Gloss black is dead – it’s official – but only for the well heeled. For so long the dominant colour scheme for flatscreen TVs, the 3D-ready, Edge LED-backlit Panasonic TX-L42ET50B – the first of many Panasonic TVs for 2012 – bears all the hallmarks of a high-end attempt.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, means a super-thin Crystal Frame metallic bezel.
Well, kind of. The super-slim design (the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B is a mere 36mm in depth) features a visible metallic-looking bezel that’s a tiny 11mm wide, but it’s part of an optical illusion.
Around the edge of the panel is a 10mm transparent plastic rim that ripples into two steps, the foremost layer housing that metallic bezel. Inside that is an 11mm seam of black around the actual panel, which ought to help push the perception of contrast on this Edge LED-backlit panel.
It might rely largely on trickery, but overall it’s a pleasant, understated look that’s a mite fresher than the plain gloss black that other brands try to dress up as new and exciting (stand up Sony and its dull-as ‘monolithic’ design).
Brand new from Panasonic’s spring TV ranges, this ET50 screen leaves nothing to chance, chumming up a Full HD resolution with 3D compatibility, Panasonic’s smart VIiera Connect interface, a Freeview HD tuner and an 800Hz option.
The latter may sound startling to those brought up to believe that 100Hz was advanced tech, but it’s actually not as impressive as it sounds, instead being a 200Hz mode with backlight scanning and blinking. In short, it’s maths, not reality.
More notable is the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B’s use of active shutter 3D technology.
Using battery-powered and often fairly chunky glasses, active shutter 3D makes obvious sense on huge plasma TVs where the extra real estate and mostly profound black levels make a difference.
But the cheaper, more easy-going (glasses-wise) passive 3D workaround had been expected to dominate on smaller TVs in 2012.
That the company that invented active shutter 3D should stick with it despite the commercial success of passive 3D televisions is a telling move.
Viera Connect adds Netflix for 2012, as well as a shopping platform, although interactivity doesn’t stretch to the touchpad remote control employed on some of Panasonic’s high-end 3D Blu-ray players, such as the Panasonic DMP-BDT320.
In the ET50 Series – Panasonic’s entry-level range for active shutter 3D LED TVs – the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B sits below the bigger 47-inch TX-L47ET50B, with a UK price of £1,297.99 (about $2,070).
There are many other 3D-ready LED-backlit Smart Vieras.
For those after a slight price drop and more interested in 3D convenience than ultimate detail, Panasonic has made the rather unexpected move of poaching some of LG’s FPR panels to power its ET5B lineup.
Comprising the 32-inch Panasonic TX-L32ET5B, 37-inch Panasonic TX-L37ET5B, 42-inch Panasonic TX-L42ET5B, 47-inch Panasonic TX-L47ET5B and 55-inch Panasonic TX-L55ET5B, these Easy 3D screens come with four free pairs of 3D glasses.
Where once Panasonic TVs were simply called Viera, now they are Smart Viera.
A Freeview HD tuner isn’t strictly part of that arsenal, but it’s good to see on the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B, although there is a big disappointment to counter that; there are no 3D glasses included in the box, which makes 3D viewing an unlikely luxury.
For testing purposes we were supplied with a pair of the super-lightweight (at just 27g) TY-ER3D4ME Bluetooth active shutter 3D glasses.
We’ve discussed the merits of active shutter vs passive 3D before, but the former’s use here underlines which technology Panasonic prefers (then again, it did invent active shutter, so does have a vested interest in its promotion).
Arguably much higher up in our wish lists for all TVs is their smart dimension, and here we get Viera Connect, an interface that’s virtually identical to last year’s incarnation. Netflix is the new kid on the block – as it is everywhere, it seems – and it joins Acetrax for video streaming, although BBC iPlayer and YouTube are still the heavyweights.
FetchTV comes into the fold, too, joining BBC News, CNBC, Euronews, Skype (you’ll need a Panasonic HD Communication Camera TY-CC10W to use this), Twitter, Facebook, BIGFlix+ (Indian blockbuster movies) and iConcerts.
We used the latter to play an entire show of Morrissey performing with Jools Holland from a few years ago – surely the zenith of the smart TV revolution.
It gets a lot smarter than that, with a downloadable web browser and the chance to sign up, give your credit card details and start downloading games, such as Asphalt 5 and Uno.
Networking is now a permanent feature of TVs, and the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B doesn’t disappoint. It uses the occasionally flaky DLNA system, although a connected HDD containing recorded TV content can be accessed by other DLNA-equipped devices, too.
The Panasonic TX-L42ET50B also features Wi-Fi Direct, which means some smartphones can connect directly.
Ins and outs on the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B are many, although their positioning is an acquired taste. All four of the HDMI inputs – one of which is Audio Return Channel (ARC)-compatible for routing audio to an AV receiver and cutting out an optical cable – are ensconced in a side panel, which is firmly recessed from the side.
However, if all of those HDMIs are occupied by high-quality, not-very-bendy (that’s a technical term) cables, some could protrude from the sides.
Also up here are two USB slots, which again isn’t very practical, since one of them can be used to hook up an HDD for making recordings from the Freeview HD tuner.
There’s an SD card slot up here, too, for playing digital photos and music, and a Common Interface slot for adding to the Freeview channel roster.
A further connections module on the undercarriage of the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B comprises wired LAN (although there’s a Wi-Fi module built-in, thankfully), a VGA port for attaching a PC, RF input and a digital optical audio output.
There are also two small concessions to slimness; ports for slimmed-down adaptors for both Scart and component video. The latter is for ‘legacy’ kit, since component video is no longer used on DVD and Blu-ray players. Also note that the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B lacks a composite video input.
The Panasonic TX-L42ET50B doesn’t initially show itself as a TV aimed at those after a custom-fit picture.
Its picture menus seem to offer nothing more than the usual tweaks for brightness and contrast plus some rudimentary noise reduction, although if you look hard enough there’s plenty of opportunity to go way beyond its default Dynamic/Normal/Cinema/True Cinema viewing modes (why no ‘game’ mode?).
Hidden on a second screen is a shortcut to Advanced Settings, which leads to fine tweaks for white balance and gamma levels, as well as access to arguably this set’s most important picture processing weaponry – Intelligent Frame Creation and Clear Cinema.
Intelligent Frame Creation is a frame interpolation feature than can be set to various strengths. Clear Cinema is an 800Hz anti-blur circuitry that generates 200 frames per second, in conjunction with some dynamic backlight scanning.
Used on Freeview HD, the former was best kept on minimum strength to avoid flicker and mosquito noise around moving objects, and the latter is a mild effect indeed.
For 3D, picture settings are limited to simple detection and messaging options, with no exacting control on offer.
We start at the bottom of the quality food chain with some footage streamed through iConcerts on the Viera Connect interface. Morrissey performing on Later… with Jools Holland via iConcerts is strictly standard definition, yet stable and clean.
A blast of the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix via a Virgin Media TiVo box looks clean and colourful, but the lack of convincing black (it appears as a dark blue) is becoming obvious, as is some worrying light leakage from a cluster of LEDs in the bottom-right-hand corner of the screen.
Most alarmingly is a tight viewing angle on this, the biggest version yet of a usually reliable IPS LCD panel. Contrast and colour drain if watched from the wings.
Those light leakage problems are especially obvious on movies with black bars, so it’s a continual presence throughout Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on Blu-ray.
So too is a little background picture noise, although the image underneath is impressively sharp.
The Panasonic TX-L42ET50B’s picture is colourful, too, but there’s not enough contrast to give bold tones, and convincing blacks and shadow detailing are the victims.
An optional feature for Blu-ray discs is 24p Smooth Film, but on any of its four strengths, the effect is mild. Intelligent Frame Creation and Clear Cinema aren’t available for Blu-ray. Thankfully, the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B doesn’t suffer from native motion blur.
Converting those spy shenanigans into 3D immediately kills the colour as it ups the contrast, with the overly cool results looking slightly befuddled and lacking much consistency, although we occasionally spotted some crisp and clear depth effects.
Tahiti Wave on 3D Blu-ray is the real deal on the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B. The level of detail is very high, and there’s little evidence of crosstalk or ghosted images, but as with last year’s crop of 3D TVs, we did notice some flickering that becomes more obvious the more ambient light is in the room.
If you can resist the temptation to crack open a window in bright sunlight, the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B performs very well with 3D, although it’s perhaps a tad too small for true immersion.
Usability, sound and value
The Panasonic TX-L42ET50B has a bland user interface. It’s not much changed from the 2011 crop of TVs, which is no bad thing in itself, but we’ve now seen better – and from Panasonic itself.
The brand’s Blu-ray players, such as the Panasonic DMP-BDT320, feature a gorgeous gesture-driven interface that keeps everything simple, icon-led and beautifully designed – and even features a touchpad remote control.
Why the Viera smart TVs don’t include that interface and remote is beyond us, although the remote control on the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B includes red backlighting that home cinema owners will adore.
Freeview HD is given a similar treatment as it was in previous years. That’s to say, it’s dull; seven channels’ schedules are shown over two hours, with brief programme information shown up top.
It’s a branded Freeview affair, which now thankfully doesn’t include adverts along the side. Much better than last year, then, but still not a patch on the slick EPGs from the likes of Sony and Samsung.
Setting recordings from the EPG is easy, while instant recording can be set to a default of up to 180 minutes. Bear in mind that a USB HDD or flash drive must first be formatted, and then used only with Panasonic AV gear. Recorded TV programmes are in a format that can’t be read by a PC.
Networking via Wi-Fi is a mixed bag, with MOV, MP4, AVC HD and AVI video all supported. But from a USB drive we only managed to play AVC HD, AVI and MKV.
At least it’s comprehensive overall, with the lossless FLAC music format supported, in addition to MP3.
The Panasonic TX-L42ET50B puts in a relatively good audio performance, with its stereo speakers offering a decent amount of bass.
V-Audio is worth engaging for some extra precision, although V-Audio Surround is misleadingly named – we didn’t spot any rear effects – and the Speech mode is too thin and bereft of bass.
Crucially, the speakers are good enough for a daily diet of dialogue-based TV, so will suit a living room not planning on adding home cinema clutter.
The real test for the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B is how it can stand up to a Panasonic plasma, not other Edge LED TVs. It’s slimmer and more stylish than a plasma and packed with just as many features, but it costs the same largely because it uses active shutter 3D technology.
However, the lack of 3D glasses in the box makes this an expensive option, and one we’re not convinced many buyers will take up. Given that, the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B does seem overpriced.
We’re willing to bet that its 42-inch L42ET5B passive 3D variant will do better among buyers looking for a cheaper add-on opportunity for the occasional 3D movie.
Why is Panasonic offering an Edge LED alternative to its plasma TVs? Given that the latter performs peerlessly with 3D and nicely upscales lesser-than-HD sources, the choice of Edge LED is surely all about the innate slimness it brings.
There’s no doubting the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B’s style, but is it over substance?
Almost completely blur-free and with awesome detail from Blu-ray, this 42-inch television impresses further with a superb smart TV dimension, Viera Connect.
For long the slickest-looking of the smart TV interfaces, this Wi-Fi-powered and nicely designed GUI now has the content to match its rivals at Samsung and Sony. It’s especially great to see Netflix.
Audio is better than average, too, as is the active shutter 3D effect and the backlit remote control, while the slim bezel design is nothing if not innovative.
Where’s Lovefilm? As well as that missing app on Viera Connect, it’s sad to see that no 3D glasses are included in the box, which makes 3D a pricey add-on.
We were also disappointed with the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B’s tight viewing angle, LED light leakage in a corner of the panel, and generally lacklustre black levels.
The Freeview HD EPG is bland amid a core GUI that’s starting to look a little dated.
- Backlit remote
- AVI & MKV support
- Floating bezel design
- LED light leakage
- Restricted viewing angle
- Poor black levels
- 3D glasses not included
3D is an expensive luxury on this, Panasonic’s biggest ever Edge LED TV. It may have sacrificed plasma at this living room-friendly size, but its love of active shutter 3D tech refuses to budge.
That’s a strange move that leaves the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B neither a slim and cheap option nor a high-end home cinema screen, although at its best it’s just capable of surviving in either environment.
Competition among other manufacturers’ ranges for 2012 is still building, with many models yet to be announced. However, the Philips 42PFL7666H is worth an audition – it uses passive 3D tech, but offers a more robust, classy metallic build quality and an app that can stream photos from phone to TV.
Those not after 3D should also check out the 40-inch Toshiba 40RL858B.
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