With LCD TVs getting better and more popular almost by the week, the first of Panasonic's new (13th!) generation of plasma TVs, the TX-P50G20, arrives with a real weight of responsibility on its shoulders.
It's just as well, then, that the TX-P50G20 employs one of the brand's high-spec 'NeoPDP' plasma panels. Especially so, as Panasonic claims numerous improvements to NeoPDP since its debut last year, including a new filter, a new discharge gas, improved phosphors, and even a redesigned cell structure.
There's also been an incremental improvement to the video processing engine at the TX-P50G20's heart, in the shape of Vreal Pro 5. This engine sits alongside Panasonic's established 600Hz Sub-Field Drive, where the brand's Intelligent Frame Creation system inserts 12 extra 'sub-fields' for every real 50Hz image frame to create up to 600 sub-fields per second. It doesn't physically refresh 600 times a second, however.
Other promising features include an improved high contrast filter for reducing light reflections (and thus boosting contrast), improving colour purity and enhancing outline sharpness; a claimed 5,000,000:1 contrast ratio that more than doubles the figure quoted for last year's G10 series; and THX endorsement, complete with a THX picture preset.
As expected from a reasonably high-spec Panasonic TV, the TX-P50G20 carries a Freesat HD satellite tuner. But it also sports a Freeview HD tuner, to handle the new breed of hi-def broadcasts.
The TX-P50G20 has plenty of connections to explore, most notably four HDMI inputs, a LAN port, a D-Sub PC jack, two USB inputs and an SD card slot. The LAN port lets you access content on a PC, go online with Panasonic's VieraCast service, or, eventually, enjoy Freesat interactive services like the BBC's iPlayer.
VieraCast remains similar to last year's offering, with YouTube, Eurosport, Bloomberg, DailyMotion and Picasa its biggest attractions. Other goodies, including Skype functionality and AceTrax video streaming, will come later in the year. If the idea of hard-wiring the TX-P50G20 into your network doesn't appeal, you can go Wi-Fi via an optional USB dongle.
The SD/USB slots will play a wide variety of multimedia files formats, including JPEG stills, AVCHD/DivX/ MPEG2 video, and MP3/AAC audio. Plus – get this! – the TXP50G20 lets you record TV to an external HDD. These recordings have notable strengths and weaknesses.
On the plus side, the TV records direct digital broadcast streams, so recordings can be either HD or standard-def, and lose nothing in quality. You can also set the HDD to buffer video, for 'rewinding' live TV.
On the downside, you can't record to memory sticks; you need an HDD with a capacity of between 160GB and 2TB. You also can't record from the analogue tuner, or any external inputs.
Finally, because of DRM concerns you have to register your HDD to your TV, with your recordings only playing on the TV the HDD is registered to. Grrr. Please note, too, that the HDD has to be formatted before the TV can use it, so you can't share the HDD with other PC content.
The biggest limitation of the TX-P50G20's recording capabilities, though, appears to be the set's compatibility with different HDDs. I tried it with a slightly aging Buffalo HD-EU model, and a year-old Toshiba 250GB StorE drive. Neither worked.
In fact, apparently the only hard drive Panasonic has formally tested with its TVs is the Buffalo JustStore Desktop HD-EU2-UK series. One of which I duly had to buy. I'm not suggesting that only new Buffalo HDDs will work with the TX-P50G20, but, well, I suspect Panasonic's customer helpline should expect quite a few calls...
Taking on all comers
So, do the TX-P50G20's pictures throw down the gauntlet to this year's upcoming LCD upstarts? Actually, yes. For starters, notoriously tricky colours like rich reds, greens and skin tones look both more vibrant and more natural than they did on all but the most flagship (V10, Z1) models from Panasonic's 2009 range.
Even better, this crucial improvement applies equally to standard-and hi-def sources, with much less of a discrepancy between the colour tones of the two resolutions than I saw last year. I'm also impressed by the leap Panny has delivered with the TX-P50G20's standard-def images.
The Resolution Enhancer circuitry really does sharpen things up, and, provided you avoid its max setting, it does so without generating distracting video noise. Now, some of last year's Panasonic plasmas showed troubling greyness over dark picture areas, but on the TX-P50G20, blacks really do look magnificently black – especially as the screen is startlingly good at soaking up ambient reflections.
Furthermore, because plasma is a pixel emissive technology, its deep blacks don't come at the expense of overall brightness, and accordingly contain lots of shadow detail. Following on from this, I was also struck by the extra intensity and dynamism of the TX-P50G20's portrayal of dark scenes versus last year's equivalent models.
The screen's motion handling also improves on most previous Panasonic PDPs, as the Intelligent Frame Creation processing delivers enhanced fluidity without generating as many unwanted side effects. Even with IFC turned off the image seems less prone to judder.
Panasonic's talent for reproducing fine HD detail with its plasmas is again in evidence. In fact, the superior motion handling means that, overall, its HD pictures – including those from the HD tuners – actually look even sharper than they did on the brand's '09 screens.
With the TX-P50G20's pictures also shaming the LCD fraternity by retaining colour and contrast from wide viewing angles, I can only manage to rustle up a couple of small negatives about this 50in TV.
First, there's very occasional subtle fizzing noise over skin tones during rapid camera pans, especially with standard-definition material. Second, there's a little pixel instability with certain colour tones – but this is only noticeable if you sit far too close to the screen.
Nor is the TX-P50G20's audio as stellar as its pictures. There's no great bass or treble extension, leaving the action sounding rather condensed in an overcrowded mid-range. The soundstage isn't very wide, either. But at least the speakers never distort, and the audio is rarely harsh or tiring.
There are things about this TV that I'd love to see Panasonic improve. It's still a bit plain aesthetically, it could sound better, and the USB HDD functionality is frustrating. But in the picture department it's truly outstanding, finally delivering a worthy mainstream successor to Pioneer's legendary Kuro sets.
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