Panasonic's plasmas have earned an enviable reputation for picture quality, and its latest models claim to improve things even further, upping the brightness while simultaneously improving black levels.
The Viera TX-P42ST50B is my first chance to check out whether this is true. Priced at around £950 online, this TV sits below the VT50 and GT50 models in Panasonic's line-up of 3D plasma sets, and above the entry-level UT50.
User interface and EPG
The menu system that Panasonic uses on its TVs badly needs to be updated to bring it into line with more modern offerings from the likes of Sony, LG and Samsung. The bad news is that Panasonic has told me this isn't going to happen until its next generation of TVs.
There are some updates on last year's models but they're mere tweaks. The menus remain dull and dated. Most simply consist of white or yellow text against a blue background, with minimal use of graphics.
At least the electronic programme guide (EPG) has finally been overhauled to remove the web-style adverts that used to clog up the screen. If you pop into the set-up menu, you can now also choose between three layouts for the EPG.
The 'Normal' mode shows seven channels' worth of data at a time, the 'Full' option displays 10, while 'Info' has five channels, but adds a programme description box at the bottom of the screen. While this is welcome, it's still annoying that you lose all sound and video when you use the EPG, as there's no video thumbnail window.
Digital media and Internet features
The TX-P42ST50B is a smart TV so it comes loaded with Panasonic's Viera Connect Internet service. The set is powered by a single-core processor rather than the dual-core chips found in the higher-end VT50 and GT50 models. As a result, it doesn't feel quite as quick as those models when you're navigating around the Viera Connect menus.
It does benefit from the updates that Panasonic has made to the Viera Connect system though. There's more content, including a welcome Netflix app, although sadly Lovefilm is still not supported. The YouTube app has been updated with the 'lean-back' interface that's designed for use on a telly.
Along with the full Facebook and Twitter apps is Social TV, which shows tweets and status updates in a window while you're watching TV. You can even now download a full web browser for free from the Connect store, although sadly it doesn't support Adobe Flash and still seems a tad buggy as it crashed a number of times on me. Naturally, the old stalwarts remain, such as BBC iPlayer, Dailymotion, AceTrax and Aupeo.
The Connect interface remains unchanged from last year. It's relatively easy to use, but the 3D-layers approach used on the design of the home screen makes moving around pages of apps sluggish. The system lacks some of the visual flair you get on Samsung and LG's smart TVs and the range of apps is also less impressive. It's still better than what you'll find on sets from Toshiba and Philips though.
This model has a built-in media player that can playback files across a network or locally, either from SD cards or USB drives. Playback quality is excellent and the range of formats supported is good. I had no problem playing a number of Xvid and MKV HD video files, for example. The TV even supports downmixing of DTS soundtracks to stereo.
As with last year's, you can record Freeview programmes directly to USB drives. However, drives have to be formatted first before they can work with the set and recordings are locked to the TV -- they can't be played back on other devices, which is annoying.
Design and connections
Last year's Panasonic plasma models may have offered very good picture quality, but their dull designs left a lot to be desired. Thankfully, this year's models are much better lookers. Panasonic has taken a leaf out of the LG design handbook as the styling bears a striking resemblance to last year's LG sets.
The main similarity is the transparent lip around the outer edge of the bezel -- something that's been a trademark of LG's designs for a while. This 'crystal' edging, along with the narrowness of the bezel and general slimness of the chassis, makes for a relatively handsome-looking telly.
The remote has received a makeover. It now has a glossy coating on the front and a more aggressive, angular look. The buttons are no longer hard black plastic, but are instead made from soft white rubber that allows the new red backlight to shine through.
Panasonic has rejigged the location of the connectors, compared to last year's ST30. All three of the HDMI ports are mounted on a panel on the left-hand side, whereas two of these used to be found on the rear. The full-sized Scart socket and component inputs have been removed, probably because the chassis is slimmer. You have to connect up Scart and component devices using small break-out cables. There is an optical output to feed audio from the onboard Freeview HD tuner to a surround sound amp.