Panasonic TX-P50ST30B £900
14th Nov 2011 | 11:04
A decent 50-inch 2D plasma TV that can be upgraded to 3D later
That a 50-inch, 3D-ready plasma TV originally on sale for over £1500 can now be had with over a third off is proof of how short-lived a fillip the third dimension has given TV sales, but there's a big reason why the Panasonic TX-P50ST30B can be had for such little spend.
Lacking 3D glasses in the box – they're available for an extra £130 – this is Panasonic's offering for those who are undecided about 3D.
As such it's the perfect TV for a living room (despite a bare bones design) where a desire for future proofing, rather than a thirst for the latest tech, is dominant. Still, this entry-level 3D screen does, at least, feature a built-in 3D transmitter, so there's no need for a Wii-style accessory on the top of the telly.
Not everything is built-in; a Wi-Fi dongle is merely optional, a shame since a wired connection to a broadband router just isn't possible in many home environments, and the TX-P50ST30B has a significant online dimension that demands bandwidth. Viera Connect, much tweaked since its lacklustre debut in 2010, now sports the likes of BBC iPlayer, Lovefilm and Acetrax movie streaming.
The TX-P50ST30B is the biggest example in the ST30 line-up, with the 42-inch Panasonic TX-P42ST30B and 46-inch Panasonic TX-P46ST30B selling for around £550 and £700, respectively. The ST30 range is Panasonic's most basic in 3D terms, and much improved upon in both its GT30 and VT30 Series.
The former matches an Infinite Black Pro plasma panel and a slimmer bezel with THX Certification, for an exacting home cinema calibration. It's available in the UK as the 42-inch Panasonic TX-P42GT30B, 46-inch Panasonic TX-P46GT30B and 50-inch Panasonic TX-P50GT30B for around £900, £1,050 and £1,200 respectively.
Thoroughly respectable, and good value, efforts at 3D LED-backlit LCD TVs also come from Panasonic in the shape of the 32-inch Panasonic TX-L32DT30B and 37-inch Panasonic TX-L37DT30B, which sell for around £550 and £800 respectively.
Further up the scale is Panasonic's ultimate plasma range, the VT30, which comprises the 42-inch Panasonic TX-P42VT30B, 50-inch Panasonic TX-P50VT30B, 55-inch Panasonic TX-P55VT30B and 65-inch Panasonic TX-P65VT30B. Though it's the feature-laden, much-discounted GT30 Series that is the biggest challenger to the Panasonic TX-P50ST30B.
The Infinite Black plasma panel on the TX-P50ST30B measures a mere 42mm deep, which is about as thin as plasma tech allows.
It shelters not just a Freeview HD tuner, but also the improving Viera Connect online hub. There are actually around 15 apps pre-loaded (automatic firmware updates keep it fresh and ever-changing), though the only must-haves are BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Acetrax (movie streaming) and Skype – though making voice or video calls is only possible if you buy a separate TY-CC10W HD mic/camera from Panasonic.
Elsewhere on Viera Connect there's a marketplace with more apps and even a few pay-for games, an interesting dimension that's bound to expand.
The set's ins and outs are exceedingly generous. The back of the TV plays host to three HDMI inputs, one of which is Audio Return Channel compatible. There's also a Scart, a set of component inputs, optical digital audio for routing sound to a home cinema, a set of analogue audio ins and outs, Ethernet LAN, and a USB slot. It's only the latter that we have any concern about; its back-facing design means a thumbdrive – unless it's a tiny design – will poke out enough to cause an issue if the TX-P50ST30B is wall-mounted.
Close-by, the side panel is almost as stuffed, with slots for a SD card, USB (given a label that suggests it can be used to take recordings from Freeview to a hard disk, but it cannot), a composite video input, a headphones slot, some more analogue phono inputs and a Common Interface module.
The only hardware hissy fit we'll throw is about the TX-P50ST30B's lack of a Wi-Fi module (Panasonic's DY-WL10 can be bought for around £70), and those missing 3D specs, which just seems mean. Unfortunately, the extra cost for a Wi-Fi dongle is confounded by the fact that home networking isn't an option on the TX-P50ST30B – so the likes of MKV and DivX files are restricted to the USB slot only.
The TX-P50ST30B might seem like good value in terms of features, but when it comes to ultimate picture quality we found it slightly disappointing.
Let's start with the 2D-3D mode, which we used while watching Doctors on BBC HD. Whatever was in focus seemed to be slightly divorced from the background, sometimes impressively so, but mainly it looks plain odd – and the background flickers to a distracting extent.
Back on 2D, the TX-P50ST30B's contrast levels are not quite up there with the best Panasonic plasmas. Despite this panel sporting an anti-reflective coating to boost perceived contrast, we weren't completely blown away by the dingier scenes in our test disc, Despicable Me on Blu-ray.
We are being harsh – the black levels on the TX-TX-P50ST30B are more realistic and natural than on any LCD TV we've seen this year, and that includes pricier LED-backlit sets. If anything, our criticisms of the TX-P50ST30B should point you towards Panasonic's pricier GT30 or VT30 plasmas, not an LCD TV.
Where the TX-P50ST30B doesn't compare all that well to LCD is in ultimate detail. This has been the case for sometime, and although the difference between Frozen Planet on BBC One and BBC One HD from the Freeview HD tuner is discernable enough – and even more so between a DVD and a Blu-ray disc (though Resolution Enhancer upscales DVDs very well indeed), Full HD sources do lack the crisp, fine detailing of a top-of-the-range LCD TV.
The trade-off, as well as much more believable blacks, is a livelier colour palette, another of plasma tech's specialities. Although the TV arrives pre-loaded with some highly watchable settings (not something a scorching LCD often does), the lack of fine-tuning here rears its ugly (ish) head; during Life's Too Short we noticed a tendency for overcooked skin tones and the odd bit of colour banding.
Personally we don't care to much for the IFC mode; there is some judder in Blu-ray discs, but the false fluidity introduced by IFC on its mid-to-high settings can look plain odd – and that's saying nothing of the slight artefacting around moving characters and objects.
A slight flicker in the panel is often discernable, but especially so when watching 3D. Viewed through Panasonic's TY-EW3D2MA glasses, our well-worn Avatar test disc is clean and nicely immersive. It's bright backgrounds and moving objects that cause the flicker, though there's none of the irritating double images and crosstalk of earlier 3D efforts. If you can stretch to the 3D glasses, they're a worthy upgrade.
Sound, value and ease of use
Audio isn't one of the TX-P50ST30B's strong suits; its 69mm-deep chassis just isn't big enough to be home to cinema-style sound. Though actual distortion is rare, the width of the soundstage is fittingly slim and weedy.
In our test disc Despicable Me a blast of Sweet Home Alabama lacks any kind of sparkle – a screen of this size should be doing better, though we suppose anyone after a plasma as big as this will probably already have one eye/ear on a soundbar or home cinema system. An even tidier, though perhaps not as powerful, sound solution is to add Panasonic's SC-HTB520 soundbar for £300.
Those after surround sound shouldn't be fooled by the TX-P50ST30B's V-Audio Surround, which is only a partially successful illusory trick-mode that doesn't achieve anything in the way of rear sound effects.
The TX-P50ST30B is a good value TV, there's absolutely no question about that, but we're not convinced there aren't others out there with just a touch more performance.
The obvious one of which is the 50-inch plasma in Panasonic's own GT30 Series, which at the time of writing cost around £350 extra. That's perhaps too dear for most (though that price does include 3D specs) so instead look at 3D plasmas from Samsung, which have impressed – the 64-inch Samsung PS64D8000 and 51-inch Samsung PS51D6900 in particular, which sells for around the same price at the TX-P50ST30B.
Let's not forget that the TX-P50ST30B comes without 3D glasses, while fitting it with Wi-Fi, and a Skype kit, also requires additional expenditure.
Ease of use
The user interface on the TX-P50ST30B is nothing to get excited about, though the addition of Viera Tools is a good one. Simply push the corresponding button on the remote control, and a line-up of icons are spread across the bottom of the screen.
Viera Connect, though a cluttered collection of rather Euro-centric apps, is simple to scan around, though it can be a touch long-winded to find a specific app. We're also a bit confused as to why it's given the Viera Cast button on the remote – could Panasonic not be bothered to buy new remotes?
From the USB slot we managed to play AVI, MKV, MOV, WMV videos, MP3 and WMA music, and JPEG photos – the latter complete with 3D support and, better still, a cheesy easy listening soundtrack.
We had fun playing with the Viera Remote app on an iPhone 3GS, but it is rather loud – each touch brings a buzz, each swipe some kind of tin drum effect – but it's got an exhaustive five screens for operating every function on the TV. Although the physical remote is OK, the app is easier to use.
Some will find the set's rather basis calibration options a letdown. Unlike its more expensive brethren, the TX-P50ST30B is not certified by the ISF or THX. Big deal, you might say; who are they anyway?
And while we don't care much for the continuing penchant for 'yet another logo' on electronics, their absence does hint at a limited roster of picture tweaks. In the advanced picture menus you'll find options for tweaking processing gubbins like Intelligent Frame Creation (a frame insertion tech to lessen the judder in 24p video from Blu-ray discs) and settings for the strength of the 2D-3D depth effect (for live TV as well as movies), but little in the way of genuine calibration choices for colour.
This isn't a 3D plasma unless you add 3D specs for £130, but that's actually all you need to do, for the 3D transmitter is already built-in. There are one or two features lacking, but overall the TX-P50ST30B is the kind of plasma that keeps the panel tech going in the face of the LED challenge; it's just such great value.
Built-in Freeview HD, the now genuinely engaging Viera Connect, a great smartphone app, MKV support from USB, pictures more versatile than we've a right to expect, and effective 3D. Enough? And then there's the price – a thoroughly advanced 50-inch Full HD plasma, with 3D upgrade options, for £900? Where's the queue?
No Wi-Fi and no 3D glasses make this a future-proof option rather than the finished article. The same goes for its lack of calibration options, while the loss of DLNA streaming seems plain odd on a set that can easily be networked. Contrast doesn't match-up to higher-spec plasmas, Full HD detail can underwhelm, and 2D-3D isn't yet effective enough to consider using regularly.
A great choice for a living room that wants BBC iPlayer and a 3D option in future, this 50-inch plasma is kind to dodgy sources at the cost of slightly soft Blu-ray. A smooth picture with awesome colour and great contrast compared to LED rivals, this is the everyman plasma defined – and it's going for a song.
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