(Pocket-lint) - We've been holding out on reviewing the Panasonic TX-50AX802 4K TV for some time. But now that time has come and the AX800 series is more relevant than ever thanks to the arrival of Netflix 4K. That, coupled with built-in tuners for Freeview HD and Freesat HD with Freetime, makes it an ultra-high definition telly with distinct appeal.
It's also a 4K set that lands on the right side of affordable: it's a penny shy of £1,500 at last count which, for a dominating 50-inch panel, puts it in a similar ballpark to where top-rated Full HD tellies were just a couple of years ago.
In short, there's little excuse not to embrace the imminent ultra-high definition era. But is the AX802B the ultimate 4K TV for the price - or is it bettered by its peers?
Laid back design
The Panasonic AX802B doesn't have a screen that sits perfectly upright; the top edge sits slanted further back than the bottom edge's position. That's a design trait similar (but less extreme than) the last-generation of Sony televisions. This subtle screen angle is well considered and doesn't skew the appearance of the Panasonic picture though - and we actually prefer it to the Sony design. If you choose to wall-mount then this won't be a point of note, of course.
Out of the box a hefty beast of a stand links the to the AX802B's screen. This hulk-like box, which is where much of the weight is, is hidden from the front-on view, leaving the otherwise slender silver-edge stand with its open aperture design to add a lick of elegance to the set overall.
However, if you're hoping to squeeze the TV close to a wall then this box-like element of the stand protrudes 180mm to the rear.
The AX802B's screen is encased by a black bezel, which measures just 7mm, but the overall set isn't the slimmest on the market as the panel section's edges are 25mm deep. This really doesn't matter in a practical sense given the scope of the stand though.
There's a casual simplicity to the AX802's design that we rather like. It doesn't overcomplicate things and leaves the picture to dominate the view.
With most TVs there aren't too many special features to talk about in terms of ports. But the Panasonic TX-50AX802B is a different beast.
Flip the screen around and, yep, it has the usual HDMI and USB ports - three HDMI standard, a separate fourth for 4K resolution; while USB is catered for by a pair of USB 2.0 and a third USB 3.0 port - but there's also an SD card slot.
We found the SD card slot particularly handy for looking at still images direct from cameras, although you may wish to deliver media in this way too. As MKV, AVI, MOV, MP4 and WMV are all supported it's easy to watch the majority of formats, whether via direct input or using a networked attached storage (NAS) drive.
Those are all positives, but it's the integrated tuners that stand-out. There are two satellite LNB ports, so if you have a satellite dish then you can plug in and Freesat HD is at your fingertips. No need for a box, no subscription, no nonsense - just lots of TV channels without the fuss. The set also caters for Freeview HD, but as we don't have a standard aerial installed that's not a feature we tested.
It also includes Freetime, which the electronic programme guide (EPG) will present catch-up options for some key channels without needing to dig into additional apps first. It's a bit like YouView for Freesat, all via a simple tap of the left direction button tap on the provided remote control.
Speaking of which, you get a decent remote control included in the box that will cater for all your TV and playback needs, along with settings adjustment, without the need to juggle between multiple remotes - as often happens when running a separate set-top box. There is a second remote included in the AX802B's box, complete with trackpad, but it's overly fussy and we doubt you'll use it much.
When we first received the Panasonic TX-50AX802B it was obsessed with watching us. No, really - and we thought it should have been the other way around. There's a really irksome mode buried in the menus where the on-board camera senses movement and turns the TV on because, well, obviously everyone, everywhere wants that to happen... nobody anywhere wants that to happen. It's easily switched off though.
Secondly there's Panasonic's my home screen, which is one of a variety of home screen layout options. It can pool TV, apps, and various points of interest, such as calendars, timers and more.
Quite honestly we just felt that it was yet another screen hurdle to click through and selected the Full Screen TV option to bypass this direct to live TV once switched on. However, if you utilise lots of apps and catch-up services then it's well worth constructing your own home screen to get everything in the one place.
Apps: Level playing field
There's a dedicated Apps button on the remote control for quick access to the Apps Market, alongside the already installed applications such as BBC iPlayer, YouTube and now Netflix available in 4K for the first time on a Panasonic 4K telly. We've checked the update and have been watching Breaking Bad in 2160p - and it looks glorious.
The waiting game has been an issue all too common in 4K panel tellies. Not a single ultra-high definition TV can yet plug into YouTube at 4K (2160p), for example, despite the content certainly existing. When accessing via a browser rather than a dedicated app, for example, you'll get plenty of GoPro YouTube channel videos in 4K - just not via the TV-based app yet.
This isn't exactly Panasonic's fault, though, it's just the state of early adoption (and, in part, down to the different VP9 codec that Google is pushing) and the situation is the same of all Ultra-HD tellies. Although disappointing, it's something that will improve via software updates - and given that this is a smart TV, we're sure that such updates will happen in the future.
When it comes to picture quality we've been impressed by whatever we've thrown at the Viera TX-50AX802B. From files directly on USB or via SD card, through to HD channels from Freesat, all the Full HD content has looked fantastic upscaled to 4K. Everything just looks so sharp.
Grab some native 4K content and that's when the AX802B really shines. Although not everything on Netflix is available in 4K by any means, it's the best way to watch Breaking Bad and the only way to watch House of Cards season 2. There's more to come, too, and it will undoubtedly all look ace.
Feed a Blu-ray movie and results are suitably impressive, although you will need to put the work in and tweak the various settings to ensure the best possible blacks. That highlights the AX802B's main issue: although the blacks are rich, the backlighting can cause clouding, which in dark scenes can produce scattered light patches.
But there are a lot of settings on offer to play with. Backlight amount, contrast, brightness, colour (including tint and colour temperature), and sharpness make up what you'll find in the Menu. There's also adaptive backlight control and adjustments to keep widescreen with as dark borders as possible.
That said, the results given the price point of the TV are exceptional. The AX802B is a £1,500 product - many competitors cost £1,000 more, and no TV exhibits perfect performance. Given the clarity, the rich colours and the smooth playback this is a TV that squeezes every last worth out of the investment.
Presets don't lack either, with Dynamic, Normal, Cinema, THX Cinema, THX Bright Room, True Cinema, Custom, and Professional 1 & 2 options. It's an exhaustive list, and an excessive one really. However, as each input - from TV to HDMI - defaults to a selected viewing mode, you can tweak each one to suit.
We had the PlayStation 4 exhibiting suitably dynamic and contrasty images in games with all the Noise Reduction, MPEG Remaster, Resolution Remaster, and Intelligent Frame Creation options switched off. Freesat, on the other hand, benefitted in presenting TV shows with some Intelligent Frame Creation to smooth out the perceivable picture - something achieved by the 2,000Hz backlight scanning panel - that would look hyper-real if applied to a Blu-ray movie.
While there's the temptation to select "Normal" out of the box, we say put the work in instead and match input sources with the best possible settings. Tweak and reap the benefits, settle on the out-the-box defaults and the AX802B doesn't excel as much as it can - despite not achieving the best-in-class picture uniformity due to some clouding.
Whereas we spent time tweaking the picture to our personalised perfection, we found that the Panasonic AX802B exhibited excellent sound by default.
Voices sound rich, with an ample frequency range proving bassy enough without being over the top. There's still enough pomp for movies to bust out plenty of low-end boom for those explosive moments, or even for music to deliver extra engagement.
But if you do want to dig deep then there are plenty of customisation options. From telling the TV how far from the wall it is, through to surround options, bass boost, bass/treble adjustment or, for the advanced user, a full 8-band equaliser dealing with frequencies from 150Hz to 12,000Hz.
If you're looking to jump on board the 4K ultra-high definition revolution, then the Panasonic Viera TX-50AX802B is a great option for a 50-inch set. At under £1,500 it puts the future in your living room for a price that won't leave you penniless - unlike some of the competition. The addition of built-in Freesat HD with Freetime and Freeview HD tuners add an extra bonus without the need to buy into a separate set-top box too.
Downsides are few and far between, with some clouding from backlighting impacting those dark scenes being the AX802B's main issue - but at this price, you'll need to fork out a significant wodge of extra cash to achieve better performance (with Panasonic's imminent AX900 series one such example).
There's also an absence of native 4K apps, as is commonplace across all manufacturers. However, Netflix 4K has now arrives for this particular set and with the anticipation of yet more content in the future, you're as future-proofed buying into Panasonic as you are any other brand.
With a super-sharp picture and superb sound straight out of the box, customisable user interface home screens to dig into those apps and catch-up services, and that fair price to boot, the Panasonic Viera TX-50AX802B is a 4K TV as strong as any other 4K telly on the market. If you're looking for an affordable 4K telly then this should be a consideration for the very top of your list.