The Panasonic TX-P42GT60B really is a stunning TV, and produces the best pictures we've ever seen at this price point.
Panasonic's GT series usually represents the sweet spot in its plasma lineup, offering picture quality that's not far off the company's high-end VT model, but with less of a wallet-bashing price tag. At 42 inches, the TX-P42GT60 is the smaller of the two screen sizes offered in the 2013 GT range, but this also means it's relatively affordable, as you can buy it online for around �1,050.
Panasonic's TVs have been traditionally weak when it comes to user interface and EPG, but finally the company has actually done something about this. It's obviously taken a look at the approach that brands like LG and Samsung have been taking to homescreen design and decided to go down a similar path.
Panasonic has gone one better, however, by allowing you to create your own customised homescreen. I'll cover this in more detail in the digital media section of this review, but it's worth mentioning here because the homescreen approach makes the whole process of interacting with this TV feel much slicker and intuitive than on previous Panasonic models.
The picture and sound settings are still found in a separate menu, but these are easy to use and give you pretty comprehensive controls over how you can tweak the audio and video settings. Panasonic's picture presets are also very strong, so you don't have to do a great deal of tweaking to get good picture quality out of this set, unlike many of Samsung's models.
The programme guide has been given a makeover too. It retains the chunky, easy-to-read text and the horizontal timeline layout, but Panasonic has now finally added a video window in the left-hand corner. This means you can keep tabs on the show you're tuned to while checking out what's coming up on other channels later on.
Like the rest of the company's 2013 TV lineup, the P42GT60 benefits from Panasonic's updated smart TV system. This now revolves around a homescreen that pops up when you switch on your TV (although you can also set the TV to start up in full-screen TV mode instead). You're given a choice of different pre-built homescreens to use, including one with a channel explorer down the right-hand side of the display. This shows what's currently on across all available channels, and there's another that's designed to be a sort of family notice board.
The clever bit, however, is that Panasonic also allows you to create your own customised homescreen from four available templates. This works really well, as it means you can place the Smart TV apps that you use most often -- iPlayer, Netflix and Acetrax, for example -- together on one screen, so you don't have to shuffle through different menus to get at them.
These homescreens are also very quick and easy to build. If you hit the home button on the remote it zooms out of the homescreen you're using into a 3D view that allows you to move back and forth to choose a different screen to switch too.
Panasonic's lineup of apps is pretty decent, with plenty of on-demand movie services supported, as well as lots of news and information services. It still slightly lags behind Samsung's system, as it doesn't have ITV Player, 4oD or Lovefilm apps -- all of which are available on Samsung's platform.
The set also comes with a wireless Bluetooth pen that you can use to draw on the screen. It feels like a big fat crayon to hold and it works with a number of games available in the Vieracast app store. If you tap and hold on a TV picture the set will take a screen grab and allow you to annotate it using the simple Paint-style app -- ideal if you want to do some Sky Sports-style tactical scribbling while watching the footy. The pen might be useful if the set was being used in a meeting room in an office, but at home I can see the novelty factor wearing off pretty quickly.
As with last year's model you can record from the built-in Freeview HD and Freesat HD tuners to USB drives plugged into one of the set's ports. Unlike upcoming VT65 model however, this one doesn't have twin tuners, so you can't watch one show while recording another. The lack of twin tuners means that it also lacks that model's picture-in-picture feature in the onscreen channels explorer.
Nevertheless, it does have a built-in Web browser which supports Flash, so you can use it to play back videos on some websites. There's a companion smart phone remote app available for iOS and Android devices too. You can control the set via Wi-Fi and catch and throw stuff like pictures and Web pages from your phone or tablet to the TV, although this feature is still on the slow and clunky side.
The on-board digital media player is pretty good though. It lets you play a range of file formats including Xvid and MKV files either from USB drives or across a network from a PC or network attached hard drive. Playback quality is very good and it's quick to navigate through folders too.
Plasma TVs can't really compete with their LED counterparts in terms of style. It's impossible to produce a plasma screen with a bezel as narrow as those on some of LG's high-end LED models, or a chassis as slim as those on even today's mid-range LED sets.
Nevertheless, the GT60 is far from an ugly duckling. By plasma standard it's relatively slim at 42mm and the bezel around the screen isn't overly chunky at 26mm thick. What's more, the overall finish is very stylish thanks to the chrome metal trim running around the outer edge of the display and the slick brushed aluminium pedestal stand.
The remote is pretty similar to the zapper that Panasonic has been shipping with its TVs for a while now. It's long and slim with large buttons that feel very responsive. Panasonic has now added dedicated buttons for apps, the homescreen and the programme guide to the middle of the remote just above the direction pad, making navigation ever so slightly quicker.
The one downer with this model though, is that Panasonic has actually reduced, rather than increased, the number of HDMI ports available compared to last year's model. Whereas the GT50 had four HDMI ports, this one only has three. In fact, all of Panasonic's high-end screens will only have three HDMI ports this year. This is a puzzling decision seeing as we're connecting increasingly more HDMI kit up to our TVs than ever before, especially now that many smart phones and tablets output video over HDMI via their MHL ports.
The rear of the GT60 also houses a set of component inputs and there's an AV socket that you can connect a small breakout cable to. This allows you to hook up older set tops boxes or video players that use Scart connections.
Naturally there's an Ethernet socket on the rear too for the Internet functionality, but Wi-Fi is also built in. You get three USB ports, along with an SD card slot for playing back pictures, videos or music tracks. As this model has both Freeview HD and Freesat HD tuners, there are RF and satellite inputs on the rear. Overall it's a fairly decent lineup of ports, but it's still disappointing that the number of HDMI sockets has been cut back from four to three.
Right out of the box the pictures from the GT60 look simply stunning. Panasonic's picture presets are a cut above the rest, so you don't have to tweak them anywhere as much as you do as some other manufacturers' TVs in order to get great results.
It's impressive that Panasonic has once again managed to increase the brightness levels on its new generation of plasmas -- the GT60 is noticeably brighter than the older GT50. As a result, its images have more pop than last year's models, which is saying something as the GT50 was certainly no slouch in the picture quality department. It also means there's less of a brightness gap between this plasma and today's LEDs sets.
This extra brightness hasn't comes at the expense of its black level performance either. In fact the GT60's black levels are deeper than any plasma TV I've seen. The big gap between the brightest and darkest areas of the pictures also means that it's capable of producing some of the richest and most contrast-y looking images that you're likely to see anywhere.
Sharpness levels are absolutely top notch too, with movies from Blu-ray discs looking exceptionally crisp and clean. It's Hexa-processing engine does a great job of upscaling standard-definition pictures, so even the more heavily compressed channels on Freeview look respectable when blown up to the 42-inch screen size. The processing adds just the right amount of sharpness without amplifying picture noise or nasty MPEG artefacts too much.
The set's 30,720 graduation colour steps in conjunction with the picture processing have all but tamed false contouring (the steps between colour tones of a similar hue that you sometimes get on plasma screens). In fact you'll only see it very rarely on standard-definition footage. The set I had in for review also had no problems with banding.
Motion handling is traditionally a strength of plasmas compared to LCD and LED screens, but the GT60 really is an absolute top performer in this area, as even with fast pans it retails huge amount so detail where you'd get smearing on LED screens.
Plasma technology may not be long for this world because Panasonic is starting to focus on upcoming OLED screens instead, but the GT60 shows that for now it's still the technology to beat in terms of overall picture performance.
While the charms of 3D seem to be lost on most people these days, if you do want to put the specs on and step into the third dimension then the good news is that the GT60 really does put in a sterling performance here too.
The set comes with two pairs of Panasonic's active 3D glasses. Older active 3D glasses were quite large and heavy, but these ones are relatively small and light and as a result are more comfortable to wear. They're not quite as fatigue-free as passive 3D glasses, but the advantage is that you get a Full HD resolution delivered to each eye, so 3D pictures look exceptionally sharp.
The GT60's extra brightness helps too, as it counteracts the dimming effect of the glasses. This means even when you're watching in 3D, colours still have plenty of punch. Plus, the combination of the high brightness levels and sharp edge detail helps to enhance the feeling of depth in its 3D pictures.
Panasonic also gives you control over the depth setting so you can either push the 3D effect back into the screen, or pull it out towards you. It's best not to go too extreme with these settings though, as the results can be tiring on your eyes.
Panasonic's plasmas have traditionally had pretty good audio quality and the GT60 thankfully doesn't let the side down. The set has two downward-firing speakers built in to the front of the chassis, but there's also a mini subwoofer on the rear to help it out in the bass department. The result is that it sounds fatter and more full-bodied than most flat screens on the market today. This really helps it to put in a much more convincing performance with the likes of action movies, game shows and music channels.
Overall the GT60 is an excellent set. The smart TV system is a big improvement over what was available on last year's GT50, although Panasonic still need to add more content -- especially Lovefilm, ITV Player and 4oD -- in order to match what Samsung offers. The set is also attractively styled, has good sound quality and most importantly, produces the best pictures I've ever seen at this price level.