Panasonic TX-P42GT50 £1200
15th Aug 2012 | 09:06
Another day, another outstanding Panasonic plasma TV
Panasonic's flagship VT50 plasma TVs are setting new picture standards this year, at least for people with a penchant for dimming the lights for serious film nights. However, the VT50 televisions are also tantalisingly beyond the financial reach of many AV punters.
Which is where the step-down GT50 series comes in, as represented here by the 42-inch Panasonic Viera TX-P42GT50. The GT50 TVs strip away a few of the fancier features of the VT50s while still using at their heart the very latest - and easily greatest - version of Panasonic's plasma panel technology.
The key features the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 doesn't have that the VT50s do include Panasonic's most high-contrast Infinite Black Ultra filter; a second touchpad remote for easier on-screen web surfing; and recording from the built-in tuners to SD cards (though you can still record to USB HDDs).
Before you get too despondent about any of this, though, the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 also shares plenty of features with its illustrious sibling besides the new ultra-efficient, black level-boosting plasma panel design already mentioned. It's 3D-ready for starters, and also sports Panasonic's Viera Connect online service.
It shares, too, the Panasonic VT50's endorsement by the independent THX quality assurance group, and carries an impressively wide range of connections, including four HDMIs, three USBs and an SD card slot.
Dual-core processing in the £1,200 (around $1,880) Panasonic TX-P42GT50 means you can enjoy multitasking while using the TV's online features and apps, and its Infinite Black Pro screen design still delivers an enormous 5,500,000:1 native - repeat, native - claimed contrast ratio.
Also in the GT50 range is the excellent 50-inch Panasonic TX-P50GT50, available for around £1,400 (about $2,200). In terms of alternatives to the Panasonic GT50 series, if money's no object to you, then you'll probably want to step up to the VT50 series. However, there's no 42-inch VT50; the VT50s start at 50 inches.
Elsewhere, if you want a passive 3D LCD TV, there's the LG 42LW550T. Or for an active 3D alternative, there's the Sony 40HX853 or the Samsung UE40ES7000. We'll discuss these rivals in more detail on the Verdict page.
The Panasonic TX-P42GT50 is very well specified indeed for a 42-inch TV - as you would expect given its fairly steep £1,200 (around $1,880) asking price.
Its design is robust in the extreme for starters, and looks quite glamorous in some ways, thanks to its glinting black finish offset by a tasteful metallic trim that runs around all of its edges. The only problem is that - as usual with plasma TVs - the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 isn't anywhere near as slim and lightweight as the majority of Edge LED TVs - including Panasonic's own DT50 and WT50 series.
Connections are prodigious. The usual AV stuff is all present and correct of course, including four v1.4 HDMIs and a component video port. But these stalwarts are joined by a raft of multimedia bits and bobs, most notably three USBs, an SD card slot, and both a LAN port and integrated Wi-Fi.
The USBs can be used for playing back a solid mix of video, photo and music files from USB storage devices, or for recording video to USB HDD from the TV's Freeview and Freesat HD tuners. The SD card slot can play back the same file formats from SD cards as the USBs can, though unlike the VT50 TVs, you can't record video to SD on the Panasonic TX-P42GT50.
The LAN/Wi-Fi options predictably have two main functions. First they enable you to stream multimedia files stored on a networked DLNA PC to the TV. Second, they enable you to take the TV online with Panasonic's Viera Connect service.
This service has come a long way since its earliest days, and now offers a fairly strong selection of video streaming platforms (the services we still consider to be the most important where online features on a TV are concerned).
The best of the options on offer here are Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Eurosport, BBC News, YouTube and Acetrax - though it's still a shame there's no sign of either Lovefilm or any of the other mainstream channel catch-up services (ITV Player, 4oD or Demand 5).
Social media is supported through Twitter, Facebook and Picasa apps, meanwhile, with Myspace 'overlaid' content also supposedly arriving before the year is out.
There are a few information apps too, along with a pretty wide selection of games. While many of these games are of the same basic standard as those on other manufacturers' online TV services, there are a couple - Asphalt 5 and Let's Golf 2 - that deliver an experience more akin to a games console than a TV gaming platform. You can even play these with other players online. Impressive.
Panasonic's online service is also commendable for delivering the first and still most fully formed online marketplace, from which you can buy hardware (keyboards, joysticks, 3D glasses and even, in the future, a treadmill and weighing scales) as well as premium software apps.
Anyone who's played with the online services of LG, Samsung and Sony will quickly realise that Viera Connect isn't as packed with content as rival platforms. But its infrastructure is strong, and with features such as Disney Books and Myspace waiting in the wings, its content levels can only improve.
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Shifting our attentions to the specification of the Panasonic TX-P42GT50's panel, the first thing to say is that it's a Full HD affair. This wouldn't normally be too significant by today's TV standards, but Panasonic remains the only manufacturer offering a Full HD (1920 x 1080) pixel count in a 42-inch plasma screen. Fitting that many plasma cells into such a relatively small area really isn't easy, it would seem.
The screen also boasts a 5,500,000:1 contrast ratio, thanks to a combination of plasma's innate advantages in this area and the application of Panasonic's Infinite Black Pro technology, which uses a proprietary filter design in the screen to boost black level response.
To underline just how important this could be, the huge 5,500,000:1 contrast ratio claim is a native, constant figure, rather than a figure only created by dynamically dimming and boosting the brightness based on an assessment of the image content, as happens with LCD. This means that dark scenes don't require their bright elements to sacrifice luminance in order to produce a credible black colour.
The Panasonic TX-P42GT50's pictures should also benefit from the set's dual-core processing. Motion and image stability should be enhanced, for instance, by the onboard 2,500Hz Focused Sub-Field Drive system, while noise reduction and rescaling engines should deliver slightly more accurate results, thanks to the processing power the TV has at its disposal.
Also impressing on the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 is the amount of flexibility provided when it comes to fine-tuning its pictures. This extends to gamma and colour management, and control over almost all of the TV's picture processing elements.
If you feel a bit daunted by all the options on offer, though, then there's a healthy selection of picture presets, including a couple put together by THX. Or, if you're feeling flush, you can call in an accredited Imaging Science Foundation engineer to come round to your house and professionally calibrate the TV to suit your own individual viewing conditions.
The last thing to discuss on the Panasonic TX-P42GT50's spec sheet is its 3D playback. This is of the active Full HD variety, and includes 2D to 3D conversion. However, please note that unlike the Panasonic VT50 TVs, the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 doesn't ship with any 3D glasses included as standard.
As a quick addition to this point, the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 also doesn't ship with the second touchpad remote you get with the VT50 models. But given how uninspired this second handset is, we can't say we found ourselves missing it much.
With Panasonic's VT50 and ST50 plasma series televisions delivering gorgeous premium picture quality and amazing value for money respectively, there was a question mark over whether the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 could really justify its position between the two - a question mark writ larger by the fact that Panasonic is distributing the GT50 series relatively quietly, through independent channels rather than putting it into the usual high street suspects.
However, it quickly becomes apparent that as well as being another excellent Panasonic TV, the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 is also unique enough to fully justify its existence.
The highlight of its picture performance, as is so often the case with Panasonic plasma TVs, is its contrast - chiefly because the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 is able to produce a black colour that's deeper, richer, more consistent and more natural than the blacks you get from any other make or type of screen.
The impact of this on films - which tend to enjoy much wider contrast ranges than normal TV shows - is nothing short of spectacular, providing a perfect cinematic starting point for all other aspects of the picture to work with.
To some extent this awesome black level response is a result simply of the Panasonic TX-P42GT50's plasma heart, since plasma is a self-emissive technology whereby each pixel of the picture can produce its own independent light level instead of having to share a separate light source with other pixels.
But this isn't the only reason for the Panasonic TX-P42GT50's resplendent black levels; after all, LG and Samsung also have plasma TVs, and their black levels - this year, at least - aren't looking anywhere near as deep as those being delivered by Panasonic's ST50, VT50 and now GT50 models.
So to explain Panasonic's clear dominance where black level is concerned, we can only turn to a combination of the proprietary filters Panasonic uses in its panels and the brand's apparently unprecedented control over the voltage that goes into each plasma cell.
Whatever the cause, though, the simple fact is that the only TVs that deliver a better black level response than the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 are Panasonic's own VT50 models. So if you're a movie fan who can't quite run to - or accommodate - the larger and more expensive VT50s, the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 is already looking like a mighty fine compromise. That's even before we look at all the other great stuff its pictures have to offer.
These other strengths include its colour response. As with the ST50 and VT50 models, colours look bolder, brighter and richer than they have on any previous Panasonic plasmas - and in doing so, they also look consistently more natural, especially where reds and greens are concerned.
Colours look more balanced too now that they've got more brightness to work with, yet at no point - unless you use the not-recommended Dynamic preset - do colours start to look over-aggressive.
More good colour news concerns the apparent presence of more subtlety in the Panasonic TX-P42GT50's colour blends than you've had with any previous Panasonic plasma TV generation. There's hardly any of the sort of colour banding over subtle blends that's long being one of the few weaknesses of Panasonic's plasma TVs.
Next we need to wax lyrical about the Panasonic TX-P42GT50's fine detail response. Thanks to the Full HD native resolution, the quality of Panasonic's video processing and the extraordinary control of light in the Panasonic TX-P42GT50's pictures, the clarity and extent of detail in its presentation of Blu-ray movies is exquisite. Even dark scenes look gorgeously rich and full of depth, thanks to the way the screen's self-emissive nature enables it to render even the subtlest of shadow details in dark scenes.
It doesn't exactly harm the Panasonic TX-P42GT50's stunning clarity that it suffers practically zero motion blur. This is typical of plasma screens versus LCD ones, of course, but it's taken to another level by the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 because this screen joins the VT50s in suffering scarcely at all with the judder that has previously been apparent on many plasma TVs.
You can even turn on Panasonic's Intelligent Frame Creation motion compensation circuitry (not something we would normally recommend) without pictures starting to look over processed - a result, we can only presume, of the power and speed of the processing engine the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 carries.
Panasonic plasma TVs have long impressed when watching 3D on account of their freedom from crosstalk ghosting noise.
This reputation took a slight hit this year with the discovery of some tell-tale ghosting on the ST50 series, but this ghosting is largely removed on the Panasonic TX-P42GT50, a fact that delivers probably the single most compelling reason for stepping up from the ST50 series.
The Panasonic TX-P42GT50's pictures aren't completely perfect. Its 3D images look less bright than those of most if not all 3D LCD TVs, for a start. Pictures also lack brightness with 2D if you're watching in a lot of ambient light.
There's also a little colour break up during camera pans while watching 50Hz material, and some minor dotting noise is visible if you sit too close to the screen or use the Dynamic setting.
The Dynamic setting also causes a curious flickering effect during dark scenes when you're watching 3D, so switch to a different preset.
Most of the Panasonic TX-P42GT50's flaws are pretty easy to work around, though. And in any case they barely amount to a ripple in the vast ocean of this TV's pictorial excellence.
Usability, sound and value
There's good and bad to report here. So let's get the bad news out of the way first. First, the main picture setup menus are rather drab by today's standards, with perfunctory graphics doing little to add any excitement to the large amounts of text on the screen.
Another issue is the main app access menu for Viera Connect. The problem is that the access icons it uses are too large, restricting you to just nine on the screen at once. This leads to lots of delving through sub-menus to get to some of the apps you've added to your interface.
It helps that you can decide which icons you want to put on which 'layer' of the Viera Connect menus. But nonetheless the current system is only going to feel more strained as the amount of online content continues to grow.
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Panasonic's remote control design is starting to show its age, too, with some ill-judged button weighting (in terms of positioning and size) giving you the feeling that the Panasonic TX-P42GT50's functionality has been shoehorned onto an older remote design rather than the remote being designed from scratch around the features it has to accommodate.
The good news is that the set up menus are reasonably logically organised (once you realise that you have to first activate an Advanced mode before you can use the most technical picture adjustments), and that the menus for the Viera Marketplace online TV shop are superbly presented and easy to use.
Also extremely welcome is the Viera Control app that you can download for iOS or Android mobile devices, which enables you to control the TV - and surf the web using the TV's integrated browser - via your tablet or phone's touchscreen.
You can even 'throw' content directly from your portable device to the TV screen, or vice versa. Excellent.
The Panasonic TX-P42GT50's speakers do a fair to middling job of handling the various action scene soundtracks we threw at them. There's a little more room than you get with many skinnier rival TVs for the mid-range to expand to accommodate loud moments, and trebles are handled cleanly.
There's not quite as much treble detail as you sometimes hear, and bass levels are only average. But this still amounts to a better effort than the thin, harsh unpleasantness so often heard from today's slim TVs.
With 40-42-inch TVs available now for under £400/$600, the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 is clearly not for the financially faint of heart, given that it costs three times as much.
But then with Panasonic's VT50 range not including a 42-inch model, the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 is quite probably the finest 42-inch TV money can buy, especially if you're a serious film fan. So really the Panasonic TX-P42GT50's value depends on how much being able watch the finest 42-inch movie machine in town matters to you.
The only other element to throw into the mix here is Sony's 40HX853. This is a couple of inches smaller, and despite being the best black level performer in the LCD world right now, it's still not capable of as much black level depth and detail as the Panasonic TX-P42GT50. But its pictures are brighter, especially in light room conditions, and it's also £100-£200 (around $150-300) cheaper if you shop around.
With Panasonic's ST50 and VT50 TVs already setting the AV world alight, is there room for the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 that sits between them? Actually yes.
The Panasonic TX-P42GT50 gets off to a great start by offering features galore by 42-inch standards. Highlights include 3D, online video/gaming/information services, an advanced version of Panasonic's very latest plasma panel design, THX endorsement and decent amounts of multimedia flexibility. There's even a Freesat tuner to accompany the Freeview one, if that floats your boat.
The real star of the Panasonic TX-P42GT50's show, though, is its picture quality, which is nothing short of outstanding - especially (though not exclusively) if you dim the lights to watch a Blu-ray movie.
The Panasonic TX-P42GT50's single greatest attraction is its picture quality, which uses extreme contrast levels, great colours and spectacular amounts of HD detail to outperform all of its 42-inch rival TVs, especially when you're watching movies in a darkened room.
Its online service has some compelling content too, and its Android/iOS control app is excellent. The television also looks OK so long as you can see past its chubbiness versus most of today's high-end TVs.
There's a little dot noise in pictures that's visible if you sit very close to the screen or use the Dynamic preset. There's also a little colour trailing with 50Hz material, and pictures lose a degree of brightness in bright room conditions.
It's a pity you don't get any 3D glasses included for free too, and finally a couple more video streaming services - especially Lovefilm and ITV Player - would be nice.
Panasonic really is spoiling us this year. Bargain hunters have the ridiculously-good-for-its-money ST50 series, money's-no-object film fans have the VT50 series, and then sandwiched perfectly between the two is the Panasonic TX-P42GT50, offering an ideal step-up option for people who fancy slightly more quality than the ST50 TVs offer but can't scrape together the money for the VT50 televisions.
Fans of tech for tech's sake may prefer to look elsewhere, we guess, and there are concerns about the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 if your living room is particularly bright. But for most people the P42GT50 is another Panasonic snorter.
Obviously your first decision will be whether to go for the ST50 series, the GT50 series, or the VT50 series from Panasonic's plasma range. We've covered the differences here in the main review, but briefly the ST50 is brilliant value, while the VT50 TVs deliver the absolute nth degree of performance, two pairs of free 3D glasses and a (not very good) second remote control.
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Aside from other Panasonic screens, the closest rival for the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 on pure image quality grounds is Sony's 40HX853. The HX853 series has blown us away this year by combining superb black levels with outstanding detailing and some excellent colours, resulting in the best pictures yet seen from an LCD TV.
They hold up better than Panasonic's in bright room conditions too, and they're also slightly cheaper than Panasonic's relatively high-end TVs. However, they still don't do black levels as well as the Panasonic TX-P42GT50, and aren't quite as utterly involving when watching films in suitably cinematic conditions.
Other obvious rivals would be the Samsung 40ES7000 and LG 42LM660T. The Samsung scores major points for its stunning slim design and class-leading online services and interface, and its images look spectacular with bright content. It suffers backlight consistencies or looks a little flat (depending on your settings) with dark movie scenes, though.
The LG offers a good alternative if you're a 3D fan because it uses passive technology, which is easier and cheaper for large groups of people to watch. Its pictures also look very engaging with bright content, its online services are in many ways great, and its design is as good as that of the Samsung.
But it, too, struggles with dark scenes a bit, with either rather greyed-over black colours or - depending on your image settings - some light blocking around bright objects in otherwise dark scenes.