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All the same, Panasonic is off to a promising start for 2014: We just tested the company's mid-tier TC-50AS530U LED LCD TV (MSRP $899.99) and noted some very positive results.
With smart staples like Netflix and Hulu, 50 inches of screen space, and solid performance points like healthy contrast and accurate color, the AS530U series offers some real punch for your pennies. It also comes in numerous screen sizes: 39, 50, 55, and 60 inch. Before you bet on this horse, however, keep in mind that it isn't alone on the track.
Panasonic's AS530U displays look pretty sharp at a glance. The 50-inch model we tested sits atop a rectangular stand with rounded edges, and slim, shiny bezels border its sizable screen up above. A red LED winks below when the TV turns on, but this is an otherwise colorless affair—no chrome, no silver, no grey: just an inky black scheme.
The connectivity is sufficient, but less than what you might hope for in a highly connected room. The back left side hosts hookups for two HDMI, two USB, hybrid component/composite connections, coaxial in, ethernet, and digital audio out (optical). On a 50-inch panel, most would want an extra HDMI, but this is a middle-of-the-road model, so you'll need to settle for two. Note also that the HDMI ports are both wall-facing, which makes this TV trickier to wall mount. Around the right side of the panel, users will find on-set controls for volume, input, channel, and power.
The accompanying remote is Panasonic's standard fare, featuring dedicated keys for Netflix, Apps, Home, and input, and otherwise offering the basics. If you want something fancier with a touchpad, you'll have to invest in a higher-end Panasonic.
The Panasonic AS530's Smart Viera platform offers almost everything in the way of customization and video-streaming apps. Users can create their own Home Screens, browse the internet, and tinker with social media. The only trouble is, this series ships with a run-of-the-mill remote that makes typing and navigation anything but fun.
Higher end models ship with a touchpad remote for more fluid control, but I had to make peace with basic up/down buttons to navigate—and that made this TV's Bing browser all but intolerable. If you want to effortlessly voyage around the web, you'll have to clutter your TV stand with a USB mouse and keyboard... not very modern.
Panasonic does set you up with some great preinstalled video streaming apps, though: Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube are all ready to go, and so are supplementaries like Vudu and Target Ticket (both sub-par video apps). Panasonic's app Market also has free and paid downloads to choose from, but when you click install, something very unfortunate occurs: You're required to create a Panasonic Home Cloud ID and password—as if we need another profile to keep up with. Luckily, signing up with Panasonic's Home Cloud isn't wholly necessary. Aside from some prominent music (Pandora, Rhapsody) and sports (MLB, MLS) apps, most of these downloads are downright silly or worse. The rinky-dink flash games will only entertain the very young, and a dedicated section for porn, tastelessly dubbed After Hours, is sure to offend families everywhere.
In general, everything you need is on this smart TV, but so is everything you don't (here's lookin' at you, porn apps). From calendars, to social media (Twitter, Facebook), to local weather, the customizable Home Screen offers inferior versions of everything on your phone or PC. If you prize simplicity, this may not be the best platform for you.
Finally, Panasonic includes a welcome selection of robust picture controls. Modes like Standard, Vivid, Home Theater, and Cinema are just a few clicks away. For more savy users, a Custom mode allows you to tinker with a healthy host of settings: back light, contrast, brightness, color, tint, sharpness, color temperature, and motion settings, to name a few. And for the very advanced, there are also color management controls, RGB white balance adjustments, and Gamma settings.
For an affordable mid-tier option, the AS530U offers some very fine performance. Testing results like these are ideal for both cinematic and basic daytime TV. The picture isn't breathtaking, but you can't expect the world when you pay well under 1K for 50 inches.
To begin with, the most crucial picture quality aspects tested very well, and that's key: Minimum dark levels on the AS530U aren't good, they're great, and the peak bright reading is healthy too. That means that those dramatic areas of shadow in your favorite movies will look detailed and convincing, and that watching in a sunny living room won't be a problem.
If you want to wall-mount this display, however, do so carefully: The viewing angle, as with most LCD panels, is rather narrow, so you don't want to watch from extreme off-angles. The AS530U's colors look mostly natural, too, though reds are just a bit less vibrant than they ought to be and blues are overly vivid at times.
Lastly, although general daytime viewing like talk shows and news reports look great, action films and sporting events don't fare quite as well due to less-than-perfect motion performance. The AS530U offers motion enhancement settings, but the Strong and Medium modes have a very adverse effect on content, making subjects appear overly rendered and unnatural (like a soap opera). The Weak setting is certainly the most advisable: It doesn't completely resolve blurring and jagged panning, but it effectively lessens the issues—without making content look downright weird.
Panasonic's AS530U series (MSRP $899) has plenty going for it: Great black levels and fairly accurate colors mean movie night will look great on these TVs, yet they're also bright enough to hold up in sun-splashed living rooms. Video-streaming big boys like Netflix and Hulu come preinstalled, and 50 inches of screen for under $1,000 isn't too shabby.
But price tags on similar models undercut this TV. Vizio's claws came out this year in the form of the 2014 E Series, which offers five more inches of screen for $170 less—and that comes with solid performance and key streaming apps , too. If it's more comprehensive smart features you're after, you may want to eye higher-end Panasonic TVs—their touchpad remotes go a long way.
The plain fact is, if you don't offer the best picture or the best smart platform, you land somewhere in the cloudy middle: The AS530U is a nice mid-tier series, but it just isn't ahead of its adversaries—$799 sale price or not.
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