Panasonic TX-P42X50B £299
7th Nov 2012 | 10:00
By making the mediocre look marvelous, this great value HD-ready TV makes a compelling argument for plasma
Does everybody need a Full HD TV?
Blu-ray discs demand a 1920x1080 pixel resolution, but for anyone without a Blu-ray player – and no plans to get one anytime soon – spending out on resolution that you won't use is a waste of money.
Step forward this deliciously dependable 42-inch HD-ready plasma. It may have a list price of almost £600, but we've seen the TX-P42X50B selling for under £400 online – and that makes this one of the bargain TVs of 2012.
Why do we dare to make such a pronouncement about an HD-ready TV? In truth we've had our eye on Panasonic's more basic plasmas for some years, and this is merely the latest in a very long line of plasma TVs that treat both dodgy and high-quality sources seemingly equally.
That makes it ideal for this in-between age of TV where Freeview HD only contains four hi-def channels, and all are broadcast in 720p quality.
Most games played on the Xbox 360 or PS3 are rendered in 720p quality, too, or upscaled – at least for now – making the TX-P42X50B technically absolutely fine for most households.
As adept with DVD as any TV we've seen this year, the major downsides of the TX-P42X50B for movie fans will be both its lack of Full HD resolution for Blu-ray discs, and the absence of any streaming movie apps.
VIERA Connect is missing from the TX-P42X50B, but you'll do well to find any smart-ness on TVs under the £600 mark.
However, it's not like the TX-P42X50B is living completely in the dark ages; digital media can be played from a USB stick as well as from an SDXC Card – and this is one of the few TVs around sporting the latter.
That's a bit of a boon for photographers, though arguably anyone seriously into imaging should head for a Full HD set.
A possible drawback for some will be the TX-P42X50B's drab styling. Though perfectly acceptable just a few years ago, its combination of a 61.5cm depth (and a little more if you count the speakers that protrude out of the rear), 32mm-wide black plastic bezel and generally industrial gloss black design won't suit everyone.
While the Panasonic TX-P42X50B is joined in the X50 Series by the 50-inch Panasonic TX-P50X50B, these two plasmas comprise the Japanese brand's only two HD-ready plasmas – and also the only two that aren't 3D-ready.
On the next rung up the VIERA ladder is the 42-inch Panasonic TX-P42UT50B (£600), which is something of an upgrade: it's adorned by 1080p Full HD resolution, VIERA Connect smart TV apps and active shutter 3D.
Other 42-inch plasmas in the stable include the Panasonic TX-P42ST50 and Panasonic TX-P42GT50, both of which sport Full HD resolutions and contrast-boosting filters, though Edge LED TVs are also available.
Consider the 42-inch Panasonic TX-L42ET5B, a polarised 'passive' 3DTV that includes a stunning four pairs of 3D glasess as well as VEIRA Connect apps, or the active shutter alternative, the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B.
Having adapted to the idea of an HD-ready resolution (1024x768 pixels, to be exact) on the TX-P42X50B, what we're immediately concerned with is restrictive ins and outs; so often the Achilles heel of affordable TVs.
And in practice, this is perhaps where the TX-P42X50B does stumble; we counted just two HDMI inputs (one with an Audio Return Channel), both on the rear panel, which will make it tricky to hook up more than, say, a PVR and a games console.
Elsewhere we spotted just a single USB (2.0) slot on the side-panel, which sits alongside an SDCX Card slot, a headphones jack and a Common Interface slot.
Alongside those are component video inputs and some accompanying phonos, a Scart, a digital audio output, and an Ethernet LAN port (despite the lack of any web-based functionality; it's here as a hangover from the original Freeview HD spec, and serves zero purposes). If only if could have been sacrificed for a third HDMI.
No home networking, then, but at least the USB and SDXC Card slots can get involved with the playback of digital files.
The TX-P42X50B possesses a G15 Progressive HD Plasma Display Panel fitted with a 600 Hz Sub-Field Drive, which ought to mean motion is handled smoothly, though it's the quoted figure of 3,500,000:1 native contrast ratio that most surprised us.
The TX-P42X50B also includes a Game mode, which ups the image response and boosts the contrast.
The final feature of any note on what is a rather basic spec is Eco Navigation, an option in the on-screen menus that allows a one-touch energy-saving set-up; cue a dimming of the panel's brightness using an ambient light sensor. Ditto C.A.T.S (Contrast Automatic Tracking System), which does mean a considerable drop in brightness – it works OK in a blackout, but it's best avoided in normal daylight.
We're not expecting fireworks from an HD-ready panel, but the TX-P42X50B quickly gets into its stride by presenting us with very watchable pictures from Freeview HD – albeit with the lights off.
During Fifth Gear from Dave we noticed strong contrast and well saturated, natural-looking colours (we settled on the Cinema setting).
In terms of detail, Fifth Gear looked clean enough to watch, though it's not perfect; finely detailed dark-on-bright picture elements – such as the ribs of a window – do break-up, and there is some low-res jumpiness to super-quick camera pans, rapid credit rolls, and around some moving objects – though there's no blur or streaking.
Although it suppresses lo-res noise reasonably well – also evident on our Children of Men DVD – the TX-P42X50B manages to make fast cars and action sequences whizz across the screen without any visible judder or added softness.
It might start with less native resolution than a Full HD LED TV, for instance, but its motion handling means it loses far, far less to blur than its rival panel tech.
Open the curtains to streams of sunshine and the situation changes somewhat. Suddenly the contrast doesn't seem half as convincing, and we did notice some reflections, too.
The brighter Dynamic preset is best avoided since it gives everyone a fake tan, so we'd advise the TX-P42X50B is used in as least dingy surroundings as possible for the very best results.
Putting the TX-P42X50B into Game mode, we tried out a few tracks on the Forza Horizon demo from an Xbox 360.
As a camera shot sweeps across a forest, that luscious motion handling is immediately obvious once again, though Game mode is a tad too bright in a darkened home cinema setting; we switched to the Cinema setting relatively quickly.
There's hardly a twitch in terms of graphics, thanks to that smoothness, while oodles of contrast lends the Colorado roads a convincing look and feel.
Engaging Hugo on Blu-ray – again with the cinema setting (True Cinema just seems a bit yellowy), we at last notice a slight drop in detail compared to watching a Full HD screen, though the opening sequence of snow flakes has never looked smoother.
Ditto the sweeping shot along the station platform, where passengers don't look quite as much like cardboard cut-outs as on Full HD screens, though to thank for that is the double-act of contrast and colour as much as motion handling.
Usability, sound and value
What puts a lot of people off buying a plasma is 'screen burn' – also known, more descriptively, as image retention – though it's largely a scurrilous rumour, rather than a reality.
Here, a 'pixel orbiter' can be set to subtly move images around the screen by a few pixels to stave of image retention (it's not noticeable), while the 'scrolling bar' is worth engaging now and again if you do notice any echoes of previous on-screen images; it drags a white stripe across the screen – though in test we didn't notice any such issues with the TX-P42X50B.
Given theTX-P42X50B technical constraints, it's pleasing to witness some fairly comprehensive handling of digital media.
Virtually everything we threw at the TX-P42X50B – be it AVI, MKV, MOV, WMV or evenWMV HD – it played, complete with preview thumbnail. The exceptions were MP4 and AVC HD videos, the latter of which the TX-P42X50B claims to display.
MP3, M4A and WMA music files all played without problems.
Not so Freeview HD. Though it presents TV schedules for the next two hours – and up to eight days – across seven channels on a single page, Panasonic's interface for Freeview is not good.
It's grid-like, uses an old-fashioned font, and while most of its competitors have a thumbnail of the present live TV channel playing in one of the corners, complete with sound, the TX-P42X50B has neither.
Elsewhere the user interface is at least simple and logical, though picture settings are limited. As well as dedicated picture presents for Cinema, True Cinema, Dynamic and Normal, there are simple toggles for contrast, brightness, sharpness and colour.
Fitted with a couple of 10W speakers, the TX-P42X50B has a decent stab at audio.
The music-heavy soundtrack to Forza Horizon is dealt with most adeptly by the V-Audio mode, which adds a little bass and width, though V-Audio Surround proved best with movies (we even noticed some sound effects appearing to come from the sides of the room).
Meanwhile, an MP3 of Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues sounds reasonably wide, but flat in the middle; V-Audio successfully adds the width and boosts the vocal, but for some reason does away with some bass.
Either way, the TX-P42X50B does better than most, but don't pack away your home cinema just yet.
There are few better-value televisions than the TX-P42X50B.
Some might scoff at an HD-ready panel, but its presence here is invaluable; reducing the cost of the TX-P42X50B by around a third.
The low resolution has further advantages in that it's far kinder to low-resolution sources. And in the modern digital living room, that's quite a boon – especially since the TX-P42X50B also plays fair with digital video files.
As well as the basic elements of picture quality all being present and correct, the TX-P42X50 also boasts both a Freeview HD tuner and one of the better built-in sound systems we've clapped our ears on of late.
As an all-in-one for the living room, the TX-P42X50B is about as close as you're going to get – and though some will consider its 61cm depth, and lack of both apps and a Full HD resolution (it's precisely half the resolution of a Full HD model) too much of a come-down, none of that should be expected on a sub-£400 telly.
For undemanding users purely after smooth, reliable and forgiving picture quality, the TX-P42X50B is unbeatable.
Should you buy an HD-ready plasma? Its popularity is on the slide – just one in nine flat TVs bought are plasmas – but that's got more to do with existing production capabilities and 'slim' TV marketing than it has about pure picture quality.
The proof is right here in front of us; the TX-P42X50B is the most versatile, best value all-round TV for a living room we've seen this year.
Some might get distracted by apps and 3D, but it's a TV's core picture quality that will ultimately endear or repel you to it once it's in-situ.
Happily, the TX-P42X50B achieves the former at a canter; motion is smooth, while colour is both natural and well saturated.
It may not indulge in home networking, but the TX-P42X50B can not only handle a plethora of digital video formats, but plays them in excellent quality, too.
Relatively powerful audio is yet another plus point. However, the icing on the cake is something that's endemic to plasma; a ultra-quick response time of a puny 0.001ms, which by our calculations makes it about 6,000 times faster than most LCD/LED TVs. No streaks, blur or resolution loss here.
Given their popularity, it's also nice to see an SD Card slot in the TX-P42X50B's side.
Despite the overly large 61cm depth and a lacklustre Freeview HD EPG, the TX-P42X50B's only major drawback is its HD-ready panel, which means 1080p material from Blu-ray lacks that extra sparkle in still shots – so those with Blu-ray ambitions should consider spending a few quid more on a Full HD plasma panel.
However, the prescence of just two HDMI inputs is likely to be more problematic.
With the TX-P42X50B, Panasonic makes a compelling, though possibly last-ditch, argument for plasma as the tech of choice for living rooms.
In the Twenty-Teens the question shouldn't be 'Why plasma?' but, instead, 'Why not plasma?' since the TX-P42X50B handles both motion and standard-definition TV far more smoothly than any LCD TV.
Perfectly suited to the mix of resolutions on Freeview HD, the TX-P42X50B is ideal for film fans – though only those primarily watching DVD and not concerned with ultimate 1080p resolutions.
In short, Blu-ray owners might want to look elsewhere – and DVD collectors after a TV that's kinder to standard definition discs might want to move to the TX-P42X50B from an LCD TV.
It's far from the most advanced plasma around, but the TX-P42X50B is reliable, consistent and offers high-quality images in an easy-to-use package.
Plasma isn't dead yet.
The TX-P42X50B is Panasonic's only HD-ready telly, with the closest being a huge step-up in terms of spec; the 42-inch TX-P42UT50B has VIERA Connect smart TV apps, a Full HD resolution and even 3D compatibility. It sells for around £600.
Meanwhile, Samsung offers a couple of HD-ready plasmas from its Series 4; the 43-inch E450 (£480) – which is broadly similar to the Panasonic TX-P42X50B – and 43-inch E490 (£600), the latter of which offers 3D, and can stream digital files over a home network.