Panasonic TX-P42ST30B £1300
10th May 2011 | 13:50
An ugly, yet affordable 3D plasma capable of delivering very impressive pictures
Panasonic TX-P42ST30B: Overview
The Infinite Black Pro-toting TX-P42ST30B is 2011's most affordable active 3D plasma screen. It has been shorn of one or two fancy features that Panasonic reckons the mass market won't feel deprived of, but is still crammed with the latest plasma technology, including faster-switching phosphors, reduced power consumption and a new screen filter.
The most immediate difference between the TX-P42ST30B and its superior stablemate, the TX-P42GT30B, is that visually this is clearly no catwalk queen with a 2-inch wide gunmetal grey plastic bezel, industrial-looking base and a grey-green screen that when switched off is reminiscent of an old-fashioned CRT.
Compared with its pricier sibling, also missing from the spec sheet are DLNA networking, a built-in Freesat tuner, USB HDD recording, colour management and THX/ISF calibration.
The even more expensive flagship TX-P42VT30B improves on both models by also offering 2.1 audio, a Wi-Fi dongle and two free pairs of 3D specs. Despite the TX-P42ST30B's 'affordable 3D' tag you're going to have to shell out a fair bit of dough for the specs.
As with the GT series, the ST is available with a 46-inch screen in the form of the TX-P46ST30B and as the TX-P50ST30B with a 50-inch screen. Only the VT series also comes in 55-inch and 60-inch sizes, which is just as well, because it's hard to imagine anyone wanting anything so dull-looking as the TX-P42ST30B in such a large screen size.
Panasonic TX-P42ST30B: Features
Once you get past the TX-P42ST30B's unappealing cosmetics you find there's a fair amount going on that meets most of today's TV buyer's needs, including Smart TV in the guise of the revamped Viera Connect service, wireless (via an optional USB adaptor) or hard-wired networking (not DLNA), 3D capability and a comprehensive set of connections.
The sockets include an interface for a pay-TV module, an SD card slot for ultra-quick viewing of camera snaps and videos, two HDD/flash memory-compatible USB sockets and four HDMI sockets, one of which is side-facing for quick access and wall-mounting, while the rest face backwards. This is good news for stand-mounting as it avoids unsightly cables projecting out of the side, but wall-mounters may find the single side-facing HDMI annoying.
Analogue connections include composite video and a headphone socket, while a digital optical connection can send sound from the broadcast tuner to a separate amp.
Another connection of a sort is Viera Connect, a straightforward Smart TV proposition with several popular portals built-in including Picasa, YouTube, Acetrax, Twitter, Skype and the iPlayer, which finally joins the Viera party.
The new cloud-based app marketplace gives the service room to grow and - assuming your broadband connection is up to the task - has the potential to deliver all your visual entertainment and social networking needs direct to this screen without involving a separate computer.
There's nothing terribly revolutionary about the panel's picture processing except a fast switching phosphor that Panasonic claims reduces crosstalk, which could have a significant effect on 3D enjoyment and improve 2D images.
The range of picture tweaks is more or less sensibly restricted to a number of basics with 3D options and the much-debated '600Hz' sub-field drive IFC (Intelligent Field Creation) of the most interest. C.A.T.S (Contrast Automatic Tracking System) and P-NR (picture noise reduction) respectively optimise the picture according to the ambient light and set the noise reduction to one of several presets.
Panasonic TX-P42ST30B: Picture quality
The TX-P42ST30B's images, both with 2D and 3D sources, are generally of a higher quality than those on previous generations of Panasonic plasmas, with the fast-switching phosphor having an unarguably beneficial affect on 3D images.
With the Monsters vs Aliens 3D Blu-ray platter the scenes with strong vertical objects (such as the church spire and Golden Gate Bridge) show very little crosstalk so that you don't feel aware of any image lag. This helps create a strong overall 3D experience.
With Sky, however, the loss of resolution caused by the side-by-side system is felt keenly on the TX-P42ST30B. During Avatar on Sky 3D, for example, the scene where Sully emerges from stasis simply doesn't have the incredible depth of the floating hanger. The same movie on 2D Blu-ray shows just how much clarity the screen is capable of rendering with exceptional detail of Sully's face when he listens to the commander's 'Welcome to Pandora' speech.
Watching sport on Sky 3D is fine, because you get drawn into the action but dramas lack the wow factor that the additional clarity can add.
As a 2D screen the TX-P42ST30B is capable of some excellent images. It is a bit soft at times, but fare such as Human Planet on BBC HD Freeview and live cricket on Sky Sports HD show that colour fidelity is accurate, contrast levels and shadow detail are strong and problems such as banding and colour flashes are negligible.
The excellent Bored to Death on Sky Atlantic HD shows that motion judder with fast panning can be a problem depending on the speed of the pan and proximity of the subject to the camera but engaging IFC's lowest setting takes care of it without introducing detrimental artefacts.
On the other hand, the title scenes from Mad Men have never seemed so harshly processed, with grey specs appearing on the panel, yet particularly impressive is the solidity of a very dark scene from To Catch a Thief in both HD and standard-def (on Sky), something which often breaks up on poorer screens.
With any TV there are going to be occasions where what you're watching doesn't suit the screen's setting and you do have to find the right ones for different material. The vast skies in No Country for Old Men on Blu-ray are noisy and though engaging P-NR can reduce this, the softening is noticeable, but slight, and the image remains intensely watchable.
No Country for Old Men is also a great test for IFC and this panel makes a much better job than previous incarnations. With 24p Smooth Film set to off there's slight judder and no image artefacts, set it to mid or max and there's no judder with just a very slight halo trail.
Movies and stills viewed on Flash memory devices look very strong and are quickly and easily navigated. But file compatibility is not the greatest and we had no joy with several .MPG, .M4V, AVCHD and M2TS rips, no sound with one .MP4 but success with DiVx files and some .M4Vs. Expectations should be adjusted accordingly.
Panasonic P42ST30B: Sound, Value, Ease of use
Audio is a pleasant surprise. There are a number of tweaks and presets available including Balance Control, Headphone Volume, plus Music, Speech and user modes. Built-in surround options comprise V-Audio and V-Audio surround.
There's little sense of being surrounded by anything aural and while the speakers suffice for everyday listening, you'll certainly need a separate sound system for watching movies and dramas.
Given that it delivers much more than you'd expect of such a pig-ugly screen, the TX-P42ST30B seems reasonably enough priced at around £1,300, especially compared with Panasonic's TX-L32DT30B, a 32-inch LCD that sells for just £200 less.
That's 10 extra inches for not much more cash. Until now you simply couldn't get this level of 2D and 3D performance plus online TV and multimedia playback on a 42-inch screen for this kind of outlay. It's just a pity the 3D specs are such an expensive extra at around £100 each.
Ease of use
Unfortunately, Panasonic has not changed its Freeview guide from the GuidePlus, which is slow to load, doesn't maintain audio or visual contact with the current broadcast and has amateurish adverts taking up valuable space on the guide. It does at least tell you if a standard-def show is also in HD on one of the four HD channels and searching using the alpha-numeric keypad is a breeze.
Similarly, the TX-P42ST30B's own menu system is easy enough to operate if not as aesthetically pleasing as many others. The menu of greatest interest is the Picture one that reveals the pared down nature of its adjustments.
There is the usual gamut of preset modes (Dynamic, Natural, Cinema, Game, etc) and options to play with brightness, contrast, sharpness, colour balance (a bit like white balance) and a Vivid Colour on/off switch, but the lack of individual hue adjustments may be seen as a cut too far.
A 3D option provides minor tweaks to the way the image is detected and displayed but doesn't let you mess around too much with the depth.
The IFC off/mid/max button and Clear Cinema on/off control are – annoyingly – buried in the Advanced sub-menu. Connect a 24p Blu-ray feed and these are automatically replaced by Blu-ray 24p Smooth Film on/off. Other advanced controls include Resolution enhancer, a pixel orbiter and scrolling pattern for removing burnt-in onscreen logos.
It's annoying that no 3D specs are supplied, but at least the latest models are fairly comfortable and some can be recharged using the USB output. They do, however, cut out more light than other brands' glasses, but at least it means you can find a suitable use for the TV's otherwise ridiculously harsh Dynamic mode.
The remote control has, in keeping with the set, been given an inferior finish. Sprayed light grey, it's far from the most attractive handset you'll see and rams home the message that you're an entry-level customer.
Overall, it's a decent enough screen to operate and if you've got in a bit of a mess with the settings it's always worth giving the C.A.T.S control a go for a surprisingly good reset based on your room's ambient light.
Panasonic TX-P42ST30B: Verdict
Whether it's an iPod or a robot vacuum cleaner, it pays to never buy a first-generation product, even if it seems startlingly impressive. The same is true of 3D plasma screens, as Panasonic's second generation of NeoPDP delivers a host of subtle but significant improvements.
The faster phosphor time, multimedia talents and general panel attenuation have been harnessed to deliver an enticing proposition for a 42-inch screen with 3D prowess.
The set's overall image performance with 2D and 3D sources is highly impressive. Once you've worked out which picture settings suit what sources you're guaranteed a rollickingly good visual experience.
The lack of artefacts with the IFC is especially good, as is the virtual absence of 3D crosstalk. The Viera Connect service has improved dramatically since last year and is a useful supplementary feature.
We're no fans of the drab grey styling and cheapo remote control that are such a contrast to the more expensive sets in Panasonic's 2011 range.
The fact that you have to buy your 3D specs separately is illogical because if you weren't interested in it you wouldn't be buying this set in the first place.
You do need to play around with the settings sometimes but the screen's failings are much less significant than its successes. The TX-P42ST30B doesn't look that nice but it delivers more than it promises, rather than less. If you can see past the drab frame, the TX-P42ST30B is a bit of a bargain.
Follow TechRadar Reviews on Twitter: http://twitter.com/techradarreview