There's no doubt about it: plasma has been taking a licking. Not only have manufacturers been falling by the wayside, but with "LED" and its sound-alike "OLED" nipping at its heels, the future of plasma is by no means certain. With Pioneer now gone, we look to Panasonic to perpetuate the plasma species. And you know what? With the new G series we may have found the best TV left on the market. Perhaps.
Depending on who you ask, this TV is either "subtle" or "plain". It's a predominantly glossy black television with the silver arc across the bottom bezel that previous models had — only this time it's a little less obvious. The design certainly doesn't give Samsung or Sony televisions any reason for pause. Being a mid-range plasma, it's not as thin as Samsung's flagship 8 series or Panasonic's own Z1, but we're sure that most people won't be wall-mounting this anyway.
The TV features a swivel stand which is circular this time rather than rectangular. And frankly it's also a bit uglier.
Here we usually talk about the remote, but as with previous models it's large and friendly. If you have a universal remote — which is one of the first items you should purchase if you're serious about your home entertainment — you'll most likely chuck it in a drawer anyway.
Sensibly, Panasonic has decided to hold back on the extraneous features of rivals like Samsung's 8 and concentrate on picture quality. The G10 is Panasonic's 12th generation plasma, which is a brand new design it calls "NeoPDP". It supersedes the Viera TH-46PZ800A of last year and bests it in every possible way for feature count. It boasts a better contrast level, slightly lower power usage, and a much higher 6144 steps of gradation, up from 5120. Steps of what now? Gradation is where a colour blends into another, and being able to portray more colours means images look smoother and more lifelike — there's no "stepping" involved.
While it may be a little light-on for "wow" it has everything you'll need: a full 1080p resolution, digital tuner, three HDMI ports and a card reader. The only thing we miss is Ethernet connectivity and the extra HDMI port. However, if you really need a media streamer then the PS3 isn't really that much more at AU$699 — plus you can play games and Blu-ray discs.
The TV also features a 600Hz sub-field drive, if that's important to you. This is different from 100/200Hz technologies because it's integral to the operation of the panel — we discuss it here. The Panasonic also includes a 100Hz mode called Intelligent Frame Creation, but like most of these things it's best turned off — especially on a plasma as lag is not an issue.
While the G10 features an Eco mode, it's not the best in terms of energy use: it manages two Energy Stars out of six. If you're looking for better energy efficiency then the V series may be more to your liking. It gets three out of six, which is pretty decent for a plasma.
If you're looking at buying a TV for sport don't muck around — get a plasma. The Panasonic quickly showed us why. With an antenna cable shoved in the back of the unit we sat and watched ONE HD and found the Viera coped very well. The differences between ONE HD and SD while watching a baseball game were immediately obvious. For instance, we were able to see the individual threads in the players' uniforms. This TV is able to take a HD signal and present it beautifully — images are sharp and detailed, although some may miss the clinical precision of an LCD.
Next, we fired up the DVD player and plonked on a copy of Batman Begins. While the blacks aren't as inky as the Blu-ray version, this disc is still a good all-round test of your television's capabilities. The Panasonic replayed the disc flawlessly, with no noise, good colour and the best gradations on any plasma we've seen since the Kuro. As Bruce Wayne climbs the mountain to the monastery, the ice and clouds usually sparkle on a plasma in a way they shouldn't, but the Viera was able to reproduce these textures smoothly and faithfully. For the price, there is simply no plasma (or LCD) that can beat it here.
The television is also a champ in HD, as it demonstrated with the Mission Impossible III disc. Film-based judder was virtually non-existent, thanks to the TV's support for the 24p standard, and detail and image artefacts were undetectable. The only thing we did notice, though, was that it looks a little more "grainy" than on some other sets.
Unsurprisingly, the TV also performed well in the synthetic HQV tests — passing every one except the film-based test, which is odd given our findings in the previous paragraph. The upshot is, however, that the image processing on this TV is excellent and it will handle anything you throw at it.
Like most plasmas, the Viera performs better in the dark, with excellent black levels and shadow detail across all content types. In the light, it's still very watchable, and blacks don't have the "brown" tinge of the competing LG plasma. It also includes a helpful anti-reflective filter.
Lastly, we come to sound, and again we were excited by the Panasonic's conduct. The TV gives you the choice of either Music or Speech mode, and while the Speech mode is good for the news, Music sounds best for everything else. While voices had a tendency to sound a bit chesty, they were still very understandable. Bass response — usually a problem for TVs — was excellent. And this is important if you're watching action movies. Further to this, the V-Surround effect is quite good at creating an enveloping sound field. You won't get a convincing surround effect ala a 7.1 system but it does help create a larger than life effect.
While we didn't see last year's equivalent model, we did see the smaller 42-inch and gave it our nod as our favourite TV of 2008. We're very happy to say that the G10 is better in every way. Unless something miraculous happens — say like the V10 is even more awesome — we think we may have already found 2009's best TV.