This sub-£500 42in Full HD TV with Freetime functionality is a must for bargain-hunters
This year was always likely to be a tricky one for Panasonic in TV terms, without having its ever-reliable plasma division to woo film fans. And to be honest it’s lived up – and down – to expectations, with the brand so far delivering a slightly untidy mix of hit-and-miss LCD sets.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the TX-42AS600 on test here is definitely one of Panasonic’s 2014 ‘hits’.
Let's start with the price tag. At £430, this is eye-catchingly affordable for a TV that’s not even from the bottom end of Panasonic’s current range. Yes, it's a mere 42in and only a Full HD resolution – bigger screen sizes and 4K resolutions have changed the market considerably – but it can still form the centre piece of a smallscale cinema setup.
It also delivers instant shelf appeal by not looking at all like a bargain-priced telly. Panasonic has endowed its AS600 series with an on-trend super-slim bezel, and there's a bold contrast between the silvery trim of the bottom edge and the glossy black finish applied to the other three sides.
Connections are solid. A trio of HDMIs, two USBs and both Ethernet and integrated Wi-Fi options make up the most important stuff.
Those network connections enable streaming of video, photo and music files from networked DLNA-capable devices, and access to Panasonic’s online service. The highlight of the latter is the integrated Freetime system. Also found higher up Panasonic’s 2014 range, this brings catch-up services for all the main UK terrestrial broadcast channels via an EPG guide that can be scrolled back in time as well as forward. For any technophobes worried about not being able to get their heads around a normal video-streaming hub, Freetime is a dream come true.
This isn't the only way Panasonic works hard to make potentially complicated things simple. I’m also a fan of its My Home Screen interface, which allows personalisation of the set's home page to contain only the content links you want.
Rounding out the TX-42AS600's Smart sophistication is My Stream, which highlights content based on analysis of your viewing history; and the TV’s ability to be used in conjunction with an Android/iOS app that makes it easier to both control the set and share content between devices.
From a picture quality point of view, the first thing to say is that the TX-42AS600 doesn’t support 3D playback. It does, though, carry a 100Hz motion reproduction system which is driven – along with other processing-based aspects of picture reproduction – by a dual-core engine. By far the best bit of news about the TX-42AS600, though, is that it uses a VA-type LCD panel rather than an IPS one.
The struggles of IPS panels to deliver a good black colour has been painfully exposed this year by the black level improvements of rival VA-style panels – and unfortunately many of Panasonic’s 2014 TVs have used IPS.
The appeal of a VA design can be appreciated the instant you feed the TX-42AS600 any predominantly dark image. As Batman is mercilessly pummelled by Bane in the gloom of the villain’s underground lair, for instance, the darkness of the walls around him suffers impressively little with the misty grey look associated with low-contrast LCD TVs. There's more shadow detail in Batman’s suit and the walls, too, helping the scene enjoy an expansive sense of depth.
Furthermore, deeper, more natural black colours mean dark hues of red and green appear more believable than they tend to on low-contrast displays.
And, as you don’t need to remove as much brightness from images to optimise black levels on the TX-42AS600, lighter areas of dark scenes can retain more brightness – the overall experience is more dynamic. This is especially clear in the scenes in The Pit in The Dark Knight Rises, particularly with the shots looking up from the bottom of The Pit at the daylight above.
Moving away from the contrast advantages of the TX-42AS600’s VA panel, a run-through of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Blu-ray) reveals it to be capable of producing impressively bold colours. It captures HD detailing from Blu-rays and good-quality HD broadcasts very well, too, with minimal noise and no sign of forced edging or fizzing noise over areas of ultra-fine detail. Obviously, I'm not talking about anything to rival 4K/UHD displays, but if you were hoping to get 4K for this price you’re living in dream land. For now, anyway…
The aforementioned strengths are enough to help the TX-42AS600 stand out from this year’s often lacklustre budget TV crowd. But this Panasonic is, inevitably, not perfect. The most obvious problem is that the crisp look to HD images reduces during action scenes, as the set loses quite a chunk of resolution over moving objects. It does, at least, keep a decent lid on judder by sub-£500 standards.
It's a rather average handler of standard-definition material, too – colours end up lacking finesse following the upscaling process.
Finally, while I'd recommend that you leave the 42AS600’s ‘adaptive backlight’ feature on (at its lowest power setting) to get rid of some minor traces of backlight clouding visible during very dark scenes, this feature does occasionally cause some slightly distracting ‘jumps’ in the image’s overall brightness.
Having said that, these luminance leaps are neither as common nor as aggressive as those I'm increasingly noticing on IPS panels, where such contrast-boosting tools have to work that much harder to combat the lack of native contrast.
The main arguments used to justify using IPS panels in modern flatscreens are that they deliver a markedly wider viewing angle and produce a more video-friendly colour palette. However, while it’s true that the TX-42AS600’s images start to lose contrast and colour saturation from narrower viewing angles than a typical IPS panel would, the difference isn’t great enough to upset me. And while good IPS TVs may look marginally more balanced with their colour reproduction overall, this is countered by the better contrast and natural dark tones on offer here.
Sonically, the TX-42AS600 is somewhat hamstrung by its slender form factor. There's a lack of bass from the 2 x 10W speaker array that, with my Batman Blu-ray, leaves Bane’s growling voice sounding less menacing and reduces the impact of explosions and other large soundstage moments. However, the bass shortage doesn’t cause trebles to become too exposed and harsh at the other end of the spectrum, and the mid-range is strong enough to both maintain vocal clarity under duress and propel the soundstage a surprising distance away from the physical confines of the chassis.
The motion softness the 42AS600 suffers with, in particular, means it would struggle in a shootout with higher-spec flatscreens. But at the same time Panasonic’s decision to turn to VA LCD technology has helped it construct a great-value TV that’s a no-brainer for second-room use and could also comfortably pass muster as a main system display if finances are tight.
Price: £430 Approx
Highs: Good, contrast-rich picture quality; decent value; Freetime is a welcome Smart TV addition; unobtrusive design
Lows: Some motion blur; standard-def colours look a little basic; some strong competition at this price level
Tuner: Freeview HD
Connections: 3 x HDMI inputs; 2 x USB; RGB Scart; component video input; RF input; built-in Wi-Fi; Ethernet port
Sound: 20W stereo
Contrast ratio: N/A
Dimensions (off stand): 947(w) x 552(h) x 53(d)mm
Weight (off stand): 12kg
Features: 100Hz Backlight Blinking; My Home Screen interface; TV Anywhere system; Freetime built in; Smart Viera app access; Panasonic TV Remote 2 app support with ‘swipe and share’ tech; My Stream content recommendation system; Dynamic/Normal/Cinema/True Cinema/Custom presets; dual-core processing engine; DLNA/USB media file playback
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