With a growing number of TV manufacturers easing out of the plasma TV business—Pioneer and Vizio being the latest—you might think plasma is a dying technology. Not according to Panasonic, whose plasma sets have done very well in our Ratings of plasma TVs (available to subscribers) for years.
With its 2009 Viera plasma TV lineup, the company is enhancing plasma's inherent advantages—deep blacks, accurate colors and the ability to handle scenes with fast motion—while addressing some of its shortcomings, such as screen reflectivity and power consumption.
New models, which roll out starting this month through the end of the summer, range from an entry-level 42-inch 720p set for $750, to an ultra-slim 1-inch showstopper—the $6,000 Z1 we wrote about at CES—that uses wireless connections for everything but the power cord.
Among the biggest changes in many new models is the use of a new "NeoPDP" panel that promises better brightness, deeper blacks, and higher contrast, while at the same time improving energy efficiency. When combined with a technology that Panasonic is calling "600Hz sub-field drive"—which essentially allows the TV to refresh at an even faster rate—the new sets claim to be able to maintain the highest resolution (1080) even during fast-moving scenes. It's been our experience that plasma TVs have typically done well—better than LCDs—at motion handling, so we look forward to testing these sets.
If you're worried about longevity—not a real concern in our view, though rumors persist—you'll be glad to learn that new panels offer screen life of 100,000 hours, according to the company.
New designs are also being implemented in top-of-the line sets. The new Z1 model, for example, is just an inch deep, making it Panasonic’s slimmest model ever. In addition, it uses a two-piece design that wirelessly sends signals from a separate media module to the TV, allowing the set to be wall-mounted with only a power-cord connection. While we’ve seen similar models from Sharp—XS1U-series Aquos LCDs are also two-piece systems with 1-inch depths—they're considerably more expensive. For example, the 52-inch model is $12,000, twice the Z1's $6,000 price.
Panasonic has also expanded its Viera Cast IPTV service, available on just a single series last year, to more models. New to Viera Cast is Amazon On Demand video service, which allows you to rent movies—including some in HD— directly from the TV. Amazon joins existing content partners such as YouTube, Picasa (photos) and Bloomberg.
Even budget-conscious buyers get some good news: the 42-inch C1-series 720p set, carries a price tag of just $750. Stepping up to a U1-series 1080p set adds just $150.
Here are some specifics:
Currently available only in a 54-inch screen size, the new flagship TV has a silver-colored, thin bezel, and detachable side speakers. It uses the WiHD (60GHz) wireless technology to send signals from the settop box, which houses the tuner and A/V connections. (Click on the image at right for a closer look at the Z1.)
Available in 42- and 50-inch screen sizes, these sets replace current PX80 models. Priced at $900 and $1,100, respectively, these are 720p (1366x768) sets that claim better antiglare performance in bright rooms.
The new S1 series, replacing current PX80 PZ80 models, are entry-level mainstream 1080p sets that step up in brightness, contrast and energy efficiency thanks to the new NeoPDP panels. Prices range from $1,200 to $1,800 for sets in the 42- to 50-inch range. But there will also be larger 54-, 58-, and 65-inch S1 sets in the future.
These 1080p models replace Z85/PZ800 sets, and are where the Viera Cast IPTV service kicks in, which now includes Amazon Video On Demand. These sets also add the 600Hz/1080 lines technology, plus an SD card reader that can play high-def video files. Prices range from $1,400 for a 42-inch set to $2,400 for a 54-inch model. (Click on the image at right to take a closer look at the 54-inch model.)
Step-up G15-series sets ($1,500 to $2,100) will be sold only through regional specialty dealers (perhaps to fill a void created by Pioneer’s exit from the TV business). G15 models have many of the same features as the G10 line, but have a narrower bezel design and are just two inches deep.
The V10 models replace the current top-of-the-line PZ850 sets. These TVs are also two inches thick and use the single sheet of glass design launched last year. Their claim to fame is wider color-gamut capability, mimicking what you might see in a theater. The first model to ship is a 50-inch set (Click on the image at right for a closer look.) priced at $2,300; 54-, 58-, and 65-inch models will follow.
Panasonic has two lower-cost lines that will be sold through mass-market stores, such as Costco. The C1 series consists of two 720p (1366x768) plasmas, priced at $750 and $1,000, respectively. The U1 series, in 42- ($900), 46- ($1,200) and 50-inch ($1,500) screen sizes, steps up to 1080p resolution, but don’t use the new NeoPDP panels. Both series include an SD card slot for viewing still photos.
—James K. Willcox
[UPDATE March 16, 2009: As one of readers noted, the S1 series of plasma TVs will replace the PZ80 line of plasmas. Also, we further distinguished Panasonics "600Hz" refresh technology. -Ed.]