I've written TV reviews for more than 10 years, but I'm pretty sure this one is the most important. I'll cut to the chase: if you value picture quality, don't have money to burn, and don't game seriously enough to worry about input lag, you should buy the Panasonic ST60.
Yes, it's a plasma. That's the main reason why its picture is so good. And despite what you may have heard, there's very little reason not to get a plasma TV. Once you decide to go plasma (don't worry, you'll be fine) the next question is which one. That's what makes the ST60 so important. It's Panasonic's least expensive 2013 TV set to boast this extremely high level of picture quality, and Panasonic is the only TV manufacturer even trying to make premium-performing TVs affordable these days. Given the company's financial trouble, the future of its plasma TV business is far from certain.
Yes, I expect a few TVs to deliver an even better picture than the ST60 this year, but they'll all cost a lot more. And yes, a couple of cheaper 2013 TVs, in particular Panasonic's own S60 series, might perform well enough to earn an "excellent" picture quality score from us. But I'll be extremely surprised if any 2013 TV surpasses the ST60's combination of jaw-dropping performance and practical affordability.
Editors' Note: This review was updated to include testing for gaming-related input lag, but its rating has not been modified. See the picture quality section for more.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 55-inch ST60, but this review also applies to the other screen sizes in the series. All sizes have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Panasonic upped its focus on external appearance again in 2013 with what it calls "glass and metal design." While metallic touches on a TV might not be as impressive as they are on a smartphone, the ST60's chrome edging feels decidedly higher-end than the clear acrylic of the ST50 from last year.
The TV's glossy black frame, at a bit over an inch along the top and sides, is the same width as last year's, and panel depth is also relatively thin at 2 inches. These svelte dimensions allow the ST60 to at least approach the minimalist look of many modern LED-based LCD TVs.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
I also appreciated that the company returned to the black stand rather than sticking with 2012's silver one. Its profile is pleasingly low-slung, but it still doesn't allow the panel to swivel. When asked why not at a press event, Panasonic's reps claimed first that swivels cause cords to detach, and then that plasmas' wide viewing angles (compared to LCD) make swiveling less necessary. I say, cop-out.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The ST60 gets the non-illuminated remote that shipped with step-down models like the UT50. I like its logical layout and clear button differentiation. Tweaks for 2013 are mostly improvements (dedicated Netflix key, better labeling, and a few extra keys) but there are exceptions. Apps and Home, both part of the Smart TV suite, get too-prominent keys, while Menu is tiny. More than a few times I accidentally hit Home instead of the Up cursor.
Aside from its augmented Smart TV experience, detailed below, the main thing separating the feature set of the ST60 and the less expensive S60 is 3D capability. New for 2013, Panasonic finally includes 3D glasses in the box; you get two pairs. The included glasses, model TY-ER3D5MA, are much nicer than Samsung's 2012 throw-ins but not quite as good as Panasonic's own sold-separately TY-ER3D4MU. The latter are also rechargeable, while the included ones require a coin battery. Panasonic told me additional pairs of the new 5MA glasses would sell for $79 each, or $149 for a two-pack. The ST60 complies with the full HD 3D standard, so that it will work with third-party glasses like the aforementioned Samsungs.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The step-up VT60 series, in addition to supposedly enhanced picture quality (a THX mode, more steps of gradation, possibly better black levels due in part to a better screen filter, and a new red phosphor for a wider color gamut), gets a few more features including a touch-pad remote, a built-in camera, voice recognition, and better speakers. Unlike last year, the ST60 and all higher-end plasmas have 96Hz modes as well as 48Hz (see below).
One unique extra for all 2013 Panasonic plasmas is a touch-pen accessory, which as you might guess allows users to draw on the screen. It works, but I don't see how it's at all useful outside of a presentation environment.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Panasonic also talks up its improved Viera Remote app. While the ST60 lacks the level of smartphone/tablet communication synergy seen on some competitors, such as screen mirroring and NFC, the app still enables some functions like basic control if you misplace the remote and "swipe and share" to easily display photos on the big screen. At least that's what Panasonic told me; I was never able to get the app, officially called "Viera Remote2" in the Google Play store, to "discover" my ST60. That seems like a common problem, according to user reviews. It's worth noting that the remote's advanced calibration capabilities are reserved for the VT60 and ZT60 plasmas as well as the WT60 and DT60 LCDs.
Panasonic's new Smart TV interface is mostly good. As with last year's, there are multiple "pages" available, and all show the currently playing input in an inset window along with a grid of apps. You can place any app anywhere you want on the grid, a welcome change from interfaces like Samsung's that offer only partial customization. Panasonic ups the custom ante further by offering three different templates for new pages you can create, custom backgrounds (including your own pictures), and the ability to name pages; each member of a particularly tech-savvy family could set up his or her own page.
There's also some bad. For someone used to swiping left or right on a smartphone to access different pages of apps, Panasonic's method isn't intuitive; you have to press the Home key again to switch between pages, rather than simply navigating among them directly. And it's potentially confusing that one page is actually the "Full-Screen TV" page, and that hitting Exit from another page doesn't take you there (you have to actively select the window). Conversely, hitting the "Return" key from within an app often exits it completely, as opposed to navigating up a level. I was also annoyed that you can't delete or change the default Info and Lifestyle pages, although you can rename them.
A few times a message appeared telling me the server was temporarily unable to process my request, so I should try again later. Navigation was relatively snappy on the pages themselves, but bogged down inside the Viera Connect market and many apps.
And yes, there's a Web browser, but as usual it's terrible compared with a phone or especially to a laptop browser. Loading CNET.com resulted in a jumble of improper text overlays, rendering the page illegible. Navigation was sluggish and quite frustrating with the remote's cursor keys. In short, you should use the browser only when no other recourse is available. If you find yourself wanting to use the browser much, it's probably worth attaching a USB keyboard with an integrated touchpad or trackball.
Panasonic is slowly approaching the levels of adjustability found on other high-end TVs. New for 2013, it has migrated some of the advanced picture controls found on the flagship 2012 VT50 to the ST60. These include a 10-point grayscale and 10-point gamma system as well as color management for the primary colors (the latter, along with a 2-point grayscale, is found on the S60 too). The company has also added another picture mode, "Home Theater," atop its standard four, and a cool "copy adjustments" option that allows you to migrate your picture settings from one input or mode to others.
Other controls include three levels of dejudder, aka soap opera effect, an unusual seven different aspect ratio settings, and the usual array of items to help prevent and treat image retention, including a pixel orbiter and scrolling white bar.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Three HDMI ports, an analog video input that can handle either composite or component connections, and a pair of USB ports are standard for this level of TV. The SD card slot is a nice, and uncommon, addition, however. In case you're counting, none of the HDMI ports is MHL-compatible, although one can handle ARC.
The ST60's picture fidelity is outstanding. It compares favorably to the best TVs I've ever reviewed, with superb, inky, deep black levels; ample shadow detail; accurate color; and very good video processing. Its bright-room picture is also top-notch, thanks to an anti-reflective filter that far surpasses that of the step-down S60 series.
As usual, if you have an extremely bright room, you may want to choose an LCD instead, but for nearly every normal room, this plasma is plenty bright, and has the characteristic near-perfect Check out our in-depth test for more, which includes a discussion of the subject, a subjective evaluation of the ST60's lag, and some alternative TVs.
The ST60 produces among the deepest black levels I've seen from any plasma TV, and that's saying something. According to my measurements, it beats out all of the 2012 plasmas in this area aside from the VT50 itself, our current plasma reference.
In a dark room during my subjective side-by-side comparison, the only set that looked darker was the Sony on its most aggressive local dimming setting, but due to the Sony's blooming and murky shadow detail, the ST60 looked significantly better overall.
Between the ST60 and VT50, it was a virtual tie. I placed the TVs directly next to one another, and during the darkest scene of a very dark film, the beginning of Chapter 12 from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2," they looked nearly identical. The letterbox bars were inky, the shadows in the robes of the Death Eaters were dark yet rich with detail, and both the hillside behind Hogwarts and the castle-school itself were rendered with all of the detail of the source. The ST60's gamma was a bit bright overall according to our measurements, but in person that issue was almost impossible to detect. Sure, some shadows might have looked very slightly too-bright next to the VT50, but they were so close that any difference would be impossible to discern outside of a side-by-side line-up.
The ST60 maintains Panasonic's superb 2012 record in this area, and if anything improves upon it. A lot of that is due to superior controls during calibration; the new color management system works beautifully to fix the slightly desaturated look of default Cinema, and as a result colors are rich and natural, and again nearly the equal of the VT50's.
During the Snape memory sequence (Chapter 19), for example, the skin tone of young Lily looked as pale and delicate as it should, and her fiery red hair wasn't too red. The green of the grass and blue of the sky were likewise well-represented. Tones in dark areas appeared true as well, and while not quite as neutral as on the VT50, they did look better than the slight green of the ST50 and the more obvious green of the S60.
Both the 60Hz and the 96Hz mode handled 1080p/24 sources properly in my test. As on the VT50, I did detect slight flicker in 96Hz in bight areas, for example the clouds over Brooklyn in "I Am Legend" (24:49).
I did notice some artifacts from 1080p/24 sources in 60Hz mode. On the "Digital Video Essentials" test Blu-ray, we noticed shifting lines and minor instability in the downtown Philadelphia buildings during an upward-facing pan. I didn't see any similar issues during other program material, but assume they might crop up. It's also worth noting that the TV scored higher in motion resolution (1,200 lines versus 700) when I engaged 96Hz mode. In any case, I still prefer the flicker-free 60Hz mode, but it's great to have a choice between 96Hz and 60Hz this year (48Hz, as usual, created unbearable flicker).
As usual, the results of engaging Motion Smoother dejudder processing were objectionable to my eyes, although some viewers might actually want its soap opera effect. Both smoothness and artifacting increased when I moved up in settings from Weak to Mid to Strong.
Unlike the ST50 from last year and this year's S60, the ST60 passed the Film Resolution Loss test in the default Auto setting; there was no need to manually switch it to On.
Under bright lights, the ST60 performed quite well, thanks to an improved screen filter. It maintained black-level fidelity almost as well as the VT50, slightly better than the ST50, and about the same as the Samsung E6500, if not quite as well as the Sony.
More importantly for 2013 comparison shoppers, it totally trounced the S60 in this area. The S60's screen washed out severely under the lights and also created brighter reflections. This is the main picture quality difference between the two sets, and significant enough by itself to establish the ST60's clear superiority. In a light-controlled room the two are relatively close, but under moderate or higher lighting the ST60 stands far above its step-down linemate.
Panasonic's screen filter acts like venetian blinds to reject light coming from above. Compared with the S60, the ST60's filter did dim the image more when seen from high off-angle vertically. In practice this difference is only visible from angles that are roughly equivalent to placing the TV on the floor. As usual for a plasma, horizontal off-angle viewing, which is far more important than vertical in typical living-room situations, looked essentially perfect, in marked contrast to both LCDs, for example.
Compared with many LCDs, the ST60 has a limited maximum light output. On their brightest picture settings with a window pattern, the ST60 and ST50 measured 56 and 61fL (footlamberts) respectively, while the Sony and Panasonic LCDs hit 99 and 76. With a full-screen pattern, those same numbers drop to 13 and 14 (ST60 and ST50) and 100 and 106 (Sony and Panasonic LCDs). If you have an extremely bright room or just prefer watching an extremely bright picture (like Vivid or Dynamic on your current TV), you may want to get an LED instead. That said, the light output of any of these plasmas is more than ample for the vast majority of room-lighting situations.
The ST60's sound was good enough for a TV but not spectacular. Music from our Nick Cave test track sounded slightly muddled and distant, and bass was a bit distorted compared with on the ST50. Movies, as expected, were more satisfying; dialogue was clear enough in "Mission: Impossible 3," and there was some urgency to explosions, with details like shattered glass making themselves apparent.
If you care a lot about 3D picture quality, the 3D performance of the ST60 is somewhat disappointing compared with its 2D prowess.
New for this year Panasonic has added three hertz values under "3D refresh rate" in its 3D menu. Although described as designed to combat flicker from fluorescent lights, they also have a major impact on the prevalence of crosstalk. That bugaboo of 3D TVs, especially those that use active 3D technology, appears as a ghostly double-image around many onscreen objects.
The ST60's double image was least noticeable and objectionable in the 96Hz mode. During my favorite crosstalk tests from "Hugo," including Hugo's hand as it reaches for the mouse (5:01), the tuning pegs on the guitar (7:49), and the face of the dog as it watches the inspector slide by (9:24), the ST60's crosstalk was quite dim, a better performance than the E6500, although not quite as good as the Sony W900, where crosstalk was even less visible. The three Panasonic plasmas, meanwhile, were roughly equal when I placed the ST60 in 96Hz and the VT50 and ST50 in 48Hz mode.
The ST60's 3D was still worse than that of the VT50 and ST50, however, because of the way it handled quick motion. During the herky-jerky chase sequence beginning at about 7:19, for example, the ST60's images seemed to break up and confuse me visually, taking me out of the moment. It was worst when I paid attention to the legs of the running dog, the arms of the flailing conductor, or other bursts of movement. The effect wasn't overwhelmingly distasteful, but it was still worse to watch these scenes on the ST60 than on the others. I couldn't address it with any of the settings adjustments I tried, for example reducing light output/contrast or changing any of the 3D refresh rate or motion smoother settings.
The 55ST60 uses significantly more juice than any similarly-sized LCD-based TV, and almost exactly the same as the 2012 model after calibration. The default Standard mode draws a bit more power than last year, but it's also a bit brighter. That's a good thing because past Standard modes were way too dim.