Despite some reports to the contrary, Panasonic has confirmed to us that it is continuing R&D on plasma display technology. That's good news for AV purists, as the company's past plasma TVs have outclassed LED sets when it comes to producing really lush, cinematic pictures. There's little doubt, though, that companies are pushing at the limits of what they can do in terms of improving plasma displays and will start to shift their focus towards OLED technology for high-end TVs in the next few years.
The TX-P55VT65, which is priced at around £2,400, shows that there are still plenty of reasons why you should choose a plasma screen right now if you consider picture quality as the most important feature of a TV.
User interface and EPG
After tinkering around at the edges for years and only making minor changes to it TV interface, this year Panasonic has gone the whole hog and done a complete redesign for its 2013 models.
The new system is based around a smart TV homescreen similar to those LG and Samsung have been using for a couple of years now. Panasonic's system is arguably better because as well as allowing you to choose between a number of pre-built homescreens, you can also create you own custom design from four supplied templates.
The settings menu is still essentially separate from the smart TV system, but it's relatively easy to use as the menus are quite flat and jumping between picture or audio settings as you tweak them is very quick. Panasonic also gives you a lot of control over the set's pictures, and unlike with its previous models, you can now adjust the panel luminance through three steps for low, medium and high.
The programming guide has been updated too. The main difference is the welcome addition of a video window, so you can now continue watching the programme you're tuned to in this window while checking out what shows are coming up later in the day.
The VT65 has twin tuners on board for both Freeview HD and Freesat HD and there's a channel explorer in the smart TV system that makes the most of this. The channel explorer lets you flick up and down through all the available channels. What's special on this model is that a live feed pops up in a picture-in-picture box to tell you what's currently showing on the other channel, giving you two separate live channel feeds on the screen at the same time.
Digital media and Internet features
The VT65 comes with Panasonic's redesigned smart TV system. It's much better than the old VieraConnect system and is based around a homescreen that pops up when you start up the TV or hit the dedicated home button on the remote.
There are a number of different preset homescreens you can use. One acts as a sort of home notice board with a calendar and jotter app, while another has a channel explorer that lets you quickly see what's on now and next across all the channels on Freeview or Freesat. You can also just have the TV start up in fullscreen TV mode if you'd prefer, although annoyingly it pops up an advert for Myspace every time you start the TV if you select this option. That's a bit low rent, given that this is a high-end TV. You can turn this off, but it's not obvious how to do it. What you actually have to do is go into the setup menu and then switch the VieraConnect Banner to off.
The best thing about Panasonic's approach is that it lets you design your own customised homescreen from four templates. This is great because you can just group together all the video-on-demand apps you use most often onto a single page and have them instantly accessible when you hit the home button on the remote.
The set comes pre-loaded with a pretty decent selection of smart TV apps including iPlayer, Netflix, Acetrax and YouTube. There are also loads more video-on-demand, news and information apps, as well as games that you can download from the on-board app store. The TV still lags behind Samsung when it comes to catch-up TV services, lacking ITV Player, 4oD and Demand 5 -- all of which are available on Samsung's smart TV platform.
It does have a full Web browser, though, and this supports Flash so you can use it to play video on websites. It doesn't work on every site though -- some videos stutter badly and the Web browser is prone to lock ups too. Panasonic includes a second touch remote control with the TV that makes the Web browser a good deal easier to use. The remote also works with the rest of the TV's menus, but for these it's less successful and actually a tad awkward to use. It's not as intuitive as LG's motion remote, for example.
This model is the only one in Panasonic's plasma TV lineup to come with a camera built in. The camera pops up out of its holder when you launch an application it can be used with, such as Skype, but you have to manually push it back down to hide it away again. The camera can be set up for face recognition, so different users can have it automatically call up their personal homescreens.
Unlike on Samsung's TVs, there's no gesture control, but the facial recognition feature works decently if there's plenty of light in the room. It's pretty poor at properly recognising faces when lighting levels are lower -- something that also affects Toshiba's face recognition system on its YL and WL models. I can see most people turning it off and never using it again after trying it out for a day or two. It's a bit gimmicky and not very useful.
More useful are the two tuners for both Freeview and Freesat. Combine these with the TV's ability to record shows directly to drives plugged into one of its USB ports, and you need no longer need to shell out for a PVR. You can watch one channel while recording another, pause live TV and schedule recordings just as you would with a normal Freeview or Freesat PVR. All you need to do is add a USB drive to get the whole thing working, and they're far less expensive than a full blown PVR.
Like the GT60, this set comes with a wireless Bluetooth pen that you can use to draw on the screen. It works with a number of simple, mostly child-friendly games from the on-board app store, but you can also tap and hold the pen on the screen to capture an image of it that you can then draw over the top of, just like a Sky Sport presenter. It works well, but outside of a boardroom I can’t really see it being of much benefit. You're likely to use it a few times and then leave the pen tucked away in a drawer somewhere to be forgotten about.
The VT65 also has quite a good on-board media player, though, that can be used either for playing back files from USB drives or for streaming digital media over a network from a PC or networked hard drive. It supports a pretty broad range of file formats including MKV and Xvid files, and it's also reasonably quick when navigating through a big bunch of folders on larger hard drives.
Design and connections
The VT65 is a great looking TV, but perhaps not one that takes your breath away in the way as some of today's LED sets. This is mainly because it doesn’t have a super slim bezel. Instead Panasonic has take the decision to actually widen the bezel slightly at the sides in order to add front facing speakers -- although these are all but invisible to the eye unless you inspect it up close.
That said, I do really like the look of the V-shaped stem on the pedestal stand as well as the single sheet of glass design which is classier than the GT60 model that I reviewed recently. The chrome band running around the outer edge of the set also looks high-spec, giving the TV a suitably high-end feel. However, it is a bit annoying that the stand doesn't swivel, especially as it's quite a heavy TV to try to move around on its base.
Unfortunately, as with the other models in Panasonic's 2013 range, the company has cut down the number of HDMI ports from four on the older models to three on the VT65, which is a big shame. Nevertheless, the set does have three USB ports as well as an SD card slot. There's built-in Wi-Fi too, as well as an Ethernet port on the rear for the Internet features.
You can connect Scart devices such as older DVD players and set-top boxes up to the TV using a short break-out cable. There's also a digital audio output for feeding audio from the on-board Freeview HD and Freesat HD tuners to an external amp if the amp doesn't support audio return channel over HDMI.
As the set has dual tuners for both Freeview and Freesat, there are double satellite inputs on the rear as well as a single RF aerial socket.
2D picture quality
Panasonic's recent GT60 was an incredible performer in the picture department, but it's only available in 42- and 50-inch screen sizes. If you want to go for a 55-inch screen you have to either step down to the ST60 series, which uses a lesser panel or step up to this model which has a slightly better panel that can produce more shades of graduation. It also has a better filter over the top to improve apparent black levels, increase brightness and cut down further on reflections.
The VT65 is hands down the brightest plasma I've come across yet and it gives some LED models a run for their money in this area. This extra lick of brightness combined with the filter's glare reducing abilities makes it one of the few plasmas that you could comfortably use for daytime viewing in bright rooms.
Thankfully the extra brightness hasn’t resulted in a drop in black level depth either. Far from it, in fact -- Panasonic has actually managed to improve on the black level performance we saw on last year's very impressive VT50. Blacks are deeper here again. What's more the big chasm between the brightest areas of the picture and the darkest mean that pictures look very dynamic with more defined shadow detail than I've seen on any other display. This really does make movies in particular look exceptionally rich and deep.
The TV runs on a dual-core processor and so there's plenty of horsepower backing up its Hexa processing engine. This is pretty apparent when it comes to the set's upscaling in particular as upscaled pictures have good sharpness levels, but don't stray into the overly processed territory that some rival manufacturers TVs exhibit when trying to tart up standard-definition broadcasts.
Its motion handling is first rate too. This is always an area where plasmas score over LED sets, but here it's more apparent than ever as fast pans or tracking shots look super sharp and smooth on the VT65.
In truth, there's very little to fault with the VT65's 2D picture quality. It really is that good.
3D picture quality
Panasonic supplies two pairs of it 3D glasses with this set. These are thankfully very light and nowhere near as bulky as the original active 3D specs that the company used to ship with its older plasma models.
The VT65 is a very impressive performer in the 3D department. Images have a very believable sense of depth and look very sharp too. The panel's extra bit of brightness also helps to overcome the dimming effect of the 3D glasses and the VT65's exceptionally smooth motion in 2D thankfully also transfers across to 3D images.
Most of today's flatscreen TVs have down firing speakers, which means that their speakers are mounted on the bottom edge of the TV and point down towards the stand. Imagine taking your hi-fi speakers and pointing them down towards your book shelf. They're just not going to sound as good as when they're pointing out towards you, but it's a remarkably common speaker configuration on today's TVs.
On the VT65, Panasonic has bucked this trend and returned to forward-facing speakers that are mounted on the sides of the TV, although they're essentially invisible to the eye when you're looking at the set from the front. This does make the bezel a bit thicker, but it also means that the VT65 has significantly better audio quality than most of its rivals. Dialogue sounds just that bit more direct and less muddy, while higher-frequency sounds have more fizz and crispness.
Panasonic has also added a mini-subwoofer to the rear of the set and this does add a fair bit of extra oomph to its low frequency response. It helps gives explosions in movies and bass drums on dance tracks just that bit more kick and depth.
This all means that the VT65 is every bit as good as the likes of Sony's HX853 and the Philips PFL7007, which have been the best-sounding TVs recently. Ulike the VT65 however, they have both had their sound systems built into their stands rather than integrated into the main chassis.
In terms of picture quality, there isn't much difference between the P42GT60 and this model. If you're looking for a 50-inch TV the GT60 is probably the better option, unless you want the built-in camera for Skype.
If however, you're after a 55-inch screen, the landscape looks a little different simply because Panasonic doesn't offer a 55-inch version of the GT60. This isn’t really a hardship though as the VT65 is another exceptionally good plasma. Its picture quality is truly sublime thanks to the combination of high brightness and exceptionally deep black levels. It's also got a user-friendly smart TV system, good sound quality and handy dual tuner support, so it can double up as a PVR if you add a USB hard drive.
If you're looking for a high-end model, it's one of the best out there. Samsung's F8500 plasma that we'll be reviewing soon has more TV catch-up services and excellent HD picture quality, but isn’t quite as good as the VT65 when it comes to upscaling standard-definition pictures. So, if standard-definition performance is more important than catch-up TV series to you then the VT65 is the TV to buy.