Panasonic TX-L42ET5B £750
16th Mar 2012 | 17:20
It's passive 3D, it's LCD, but it's still Panasonic
As arguably the biggest driving force behind full HD, 'active' 3D technology, you can understand why Panasonic has been so vocal with its attacks on LG's passive 3D alternative.
Why on earth, has argued Panasonic, would anyone want to buy a full HD TV only to then watch 3D on it at a reduced resolution?
So it's fair to say Panasonic's TX-L42ET5 comes as something of a shock. For the fact that it ships with no less than four pairs of cheapo, unpowered 3D glasses immediately alerts us to the fact that it's a passive 3D TV rather than the expected active one.
You couldn't really get a better barometer of just how much impact LG's passive 3D technology has had in the year since its launch.
That said, while Panasonic's brave/humbling (depending on your point of view) 3D move with the L42ET5 is certainly very significant, it must be said that the ET5 series is the only passive 3D TV series in Panasonic's expansive 2012 range, sitting alongside no less than seven active 3D TV series.
Furthermore, Panasonic has the ET5s positioned very much as its entry-level 3D LCD solutions. In fact, part of the reason Panasonic has turned to passive at this level of its range is the realisation that it's very hard to get a decent active 3D performance out of a cheap LCD panel.
The addition of a passive TV to its range is also, though, surely a recognition - however begrudging - of the convenience and affordability of the passive 3D experience. So from a consumer's point of view, being able to get Panasonic technology and operating systems married to passive as well as active 3D solutions seems like a very welcome expansion of choice from the Japanese brand.
Come to think of it, it might actually be nice if LG got off its passive 3D high horse for a bit and started to offer a few active 3D TVs among its LCD range as well!
The L42ET5's passive 3D 'headliner' is joined by the latest generation of Panasonic's Viera Connect online service, backed up by integrated Wi-Fi.
Joining the TX-L42ET5 are the 32-inch TX-L32ET5, the 37-inch TX-L37ET5, the 47-inch TX-L47ET5 and the 55-inch TX-L55ET5, while Panasonic's active 3D LCD options start with the rather similarly named ET50 series. These look set to cost around £200 more for each equivalent screen. But we'll be looking at those another day. For now it's time to find out just how good a job - or otherwise - Panasonic has made of its passive 3D debut.
For those of you who skipped the intro to this review (!), the single most important thing you need to know about the L42ET5 is that it uses passive 3D technology - a result in part of Panasonic apparently deciding that you just can't get a great active 3D performance out of a cheap, 100Hz LCD panel.
But also, while Panasonic might be understandably reluctant to admit it, cheapness isn't the only reason it's worthwhile having a passive 3D TV in your range. For the L42ET5 will surely also deliver on passive 3D's 'comfort' advantages.
These include being able to wear lighter-weight glasses; not having your eyes fatigued by the shuttering effect of active 3D glasses; not having to watch in near-darkness to minimise the 'flickering' issue you can get with active shutter technology; not having the picture's brightness and colour response as heavily affected by the glasses as they are with active 3D tech; suffering less crosstalk (double ghosting noise) than the majority of active 3D TVs; and finally not having to spend lots of extra cash on securing however many pairs of active shutter glasses you might need (as noted in the introduction, the L42ET5 ships with four pairs of passive 3D glasses included for free).
However, the L42ET5 will also, presumably, suffer with passive 3D's disadvantages. Namely the potential for visible horizontal line structure over 3D and even, occasionally, 2D images; a slightly softer look to HD 3D material; and the sudden appearance of scary amounts of crosstalk if you have to watch from an angle of more than 13 degrees above or below the screen.
Overall, though, there's no question that passives advantages are a strong draw to a certain, potentially large portion of the relatively casual TV marketplace. And experience with last year's passive 3D screens from LG would suggest that the L42ET5's 42-inch size is particularly well-suited to the passive format.
It probably hasn't escaped your notice that LG's name has cropped up a few times already in this review of a Panasonic TV. And we're going to do it again, as the panel at the heart of the L42ET5 is sourced from the Korean brand. Panasonic is not making its own passive 3D tech from scratch.
That said, the L42ET5 certainly tries hard to forge its own, Panasonic-inspired identity. This begins with its looks, which combine a grey, glass-finished bezel with a transparent outer trim to very attractive effect. In fact, the L42ET5 is arguably the best-looking flat TV Panasonic has ever launched.
Looking for other attractions of the L42ET5, it's well connected for an entry level 3D TV too. It's got four HDMIs for starters, but it's also a fount of multimedia support thanks to three USBs, a LAN port and, best of all, built-in Wi-Fi.
The USB ports support playback of a pretty good selection of music, video and photo file formats, and the TV can also be jacked into your network for streaming files off DLNA PCs. This being a Panasonic TV, there's additionally an SD card slot you can use for playing files directly off or for storing apps you download from Panasonic's app 'market'. More on this in a moment.
Heading into the L42ET5's menus, it's immediately clear that while the core panel might be from LG, everything else is Panasonic through and through. Highlight features include a colour management system that allows you to adjust the gain and 'cut off' of the red green and blue colour elements; five different gamma presets; optional noise reduction; and multiple 'strength' settings for Panasonic's proprietary Intelligent Frame Creation motion enhancement processing.
It's worth covering briefly the 300Hz claims made for the L42ET5's pictures - especially as these appear to fly in the face of the 'passive 3D is best on 100Hz TVs' issue discussed earlier. The reality, as with many other cheap TVs claiming very fast refresh rates, is that the '300Hz' figure is actually arrived at by combining a native 100Hz panel refresh rate with a four-times-per-second blinking backlight.
The last big feature to focus on is Panasonic's latest Viera Connect online service. After a slow start this started to show real signs of improvement towards the end of 2011, and for the most part the L42ET5 shows that Panasonic is continuing to move in the right direction.
For instance, the platform now features quite a few more video streaming sources, as the likes of AceTrax and the BBC iPlayer are joined by FetchTV, BBC News, Euronews, CNBC Real Time, iConcerts and, most importantly, NetFlix. It has to be said, though, that the appearance of this big new kid on the video streaming block does make the lack of Lovefilm on Viera Connect look very odd. Especially given that some of the new services - including Fetch TV - really don't have much quality content to their name right now.
Other notable services among the L42ET5's pre-installed apps are Skype (though you'll need to add an optional camera), Twitter, YouTube and Daily Motion.
You can also access more apps - as well as accessory hardware like keyboards, joysticks and (ironically) active 3D glasses - from Panasonic's Viera Connect Market. It's well worth looking through these 'optional' apps, actually, for there are some decent findings among them. Indeed, at the time of writing you had to track down (in the 'News' app category!) the TV's Web browser and manually install it before you can access the open Internet from the L42ET5.
Also in the market are apps for iFit and Withings, the former of which allows the TV to sync with iFit devices, while the latter allows you to feed your weight to the TV from special Wi-Fi Withings scales. More fitness applications are incoming too, such as being able to use Panasonic's latest TVs in conjunction with an optional extra treadmill that can co-ordinate with Google Earth so that you can jog down virtual streets anywhere in the world.
Panasonic is promising Disney books and MySpace for later in the year too. And actually, these future services can't come soon enough really. For while much of the content on Viera Connect is of a respectable quality, a bit more of it would certainly be nice.
It's worth adding, moreover, that the ET5 series doesn't enjoy the dual-core processors found on Panasonic's flagship TVs for 2012, meaning the set won't support app multi-tasking.
The L42ET5's picture quality promises to be more interesting than most thanks to the set's marriage of core LG passive 3D technology with Panasonic's own processing and presentation systems. Hopefully it will deliver the best of both worlds rather than ending up feeling like a marriage of inconvenience.
Starting with those all-important passive 3D images, the L42ET5 happily provides another mostly very positive outing for the technology. Watching a variety of 3D content, from the animated likes of the excellent Tangled to the video delights of the vastly over-rated Avatar, the L42ET5 delivers a consistently natural, unfatiguing, reasonably deep 3D picture that's largely free of crosstalk and completely free of active 3D's flickering issues, even if you watch it in broad daylight.
The passive glasses knock less brightness and colour out of 3D images than active shutter ones do too, reinforcing the sense of passive 3D's advantage if you generally find yourself watching TV in bright room conditions. The extra dynamism is particularly helpful when rendering dark scenes, especially when compared with how 3D plasmas operate.
It's also nice, of course, that a four-strong family can all watch 3D without you having to fork out extra cash for more glasses.
Video enthusiasts able to dim the lights for serious 3D viewing, though, should be aware that the L42ET5's passive 3D pictures do not look as sharp or 'HD' as those of even Panasonic's 2011 active 3D TVs. Anyone thinking of mounting their new TV up high on a wall should note as well that crosstalk levels balloon from practically none to dire the moment your vertical viewing angle gets beyond around 13 degrees.
Also potentially disturbing is the appearance over some content - mostly expanses of light colour or the edges of bright objects - of horizontal line structure, caused by the polarising filter applied to the screen's front.
Before anyone gets too discombobulated about this, though, the problem really isn't very aggressive, so long as you're watching from a sensible viewing distance. The relatively demure size of the screen helps hide the negative impact of the filter too, making it much less noticeable than it tends to be on larger passive 3D screens.
Balancing up all the pros and cons of the L42ET5's 3D performance, the good stuff definitely wins out so long as you're not the sort of AV enthusiast who expects your 3D performance to look quite as detailed and crisp as your 2D HD Blu-rays.
Talking of 2D HD, this too looks rather good on the L42ET5. Whether it's a Freeview HD feed from the built-in tuner, a Sky HD feed or a Blu-ray, the set does a very respectable job for its money of reproducing both the detailing and the colour information in the images aggressively yet accurately.
It helps in this respect that the screen is only very slightly troubled by the sort of motion blurring that's common with most brands of LCD TV. And what little blur there is can be reduced by judicious use of Panasonic's Intelligent Frame Creation processing. By judicious, we mean you should take care not to use it on its highest power setting, as while this completely eradicates blur and, especially, judder, it also causes a few distracting side effects with fast-moving footage, and generally makes film footage look more like video footage.
It's gratifying to see, too, that dark scenes don't suffer with the sort of backlight consistency issues noted with some of LG's passive 3D TVs - and many other edge LED TVs besides. In fact, so uniform do the dark parts of dark scenes look on the L42ET5 - so long as you avoid the set's Dynamic preset, at any rate - that it's easy to forget that the TV is using edge LED technology.
What's even better about this is that the TV still delivers a fair approximation of a true black colour. Sure, there's a very slight grey mist over the very darkest parts of pictures that you wouldn't get with a good plasma or direct LED TV. But this certainly doesn't prevent the picture from still looking dynamic during dark sequences, and nor is it bad enough to 'hide' the sort of shadow details that give dark scenes a sense of 'space'.
If you were being really picky, you might say that the L42ET5's colours sometimes lack a little finesse in HD mode, leaving some areas looking slightly plasticky. But overall there's not much to complain about considering the set resides fairly low down Panasonic's new range.
The L42ET5's relative affordability does become more troublingly apparent, though, when you're watching standard definition. For this tends to look rather soft compared with the upscaled images you might expect to see from some other LCD TVs.
This might have been easier to live with if the soft tone had been used to hide noise in standard def sources, but actually the L42ET5 slightly exaggerates source noise rather than 'smoothing it away'.
Even the screen's colour response takes a hit with standard definition, with the range of tones on display looking somehow less extreme than with HD sources. Odd - but a phenomenon we're familiar with from some LG TVs, funnily enough.
There's one more area where the L42ET5 suffers from its LG roots too, and that's input lag. Too long a delay between a source signal arriving at a TV's inputs and the picture appearing on the screen clearly has the potential to harm a keen gamer's performance, and the 75+ms input lag measured at times from the L42ET5 clearly constitutes a potentially problematic level of delay. Similar figures were routinely recorded from LG TVs last year, whereas Panasonic's own-built LCD TVs never went higher than a much more manageable 40ms.
Sound, value and ease of use
Ease of use
The L42ET5 keeps you on your toes in usability terms, being brilliantly simple in some areas but a little less thoughtful in others.
For instance, when it comes to the Vera Connect menus, the main menu is problematic. It looks attractive enough, and is very readable. But its insistence on using very large icons means you don't get many services onscreen at once, leaving you having to delve down through multiple layers of further onscreen menus to get to all of the services available.
You can, to be fair, choose the order the service icons appear on these menu 'layers', but it's still a rather cumbersome approach that will only become more long-winded as more services come online.
The Viera Marketplace, on the other hand, is more or less exemplary in its structure, using more sensibly sized options, and providing well thought-through tools and shortcuts for streamlining your experience. The only annoyance is the tedious need to input all your personal and credit card details using the remote control so you're ready to buy apps. This kind of stuff is never going to be much fun on a TV, but we couldn't help but feel that Panasonic could have included some more text input assistants to make the process less of a ball ache.
In terms of Panasonic's standard operational menus, these look reasonably approachable thanks to the introduction of a few basic icons here and there. However, there's still no denying that the rather low-resolution look to proceedings is a country mile away from the HD delights of Samsung's latest onscreen menu system.
Turning to the L42ET5's remote, there was a time when Panasonic's remote control design was as good as it got in the TV world. But it's starting to show its age now, looking and feeling a bit cluttered, and not providing the best 'weighting' for different application buttons. Essentially it feels as if the extra functions on today's Panasonic TVs have been shoehorned onto pre-existing button layouts rather than Panasonic coming up with a new remote design that really reflects the different way people use their TVs these days.
That said, at least the remote feels nicely weighted and well built, and its buttons are large and responsive.
Panasonic has done a very respectable job of getting a decent audio performance out of the L42ET5 when you consider how slim and affordable it is. There's a reasonably open feeling to the midrange, which lets voices sound realistic and helps action scenes avoid sounding too harsh or thin. Detail levels are high too, and the soundstage is impressively wide.
Bass feels a touch forced and doesn't really venture very low down the frequency response scale, but this is hardly rare in the flat TV world. Overall the L42ET5's sound provides a satisfying accompaniment to its 42-inch pictures.
While the £998 price for which the L42ET5 is selling on Panasonic's website is a bit steep, the £750 price tag it's being sold for elsewhere seems about right all things considered.
Last year's LG 42-inch LW550T passive 3D model is slightly cheaper at around £700 from most mainstream retailers, but with the new L42ET5 you're getting a more stable and friendly online platform as well as Panasonic's superior picture processing. Panasonic's TV looks a bit better too.
As the first TV from Panasonic's 2012 range, the L42ET5 is nothing if not unexpected. As little as a year ago a passive 3D model from the brand would have been unthinkable, and the fact that the L42ET5 is an LED rather than plasma model is perhaps significant too, in that it introduces us to the idea that in 2012 Panasonic seems to be putting its LCD TVs on a more or less even footing with its plasma TVs for the first time.
Also a surprise for Panasonic is how attractive the L42ET5 looks. Design hasn't been a great area of success for the Japanese brand in recent years, but the L42ET5 is really quite pretty.
The L42ET5 offers some decent features for its money, too. For on top of the passive 3D tech, you get a full HD resolution, edge LED lighting, DLNA networking, USB file playback, and access to the latest version of Panasonic's mostly satisfying Viera Connect online platform.
Crucially the L42ET5 is a mostly good picture and sound performer too. Its 3D pictures are bright, colourful, full of depth, and very relaxing and natural to watch, while its HD 2D pictures are crisp, dynamic and bold.
Its standard definition pictures aren't the best, but provided you can stick with HD as much as possible (the set does have a Freeview HD tuner, after all) and don't mind a little lost resolution with your 3D pictures, the L42ET5 is an extremely enjoyable TV.
Unusually for a Panasonic TV the L42ET5 is a very attractive set, with a pretty but slender frame around its screen. There's also much to like about its Viera Connect online functionality, now that Panasonic has added more video streaming services and improved some aspects of its interface. The TV's 3D performance, meanwhile, is relaxing and engaging, and it's great to get four pairs of glasses included free. Finally, HD pictures are clean, sharp and dynamic.
The L42ET5's standard definition pictures are a little softer and noisier than they would ideally be. You can also sometimes see horizontal line structure over 3D images - especially if you're sat close to the screen - and crosstalk with 3D becomes excessive if your vertical viewing angle is more than around 13 degrees. Finally, a little more content on Viera Connect would be appreciated, and input lag might prove aggravating to serious gamers.
The L42ET5 is perhaps a rather strange choice as Panasonic's debut TV of 2012. But while it might not be very representative of where Panasonic's TV heart lies, it does establish that the brand is willing to think out of its comfort zone if commercial realities and consumer choice demand it.
What's more, the set has got a well developed and stable online service, and performs rather well for the majority of the time, combining a very watchable 3D performance with an impressive 2D HD experience.
Given that the TX-L42ET5 is built around an LG passive 3D panel, the most obvious alternative to it would be the equivalent model from LG's own passive 3D range. With LG's 2012 TVs still waiting in the wings, the closest current LG model would be the 42LW550T. This can now be found for under £600 if you shop around - a cool £150 cheaper than the best price currently available for the Panasonic L42ET5.
However, the Panasonic benefits from the latest generation of the brand's image processing and online capabilities, as well as looking prettier - advantages which potentially nullify the LG's age-based price advantage.
If you would prefer an active 3D option to the L42ET5's passive proposition, your best bet would probably be Toshiba's 46TL868. Despite costing under £600 from some online retailers, this offers a 46-inch screen to go with its active 3D talents, as well as a startlingly slim bezel that helps it fit into the sort of space normally occupied by 42-inch TVs.
Its 2D picture quality is very good considering the TV's price too, but there are compromises to be aware of. First, Toshiba's online services are pretty underwhelming versus those of Panasonic's new TVs. Second, you don't get any 3D glasses included for free with the 46TL868, with each pair you need costing £50-£60. Finally, while 3D pictures are exceptionally detailed and 'HD', they do suffer with quite a lot of crosstalk ghosting noise.
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