If you're not fussed about 3D then the TVs in Panasonic's E5B range might be more up your street than some of the company's pricier models. They are the cheapest in Panasonic's line-up of LED sets as they use a modest 50Hz panel and don't support 3D.
Here I'm reviewing the largest set in the range, the 47-inch Viera TX-L47E5B, which can be bought from £800 online.
One area where Panasonic was slipping behind the competition last year was in the look and feel of its menu system. This trend looks set to continue for another year at least. Despite this being a brand new model, the menu has barely changed since Panasonic's 2011 TVs.
There have been a few tweaks here and there, including a more welcoming set-up menu that greets you when you first turn on the TV. It guides you through the process of tuning in channels, setting up the network connection and downloading and installing any firmware updates that are available.
However, for the most part, the menus remain quite flat and boring, lacking the graphical niceties that are now the norm for even low-end models in Samsung and LG's line-ups. You're still given plenty of control over this TV's various features though, and if you turn on the Advance (Calibration) mode, you're given more colour tweaking options in the picture menu.
The electronic programme guide (EPG) has also been tweaked slightly. Thankfully, the web-style adverts that used to take up space on last year's models have been banished to the annals of history, so there's a little more room for displaying programme data. You can switch between three layouts that adjust the number of channels shown on screen at any one time. It's also possible to choose whether the EPG shows you a programme info box or not. The latter details the current show or movie that you've selected in the EPG.
The EPG is quite quick to use, but it's far from perfect as the presentation is dull. When you open it up you lose all audio and video from the programme you were watching. A lot of other EPGs either overlay on top of the current channel or have a video thumbnail window, both of which are preferable to what Panasonic has opted for.
Like most of Panasonic's TVs, this one feels like it's remarkably well put together. When you're setting it up on its pedestal, it doesn't creak or flex like some of LG's cheaper models. It's not the prettiest set around, but it's no ugly duckling. The design has clearly been heavily influenced by the styling on LG's sets last year. The bezel has a similar look, where the polished black frame is edged by a transparent trim. It's still neat and classy, and about a million times more attractive than Panasonic's older designs.
As with the other 2012 Panasonic models I've seen, the company has shifted all four of the HDMI ports to a panel on the left edge, which is also home to two USB ports and an SD card slot. Thankfully, the HDMI ports are mounted far enough away from the side of the set that your cables won't awkwardly poke out, spoiling the look of the TV.
A second connections panel on the rear houses the rest of the ports. You'll find mini component and Scart inputs that use small break-out cables, a VGA port, optical digital audio output and RF input for the Freeview HD tuner. There's also an Ethernet port here, but unlike the smaller screens in the E5B range, this one includes Wi-Fi as standard. Most people are likely to go wireless instead of a cabled connection with a computer.
The E5B is a Smart TV so it comes loaded with Panasonic's Viera Connect Internet TV platform. This provides you with a range of apps for a variety of services, from on-demand video content to news and weather apps, and even 3D games.
As you would expect, there's iPlayer along with apps for YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Eurosport. The Acetrax premium movie rental and purchasing service is still included and is joined by Fetch TV and Netflix. Sadly the likes of Lovefilm, 4oD and ITV player aren't available.
There's a range of news apps including a neat one from the Beeb, as well as some half-decent games, including a 3D car racing game from Gameloft. Overall, there aren't quite as many apps available as you'll see on LG and Samsung models, but it's still a pretty impressive line-up.
What's not so impressive is the Viera Connect user interface. Panasonic has opted for a 3D layered system, where you glide up and down through pages of apps. However, as each page only holds eight icons for apps, it can get tedious moving between them, especially as the animation to switch pages is sluggish.
As with most of today's smart TVs, this one has digital media playback features. You can play videos locally from USB drives and SD cards, or stream files across a home network from a PC or NAS drive. Panasonic has upgraded this media playback software from older models and format support is much, much better. On the audio side it, can work with MP3, WMA and AAC tracks, while on the movie front it has no problem playing MP4, AVI, Mov, DviX and Xvid files, as well as HD MKV videos.
This model has stereo 10W speakers positioned at the bottom of the chassis, firing downwards. The chassis is thicker at the bottom than it is at the top to accommodate them. This is a trick that Panasonic used to good effect on some of its previous LED TVs, as having larger drivers usually leads to better bass performance.
However, that doesn't seem to be the case here and the E5B actually sounds worse than last year's TVs. It doesn't have the same bass oomph as the TX-L42E3B, for example, and you have to be careful with the audio settings. If you get things wrong -- especially if you choose the wrong 'distance to wall' setting -- dialogue can sound muffled and indistinct. To be fair, the latter isn't a problem if you just rely on the presets for Music and Speech, although the lack of bass is still an issue with these two modes.
Panasonic has also included two virtual surround modes -- V-Audio and V-surround. The former does widen the soundstage a tad, but the latter doesn't really bring anything to the party so I found it best left alone.
This may be an entry-level LED model, but its picture performance is far from bargain basement. For starters, contrast is very good and shadow detail is deftly handled in dark scenes -- something that taxes a lot of budget LED screens. Panasonic's picture presets, especially the Cinema and True Cinema modes, are as good as ever and do a great job of showing off just how warm and pleasing this model's colour tones can be. Colours really do look bright and vivid without becoming garish.
Viewing angles are wide too, thanks to its use of an IPS panel. Although images aren't as fantastically sharp as I would have liked on HD content, the set still has enough finesse to tease plenty of detail from the best HD sources. It performs well with standard-definition too, as it manages to sharpen up even the ropier channels on Freeview without amplifying their weaknesses.
This set uses a 50Hz panel, but Panasonic has added backlight blinking to boost it to the magical 150Hz figure quoted on the marketing material. It isn't really comparable to what you get from a true 100Hz screen though. This can be seen when the set is dealing with fast motion such as camera pans in footy matches. Look closely and you'll notice that when the speed of the pan picks up, the screen's resolution drops, giving a slightly smeared look to the images. It's not terrible, but motion isn't as clean as Panasonic's higher-end LED displays.
The set's other Achilles Heel is its backlight. On the model I had in for review, there was some clouding in the lower-left and right-hand corners of the screen. On some displays you can mask this slightly by turning down the backlight/contrast control in the menu, but even with this adjusted, it was still visible during darker scenes.
The Panasonic TX-L47E5B is, on the whole, a likeable TV that offers decent value for money. It's got good online features and delivers pleasing pictures with rich colours and good contrast. However, audio quality and black level performance could be better.