The 42-inch, 1080p Viera TX-L42E3B is the entry-level model in Panasonic's line-up of LED TVs. It's very slim, but also quite light on extras, lacking the 200Hz processing and Internet-streaming features found in the company's E30 range. Still, the TV is relatively cheap for a 42-inch LED model. It's available online for around £500.
LG, Samsung and Sony have done tonnes of work on their user interfaces to make them look slicker, and Panasonic is lagging behind. This set has very boring, static menus that make little use of graphical icons or colour. What you're left with is long lists of text options set against a blue background. They couldn't be much more visually unappealing. That said, the menus are pretty easy to navigate, and you're given a decent level of control over picture and audio settings.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the electronic programme guide, Panasonic is sticking firmly with the unpopular Guide Plus+ system. The main issue we have with this is that there are large blocks reserved for adverts on the left-hand side of the screen, which take up value screen space and leave less space for showing programme information. The EPG also looks quite ugly and cramped in comparison to that of Sony and Samsung's TVs.
Nevertheless, the EPG is easy to navigate using the chunky remote control and its traditional bricks-in-the-wall layout means you can compare what's coming up on different channels at a glance.
If you peek around the back of the TX-L42E3B, you'll find an Ethernet port, but the set makes very little use of it. In fact, it's only really there to allow you to update the TV's firmware over your Internet connection if an update becomes available. There are sadly no Internet video services supported, and the telly doesn't have any media-streaming features either.
Another downer is that Panasonic hasn't included a USB port -- something that's becoming increasingly common on even budget, own-brand models from the likes of Tesco and Dixons.
What you do get is a side-mounted SD card slot. Call up the media player menu and you can view simple slide shows of JPEG pictures, listen to MP3 music tracks or watch videos recorded on Panasonic cameras and camcorders in the AVC or MP4 formats. Sadly, other common movie formats, like Xvid and MKV, aren't supported. This is disappointing, as these formats are now supported on similarly priced sets from rival manufacturers like LG and Samsung. In terms of digital media support, the TX-L42E3B is left standing in the corner, wearing the dunce hat.
Thankfully, Panasonic has upped its game when it comes to the design of its latest generation of TVs. Last year's models were duller than dishwater, but the TX-L42E3B has a much sharper and classier look. The bezel around the screen is reasonably narrow and finished in glossy black, while the bottom section features a brushed-metallic strip that runs from edge to edge and helps to add interest to the design. The TV's not a total head-turner, but it's a huge improvement on previous designs.
Whereas most 42-inch tellies now come with four HDMI ports, the E3 makes do with just three, so it's probably not the best option for those with loads of HD kit that they need to hook up. Two of the HDMI ports are mounted on the rear next to the Scart socket and component inputs. The rear is also home to an optical audio output for running audio from the Freeview HD tuner to an external amp or surround-sound set-up. Next to this, there's the VGA port, as well as the Ethernet port.
On the left-hand edge, you'll find the third HDMI port, along with the composite input and the CI slot, which may come in useful for the pay TV services that are now available on Freeview. Overall, it's not a bad line-up of connections by budget TV standards, but certainly an extra HDMI input would have been appreciated and the lack of a USB port is disappointing.
LED TVs are pretty notorious for having flat and tinny audio. Their thin designs may look the business in your front room, but the limited amount of space available in the chassis means that most of them only include tiny speaker drivers that just can't muster much in the way of bass. Granted, many people will get around the issue by twinning their set with a surround-sound system, but not everyone has the space for a full surround-sound set-up in their front room.
Thankfully, Panasonic is one of the few manufacturers that has actually gone out of its way to improve the audio on its LED screens. Although this set's panel is very thin, at just 41mm, it bulges out at the bottom to 75mm, creating extra room for the speakers. The results are excellent.
This model produces much deeper bass than most rival TVs. The extra bass helps it deliver a warmer, fuller sound that's more pleasing to the ear. Dialogue is also impressively centred and crisp, and even music comes across with considerable punch.
There are a few settings that you can play with in the audio menu, too. For example, along with the usual bass and treble controls, there's a fairly decent virtual surround-sound mode that adds extra width to the stereo image without muddying the centre dialogue channel, as sometimes happens with these types of virtual surround modes. The TV also includes an auto gain control that can help to stop the jump in volume that you sometimes have to suffer when TV shows move to an ad break or when you skip from one channel to another.
Unusually, whereas the 32-inch model in the E3 range has an IPS-Alpha panel, this model uses a standard IPS panel. The big benefit of IPS-Alpha panels is that they offer a wider-than-usual viewing angle, so the use of standard IPS technology on this set is noticeable, as there's a slight shift in the colours and contrast at extreme viewing angles.
Also, the TX-L42E3B has pretty rudimentary picture-processing skills. It uses Panasonic's older and less impressive V-Real Plus picture-processing engine, rather than the V-Real Live system found on the E30 range.
The TX-L42E3B also lacks the E30 range's 200Hz engine, so you're left with just 50Hz processing. The telly lacks Panasonic's Intelligent Frame Creation technology too. The lack of motion processing can be quite evident when you're watching footage with plenty of quick pans, such as footy matches or action sequences in movies, as the set only has a motion resolution of 300 lines.
The TV does have a number of plus points, though. The LED backlighting helps it to produce really impressive black levels for a set in this price range. Also, the backlight remains very consistent across the whole image, which isn't something we can always say about LED models.
Contrast performance is fairly good too, so dark and dingy scenes in movies retain shadow detail rather than descending into a mess of black. Colours can also looks very punchy, but most impressive is their warmth, which adds to the cinematic feel when watching movies.
The TX-L42E3B's not bad at upscaling standard-definition pictures from DVDs or the Freeview tuner either. On the downside, HD images lack some of the sharpness we've come to expect from Panasonic's TVs.
Overall, the Panasonic Viera TX-L42E3B is an accomplished set that delivers good-quality pictures, with rich colours and deeper blacks than we'd expect at this price point. Its audio is also significantly better than that of most rivals. But it's disappointing that it lacks a USB port for media playback, and you're likely to notice some motion blur creeping in now and again.
Edited by Charles Kloet