What most people want, the $600 Panasonic TC-50AS530U has: a big, 50-inch screen for a low price, and plenty of smart-TV features. This year's model offers improved presentation of various services and apps, from streaming services like Hulu Plus to a calendar and note taker, although the interface is not as flashy as what some others TVs offer.
Panasonic has hewed to traditional elements in the TC-50AS530U. There's no faux chrome or other embellishments to detract from the picture. The TV has a reasonably narrow (0.4-inch) shiny black bezel around the screen. The set is just over 2-inches thick and rests upon a simple fixed stand that seemed steady enough during our testing.
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One strike against this Panasonic is that it has only two HDMI ports; a minimum of three is de rigueur today. A game console and cable or satellite set-top box will quickly occupy those two connections, leaving a Blu-ray player, for example, out of the picture.
Other connections include Wi-Fi as well as an Ethernet plug, analog component video-in, two USB ports and an RF coaxial hookup for antenna reception.
Interface: Generally friendly
Panasonic's smart-TV features and picture controls have come a long way. It's much easier to adjust the picture and sound than on previous models, with understandable labels for settings. (We did have one problem, however. See Color section below.) The smart-TV functions, using Panasonic's new platform called Life+, are also better organized and more extensive than before.
The main app screen is a multi-tiered affair, showing the company's own cloud services for sharing media, a rotating group of popular apps, and an app market and shopping area. There's also a media player (for files on USB-connected storage), a Web browser and a DLNA server (the last is for accessing content on other devices such as computers and phones that also support the DLNA standard).
Panasonic's App Market covers a lot of services, ranging from Crunchyroll to Flixster, Amazon, Netflix, Vudu, Pandora, Rhapsody and TuneIn. One popular service that's missing is Spotify; otherwise, it's a solid selection of apps.
You can place the apps you use the most, such as Netflix or YouTube, in easy-to-find buttons at the bottom of the screen. One annoying feature: the AS530's on-screen ads. They appear on the smart TV menu screens. We could close some of the ads, but couldn't find a way to dismiss all of them.
Remote: No surprises
The large remote that comes with the TC-50AS530U is comfortable and familiar. Everything is where you expect it to be. Number buttons have larger than usual numerals, making them easily legible. There's a dedicated Netflix button and a four-way directional pad up top, crowned with three buttons for Apps, Home and Input. Overall, it's intelligently laid out, featuring the functions I use the most.
Image Quality: Good enough
While it's not a stellar performer in the picture category, the Panasonic AS530 offers solid enough quality for people who aren't video snobs. Brightness is consistent across the large screen, which offers good off-angle viewing, so more people can enjoy the show or game without suffering through a dull-looking picture. (For details on our review methods, see How We Test & Evaluate TVs.)
Color: Not the most accurate
The TC-50AS530U's major weakness is its color fidelity. The TV can struggle to balance reds, dipping into magenta where it shouldn't, and it has a pronounced problem with deep blues.
I evaluated the TV in the default Standard mode, then Cinema mode, which posted the best accuracy in our lab tests. In either mode, scenes on the Panasonic AS530 revealed some interesting color problems when I compared them to another 50-inch TV, the more-expensive $930 Sony KDL-50W800B (see review). While solid-yellow objects, such as taxicabs, looked bright and lustrous, the TV's strong yellow bias made green turf slightly jaundiced. In ocean scenes, the water looked a little green. Blue football jerseys tilted toward aquamarine rather than navy blue.
The two color gamut charts below show the color accuracy of the two modes. Click on the image for a larger version.
I tried additional presets, but they had little effect on the weak-blue ocean problem. Our color-gamut test results confirmed what I saw, although it looks like less of a problem in the lab report chart than it is on the screen.
Contrast and black levels: brightness boosting
In order to get the best balance between dim details and deep black levels, the TC-50AS530U yields a bright picture — brighter than, for example, the Sony KDL-50W800B. Scenes of the stars dotting the sky in the Blue-ray of Gravity revealed more of the Milky Way, but at the expense of the blackness of space (which tended to look a little gray and less foreboding).
This slight tradeoff in terms of detail and darkness was confirmed by our contrast ratio measurements, which were below average. The issue didn't affect our enjoyment of the picture, however.
Artifacts: aggressive processing
One negative aspect we noticed in adjusting picture settings was that the TC-50AS530U's video processing can be overzealous. To watch a 720p recording of an Eagles football game, I set the motion-picture setting on Strong, which is supposed to reduce motion blur. It didn't seem to significantly affect the picture either way.
With other content, however, noticeable artifacts, some startling, appeared in particular movie scenes. In the rooftop chase scene from Skyfall (on Blu-ray), James Bond's head would momentarily flicker out of existence, and a blurry force field would occasionally surround his motorbike — all visual distortions created by the strong video processing. I switched it off, and the artifacts disappeared.
Audio Quality: Can you hear me now?
TVs are notoriously poor audio performers; that's why people buy so many surround-sound systems and sound bars (see recommendations). But the Panasonic TC-50AS530U distinguished itself by delivering poorer-than-average sound. Dialog sounded clear enough, but music and sound effects suffered. There's very little deep bass, which is not surprise. But the set's higher-end treble range also sounded squeezed, which felt claustrophobic.
The Panasonic TC-50AS530U is a decent performer given its price and screen size. It delivers smart TV services reliably, along with a comfortable remote. Just don't expect the most accurate colors or much "oomph" from the speakers.
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John R. Quain has been reviewing and testing video and audio equipment for more than 20 years. He is currently a contributor to The New York Times and the CBS News television program. Follow him @jqontech.