This is the first TV that CNET UK has had in from Panasonic's new 2012 range. The biggest surprise is that it uses passive 3D rather than the active technology the company was pushing so hard last year.
Once upon a time, Panasonic used to claim that only plasma TVs could deliver satisfying 3D. Then it decided that active 3D LCD models were up to the job. Now it's also venturing down the passive route. So what gives?
According to Panasonic, it still believes active 3D is the best option, but you need a TV with a fast panel to get the job done properly, otherwise crosstalk is too noticeable. Therefore, on more affordable models that use slower panels, such as this set, which costs around £650, it's opted for passive 3D. How does it stack up against competing brands vying for your cash?
User interface and EPG
Sadly, Panasonic hasn't given its user interface the major overhaul that it so sorely needs to make up the ground lost to the graphics-rich menus on LG and Samsung sets. It will be redesigning the user interface for next year's models, which seems a tad late to me.
As a result, this TV is saddled with similar-looking menus to those in Panasonic's older range. There's only sparse use of graphics, so you're left with dated menus composed of blocky white or yellow text on a blue-ish background.
Panasonic has made a few tweaks here and there. The biggest improvement is that when you select an option in a menu, a text box beneath gives you a short description of what that feature does. For example, select Contrast and the text tells you that this setting adjusts the ratio between white and black. They're not the most comprehensive descriptions, but they should give the average user more insight into what effect their changes are going to have on the picture.
Panasonic has also updated the electronic programme guide (EPG) slightly. It has finally removed the web-style adverts that took up valuable screen space on the EPGs of previous models. There's now more room on screen for programming information.
There are three different EPG layouts that you can choose from. The standard layout shows seven channels' worth of data at a time using a large easy-to-read font. The second layout employs a smaller font but displays 10 channels at a time. Meanwhile, the third layout shows five, but adds a text box at the bottom of the screen that gives a summary of the show you've selected in the EPG. There's still no video preview window and the presentation of the EPG is dull and dated compared to Sony, LG and Samsung sets.
Design and connections
It's been a long time since a Panasonic TV really wowed me with its design, and the ET5 is no different. That said, it's prettier than the company's previous models. Like last year's LG TVs, this one has a transparent lip that overhangs the edge of the glossy grey bezel. The bezel is on the thick side, measuring 20mm wide at the top and edges of the set. As this is essentially an entry-level 3D model, I'll let that pass. With a panel depth of around 40mm, it's at least quite slim, so overall, while it's no stunner, neither is it ugly.
Things start to look up when you take a peak at the connections. With four HDMI ports, a set of component inputs, a VGA port and a Scart socket, you're not going to struggle for connectors when it comes to hooking up your AV kit.
Playback of movie files is well catered for as there are three USB ports, an SD card slot and an Ethernet port. Unlike last year's models, Wi-Fi is now built in too, so you don't have to run a cable to your TV or shell out for an expensive Wi-Fi dongle to take advantage of its smart features.
Internet TV and file support
Despite the fact that this is an entry-level 3D model, it still uses the same Smart Viera Connect software as the higher-end models in Panasonic's range. The difference is that unlike the top-end models, this TV relies on a single rather than dual-core processor. Consequently it isn't quite as quick and smooth.
Nevertheless, Panasonic has boosted the number of apps available on its Connect platform while also improving some of the existing services. For example, the YouTube app now uses the 'Lean Back' interface, which has been designed specifically for use on TVs. It has large icons and a menu system that's easier to navigate via a standard remote control. Along with the individual Facebook and Twitter apps, there's a social TV app that lets you view posts and tweets in a window while you're watching a TV show.
Naturally, BBC iPlayer is pre-loaded by default, along with the handy BBC News app. There's also support for the Dailymotion and Vimeo video services, while Panasonic has added a Netflix app. Lovefilm is not supported and there's no ITV Player or 4oD access, although no other TV manufacturer has apps for the latter two yet.
As with last year's models, you can download the Skype app but you have to shell out for the rather pricey webcam if you want to make use of it. There are more on-demand TV and film services like Fetch TV and Acetrax, as well as some pretty basic games and less-than-inspiring fitness apps.
This time around Panasonic has also added a full web browser, but oddly, this isn't installed by default. Instead, you have to download it via Panasonic's app store. The browser was a tad buggy and crashed on us a few times. Also, it doesn't support Adobe Flash, unlike the browser on Samsung's latest TVs.
The interface for Viera Connect remains unchanged from that featured on 2011's TVs. You're presented with a grid of nine very large icons per screen and you can move up and down through layers of pages with forward and back controls. Shifting between pages isn't quite as quick as it should be. If you've got lots of apps installed, navigation can feel laborious. But you can edit these pages and place your most commonly-used apps on the first or second pages, with those that you're likely to use less buried deeper down the menu.
Overall, Panasonic's smart service is probably the third best out there at the moment, behind Samsung and LG. I don't think anyone has completely cracked the smart TV conundrum of how to add Internet features to a TV. It feels a lot like early smart phones, where you're waiting around for a company like Apple to come along and show us how it should be done.
Panasonic has improved this set's digital media playback performance compared to previous TVs. It supports the majority of the video formats that most people are likely to want to play including DivX, Xvid, MP4 and HD MKV files. What's more, AC3 and DTS soundtracks on video files are now supported too. Files can be streamed across a network from a PC or NAS drive or alternatively played locally via a drive connected to one of the USB ports, or a card plugged into the SD slot.
Panasonic usually makes a better fist of audio on its slimline TVs than most, partly because the chassis on its sets widen out at the bottom to make room for slightly larger speakers. The same trick has been tried on this TV but it hasn't helped matters much. The audio produced by the two down-firing 10W speakers is a step backwards from last year's 32-inch LED models. Dialogue doesn't sound as crisp and distinct and there is less warmth and depth in the bass department.
You can improve things slightly by using the graphic equaliser found in the audio menu to boost the mid-range frequencies. Turning on the pseudo-surround sound setting also widens the sound stage a touch. But it just doesn't sound as good as the company's previous sets.
3D picture quality
Panasonic doesn't actually make passive 3D panels, so it's an open secret that it's bought in the passive panels used in the ET5 range from LG. Using another manufacturer's panels is actually a common practice among TV companies. After all, Sony used Samsung panels for years. What's more, picture quality doesn't just depend on the panel -- it's also very heavily influenced by the TV's picture processing circuitry.
When it comes to 3D, passive technology has strengths and weaknesses, but on this model I think the good by far outweighs the bad. Passive screens don't deliver Full HD images to each eye, unlike active 3D screens. Instead, every second line of the display is fed to a different eye. If you move very close to the screen you can actually see the missing lines.
On larger displays, this can make 3D images look less sharp. But this set's smaller 32-inch size means that its horizontal lines are tightly packed together. It's very difficult to notice the difference between this TV and an active 3D set of the same screen size from a normal viewing distance.
The passive glasses are as cheap as chips to buy. It comes with four pairs in the box, but you can purchase extra ones for just a couple of quid. This is ideal for families with lots of kids or for inviting mates around to watch the footy in 3D. The glasses are much lighter and more comfortable to wear than active specs. Because they're passive, they don't dim the images as much, nor do they cause you to see any flickering when there is ambient light in your room.
As with all the passive sets we've seen, there's virtually no crosstalk -- or ghosting -- visible in this model's 3D images. The screen doesn't respond well to extreme viewing angles on the vertical axis though -- such as standing up or lying down in front of the TV -- as this causes the 3D images to diverge, leading to extreme crosstalk. These would be very unnatural viewing angles, so under normal conditions you're not going to notice crosstalk on this TV.
The upshot of all this is that the ET5 really does produce excellent 3D pictures with an impressive sense of depth. In fact, the only real question that I have is whether a 32-inch screen is going to be big enough to deliver an immersive 3D experience -- 3D is definitely something that benefits from a larger screen.
2D picture quality
This model has 3D licked, but what about its 2D performance? When it's working with HD feeds from either the on-board Freeview HD tuner or movies on Blu-ray disc, image quality is very good indeed. Perhaps not unexpectedly, on a relatively small screen such as this, sharpness and detail levels are very high. The TV's impressive brightness also helps colours to look punchy and vibrant and it tends to handle skin tones and subtle natural hues well.
If you turn off Panasonic's Intelligent Frame Create (IFC) motion smoothing feature, some motion blur creeps in. That's perhaps not surprising as the panel has a native refresh rate of 100Hz, with back light blinking adding the extra 200Hz to the overall 300Hz figure that Panasonic quotes for this set.
Enabling IFC at its minimum setting gets rid of most of this without giving movies the glassy video look that picture processing engines can sometimes create. Black levels are quite deep and it achieves these without losing detail in darker areas of the image.
It's not quite as accomplished a performer with standard-definition material such as Freeview channels or DVD movies. Colours generally look a little less refined, especially on skin tones, as they have a tendency to come across as either slightly waxy or overly reddish. Pictures are still perfectly watchable -- they're just less impressive than with HD.
This is a pretty good all-round package from Panasonic. It offers impressive passive 3D performance, a good line-up of Internet and digital media playback features, while also producing punchy picture quality. However, its slightly woolly sound quality and high price tag hold it back from achieving a higher score.