Panasonic TX-P42VT20B £1800
11th Oct 2010 | 14:56
Panasonic's most advanced 42-inch screen yet brings full HD 3D to the plasma party
Panasonic TX-P42VT20: Overview
Panasonic is the only manufacturer to challenge the LCD hegemony of Samsung, Sony and LG with a 3D-capable plasma.
Its latest (13th) generation Neo PDP panel hails from impeccable stock: the 2D TX-P42V20 impressed us deeply, as did the step-down TX-P42G20, of which there is also now a 3D version.
There are minor differences between the GT20 and this VT20: the step-up model has an additional speaker, comes with a wireless LAN adaptor and has Infinite Black Pro contrast rather than mere Infinite Black.
It certainly isn't the case that there is anything remotely amateurish about the contrast performance of the non-Pro version, but Panasonic claims that the latter incarnation delivers more consistent black levels.
The extra speaker should boost the audio performance by a welcome 50 per cent, and while the wireless LAN adaptor might not sound much of a big deal, it makes networking significantly easier in practice. One final difference is a tweak to the P42VT20B that reduces its plasma cell decay time, seen as an important weapon against 3D crosstalk.
The P42VT20's styling lacks the panache that the LED crowd has shown of late. It's certainly not an offensive-looking beast, but there is nothing about the rather uninspiring gloss black frame that suggests this is the most technologically advanced 42in plasma ever made. Still, it's what's on the inside that counts: there are plenty of fancy-looking TVs that fail to deliver in the picture department.
Panasonic TX-P42VT20: Features
As alluded to in the overview, this TV packs in more technology than an Airbus A380, ticking just about every box on most TV buyers' wishlist.
With dual Freeview and Freesat HD tuners there is no danger of missing out on free to air HD programming, although it's hard to imagine anyone buying a set like this who doesn't also have a Sky HD or Virgin Media source with which to bring out the best of its picture-enhancing processing talents.
Of the built-in tuners, the Freesat experience is by far the better of the two but neither of them has a particularly appealing EPG.
They both exit the live broadcast aurally and visually so you can't follow what you've been watching. The fonts and colours used on both are rather dull, but at least the Freesat EPG doesn't have the ridiculous poster adverts that occupy one side of the screen, thereby reducing the amount of space available for programme listings.
Connectivity is exemplary: there are four v1.4 HDMIs, one of which features an audio return channel; there are also dual USBs, an SD card slot, CI slot for TopUp TV and a LAN port.
One USB could be used for hooking up a Buffalo JustStore Desktop HDD to convert the set in to a quasi-PVR while the other is used to wirelessly connect to a DLNA network using the supplied Wi-Fi dongle.
Unfortunately, the dongle projects out from the edge of the frame when in place and ruins the clean lines but we did find it worked well, connecting effortlessly to a BT Home hub, Windows 7 netbook and a Twonky portal on an iMac eliminating the need to delve into the confusing world of IP addresses and proxy settings required when making a wired Ethernet connection.
Being able to watch JPEG photos and MP4 videos on such a great screen is a real boon, but resorting to using an SD card or USB flash memory stick hardly seems a great hardship.
Before we know it, 3D will be regarded as a standard feature of most large screen TVs with the focus shifting heavily to internet video, or Smart TV as it now seems to be called. A number of providers are seeking to get involved, offering different on-demand solutions such as Apple TV, Google TV and the BBC-led YouView.
Viera Cast is Panasonic's stab at video content delivered over the internet and compared with what's available from other manufacturers and what's coming in the future it looks like something of a sideshow.
Lack of content
There's no iPlayer and access to a small selection of content from the likes of YouTube, Picasa, Eurosport and Bloomberg make for little more than an interesting diversion, although for Skype users, the built-in app could be handy (and you'd need to buy an optional USB camera).
The P42VT20B boasts an impressive suite of adjustable picture processing tools including CATS, which automatically adjusts the contrast according to the amount of ambient light, and P-NR, which reduces the amount of MPEG noise.
There is the usual selection of picture modes (Normal, Dynamic, Cinema, Game, Photo, THX) plus options to tinker with the white balance, hue, saturation and gamma levels which can be saved as two 'professional settings'. Most users, we suspect, will be more than happy to leave the advanced settings well alone.
TV manufacturers are engaged in a refresh rate war, with LCD screens often boasting 100Hz, 200Hz and even 400Hz processing. This is supposed to make motion smooth, reducing judder and it works to an extent but it has an unwanted side-effect that makes most filmic material look like camcorder video. This hasn't stopped Panasonic from playing the numbers game by conjuring up a 600Hz processing figure.
It's a slightly misleading claim, since the screen doesn't actually refresh itself 600 times per second. By adding 12 sub-fields to each of the 50 frames displayed per second you get a total of 600 'images' per second. Panasonic calls this processing Intelligent Frame Creation or IFC.
Most sources, especially DVB and Freesat, do indeed have a pleasing fluidity to them but as well as the unwelcome video-effect some material suffers from artefacts and haloing.
Another frame-rate side-effect is that a fast moving golf ball can disappear altogether for a few seconds with IFC on. Overall, IFC is worth leaving alone.
Confusingly, when watching a 1080/24p Blu-ray the name IFC disappears from the menu and is replaced by 24p Smooth Film. By any name, IFC should really be avoided.
The P42VT20B is supplied with two pairs of Panasonic's 3D glasses. These come with adjustable nose bridge adaptors and, although they feel comfortable enough, they do let in a lot of orange light, which makes watching 3D almost impossible in a brightly lit room.
Panasonic TX-P42VT20: Picture quality
In general, the P42VT20B does a sterling job with 2D material, even broadcast TV. There is little difference between Freeview, Freesat and Sky when watching a standard-definition show such as the gripping Homes Under The Hammer.
The built-in HD tuners however don't quite match Sky HD for detail. Pleasingly, of course (but worth repeating), being a plasma, there is no restriction to the set's viewing angle.
Naturally, the screen really excels with HD content such as Mad Men on the BBC HD channel, sport such as football and golf on Sky and Blu-ray movies. Sky News HD and Sky Sports News HD look excellent with the panels at the side and bottom of the screen looking superbly detailed.
Avatar on Blu-ray is an absolute knockout in terms of its overall impact and naturalistic colour fidelity but the screen doesn't quite match the giddy heights of Samsung's 8000 series LCDs for detail, especially in darker areas. Black levels are as good as you could possibly hope for, though.
With Sky's 3D channel now live there's never been a more relevant time to test a 3D screen. The first weekend of Sky 3D was largely dedicated to Ryder Cup golf with a couple of movies (Monsters vs Aliens and Ice Age 2: Dawn of the Dinosaurs) and some sporting archive footage filling in the gaps.
We also spun the 3D Blu-ray of MvA and, despite the drop in resolution, the broadcast version held up well in terms of clarity and detail.
With all the 3D material there are times when scenes look three dimensional and times when they don't. With Ice Age the overall 3D impact was so low it's barely worth the bother. Golf is a real mixed bag too, with some drab skies doing the depth perception no favours.
Shots just above the greens in bright sunlight look much deeper but, contrary to Sky's claim that you can get closer to the action, this has the effect of making people appear further away and therefore seem smaller.
Sports in 3D
Football does seem made for 3D with a higher percentage of shots delivering real depth but it's like being Gulliver in Lilliput watching a bunch of miniature people running around. The only thing that comes closer to you than the screen is the scorecard and onscreen logo, which appear to sit a couple of feet in front of the screen.
It's noticeable that you don't get as many close-ups and the reduction in resolution actually makes you feel less immersed in the action. What you see is different and interesting, but not superior to HD. Another factor is that maybe 42in is simply too small for effective 3D.
When it comes to cross talk (ghosting around objects) there's hardly any ghosting when watching Sky but it's still very evident when watching the MvA Blu-ray.
Panasonic TX-P42VT20: Sound, value and ease of use
As flatscreen TVs go, the P42VT20, has pretty decent audio but despite the built-in subwoofer low frequencies don't have much more impact than the G20 models, which only have two speakers.
Dialogue comes through clearly even against noisy backgrounds but unsurprisingly, distortion at higher volumes make the use of a separate audio system mandatory when watching broadcast drama or HDMI sources.
The non-3D version of this screen, the P42V20, sells for around £1,000 and you'll have to pay about £1,800 for the P42VT20. It may come out of Panasonic's top drawer for specs but that's a hefty premium for an extra dimension and one or two minor improvements. And with Samsung's 40C7000 going for £1,000 and Sony's Bravia KDL-40HX803 around £1,300 this Panasonic screen looks uncompetitive.
Ease of use
The hallmark of any well-designed TV is that you should be able to navigate its menu system with the greatest of ease and with minimal reference to the instruction manual. Panasonic only partially succeeds. There are three main menu options – picture, sound and setup – and the menu structure curiously locates some of the picture adjustment options in the set-up folder and some in the picture folder.
The remote control feels good in the hand and has decent sized and responsive buttons but is curiously laid out in places. Still, we've seen much worse.
The aforementioned propensity to change function names extends to removing some from certain menus when different picture modes are engaged. Confusing and sometimes a tad annoying.
Watching 3D – and switching back to 2D – should be as simple as possible. Not so with the P42VT20B. You have to get the specs ready and switched on, delve into the setup menu to access the 3D settings, select 3D display, scroll and select side-by-side or frame sequential, exit, enter the picture settings and change the mode to Dynamic.
There's no quick or simple way to switch back to a 2D channel and sometimes the Sky box doesn't respond to the remote control when the TV is in 3D mode. You also need to close the curtains if it's daytime as the specs strobe like mad in bright ambient light. Even with the lights down low there's still light pollution between the lens and the eye socket.
Otherwise, the P42VT20 is easy enough to operate although the menu system, like the EPGs, looks sadly dated.
Panasonic TX-P42VT20: Verdict
Panasonic has taken its acclaimed P42V20 and given 3D fans plenty to think about. With a features checklist that includes Infinite Black Pro, Viera Cast internet video, Freeview and Freesat HD tuners, wireless DLNA networking, THX certfication, Intelligent Frame Creation, USB recording to hard disk and a glorious Full HD plasma panel there's very little that the P42VT20 can't do.
This set's greatest strength is its picture quality. Whilst not in the very best league, detail and resolution are still superb. No LCD screen comes close in terms of colour fidelity and the Infinite Black Pro delivers sensational contrast levels. And the picture remains strong and solid from any viewing angle.
Setting up the wireless network is startlingly simple and overall the P42VT20 performs well as a multi-media display device. Sound quality isn't bad for everyday listening, either.
There are a couple of picture problems. For all its ability to reduce judder, IFC has unwanted side-effects that can make movies shot on film look like camcorder video. Pictures are also prone to loss of detail in darker scenes.
As a 3D set, the P42VT20 does a pretty good job but it's a faff to switch to 3D and back to 2D, and the specs aren't the best designed ones on the market.
Finally, the design of the set and the EPGs are not worthy of one of the most technologically advanced TVs you can buy.
From the barrage of 3D marketing that never seems to end you'd think that a 3D set would be essential but unless you're a 3D nut we'd find it hard to recommend the P42VT20. For a lot less money you can buy the 2D-only P42V20 and enjoy all of this set's core strengths.
It's debatable whether a 42in screen is big enough for 3D, which makes most things seem smaller. This screen is however big enough for Full HD, at which it certainly excels.
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