Panasonic's 2011 plasma and LCD TVs have just begun shipping, so the company took the opportunity to officially announce pricing and availability today, as well as divulge a few more details about the TVs.
Before you get too excited, however, I'll mention that the company was not talking about its flagship VT30 series, one of our Best of CES 2011 nominees and odds-on favorite to be the best-performing TV of the year. I'm guessing they'll wait until April, when the 55-incher ships, to stage a separate press event all about the VT30.
We've covered the other 2011 plasmas' pricing (the leak was 100 percent accurate, if you're keeping track) and major features in an earlier post, so we'll keep the details here in update-only, changelog format. The slideshows have more company-supplied meat, with a side of my commentary, if you're still hungry.
- Plasma takeaways:
Confirmed: the only picture quality difference between the ST30 series ($1,499 @ 50 inches) and GT30 series ($1,899 @ 50 inches) is the presence of THX. Both have the Pro settings menu with tweaks like four-point color temperature and gamma, they use identical panels and electronics, and both will do 3D. The GT30 does have smarter styling, with a thinner bezel and significantly thinner panel, while the ST30 looks a lot like the 2010 plasmas. The GT30 also gets a VGA-style PC input and an extra HDMI port.
Most of the picture quality improvements on the ST/GT models are focused on 3D, but their 2D pictures should be very good too. In a side-by-side 2D comparison between a VT25 and an ST30 showing a star field and an Atari-era spaceship, I couldn't see much, if any, difference between their black levels. The usual caveats (manufacturer-controlled demo, bright room, and so on) apply, but suffice it to say that I expect very good things out of the ST30 series. Most of the 3D improvements had to do with crosstalk reduction (see the slideshow for more), so I'll be sure to compare the 2011 models' 3D with the 2010 VT25 to see how effective those changes are.
The anti-reflective screen, or "louver filter," looked very similar to last year's model. Panasonic touts a significantly better AR screen compared with 2010, but in that side-by-side I had a tough time telling the difference. Maybe I'll have better luck in the review.
The GT30 and ST30 will have a "24p smoothing" feature for 3D, but that's not the same as 1080p/24 in 2D, which is still restricted to the VT30. Confused yet? Panasonic is using the term "24p" in marketing a new 3D-only feature that uses frame interpolation--the same technology used in 2D dejudder processing by 240Hz and 120Hz LCDs--to add smoothing to 3D material. A rep was quick to point out that the feature can be turned off. On the 2D side, Panasonic confirmed that its 1080p/24-friendly "96Hz" mode for 2D will again be restricted to the flagship model. And for what it's worth, all 3D-compatible TVs will also get 2D-to-3D conversion.
The S30 and X3, which are 2D-only models, will likely have significantly worse 2D picture quality than the 3D sets. At 50 inches there's a $400 difference between the 3D-ready ST30 (again, $1,499) and the non-3D S30 ($1,099), and for picture-quality-attentive buyers, even those who could care less about 3D, I think it will be money well spent. The S3 models get the company's standard panel technology, not the Neo Plasma panel used by the ST30 and up.
Viera Connect should be a solid competitor to Samsung and LG's Smart TV offerings. All three offer app stores, and while Connect lacks a Web browser, its navigation looked cleaner in our demo than either of the other systems, and content was just as robust. Panasonic's rep was asked about "apps" designed to obviate the need for cable boxes, similar to what we saw from Samsung at CES, but replied that the company wasn't working on anything similar. Panasonic is saying that its Skype app is more advanced than the competition's, however, and cited features like custom video call-answering messages.
None of the 55-inch, 60-inch, or 65-inch plasmas will qualify for Energy Star 5.3. On September 30, the newest Energy Star revision for TVs will go into effect, imposing a hard cap of 108 watts of "on" power consumption, regardless of screen size. Panasonic says that at that point its 55-inch and larger plasmas will no longer qualify to bear the ubiquitous blue sticker. A company rep we spoke with expressed frustration at the cap, and said it was still unclear how Panasonic would deal with the issue. I expect it will sell its larger plasmas as Energy Star-compliant, with stickers, up until that date, then remove the logos on any panels, TV menus, or boxes manufactured afterward. It's confusing, to say the least. All Panasonic TVs qualify for the current standard, and all of its 50-inch and smaller sets will also qualify for 5.3, according to the company.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that, yes, Panasonic also makes LCDs. The company will offer its first 3D-compatible LCDs this year, the 32-inch LC-32DT30 and 37-inch TC-L37DT30 (smaller because, I assume, Panasonic is still scared of cannibalizing sales of its plasma 3D TVs, which start at 42 inches). Panasonic was touting its IPS Alpha panels, said to improve 3D picture quality as well as 2D viewing angles.
We expect to receive an ST30 review sample in a couple of weeks.