Panasonic TX-L32E5

It might not manage three dimensions, but this 32-inch LED edge-lit LCD telly boasts both decent smart TV antics and digital file networking – all wrapped-up in a slinky chassis. Entry-level it may be, but this particular Panasonic helps redefine the budget TV genre.

Ins and outs

The first clue that the TX-L32E5B is spec'ed up to the nines comes not in its full HD resolution or edge LED backlighting - which helps achieve a respectable, though hardly brain-blowing 40mm depth - but in its almost exhaustive connectivity. Capping it all is a stunning four HDMI inputs perched high-up on a heavily recessed side panel, which ought to please even the highest-definition dude, though personally we like the inclusion of an SD card slot just as much. All happy snappers will agree.

Not so the USB count, which at a meagre two means some hard choices have to be made if you intend on taking advantage of the TX-L32E5B's three reasonably high-end features; recording programmes from the Freeview HD tuner to a docked USB stick, video calling via a Skype app using an optional extra USB-powered mic-cam, or VIERA Connect.

The lack of a Wi-Fi module sees this so-called smart TV relying solely on a wired Ethernet LAN port on its rear, unless an add-on Wi-Fi USB dongle is purchased. It makes both VIERA Connect and home networking that little bit trickier, or pricier, to achieve.

If that seems pretty poor show, then we should mention that having a smart TV dimension at all is still unusual on TVs of this price. We are also not happy about having to use proprietary adapters to get component and composite video sources into the TX-L32E5B, especially as that's usually a get-around for achieving super-slimness - something that's not evident here - though they're for legacy gear only.

The back also includes an optical digital audio output, a headphone socket and mini connections for both Scart and a D-sub 15-pin PC.

While we're on hardware it's worth mentioning that the standard Panasonic remote remains, albeit with a slight slimming-down of the numbered buttons. We are also graced by a new smartphone app. Downloaded to an iPhone, it's a nicely gesture-dominated home screen that's a cinch to use, though we did have trouble firing-up VIERA Connect.

VIERA Connect

Netflix! BBC iPlayer! YouTube! Err, iConcerts! All human life is here on VIERA Connect, which makes a strong argument for being the slickest and quickest of all the smart TV hub services.

Okay, so some of its apps - we're thinking Euronews, CNBC Real-Time and Dailymotion - aren't the sharpest on the box, but it's got something few of its rivals can muster; shopping.

Sign-up for an account and register a credit card and it's possible to buy a few games, as well as compatible, Logitech-made, controllers, Skype cameras and keyboards. The latter can be used with the TX-L32E5B's interesting new web browser, though after downloading - it's not present on the VIERA Connect home screens by default - it soon becomes apparent that the scrolling is so slow it won't ever get close to a smartphone for sheer ease and speed of use.

Facebook and Twitter are also on VIERA Connect, though with these social networks racing now primarily towards smartphone apps we're not sure there's a significant need for them on a TV.

Networking

Hit the VIERA Tools button on the remote and a drop-up list appears. After choosing music, video or photo you're immediately engaging with digital fare stored on whatever USB stick is parked. The media server option also links with a DLNA-compliant PC on the same network.

From the USB the TX-L32E5B's software supports all common file types but WMA music, though over a network MKV video support disappears. Common to both is support for FLAC files, which though handy to some does raise the question: if Panasonic was set on supporting lossless music files, why didn't it choose the more common WAV format?

Freeview HD

The TX-L32E5B has a Freeview HD tuner - and that's where the excitement ends. It's reasonable enough in purely functional terms, with some rudimentary record-to-USB features joining excellent picture quality, but the whole treatment of the digital platform is surprisingly poor.

Press the "guide" button and an eight-day electronic programme guide is displayed, though in doing so both pictures and sound from the channel you were watching cease. Why Panasonic can't include a simple thumbnail in the EPG screen of a live TV channel is beyond us: all other TV manufacturers do so. It's pretty archaic.

Picture quality

If you think this review has highlighted a few niggles, that's all they are, and the picture performance is enough to convince us that the TX-L32E5B is comfortably one of the best 32-inchers available from the 2012 crop.

We'd advise leaving "vivid colour creation" switched-off. Some will like the extra pizazz it brings to the otherwise muted colour tones, though to our eyes it's spot-on and natural-looking to start with.

Sticking with the excellent "cinema" picture preset, and with the clear cinema 100Hz mode activated at all times, the TX-L37E5B proved free from blur and judder, sharp with hi-def sources and leaving standard definition material looking thoroughly spick and span. Using a Virgin Media TiVo box, a swap between Sky's hi-def feed and the BBC's regular transmission of the Formula 1 Grand Prix in China revealed a clean and pristine former and a surprisingly watchable latter, with races of low bitrate information nicely glossed over without the appearance of any picture noise.

Contrast and black levels are better than we'd expected, too, and it's possible to look at the screen from well off-centre before any richness to colour or black tones starts to drain.

Verdict

A good value TV whose pairing of the slick VIERA Connect with some nifty digital file handling put this a few rungs in front of the competition, though it's the sterling and ultra-versatile picture quality that truly convinces despite a lacklustre Freeview HD interface and a lack of Wi-Fi.