While most discerning videophiles look for a TV with cutting-edge features and superb picture quality, shoppers with a firm grip on their wallets might prefer a plasma set that delivers solid performance at a budget-friendly price. We found several models that fit that description according to expert and user reviews.
Perhaps the most attractive low-cost option is the Panasonic Viera U50, which is quite similar in picture performance to the company's step-up UT50 series. That means excellent blacks, with a minority of reviewers saying it's even better than the very well regarded ST50. Color performance is also very good. Low brightness and a somewhat reflective screen make this TV best for rooms where light levels and light placement is well controlled, both issues that are classic plasma technology shortfalls.
The trade-off for a very good picture at a very good price is the lack of any advanced features. While the U50 does have an SD memory card slot for enjoying your own videos, photos and music -- Panasonic is one of the few manufacturers to include that in its plasma TVs -- streaming and 3D aren't supported. Available models include the 50-inch Viera TC-P50U50 (*Est. $700 to $1,000) and 60-inch Viera TC-P60U50 (*Est. $1,000).
If losing 3D isn't a concession you're willing to make, the 50-inch Panasonic Viera TC-P50XT50 (*Est. $720) might be worth a look. You gain 3D and a limited streaming feature that brings major content providers like Netflix and Hulu Plus, but not the breadth of content found on more upscale sets with the company's Viera Connect platform. The TV is Wi-Fi ready, but wireless connectivity isn't built in.
Another biggie is that the TC-P50XT50 sports only 720p resolution. That's still high-def, just not the full 1080p high-def resolution of most modern HDTVs. Otherwise, the picture is plasma-quality, with great blacks and good colors. Like the U50, low brightness and a reflective screen means this isn't the best set for a well-lit room. While the 720p resolution may be a turnoff, experts point out that at typical seating distances, many won't see the loss of detail, even with a 50-inch screen.
Samsung offers a competing set, the PN51E490 (*Est. $690). It, too, is only 720p resolution, but still gets good feedback. PCMag.com gives it an Editors' Choice award in the budget TV category despite black levels that are unimpressive, something reviewers don't say about the Panasonic XT50. The Samsung offers local streaming but no Internet content, and Wi-Fi is optional. 3D performance is excellent, the set includes two pair of glasses -- two more than you get with the XT50 -- and extras start at a relatively inexpensive $20 each. Again, only a 50-inch screen size is currently offered.