The TX-L55ET5B is the cheapest of the 3D TVs in Panasonic's current line-up of Viera sets. Instead of the active 3D system used on all its other TVs, this one relies on passive technology.
This means 3D glasses are cheap. Four are supplied in the box, but you can buy extra pairs for as little as £2 each.
Does this make the 55-inch TX-L55ET5B -- which will set you back around £1,600 -- an ideal big-screen TV for families?
User interface and EPG
Unfortunately, Panasonic hasn't redesigned the user interface to catch up with the likes of Samsung and LG, so you're left with pretty much the same system as 2011's models. These menus looked dated last year so now they're starting to appear really archaic. Long lists of white or yellow text are set against a blue background and the lush animations and 3D effects on many rival TVs are nowhere to be seen here.
On the plus side, Panasonic has updated the electronic programme guide (EPG) slightly to remove the advert placeholders that plagued its older TVs. This has freed up some extra space on screen and allowed Panasonic to create a cleaner, more airy layout. In fact, there are three EPG layouts to choose from in the settings menu. The main differences are the number of channels shown at any one time and whether the EPG includes a large box with summary info for the currently selected show.
It's annoying that the EPG still doesn't either overlay on top of the current programme you're watching or include a video thumbnail view, as many other TVs do. In fact, Panasonic includes this feature on the EPGs of its latest personal video recorders, so it's bewildering not to have it available on a TV costing over a grand and a half.
Design and connections
The TX-L55ET5B is definitely a set that's not going to leave you slack-jawed by its beauty, but neither is it offensive to look at. On the plus side, it's relatively slim, measuring 40mm deep. There's an attractive transparent edge running around the TV and like a lot of Panasonic's sets, it feels like it's built to last. The bezel around the screen looks a touch too broad at 35mm though, and the overall design is dull and uninspired in comparison to similarly priced models from rival big-name brands.
What I certainly can't complain about is the line-up of connections. Like most of today's large screens, it has four HDMI ports, one of which supports Audio Return Channel for feeding audio out to an external amp over a single HDMI cable. It also has a set of component inputs, a VGA port and a Scart socket. It's well kitted out for playing back video files too, as it has an SD card slot and three USB ports.
Unlike last year's models, Wi-Fi is now built in, but naturally there's still an Ethernet port if you'd prefer to use a wired connection, which is usally more reliable when streaming large HD video files across a home network.
Apps, streaming and video playback
Speaking of networking, the TX-L55ET5B has Panasonic's Viera Connect smart TV software on board. The set has a single-core processor rather than the dual-core chip found on the GT50 and WT50 TVs, so it doesn't support multi-tasking for apps.
Panasonic has continued to update Viera Connect with new apps and services and the line-up is now pretty good. As you would expect, BBC iPlayer is included along with Netflix, Acetrax and FetchTV. Naturally, YouTube is present for essential cat video viewing, and there are apps for Dailymotion and Vimeo.
Social networking is catered for with standalone apps for Facebook and Twitter. The Social TV app lets you see feeds from these services in a box at the side of the screen while you're watching a programme on telly. There are plenty of news and weather apps too, including BBC News and BBC Sport. But unlike Sony's new TVs, Viera Connect doesn't include Lovefilm. There's now a full web browser, although it's a tad buggy and doesn't support Adobe Flash, so embedded videos on some websites won't play.
Like the TV's overall menu system, the interface for the Viera Connect service hasn't changed much since the version that appeared on last year's TVs. It presents you with a grid of nine very large icons per screen and you can move up and down between layers of these icons using the forward and back controls.
Switching between the layers isn't as fast as it could be -- something that becomes annoying when you've got lots of apps loaded in the system. Still, at least you can edit the placement of the apps to group the most commonly used together.
Thankfully, Panasonic has updated the TV's digital media playback software to improve format support. It gets along fine with HD MKV files as well as movies in the MP4, DivX and Xvid formats, no matter whether they're played locally from USB keys and SD cards or streamed across a network. Audio Flac, WMA and MP3 files, JPEG pictures and 3D still images in the MPO format are also supported.
Like most of today's higher-end models, you can attach a USB drive to one of the ports and use it to record shows from the TV's built-in Freeview HD tuner. The set only has a single tuner and you can't watch one channel while recording another, so it's not a replacement for a full-blown personal video recorder.
Last year's Panasonic TVs were among the best audio performers as they used slightly larger speakers than most of the competition. This year, the company's TVs have been a mixed bag, with some sounding good and others suffering from poor output. Unfortunately, the ET5B falls into the latter category.
This set's small 10W down-firing speakers sound weedy. Because they lack punch, even in the mid-range, dialogue tends to sound very thin. It also struggles to produce much in the way of bass, so action sequences in movies or TV shows sound puny.
3D picture quality
The ET5B is the only model in Panasonic's range that uses passive rather than active 3D technology. It's not really a secret that the panel in this TV isn't one of Panasonic's own, but comes from LG. Panasonic believes you need a 200Hz panel to do active 3D effectively on an LED screen, without suffering from cross-talk (or image ghosting) issues. However, 200Hz panels are quite expensive and are not suited to the lower end of the market that this set is aimed at.
Because passive 3D panels use a filter to create the 3D effect rather than a shutter system, they don't suffer from this cross-talk problem and also cost less to make.
I can't help feeling that for most people, passive is the better 3D option. Not many of you will have 3D support at the top of your list of what you're looking for in a TV. When people do want to watch 3D stuff, it tends to be as a group 'treat' such as a movie with the kids or a footie game with mates. The cheap cost of passive specs versus expensive active glasses wins out on this front.
This model's 3D performance is actually very good. The glasses are extremely light and comfortable to wear and 3D pictures look bright and punchy. Because the goggles don't introduce flicker, they're less tiring on your eyes when you're watching a long movie.
Sure, passive images aren't quite as detailed as what you'd get from an active system. You can see some line structure and jagged edges or curves and diagonal lines if you sit too close to the screen. But from a normal viewing distance, this isn't an issue and there's enough detail on offer to please most people.
There's almost no cross-talk, which helps to give the images a more solid and realistic feel. Panasonic also lets you control the depth of the 3D effect, so you can push it back into the screen or pull it forwards, which is neat. So, overall, this is a sterling 3D performer, especially for those who want to enjoy 3D with lots of family members or big groups of friends.
2D picture quality
Its 3D performance may be impressive, but when it comes to 2D pictures, this set is a little more problematic. The biggest issue is that when you're using it to watch a movie at night in a dimly lit room, the set's patchy backlighting becomes distracting.
Backlighting problems can vary from one panel to another, but on my review model, there was a lot of visible light pooling -- areas that were brighter than others -- concentrated in the bottom corners of the screen. Smaller patches were visible up the side too. This is a much bigger problem here than on the smaller 32-inch version of this model I reviewed some weeks back.
The other slight issue is that although this model did manage to produce deeper black levels in areas of the screen away from these light pooling zones, darker scenes with lots of shadow detail didn't look as subtle and textured as they should.
Those are the weaknesses, but this model has plenty of strengths. It uses quite a bright panel, so it has no problem rising above high levels of ambient light in a room during daylight hours, unlike many plasma TVs. It's able to deliver natural skin tones and lush colours that manage to look both vibrant and realistic. Detail levels are good too, with HD content looking especially crisp and sharp.
It's not a bad performer with motion, considering its relatively affordable price tag for such a large screen. Like all LCD-based screens, with motion processing turned off, there's some blur evident. But if you turn on Panasonic's Intelligent Frame Create (IFC) motion-smoothing feature at the minimum setting, it gets rid of a lot of this. It doesn't add the smooth, flat, overly processed look to films that these types of processing systems often do.
The TX-L55ET5B can produce pictures with lush colours and plenty of detail. A bright panel means it shows up well when viewed in daylight. Passive 3D performance is very good too.
Backlight problems mean it's not a great option if you like to watch movies with the lights dimmed, however. I also thought sound quality was below par and found the menu system and Viera Connect interface dated.
For roughly the same price, £1,600, you could buy LG's superb 55LM660T, which could also do better with standard-def images, but looks incredible. For a little more, £1,800, Sony's 55HX853 offers amazing pictures, but the design might not be to your taste. Both have won our Editors' Choice award in the last month.