Panasonic TX-P42ST60 £749.99
9th Jan 2014 | 10:26
There's life in the old plasma TV yet
So plasma TVs are no more – at least so far as their biggest supporter, Panasonic, is concerned.
To be fair, LG has said it will keep making plasma TVs as long as there are people who want to buy them, and Samsung has not yet declared that it's following Panasonic out of the plasma market.
But for many AV fans, Panasonic simply WAS plasma TV, so the brand's decision to focus on LCD for the immediate future really is the death knell of the movie fan's flat TV technology of choice (at least until OLED becomes mainstream).
The good news is that the brand's plasma TVs are still available at the time of writing. So if you want one, now's the time to buy.
And as plasma TVs go this year, few seem more all-round 'buyable' than Panasonic's 42-inch P42ST60.
For starters, the P42ST60 is pretty affordable for a mid-range plasma TV, setting you back less than £750. It's also well-featured, boasting one of Panasonic's 3D-capable NeoPlasma 2500 panel designs;
Panasonic's latest smart TV system, complete with both online access and DLNA file streaming; and the brand's excellent My Home Screen interface.
Plus, of course, you'll hopefully get the outstanding contrast and motion picture traits that are plasma TV's trademark.
Alongside the P42ST60 in Panasonic's current plasma range are 50-inch and 55-inch models, the P50ST60 and P55ST60 respectively.
Or, if you really want to celebrate plasma's passing in style, you could step up to the GT60 series (42-inch P42GT60 and 50-inch P50GT60) with its slightly superior (in terms of contrast and colour handling) panel design, or even the gorgeous VT65 range, as represented by the P50VT65, P55VT65 and P65VT65.
Plus there's always Panasonic's ultimate 'blaze of glory', the 60-inch P60ZT65, which produces simply the best plasma TV pictures ever seen – so long as you've got £3,200 to spend.
So far as rivals are concerned, both LG and Samsung have alternative plasmas in their TV ranges, with Samsung's PS6500 series being the closest in spec to the ST60 models. But our hope is that the P42ST60 on our test benches today will prove the one to beat.
By modern standards, the P42ST60 isn't much of a looker. Its frame is wider than that of most premium TVs, its black finish looks a bit plasticky, and shape-wise you're just talking about a pretty basic rectangle. It's all a million miles away from the lovely 'floaty' looks that distinguish Panasonic's top-tier LCD TVs this year.
There's a slight disappointment in store with the P42ST60's connections, too, as we find only three HDMIs when we increasingly expect four from all but the most basic TVs these days. You do get USB and (unusually) SD slots for multimedia playback, though, as well as both LAN and integrated Wi-Fi for either streaming files from DLNA PCs or going online with Panasonic's Viera Connect platform.
This platform is pleasantly presented, and the number of apps is pretty high overall. However, it's a shame there aren't a few more top-tier video streaming apps to choose from, with Lovefilm, 4OD, Demand 5 and ITV Player particularly notable by their absence.
One thing we certainly do admire about Panasonic's latest smart TV system, though, is the My Home Screen interface. As well as presenting you with a series of simple themed hubs when you first get the TV, the interface enables you and members of your family to build your own home screens, providing direct links just to the apps you personally find the most interesting or useful.
At the P42ST60's core is a 42-inch version of one of Panasonic's NeoPlasma 2500 panels. This does not quite match the so-called NeoPlasma Black 3000 panels used by the GT60, VT65 and ZT65 Panasonic plasmas, but even getting the previous plasma generation's premium panel design for the P42ST60's price has to count as a result.
The 2500 part of the P42ST60's Neoplasma 2500 designation refers to the subfield driving 'speed' of the panel, which leads to Panasonic claiming a 2500Hz-like effect. This should prove very handy for motion reproduction, brightness, colour saturations, and 3D playback (which is delivered via an active rather than passive system).
As well as using a slightly less high-powered but still contrast-enriched plasma panel at its core, the P42ST60 differs from Panasonic's flagship plasma models this year in using a less well-specified light filter. In other words, its screen will likely prove more susceptible to being affected by the amount of ambient light in the room.
As usual with any high-ish level Panasonic plasma, the P42ST60 carries both Intelligent Frame Creation for interpolating new frames of image data to reduce judder and Panasonic's 1080p Pixel Direct mode for enhanced 24fps Blu-ray playback.
It has also got a strong colour management system, though it promises only 12,288 colour gradation steps versus the 24,576 of the step-up GT60s, and it doesn't join models higher up Panasonic's range in enjoying the endorsement of either the ISF calibration group or the THX 'quality assurance' group.
Nor does it sport the Hexa processing engine that's distinguished itself so admirably with Panasonic's high-end LCD and plasma TVs this year.
While this sounds like a long run of features the P42ST60 doesn't have, it's worth bearing in mind that the step-up Panasonic models all cost considerably more. For its price point, the P42ST60 has more than enough on its spec sheet to bode very well for its performance.
For the most part, it's Panasonic plasma business as usual with the P42ST60's pictures. Which is, of course, a very good thing.
Getting the party started is the P42ST60's black level response. The ability to show dark scenes with black colours in them that look natural, deep, rich and full of detail has been plasma's single biggest advantage over LCD technology for years now, and the P42ST60 continues the proud tradition.
Its black levels seem every bit the equal of those of last year's GT50 models, and as such mark a clear step up from those of last year's ST series. More importantly, they're deeper and more natural than those of any other TV we can think of at the same sort of price point.
So if you're a fan of movies, which tend to favour much more dynamic contrast ranges than typical TV shows, and £750 is as far as your budget will stretch, then the P42ST60 is almost a no-brainer. Especially as the exceptional black level response also provides the perfect foundation for the P42ST60's colourscape, which is both more natural and more subtly delivered than you've any right to expect for its money.
We mentioned that the P42ST60's exceptional black level response made it almost a no-brainer a moment ago. And the reason for the 'almost' there was that the P42ST60's movie-loving charm fades a little if you watch it in a lot of ambient light. In these conditions, the unsophisticated nature of its light filter relative to Panasonic's higher-end plasmas can mean the ambient light reduces the screen's black level response quite markedly, giving dark areas a slightly green tinge in the process.
Colours also tend to look muted in bright light, and the picture generally loses some of its intensity.
Of course, the simple answer to this is to try to make sure you darken your room as much as you reasonably can when you're watching a film on it. But we acknowledge that this might not always be easy for every household.
Now we've stumbled into discussing the P42ST60's picture flaws, we might as well get the rest out of the way too. Namely that HD doesn't look quite as pristine as it does on Panasonic's higher-grade plasma TVs (probably down to a combination of not having the Hexa processing and colours not having quite as much resolution), and that standard definition pictures don't upscale quite as crisply and evenly as they do on some premium TVs.
Getting back to the good stuff that dominates the P42ST60's performance, it handles motion very nicely by flat TV standards. There's no trace of the blurring you get with LCD TVs at this price level, and while there's judder with 50Hz broadcasts you can get rid of this by using the provided motion processing on its lowest setting – a setting which causes pleasingly few unwanted side effects and doesn't leave the image looking unnatural.
It's also great to find the P42ST60's phenomenal contrast performance in low-lit rooms remaining intact, even if you have to watch the TV from a wide angle – something that's just not possible with LCD screens, even those that use IPS technology. If any of your seating positions are at a wide angle to where the TV sits - a very common circumstance in the UK's notoriously weirdly shaped rooms – then you really should be grabbing a plasma TV like this one before it's too late.
The last thing to stress about the P42ST60 is that its colours are far better than those of its equivalent 2012 model, thanks to the way power efficiencies in the NeoPlasma 2500 panel design allow the screen to be injected with more brightness and colour saturation without the screen running foul of the EU's stringent power consumption regulations.
As well as helping pictures look almost as dynamic as those of top LCD TVs, the P42ST60's extra brightness helps it fight better than its predecessor the effects of ambient light on contrast and vibrancy. Just switch to one of the TV's more aggressive picture presets.
Please note, however, that when driven hard like this, the P42ST60's pictures can look a bit fizzy and colours can start to look a touch forced, so we wouldn't recommend leaving the TV running permanently in a bright mode. The best solution with the P42ST60 is always to darken your room where possible, rather than ramping up the TV's intensity.
The last element of the P42ST60's performance to cover is 3D. This is traditionally another area of strength for plasma screens, and for the most part the P42ST60 doesn't let us down.
Crosstalk double ghosting noise is very well suppressed for a start, and it's thanks partly to this that the P42ST60's 3D pictures look engagingly detailed and HD when you're watching 3D Blu-rays. Unlike its predecessor, moreover, the P42ST60 has enough brightness at its disposal (if you switch to the Dynamic 3D preset from the default Normal mode) to limit the impact of the reduction in brightness associated with using active shutter glasses with a plasma TV.
Having a bit more brightness to play with also helps Panasonic's set deliver more shadow detail in dark areas – something that's crucial in helping a TV develop a sense of 3D depth in low-lit dark sequences.
While the P42ST60's 3D images are good, though, they're not flawless.
Motion looks rather uncomfortable thanks to some pretty hard-to-ignore judder if you don't use the set's motion processing, and some similarly hard-to-ignore unwanted processing artefacts if you do use the set's motion processing.
Colour resolution takes a slight hit with 3D, too, resulting in some minor striping effects over areas of colour blending. Also, the need to drive the panel very hard to counter the dimming effect of the 3D glasses can cause some slight dot crawl over skin tones as they cross the screen.
To be clear, watching 3D on the P42ST60 is a generally positive experience – especially if you can watch the set in a pretty dark room. But it's with 3D that we most keenly felt the temptation to step up to the GT60 series, which delivers a markedly better 3D performance.
Panasonic's My Home Screen interface provides an inspired way for even the most technophobic of users to find their way around the array of content sources it places at your disposal.
The preset hubs are presented cleanly and thought through logically, but where the system really comes into its own is with the way it allows you to set up your own smart hubs. These are remarkably easy to build, and essentially allow you and other members of your family to create individual, personalised smart hubs containing links to only the apps and video services that each individual uses most.
This is a great way of streamlining your way to content, and it's backed up by a really straightforward and comprehensive initial installation system.
Panasonic also deserves praise for its Viera Remote app for Android and iOS devices, since as well as providing a neat alternative control system this adds some genuinely useful functionality, such as the streaming of video from the TV to your smart device.
While the P42ST60 handles smart content exceptionally well, it's not quite as effective with its picture and audio set-up menus. These are a bit bland and long-winded. Though on the upside, of course, aside from setting up separate day and night modes to adapt pictures to the different brightness levels of your living room, you won't often have to revisit these menus following your first installation.
While the P42ST60 might not be especially pretty, its large bulk by modern TV standards does help it produce an above average audio performance. There's a decent amount of bass to underpin the mix, and the mid-range is quite broad, leaving plenty of room for the soundstage to expand when required by action scenes. The only weakness is that trebles sound muted relative to the bass end of the spectrum, leaving sound mixes a little short of detail.
You can, of course, get plenty of 40-42-inch TVs for considerably less than £740 these days. What you can't readily find for that sort of money, though, is picture quality as natural, rich and above all cinematic as that delivered by the P42ST60.
In fact, the set essentially offers you what would by most TV standards be premium picture quality at a mid-range price.
Should you think about spending more to get to Panasonic's P42GT60? If you can afford it then we'd say yes – especially if you're a 3D fan. If £750 really is your maximum, however, then the P42ST60 is very hard to resist.
The P42ST60 doesn't get off to a particularly auspicious start, thanks to its slightly dour design and having only three HDMIs rather than the four we'd like to have seen.
Things take a big turn for the better, though, once you get hands-on with its inspired My Home Screen interface. This does an unprecedentedly great job of personalising the smart TV experience, and is so easy to use your nan could do it.
The star of the P42ST60's show, though, is its picture quality, especially when you're up for some serious film viewing. Its black response is peerless for its price point, its colours are gorgeously rich but also subtle, and motion – in 2D at least – is crisp and clean.
Pictures need to be watched in relatively dark conditions to look their best, but provided they're willing to accommodate this little foible, home cinephiles will be hard pressed indeed to find more cinematic images for so little money.
Outstanding black levels, rich colours and clean motion handling help the P42ST60 produce stellar images for its money. Its smart interface is inspired and really simplifies the experience of using the TV. Its viewing angle is much wider than that of rival LCD technology, and finally it's good value for the quality on offer.
There are some motion issues with 3D, there are only three HDMIs, pictures can look noisy when driven hard, you should try to dim the lights to get the best out of the TV, and the online service would benefit from the addition of a few more good-quality video streaming platforms.
Don't be put off by the lack of glamour exhibited by the P42ST60's exterior: inside beats a home cinema heart of gold with levels of contrast, light uniformity and colour accuracy you get only with a Panasonic plasma. This is joined, moreover, by a good 3D performance, above average audio, and a brilliantly friendly smart TV interface.
You could do even better if you step up to Panasonic's GT60 series, but if you can't find the extra £200 or so needed for that the P42ST60 really is excellent for its money. Especially if you can show it the respect of dimming your lights while you watch it.
With the writing on the wall for Panasonic's plasma TVs, the P42ST60 provides a compelling reason for snapping up a prime sample of the TV tech while you still can.
LG and Samsung are the only other two brands still making plasma TVs now, with the closest rivals to the P42ST60 from each of these brands' plasma ranges being the LG 50PH660V and the Samsung PS51F5500.
The LG model is too far behind the Panasonic in picture quality terms to really justify your attention - despite being 50 inches across and costing less than £600. But while the Samsung isn't quite as good as the Panasonic, it's not far behind and costs just £140 more for an extra nine inches of screen. Plus it offers a more content-rich (if not as friendly) Smart TV system.
Want to spend a bit less? See our cheap TV buying guide.