone else, though, I highly recommend you check out the TC-P60ST60.