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With its plain black bezel, the TH-P50U30A does nothing to stir the pent-up emotion within us, but it also does nothing to offend. The only stylistic embellishments are the triangular cut-outs on the bottom corners, and a hint of silver colouring around the Panasonic logo.
The U30A comes equipped with the same remote that does service on the rest of the Panasonic range, and works well enough. Accordingly, the menu structure is a carbon copy of that seen in other 2011 models — in summary, it does its job without being too flash.
Despite the low price, the U30A isn't left wanting for too much as far as its spec-sheet goes. At the back of the U30A, you'll find two HDMI ports, a set of component and composite inputs, an Ethernet port, a D-Sub VGA input and both digital and analog audio outputs.
To the side are the TV's physical controls, an extra HDMI input, two USB ports, an SD/SDHC/SDXC card slot, a headphone jack and a set of composite inputs. The unit's two 10W speakers provide a passable amount of fidelity. We were able to turn the volume up to the point where it filled our not-inconsiderably sized testing space without descending into a haze of fizz and crackle.
Via the Ethernet port or an optional USB wireless dongle, the U30A can connect to a DLNA media server. It can also view JPEG pictures and play music, as well as DivX and MKV movies stored on USB drives. Image quality on these highly compressed video formats is good, but if you quit playback part way through and then resume later, the file won't resume where you left off.
You can't buy a new Porsche for the price of a Yaris, and in the world of TV it's no different with the P50U30A. Even well away from the electricity grid, the screen has a pale, washed-out look in a lit room. Instead of being a resounding shade of black, the plasma screen is more of an alarming mid grey.
Consequently, images are bleached of their natural colour and warmth if the screen is being used in a room with either natural or artificial lighting. Compounding this failing, the glass screen is highly reflective, and its fondness for impersonating a mirror is rather distracting.
Close the curtains and flick the lights off, and things improve immeasurably. Gone, naturally, are the annoying reflections. Blacks are — well, black — and colour, contrast and brightness can all be set to a reasonable resemblance of reality.
Given its bang-for-buck factor, it seems almost petty to criticise the unit's image quality, but quibble we must. Viewed in isolation, and in something approaching pitch black, the U30A is decent, if not outstanding.
Placed side by side with the older and considerably more expensive VT20, it's obvious that there's more artefacting when watching high-def sport, such as Formula One. In detailed and relatively static scenes, there's a certain softness to the U30A, allied with a noticeable lack of smoothness in many panning or high-action situations. A higher level of graininess is evident in often poorly lit realms of, say, Gotham City.
Unlike many modern plasmas, the TH-P50U30A craves a darkened room like a foodie does a 12-course degustation. That's the compromise you make if you want a 50-inch plasma screen for a shade under AU$1100.