Panasonic's Viera plasmas have a well-deserved reputation for producing outstanding images, and the ST50 I reviewed recently showed that the company has lost none of its deft touch.
The 42-inch Panasonic GT50 promises even better picture quality, with finer graduation of colours and speedier smart TV apps powered by a dual-core processor. Priced at around £1,100 online, it's pricier than the ST50, which you can now pick up for £850, so is it worth it?
User interface and EPG
The major weakness of Panasonic TVs recently has been their user interfaces. Sadly, the GT50 suffers from the same problems in this department. The menu system has barely been touched from what appeared on last year's, and even that looked quite dated at the time.
You get none of the slick graphical touches and 3D-style animations that are the trademark of the latest Samsung and LG TVs. Instead, you're left looking at drab and dreary menu screens. Some people won't give a fig about this, but I find it lazy on Panasonic's part. If I had a mate who owned an LG or Samsung model, I'd feel slightly embarrassed calling up the menus here because they look so dated in comparison.
Thankfully, the electronic programme guide (EPG) has at least been modernised. Panasonic has finally dumped the web-style adverts that used to take up valuable space on the EPG screen. This allows the guide to show more channels and programming data at any one time. You can also select between three layouts, but it's a shame that unlike the EPG on Sony's TVs, there's no video thumbnail window. You lose all audio and video from the show you're watching when you open up the guide.
Digital media and Internet features
When it comes to handling smart apps, the GT50 goes one better than the ST50 by including a dual-core processor. This makes the Viera Connect apps slightly faster to open and more responsive, although the difference isn't hugely noticeable.
One bonus is that it supports multi-tasking so you can have a number of apps running in the background. To switch between them, you just press the Viera Tools button on the remote. This causes the bottom-left corner of the screen to curl upwards to reveal icons for the apps that are currently running.
As with the, switching between the last two apps opened is almost instantaneous, but switching to a third app takes longer. This seems to be because the TV only actually runs two at a time and simply suspends the other apps in memory so they take slightly longer to recall.
I can't say I'm a massive fan of the user interface for the Viera Connect smart TV platform. Its layered approach can be cumbersome to use when you've got lots of apps installed. Nevertheless, the range of apps on offer isn't too bad. There's an iPlayer app and Panasonic has now added Netflix support.
Twitter and Facebook apps are also present, and there's a combined social networking app that allows you to see Twitter and Facebook updates in a window when you're watching a TV show. The YouTube app now uses the new 'lean back' interface that's more suited to TVs. Panasonic has also added a full web browser but it doesn't support Adobe Flash and it's a little too prone to crashing to be all that useful.
There are plenty of other apps available including the Acetrax and Viewster movies services, Dailymotion and Vimeo. All in all, it's not a bad line-up of smart TV content, although it does lack Lovefilm support -- something that's offered on Sony's latest TVs.
The set will record shows from the on-board Freeview and Freesat HD tuners to memory keys or disc drives plugged into the USB ports. You can playback a range of formats, including HD MKV and DivX files, either locally from USB drives or SD memory cards, or across a network from a PC or NAS drive. Playback quality is excellent and it also supports down-mixing of DTS soundtracks -- something that not all smart TVs support.
Design and connections
Thankfully, Panasonic has started taking the design of its TVs more seriously this year. While it's safe to say that nobody is going to deem this set to be better looking than the no-bezel designs from Samsung and LG, it's a big step forward from last year's GT30.
Admittedly, the bezel is a tad thicker than I would have liked, at 27mm deep, but at least its combination of glossy black with chrome trim looks sophisticated. That's echoed by the neat stand, with its attractive, graduated grey finish.
For a plasma model, this TV is quite slim, measuring 41mm deep. During our recent mini-heatwave, the back of the set did feel quite hot to the touch. This may be by design though, as it's possible that Panasonic is using the metal case on the rear to dissipate the heat that the panel generates.
The design of the remote has been tweaked. It retains the long, thin style of Panasonic's previous zappers, but it now has a glossy coating on the front. It also includes a backlight, which will come in handy if you like watching movies with the lights dimmed. Unlike the higher-end VT50, this one doesn't come with Panasonic's touchpad controller. As I didn't find the touchpad all that easy to use, I don't think it's a major loss here.