Panasonic's cheaper plasma TVs often have many of the best features found in its pricier VT and GT ranges, and that's definitely the case with the 42-inch TX-P42UT50B.
You can buy it for as little as £570 online, even though it uses the G15 panel seen on Panasonic's highly-rated plasmas that cost twice or three times the price. It also serves up the same Viera Cast smart TV system for streaming shows online.
User interface and EPG
The weakest elements of Panasonic's TVs have for some time been the menu system and electronic programme guide (EPG). Unfortunately, nothing has changed on the TX-P42UT50B. It has exactly the same menus as other models in Panasonic's range including the ST50 and GT50 TVs. It looks very dated and relies on static screens that simply list options as yellow text on a blue background.
On the plus side, the menus are straightforward to navigate as they're logically laid out, so it's easy to find stuff like the tuning menu and picture settings. As with the high-end models in Panasonic's range, by default, the picture settings are limited to the basic controls including contrast, brightness, colour and sharpness. This helps make picture tweaking as easy as possible for non-techies.
There's also an Advanced mode that you can turn on via the main menu, which opens up extra controls, such as RGB gain settings, that you can use for more advanced calibration of the TV.
Sadly, the EPG is the same story as the menus. It looks rather dated and a tad ugly, but at least the text is large enough to be comfortably read form a distance. The EPG still lacks a TV thumbnail window and cuts off all audio when you open it, so it intrudes on your viewing more than it should. At least we can bid farewell to the web-style adverts that used to take up space on the EPGs of older models.
Design and connections
Plasma screens are never going to rival the sleek looks of today's best LED TVs, as the technology dictates that cases need to be a little deeper. The TX-P42UT50B is a little chunky as its chassis measures around 63mm deep and the bezel is on the wide size at 35mm, but it's certainly not ugly.
Panasonic has added a good-looking Perspex lip around the edge of the bezel and there's an attractive angled chrome panel running along the bottom edge of the display. It's a sophisticated package, especially when you consider the low price tag.
The set comes with Panasonic's standard remote control, which is no bad thing. The remote is long and slim and has large, hard plastic buttons that are smartly laid out, so those for the TV's main features are always within easy reach of your thumb.
As this TV shares many of the features of Panasonic's higher-end models, the company has had to artificially knobble it to make it a slightly less attractive option. One way it's done this is by restricting the number of ports. Despite the fact Panasonic's own budget 32-inch TX-L32X5B comes with three HDMI ports, the TX-P42UT50B only has two. Pretty much every other 42-inch TV that I review these days has four.
There is a set of component video connectors that you can use to hook up a third piece of HD gear, but the paucity of HDMI ports will still be a problem for many of you, forcing you to opt for the more expensive ST50, which is presumably Panasonic's plan. The set lacks composite and VGA connectors too, further limiting the range of devices you can plug in.
On the networking front, there's an Ethernet socket on the rear, but sadly no on-board Wi-Fi, although it can be added as an option. There are also two side-mounted USB ports, as well as an SD card slot.
Video file playback
Just like the high-end models in the range, the TX-P42UT50B supports Panasonic's Viera Cast smart TV platform. This includes quite a few video on-demand services, such as BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Acetrax and Blinkbox. There are plenty of news and information services, inluding AccuWeather and Associated Press, plus the BBC news and sports apps, which are well worth installing.
There's a full web browser, which has limited support for video. Some videos on sites work but many don't. Anyway, the browser is painful to control via the standard remote. If you download Panasonic's app for Android or iOS devices, you can 'catch and throw' web pages from the app to the TV, although it's still clunky -- less catch and throw, more fling and hope.
Viera Cast is losing ground to some manufacturers' smart TV offerings, most notably Samsung, which now offers Lovefilm and ITV Player -- two services that are missing here. On the plus side, there are Facebook and Twitter apps, as well as a combined social networking app that overlays feeds from these two services onto the programme you're watching.
If you hook a hard drive or big enough USB memory key up to one of the USB ports, you also get some rudimentary video recorder features. You can pause live TV or record shows to disc. Timers are easy to set up as you just select the programmes you want to record in the EPG, much as you do on a standard personal video recorder. But there's only one tuner, so you can't watch a channel while recording another.
Panasonic has improved the media player built into this TV so it now has better support for video formats. I tried Xvid, MP4, WMV and MKV HD files and most player, but not all. Some of the MKV HD files refused to work, for example.
Panasonic has made a hash of the audio on its budget LED sets. Models such as the TX-L32X5B and TX-L55ET5B suffer from hollow and indistinct audio that really blunts their desirability. Thankfully, sound quality on this year's plasma models has been excellent across the range, and the TX-P42UT50B is no different.
The speakers deliver really rounded audio with decent levels of bass and a tight, focused mid-range. Everything from daytime fare like soaps to bombastic action movies sound as good as you're likely to get from a flatscreen TV.
2D picture quality
Right out of the box, the TX-P42UT50B produces very impressive picture quality. In fact, I'd go so far as to say there's no other TV in this price bracket that performs better. In darker rooms, at least, black levels are almost as good as Panasonic's own ST50 and GT50 models, and contrast performance is excellent. It really is very strong at picking out tricky shadow detail in darker areas of the pictures in a way that the vast majority of budget TVs aren't.
It also excels with colour, producing warm, vibrant hues and believable skin tones. You do see a very small amount of false contouring now and again (where colours step between hues rather than gradating naturally), but it's quite rare and not all that distracting when it does happen. Upscaling of standard-definition content is first-rate and motion handling is very impressive. HD films on Blu-ray look absolutely fantastic, thanks to the crisp sharpness of the images.
There is a caveat. The TX-P42UT50B lacks the Infinite Black Pro filter found on the ST50, which helps to stop light reflecting from the screen. So you have to be careful where you place the TV. If it's near a window with daylight streaming through, apparent black levels drop off significantly and you'll see a lot of reflections from the glass surface. As such, it's at its best when viewed in the evening, rather than during the day.
3D picture quality
Unsurprisingly, given the price, the TX-P42UT50B doesn't come with 3D specs. You'll need to buy active 3D glasses, which will set you back around £40 to £50 a pair. If you have a large family and want to be able to watch 3D films as a group, one of LG's passive 3D sets -- which require very cheap cinema-style glasses -- would be a better option.
That said, the TX-P42UT50B is no 3D slouch. Some crosstalk (or image ghosting) creeps in now and again, but it's not all that distracting and 3D images have impressive levels of depth and sharpness. If I were to really nitpick, I'd say the 3D pictures could be a little brighter and the glasses are a smidgen too heavy to be totally comfortable. But on the whole, it's a reasonably strong performer when it comes to the third dimension.
Not everyone will be able to live with the TX-P42UT50B's two main weaknesses -- only two HDMI ports and a very reflective screen when viewed during daylight hours. But if you can put up with these issues, you'll find the TV delivers just about the best overall picture quality you'll see from a budget set.