Panasonic TX-P42S30B Plasma TV Review

Black Level

Before measurement, we could tell that the TX-P42S30′s black level is ahead of what most screens at this price point are offering. The inclusion of Panasonic’s NeoPlasma panel all but guarantees this. We measured the black level, using a freshly calibrated Klein K-10 meter, as being 0.02 cd/m2, which is excellent. And, being a Plasma television, the same deep black is consistent across the entire screen surface – unlike competing LCD and LED LCD TVs, there is no brightening around the edges. Nor are there any instances of the black level (or colour) degrading when the TV is viewed off-angle.

Much of the 2011 Panasonic Plasmas have, for the first time, been able to retain this same depth of black even when the screen is occupied by peak white areas. To test this, we use the ANSI checkerboard test pattern, which places a black square in the middle of the screen, surrounded by equal numbers of black and white squares elsewhere. We were surprised to see that the TX-P42S30 held up here, producing the exact same 0.02 cd/m2 black. As a cheaper model, we were expecting it to feature 2010-level contrast performance, but as it turned out, this isn’t the case.

Earlier 2011 Panasonic PDP models featured an issue where the TV would change the gamma characteristics of dark scenes on-the-fly, in front of the viewer. For example, in one our tests, a night-time scene of a mostly deserted street started out dark, but as soon as a car drove into view, the TV would react and change the distribution of dark and light in the image, causing a small, but visible brightness jump. Panasonic later fixed this issue with firmware upgrades, and it was nowhere to be seen on the TX-P42S30B we reviewed. We wouldn’t be surprised if it could still occur, as it often does on most Plasma displays, but the new firmware certainly has reduced the frequency of it. We imagine that older versions would feature this behaviour, so we recommend checking to make sure your S30 has the latest firmware.

Screen Uniformity

During the reviews of this year’s 3D Panasonic Plasma televisions, we noticed that some of our review samples had a tendency to slightly discolour white areas of the screen. This phenomenon has become known online as “green splodges”, amongst other names. At first, we wondered if the patches were caused by the application of the high contrast filter screen coatings to the panel surface. Our investigations into this revealed that the discolouring effect is dynamic, rather than static: the severity of the patches in the same spot on the panel could change depending on the average picture level (APL) of the image.

Based on this behaviour, we wondered if the issue has a connection with the new driving mode that Panasonic has employed in 2011, which also results in superior ANSI contrast performance (see the “Black Level” section above). However, our Panasonic TX-P42S30 review sample did not reveal any discolouration at all, but as mentioned above, does feature the improved ANSI contrast performance, so we’ll have to keep on guessing. We’re happy to report that the S30 appears to be splodge-free.

Motion Resolution

We were curious as to whether the S30 Plasma would feature the latest phosphor material, and were half-expecting it not to given its budget price point. Well, it does, as evidenced by the considerably reduced green/purple trails when run side by side against the 2010 mid-range G20 Plasma. As a result of this, it follows after the rest of the 2011 Panasonic Plasmas in resolving all 1080 lines during the FPD Benchmark test disc’s scrolling pattern. This translated across to real-world tests, where the motion clarity was excellent, something we attribute largely to the pulse-driven nature of Plasma display panels: inbetween each video frame, a PDP actually emits no picture at all for a fraction of a second, forcing the viewer’s eye-brain to perceive sharper motion with less blur. There’s no such thing as a perfect display, though – we did notice a little bit of contouring being visible with very fast camera pans. We still feel that Samsung’s Plasma HDTVs have an edge in terms of overall motion performance, because Panasonic’s can display tinges of spurious colour around object edges during fast motion (although only occasionally).

All in all, the motion performance is excellent, and is probably unbeatable at this price point: the Panasonic TX-P42S30B competes almost exclusively with LCD and LED LCD TVs, which we don’t feel produce the same level of motion clarity, even with 100hz/200hz motion-compensated frame interpolation (MCFI) enhancements.

Standard Definition

The Panasonic TX-P42S30 handles standard-def content fairly well, although there’s still room for improvements to be made. The best feature is arguably the scaling algorithm, which resizes SD content to fill the HD panel in a way which straddles the fine line between blurry and aliased (jaggy) admirably. Diagonal interpolation (in other words, jagginess avoidance) with high-motion video content was very good, too. Only the Film Mode detection – which is basically new territory this year for Panasonic – caused some trouble. In our tests, we’ve found that the 2011 Panasonic televisions sometimes detect film content transferred with a 2-2 cadence into a PAL video signal (that’s nearly every film you’ll watch on TV here in Europe) correctly and can sometimes pull clean, jaggy-free frames out, without producing jaggedness. As we found with the rest of the range, it’s fairly temperamental, and depending on certain conditions, may not work correctly. For example, we ran the test and found the TX-P42S30B passing at first, but changing the aspect ratio would “break” the film mode detection feature until we tried re-running the test later.

With the technical testing out of the way, we had a look at some standard-def digital TV broadcasts using the TX-P42S30′s built-in Digital TV tuner. As die-hard video enthusiasts, it’s difficult to use the word “happy” to describe our reaction to the picture quality – the broadcasters are forced to push the aged MPEG-2 codec to breaking point in order to squeeze high numbers of channels into a small amount of space – but we were happy to see that the Panasonic TX-P42S30B was doing really all it could with the source it was given. In other words, the various problems with the picture quality were not the fault of the TV. In fact, we consistently find that compression artefacts are less visible on Plasma TVs compared to their LCD counterparts, something we attribute, again, to their pulse-driven nature.

High Definition

Nearly every quality that has made the 2011 Panasonic Plasma range easily recommendable can still be found in the budget-priced S30. The only obvious omission is the lack of an advanced screen filter (the spec sheet mentions that it features a “Mono Filter” rather than the more advanced “High Contrast Filter” or “High Contrast Filter Pro” variants found higher up the 2011 Panasonic PDP ladder), which causes the image to appear washed-out if viewed in a room with ambient light hitting the screen surface. In very bright rooms, an LCD or LED LCD TV is the way to go.

Super 8

Shut out the lights, however, and the tables are turned. In such an environment, you’ll probably have a difficult time distinguishing the TX-P42S30 from one of the more expensive Panasonic Plasmas. We had a good look at a stack of Blu-ray Discs, both old and new, and were glad to see that the black depth was just as good as the step-up G30 and GT30 models, making the S30 a bargain. The rest of the benefits that we’ve come to expect from these displays are also in full (or nearly full!) force: the out of the box Greyscale behaviour wasn’t tinting the image too badly, and this aspect of image quality was excellent after calibration. Colour performance was consistently excellent with only mild measurable inaccuracies; and motion was handled wonderfully (just be sure to shut off the [24p Smooth Film] option if you’re like us and want to avoid the video-like “soap opera effect”). As we’ve come to expect from Panasonic HDTVs, there was no deliberate abstraction of the picture going on: images were reproduced very faithfully, without any unwanted spruce-up attempts.

We won’t hesitate to suggest that thanks largely to its use of Plasma display panel technology (with the many strengths and few negatives it brings), the TX-P42S30B produces the best image quality in its price range (provided ambient light in the viewing room isn’t a problem). Forgive us for igniting a Plasma vs LCD debate, but we feel it’s completely relevant here given that Samsung and LG don’t produce Full HD Plasma TVs below the 50″ size – at 42 inches, the competition in this area is exclusively LCD. The only down-side we can think of brought to the table by the use of Plasma display technology is brightness – although the Panasonic TX-P42S30 produces enough light for the average living room, LCDs and LED LCDs can go brighter, for users placing TVs in very bright environments.

Console Gaming

We gave our usual test game (Halo: Reach) a spin on the S30, and were greeted with buttery-smooth responsiveness. This wasn’t surprising – except for a few models we reviewed in late 2010, Panasonic Plasmas haven’t had any issues with high levels of video processing lag. We measured the Panasonic TX-P42S30B, and found out that there’s just an imperceptible 16ms of delay between the user and the game. This follows a trend we often see where lower-end models (with less complicated processing) perform slightly better in this regard than the higher-end ones.

Thanks to the low input lag and high motion resolution, gaming was great fun on the Panasonic TX-P42S30. We should point out though, that some users find playing games with fairly low frame rates (many current console games run at 30 frames per second) unpleasant on Plasma televisions because of their high motion clarity – that is to say that LCD’s motion blur, usually seen as a disadvantage, actually helps to smooth out the on-screen action. Of course, we’d much rather that current generation consoles could output a smooth 60fps image all the time (in fact, we wish game developers would make this a priority), but we don’t personally have any issues with the way Plasmas display 30fps games.

Speaking of frame rates, we also put the TX-P42S30B through its paces with the excellent Rayman Origins, which is a real feast for the eyes thanks to its Full HD 1080p 2D graphics and silky-smooth 60fps frame rate. We’d argue that the only way to fully enjoy a game like this is on a Plasma screen. LCDs will blur the highly detailed artwork whenever the screen is in motion, and the option of alleviating the blur with LCD 100hz/200hz motion processing systems isn’t a satisfactory option for video games, because this processing adds input lag. On the Panasonic S30, we enjoyed high motion resolution and low input lag simultaneously.

Conclusion

After spending an unhealthy amount of time with the 2010 and 2011 Panasonic Plasma displays, we had a fairly good idea of how the TX-P42S30 was going to perform before we put it through our tests. The only sore points we found were its slightly cheap-looking design, and the predictable lack of effective screen filter, meaning that the Panasonic TX-P42S30B won’t produce rich, punchy images when faced with sunlight or strong artificial lighting. In these conditions, we’d encourage readers to look at LCD and LED LCD TVs instead, although this does mean giving up Plasma’s usually perfect screen uniformity, high motion clarity, and lack of viewing angle restrictions, all of which make the Panasonic S30 special amongst budget HDTVs. Lastly, like the rest of the 2011 Panasonic Plasmas, the TX-P42S30 sometimes reveals a little too much shadow detail (see the Gamma charts in the Calibration section), although this is the sort of error you’d need a perfect comparison display to pinpoint.

If you watch TV in dim conditions (or better yet, in a darkened home cinema room), then the TX-P42S30B is a bargain. In ideal conditions, it produces essentially the same contrast performance as considerably more expensive Plasmas, and the barely perceptible colour inaccuracies that result from the omission of calibration options are forgivable when you remember that the 42″ version can be had online for just £450. It also handles video games wonderfully, being the only Full HD flat-panel television in this price range that can deliver the winning combination of high motion clarity and high responsiveness simultaneously (on LCD, you can pick one or the other, but not both). It’s a fairly cheap HDTV that we feel has no serious flaws: nearly every quality that has made the 2011 Panasonic Plasma range so recommendable can still be found here, despite the budget price tag. As a result, it comes highly recommended.

Highly Recommended

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