Panasonic TX-50GT30 review

Twelve months ago the ins and outs of 3DTVs were a mystery to us all as a plethora of high-priced LED TVs were thrown our way, but now we know the truth; if you want convincing 3D in your living room, choose a plasma. Panasonic, the only brand to offer 3D plasmas until Samsung joined the fray just before Christmas (and more recently, LG), scooped around half of the 3DTV market - and for good reason.

So the arrival of this 50-inch in its brand new mid-range GT30 is something to get excited about for anyone into the latest and greatest in home entertainment. That excitement proves well founded. Accompanied in the GT30 range by the 42-inch TX-P42GT30B and 46-inch TX-P46GT30B, all three sit between Panasonic’s high-end 3D-ready VT30 and budget 3D-ready ST30 range, but still represent a high-end purchase for most consumers.

In place of last year’s crop of 3D plasmas, this generation adds an all-new Infinite Black Pro Panel, something that’s destined to be the must-have panel in home cinemas in 2011. By way of confirmation, the TX-50GT30 also boats THX certification for 2D and 3D, though it’s the ancillary features that will likely spread the word far and wide. Quite literally in the case of Skype video calling, though Viera Connect - a newly developed system that sees cloud-based content and those ubiquitous apps - is likely to be just as appealing.

Exclusive to Panasonic TVs, Viera Connect is the upgrade to Viera Cast, 2010’s peerlessly designed, highly functional, but virtually pointless content hub. Viera Connect sees the arrival not only of a plethora of apps (via an app store) such as free games and information apps, but of some genuinely engaging content in the form of BBC iPlayer. Most of the rest of the “core” Apps can be found on the older Viera Cast service, but it’s still good to see the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Picasa, Dailymotion, Acetrax streamed movies, Euronews, Bloomberg, QTom and Skype video calling (the latter only if you buy a camera).

Sadly, the TX-50GT30 is Wi-Fi ready only via a USB dongle, which does seem rather odd at this price (the VT30 Series ships with one USB wireless LAN adaptor) especially since Viera Connect is joined by DLNA networking.

It also adds good looks in the shape of a quite stunning “highline” design, though it lacks the “one sheet of glass” approach of the VT30 screens; here you’ll find a narrow (18mm) bezel around the panel that’s set-off nicely with a hint of silver around the glass. The set measures just 37mm in depth at its narrowest part, though the underslung speakers do jut out of the back some (while also helping create a built-in sound not to be embarrassed about - in contrast to most flat TVs). While it’s great to have such a slim depth, we’ve seen a lot slimmer, and it comes at a cost; you’ll find a full complement of adaptors for almost all the connections, HDMI and USB aside.

The TX-50GT30’s Freeview HD electronic programme guide is unchanged from last year; it shows programme information for 2 hours at a glance and is highly functional, but still saddled with a space for adverts. Freeview programmes can be recorded to a HDD attached to one of this set’s three (one side, two rear) USB slots, though only one at a time. In practice this features “rewind live TV” aspect is more useful - and can be done on a small USB stick permanently inserted into one of those USB slots.

Digital files are playable from a USB stick, too (support covers JPEG, MP3 and WMA music, and DivX, DivX HD, MP4, MOV and WMV video files), while we managed to stream DivX (AVI), AVC HD and MOV video and JPEG pictures (no music whatsoever), over a network (via wired LAN) from a Mac using the set’s DLNA networking feature. A mixed bag.

From an SD card it’s also possible to view images and videos recorded in 3D (with the aid of the 3D glasses, of course). At first we thought it was a mistake, but nope, the TX-50GT30 doesn't actually come with any 3D glasses. That’s almost criminal, though one possible excuse could be Panasonic’s wise decision to sell three different sizes of 3D glasses. However, each pair costs a shade under £100 and are as uncomfortable as last year’s efforts.

That, however, is our 3D gripes over because the TX-50GT30 otherwise excels. The pictures from our test disc Open Season proved so easy to watch compared to most 3D LCD TVs, with the dual bonus of brighter pictures than we saw on Panny’s 2010 efforts. Black areas are studded with more detail than in last year’s duller (though still reference-level) 3D images; it’s the most convincing 3D performance we’ve seen so far.

The NeoPlasma panel used here also offers the most luscious 2D picture we’ve witnessed. Tighter, brighter colours abound and the accuracy of the screen is stunning; check-out the subtlety of black areas of the picture and you’ll see why plasma is favoured above LED-backlit TVs by the home cinema crowd - though it’s possibly thanks to 3D that these improvements to brightness have been made. There’s just so much detail within blocks of colour, and skin is as cleanly reproduced as we've ever seen it on a plasma. The Intelligent Frame Creation feature, which inserts frames into video to get rid of judder in a Blu-ray disc, is worth auditioning, though the smoothness it introduces can detract from the cinematic effect on this plasma; it's a bit hit and miss, as is the novelty 2D-to-3D conversion.

Verdict

Killer blacks, peerless colour and the best 3D performance we’ve seen so far; this 50-inch “neo plasma”, complete with multimedia features including BBC iPlayer, DivX playback and Skype video calling, sees Panasonic in confident mood. If Wi-Fi and 3D glasses were included this set would edge top marks.