Panasonic has previously resisted the urge to duke it out with other manufacturers of premium LED TVs, preferring to rely on plasma technology for its big screen, high-end line-up. This year the company has changed tack by launching the WT50 line of Viera sets, which use LED technology.
The 47-inch TX-L47WT50B is the mid-sized model, sitting between the 42 and 50-inch TVs in the range. It has a premium design and comes with a dual-core processor to speed up its smart TV apps. Priced at around £1,900, it's even more expensive than Panasonic's own highly regarded GT50 plasma range, so is it worthy of the steep asking price?
While other manufacturers, such as LG and Samsung, have radically redesigned the user interfaces on their 2012 TVs, Panasonic has pretty much carried over the menu system that it was using on last year's models. Even back then, it looked basic next to the competition, so when I put the TX-L47WT50B head to head with LG's slick menus, it looks positively archaic.
Most of the interface is simply presented as a series of flat lists of white text against a blue-ish background. The colour and animations are rudimentary. But a few touches have been added as it's a premium set, including a neat page-turn effect when you change channels. It looks as if the channel you're leaving curls up from the bottom-right corner of the screen to reveal the one you're switching to. If you find it annoying you can switch it off in the main menu.
The range of picture controls is very good. The more advanced of these -- including a full colour management system -- are turned off by default, but you can enable them simply by selecting the ISF option from the main menu.
One slight annoyance, common to all of Panasonic's LED sets, is that the controls slider adjusts the back light intensity as well as contrast, whereas these two controls are kept separate on most other TVs.
That said, the preset picture modes are generally very good, so you shouldn't have to make a whole lot of adjustments to get the best out of this model.
One thing that Panasonic has thankfully tweaked is the electronic programme guide (EPG) for the Freeview HD tuner. The annoying web-style adverts that blighted its older TVs have finally been removed. There are now three layouts to choose from and they've been tidied up and made more presentable, which makes it more pleasant to use. It's annoying that Panasonic still hasn't added a channel preview video window though. If the company can include it on its £350 DMR-PWT420 PVR then it should be able to add it to a TV that costs nearly two grand.
As this model has a Freesat HD tuner, there's a second EPG specifically for Freesat HD. Freesat tightly controls the look and operation of the EPGs for its service, so the one used here simply complies with the standard. As with all Freesat HD EPGs, it doesn't have a thumbnail view, so you lose all audio and video when you call it up. It annoyingly opens on the channels category page rather than the all channels view when you press the EPG button. This is poor planning from Freesat and I can't blame Panasonic for simply following the rules.
There's no doubt for me that this is the most beautiful TV that's ever strutted out of Panasonic's factory. Its sets always feel sturdy and well built, but their design has typically been as dull as ditch water. The TX-L47WT50B is a much more attractive affair.
It's slim, measuring just 23mm thick, and the bezel around the screen is narrow, at 13mm. There's a sexy Perspex edge at the bottom and very premium-looking chrome trim running around the outside of the screen. It's not as gorgeous as the frameless designs of the Samsung UE55ES8000 and LG 47LM960V, but it's much more attractive than Panasonic's previous efforts. Even the crescent stand looks the business.
The TV comes with two remote controls -- a standard zapper and a remote with a touchpad that connects to the TV via Bluetooth. LG has done a similar thing with its high-end sets, but it's used a motion-sensing remote instead. LG's works much better than the touchpad, which is awkward to use and often feels more difficult to control than a normal remote.
You'll find all four of the TV's HDMI ports, plus its three USB ports, on a panel on the left-hand side. The rest of the sockets are on the rear. These include mini-jack inputs for use with the Scart and component adaptor cables, as well as the VGA port, optical audio output, RF input for the Freeview HD tuner and satellite F-connector socket for the Freesat HD tuner.
There's an Ethernet port too, but as the set has Wi-Fi built-in, you can go wireless instead. The TV also has Bluetooth onboard that's used for syncing the active 3D specs and for communicating with the new touchpad remote control, as well as other Bluetooth devices such as keyboards and headsets.
The TX-L47WT50B uses the same Viera Connect apps platform as the other smart models in Panasonic's range. The difference is that it has a dual-core processor to speed up performance. Apps such as iPlayer and Netflix seem to be faster to load and more responsive than on its single-core TVs, such as the TX-L47ET50B. The performance difference isn't huge though, so it's not in itself a reason to choose this model over single-core sets.
One benefit is that the dual-core chip allows for multi-tasking. You can have multiple applications running in the background and switch between them by hitting the Viera Tools button on the remote. This causes the right-hand corner of the user interface to curl up to reveal the task switcher. Jumping from one app to another and back again is very fast -- almost instantaneous. Switching across three or more apps is slower as it only seems to properly multi-task with two apps at a time. Other apps seem to be suspended to memory and have to be recalled.
As with the other new Panasonic models I've seen, this one has a full web broswer. Thanks to the dual-core chip, the version tested here supports Flash, so it can play video on web pages. Well, it supports some videos, but certainly not all. Those on CNET UK and MUZU TV worked, for example, but clips on the BBC website didn't.
The overall line-up of apps in Viera Connect is generally good, with video services such as Netflix, Acetrax, Fetch TV and Blinkbox available, as well as news and information services like BBC and AccuWeather. There's also social networking apps including Facebook, Twitter and Picasa. Panasonic even includes a combined Facebook and Twitter app that overlays feeds on the channel you're watching. The layered design of the Connect interface isn't great though. It becomes increasingly cumbersome the more apps you load into it.
Naturally, this model supports video file playback. These can be played via the USB port and SD card slot, or streamed over a network from DLNA devices including PCs and NAS drives. It works with a good range of file formats. Standard-definition Xvid and DivX files played without any problems, as did HD MKV files. It also worked with DTS and AC3 soundtacks. However, as with a lot of the media players built into TVs, it only seems to play subtitles on files stored on SD or USB drives.
If you download the Viera Remote app for iOS or Android devices, you can also 'throw' pictures, videos and web pages from the app to the TV by selecting the items and simply dragging them towards the TV icon at the top of the app's interface. It's slightly sluggish but it does work reasonably well.
Like all of Panasonic's high-end TVs, this set has rudimentary personal video recorder features. If you connect a drive to one of the USB ports, you can record shows to disc or pause live TV. However, despite the fact it has both Freeview and Freesat tuners, you can't record one channel while watching another.
Panasonic's TVs used to stand out from the crowd when it came to audio performance. It went to great lengths -- even adding thickness to the bottom of the chassis so it could accommodate larger speakers -- to ensure their sound had more range than most competitors.
Unfortunately, it seems to have gone backwards with the TX-L47WT50B, which lacks the meatiness in the bass department that was a signature of the brand's 2011 models. It's not terrible but it does sound very average and just as mid-range heavy as most run-of-the-mill LED offerings. This is a shame as it's an expensive TV.
On its high-end sets, Panasonic's picture quality rarely disappoints. Despite a few niggles, the TX-L47WT50B largely continues this fine tradition. Detail on HD feeds, either from its internal tuners or movies on Blu-ray, is absolutely first class. Every skin follicle and strand of hair is reproduced with astounding precision.
It handles standard-definition content pretty well too, with its upscaler sprucing up images by adding a touch of sharpness, without making them look overly noisy.
Switch to the cinema preset and you'll find that colours have a richness and subtlety that you seldom see elsewhere. This helps lend a real cinematic look to movies. Viewing angles are excellent and colours and contrasts don't shift as much as they do on some competitor models when you move to wider viewing angles.
This TV uses edge dimming to achieve its best black levels. Like a lot of edge dimming sets, when this mode is turned off, the black level response isn't amazing. Also, the dimming feature is only available in the normal and cinema modes. When it's enabled you can see the odd artefact now and again -- when an area of the picture seems to be brighter than it should -- but this only occurs on vary rare occasions. Enabling it increased black level performance so much, I found it was best to leave it turned on.
Also, although motion resolution is excellent with Panasonic's Intelligent Frame Creation (IFC) motion smoothing mode enabled, it's not wonderful with it turned off. That's common to most high-end LED screens. You have to be careful with the IFC modes too -- at the higher setting, it has a tendency to make movies look flat and video-like. But the lower settings are very watchable.
Panasonic has always insisted that plasma screens offered the best picture quality for 3D, partly because their fast response rates pretty much eliminate crosstalk (ghosting on the edges of objects). The company has been working hard to get similar performance levels from its LED TVs, and it's largely succeeded here.
The TX-L47WT50B is billed as a 1,600Hz set, but the reality is that it uses a 200Hz panel that's twinned with backlight blinking to achieve the 1,600Hz figure. This trick seems to work because it's very difficult to spot any crosstalk on this TV, and it makes 3D images solid and believable.
What's more, the panel's high light output means that 3D images remain very bright, even when faced with the dimming effect of the active specs. This is certainly one area where this model scores over Panasonic's own 3D plasma models, as they just can't achieve the same brightness levels as this.
Like a lot of the latest 3D TVs, you can control the depth level via the 3D menu, so you can either push the 3D depth into the frame, or have it create a 'pop out' effect. Either way, the sense of depth on offer here is fantastic.
Panasonic includes two pairs of active glasses with the TV. These new specs are thankfully much lighter and more comfortable to wear than its older ones.
The TX-L47WT50B is, on the whole, an excellent TV. It delivers very good quality pictures for both 2D and 3D viewing, thanks to high levels of brightness, rich colours and decent motion performance. It's a very expensive TV though, and its menu system and EPG look a tad dated next to similarly priced sets from LG and Samsung.
Potential buyers should bear in mind that Panasonic's new premium plasma TVs in the GT50 and VT50 ranges are likely to offer similar features -- and perhaps better picture quality -- at a similar or slightly cheaper price.