Panasonic has been pushing 3D on its Viera plasma range this year, but it does still offer a few 2D-only models such as the TX-P42S30.
However, this also means it's much more affordable. It can be bought for around £450 online.
User interface and EPG
This may be a budget set but it uses the exact same menu system as Panasonic's higher-end TVs. This isn't necessarily a good thing as the user interface that Panasonic employs on this year's screens is some way behind what competitors are offering on their latest TVs. It's certainly not as slick or as sophisticated-looking as Samsung, LG and Sony's TVs.
The main menu shows four tabs down the left-hand side of the screen for picture, sound, timer and set-up options. A small graphic is used to depict each one. When you actually enter the menu you'll find that they only really consisted of white text set against a blue background, so the presentation is quite dated.
This TV lacks the calibration tools of Panasonic's higher-end models, so picture tweaking options are a little limited. However, they're still likely to be more than acceptable for the average user. There are slider bars to set the contrast, brightness, colour and sharpness settings. The advanced menu allows you to select between off, mid and max settings for both the Intelligent Frame Creation modes and the upscaler -- or Resolution Enhancer, as Panasonic calls it.
Unfortunately, the electronic programme guide (EPG) for the Freeview HD tuner is every bit as dull-looking as the main menu. Like all of Panasonic's other TVs it uses the Guide Plus+ system, which places holders for web-style adverts on the left-hand of the screen, even though these adverts never actually seem to appear anymore. Instead they are just populated by Viera logos. Nevertheless, the EPG is quite responsive and it has some benefits, including a decent search feature.
Digital media and Internet features
With Panasonic delivering this telly at such a competitive price, you'd expect it to have made cutbacks, especially in areas such as Internet features. The online side has thankfully remained untouched and Panasonic's Viera Connect Internet TV platform is on board. This has recently been updated too.
There's a new version of the BBC's iPlayer, which has a cleaner interface and some new features such as the ability to save favourites. There have been a few other services added, including the BBC News app, the Aupeo customisable Internet radio service, and WealthTV, a lifestyle channel for people who are loaded.
These appear alongside the existing services such as YouTube, Dailymotion and the Acetrax movie rental offering. On the social networking front you'll find apps for Facebook and Twitter, along with Picasa and Skype. So although it's not as comprehensive as the Smart TV platforms on LG and Samsung's sets, there's still a decent amount of quality content.
This model support digital media via its two USB ports. It plays a pretty broad range of formats too, as you'll find that HD MKV video files are supported, along with DivX and Xvid files.
Unfortunately though, it can't stream media files across a network from a PC or NAS drive -- you always have to feed content locally via a USB port. This is a shame and seems like an artificial limitation to us. That said, media streamers are very cheap these days and most Blu-ray players have streaming capabilities built in. If you own one, the lack of on-board streaming may not be an issue.
Design and connections
It has to be said that the S30 is far from the most visually appealing TV we've had in for review lately. It's significantly chunkier than the higher-end models in Panasonic's range. Its chassis measures nearly 10cm deep. The 42mm bezel around the screen is also quite thick. Although the piano-black finish helps it to blend into the background of a room, the overall look is dated, especially compared to the latest TV designs from LG and Samsung.
When you turn your attention to the connection options, you'll find that they're limited than what you would expect from pricier models. This set only has three HDMI ports rather than the four that most mid and high-end TVs sport. Nevertheless, you still get a set of component inputs, a full-sized Scart socket, an optical digital audio output and a composite input.
Naturally, there's an Ethernet port so you can use the Viera Connect Internet TV services and two USB ports for playing back digital media files. Alternatively, one of the USB ports can be used for the optional Wi-Fi dongle, which is priced at around £80.
The S30 has a thicker chassis than the ST30 and GT30, so it doesn't need to flare out at the bottom like those models do in order to accommodate decent-sized speakers. The built-in speakers are rated at 10W each and produce a pleasingly wide soundstage. They're not exactly bass-heavy, but they can muster up enough low-end punch to do justice to movie soundtracks or music channels.
In the sound menu you'll find a handy 8-band graphic equaliser, along with settings for the virtual surround mode. The latter is weaker than the virtual surround modes on other TVs though, as it only very slightly widens the soundstage.
There's an autogain control that helps level out the differences between the volumes of different TV channels. A volume correction control that can also be used to boost audio on sources that happen to be particularly low.
This model uses last year's NeoPDP panel rather than the latest generation, which carries the NeoPlasma branding and is found on the ST30 and G30 models. It also lacks the filter on the newer generation of Panasonic screens that helps to cut down on reflections of ambient light in a room.
Things are pretty rosy on the picture processing front. The combination of the 600Hz sub-field drive system and Panasonic's Intelligent Frame Creation processing help to deliver silky-smooth motion -- something that you just won't get on LCD screens at this price.
What's more, its upscaler does an excellent job of polishing standard-definition material to make it look much more acceptable when blown up to the screen's 42-inch dimensions. It makes edges look crisper and cleaner, without creating a noisy or smeary look as some lesser upscalers do.
High-definition content is super-sharp too. But where this model really leaves behind its budget competition is with contrast performance and black levels. The latter may not be quite as deep as the ST30 or GT30 models, but they're way better than this set's modest asking price would suggest.
The excellent black levels also help it to delver images with high levels of contrast that lend movies a pleasingly refined and richly cinematic look. Add in superbly warm and natural colours and you've got cracking picture performance, especially considering the low asking price.
There are a few caveats. Firstly, this set's brightness levels are not quite as high as the more expensive plasmas in Panasonic's range. If you mostly watch TV during daylight hours in a bright room, it may not be your best option. Secondly, the screen tends to reflect light more than its pricier siblings.
Depending on where you sit the TV in your room, this may or may not be an issue. But it's worth pointing out, especially if you've previously owned an LCD with a matte screen finish.
The design might not exactly be beautiful and its menus can look a little old-fashioned, but where it counts -- picture quality -- you really will struggle to find another TV at this price that delivers such rich and engaging pictures.
This is true not only with high-definition content, but also with standard-definition sources. Add in good sound quality and decent Internet features and you've got a TV that offers outstanding value for money.