From day one Panasonic has been the most vocal champion of the 'active' 3D display system, rightly arguing that it delivers the best possible picture quality by sending full 1080p frames to each eye. The company has even gone as far as pooh-poohing LG's rival passive 3D sets in its attempts to espouse the virtues of the frame sequential system.
It therefore comes as a major surprise to find that Panasonic has added a range of passive 3D sets to its 2012 line-up, one of the biggest home cinema U-turns since Toshiba brought out its first Blu-ray deck.
The reason why Panasonic is tucking into this slice of humble pie is obvious - thanks to the cheaper glasses, passive technology is a much more affordable gateway into to the 3D world than active shutter systems. It's more convenient too - simply pop the lightweight specs over your peepers and away you go, no buttons, no batteries.
The range in question is the ET5, which features five LED sets in 55, 47, 42, 37 and 32in screen sizes. Given the cost-effective nature of passive technology, the ET5 range unsurprisingly sits towards the entry-level end of Panasonic's line up, and here we're looking at the 37in TX-L37ET5B, which will set you back just under £850 - although it can be found for around £750 online. Not peanuts perhaps, but certainly easier on the wallet than Panasonic's similarly-sized active sets.
Design and connections
This year's sets are much prettier than previous generations, with Panasonic really going to town on design further up the range. The TX-L37ET5B lacks the same pizzazz, but it's still a smart-looking set with a tasteful grey bezel and a transparent rim around the edge - dubbed the Crystal Frame design. As an LED set the slim 40mm profile is a given, making life much easier when wall mounting, while the supplied tabletop stand is a basic but attractive silver affair.
In terms of connectivity the ET5B doesn't go above and beyond the call of duty but certainly won't leave you wanting. They include four 3D-compatible HDMI inputs, three USB ports and an SD card slot for multimedia playback, D-Sub PC input, plus Scart and a shared composite/component video input (the last two require supplied adapter cables). You'll also find an optical digital audio output, an Ethernet port and RF input, as well as a common interface slot and a row of buttons for up-close control.
Despite its affordable status the TX-L37ET5B is still packed with technology. Of particular significance is the addition of IPS (In Plane Switching) LCD panels to the range, the main benefits of which are a wide 178° viewing angle and a reduction in smearing and image lag.
Additionally the set offers 300Hz backlight scanning to help make movement look smoother - useful for sports and action scenes - but for faster refresh rates look to the WT50 and DT50 LED ranges (1600Hz), or the ET50 series (800Hz).
Smart TV features are the hot topic right now and as part of Panasonic's Smart Viera concept the TX-L37ET5B has plenty - plus its built-in Wi-Fi adapter makes them easy to access.
As expected it features the Viera Connect portal, where you'll find a range of online apps. Of greatest interest is BBC iPlayer - a must have for any web portal - which is joined by UK newcomer Netflix, Acetrax movies-on-demand, BBC News, Eurosport, YouTube, Dailymotion, Picasa, Fetch TV and live CNBC. It's a decent selection, but one or two more UK catch-up TV services wouldn't go amiss, perhaps in place of the less interesting options.
On that note, you can add new apps through the Viera Connect Market, so when must-have services are available you can download them in a jiffy.
You can also network socially using the built-in Twitter and Facebook apps, or talk face to face with Skype video calling - provided you've connected the optional communication camera to one of the USB ports. That'll cost you around £120, but given how much fun you'll have it's money well spent.
The DLNA-certified TX-L37ET5B can also stream content from networked devices using the slick and co-operative Media Server feature. It automatically found and displayed content from our Windows 7 laptop using a series of basic but logical menus with moving thumbnails. MKV, DivX, XviD, AVI, WMV, MPEG-1/2, AVCHD, MP3, WMA, FLAC, JPEG and MPO all streamed with no trouble. Alternatively you can play the above formats from flash memory devices connected to the USB ports or from an SD/SDHC/SDXC card.
You can also stream content from network-capable DIGA recorders and control the TV using a smartphone or tablet with the Viera Remote App installed on your device. This worked just fine with our iPad, but you'll need to look further up the range for fancy tricks like 'swiping' pictures from smartphone to screen or pulling media content from the TV to your device, as found on the new Viera Remote App PRO.
As mentioned the ET5 uses the passive 3D display system, and comes with four pairs of glasses in the box, sure to please families buying on a budget. The set will also convert 2D into 3D, which is useful if you fancy adding an extra dimension to DVDs or Freeview.
Elsewhere you'll find the usual stuff like a built-in Freeview HD tuner, picture presets for each input (Dynamic, Cinema, True Cinema and Game), Vivid Colour and Contrast Automatic Tracking System (which adjusts settings based on ambient light conditions). More detailed picture tweaks are available in the setup menu, including White Balance, Gamma and Colour Management, which lets you adjust hue, saturation and luminance of the R, G and B colour signals.
Using the set is a piece of cake. Graphically, the menus may not be the most sophisticated you'll ever see, but they're easy to read and attractive. As well as the list-based setup menu, which makes configuration blissfully simple, there's a separate Viera Tools menu that provides quick access to Media Server and USB playback menus.
The grid layout of Viera Connect/Cast hasn't changed much since its inception, which is fine but splitting the apps onto different pages is slightly cumbersome. Still, it's easy to install apps in the Market and the various interfaces are well-suited to handset operation.
We also like the EPG, which unlike past Panasonic guides stretches right across the screen unhindered by annoying adverts. Seven channels are listed at a time, and you can break it down by genre. It doesn't play live TV as you browse, but that's not essential. The onscreen banners are informative and let you see what's on other channels, but they only show you now and next details.
Some of Panasonic's high-end sets are controlled with a new Touch Pad remote, but unsurprisingly the ET5 ships with a bog-standard button based affair. Given my hit and miss experiences with Panasonic's Blu-ray player touch pad remote, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
In action the TX-L37ET5B is an impressive picture performer. As a 3D display the use of a polarised screen filter obviously means you're losing resolution, and as a result it can't ever hope to compete with the super-sharp images of Panasonic's Full HD 3D sets.
Detail is soft and it's easy to spot the horizontal line structure of the screen, which also causes jaggies along the edges of curved or diagonal objects.
Yet despite all this, the ET5B's 3D pictures are no disgrace at all. 3D discs like Thor and Avatar are comfortable and easy to watch for prolonged periods (we didn't get that niggling urge to take the glasses off every five minutes) with a very clear and pronounced sense of depth that helps to immerse you in the action.
What's more the picture remains bright and natural through the passive glasses, which is particularly useful when viewing dimly-lit scenes like Thor's battle with the Frost Giants on Yodenheim. It's easy to discern the varying depths of black in the nooks and crannies of the surrounding rocks and the abundant shadow detail on the Frost Giants' bodies.
Although we'd prefer a Full HD picture any day of the week, in a weird way we like the warm, fuzzy feel of passive 3D pictures. And what you lose in resolution you gain in convenience.
What's more there are no major signs of crosstalk to spoil the effect when you view the picture head-on, although ghosting increases when you start to move about and widen the viewing angle.
The set does a surprisingly good job of converting 2D to 3D too, adding a decent sense of depth and making objects stand out effectively. That applies to everything from DVDs to daytime guff like Dickinson's Real Deal.
Switch to 2D Blu-ray material and the TX-L37ET5B steps it up a notch. The images are intensely sharp, with subtly shaded, believable colours and terrific black levels by LED standards, although they fall some way short of the super-deep blacks of Panasonic's plasmas.
It ticks the boxes in other key areas too. High natural brightness ensures dynamic, engaging images; blur is effectively suppressed by the Intelligent Frame Creation technology, provided you use the low or medium settings to keep the artefact wolf from the door; the backlight appears consistent across the screen; and the IPS tech keeps the image looking solid at wide viewing angles.
These virtues are also evident when watching hi-def Freeview broadcasts, which boast stunning levels of clarity and radiance. It's only when you switch to SD channels that cracks start to show - there's smeary mosquito noise around moving objects and a general gauziness, but even then it's possible to marvel at the excellent contrast level and colour vibrancy.
On board the set are 2 x 10W speakers with V-Audio Surround to add extra width. But ultimately no amount of audio trickery can rectify the set's lifeless sound.
Speech is intelligible, while TV theme tunes and adverts are suitably strident. But when it comes to Thor's epic action scenes the dearth of bass means there's no depth or impact to the hammer blows, and loud effects have a harsh, spluttery quality.
Playing DLNA music through the set is a no-no then, but thankfully you can pipe the signal to a better sound system using the digital output or the ARC-compatible HDMI output.
Overall, if you're after an immersive home cinema experience but not necessarily the ultimate picture quality, then the TX-L37ET5B is a terrific way to get into 3D on a budget.
Its use of passive technology means you get all the glasses you need in the box, and if you accept its limitations before viewing then picture quality is actually rather impressive.
The deal is sweetened further by glorious 2D pictures and an attractive feature list, which includes Viera Connect and slick DLNA media streaming. It's also simple to use and built-in Wi-Fi is a real boon.
Yes it's taken many by surprise, but Panasonic's adoption of passive technology is a shrewd move, offering a feature-packed 3D solution to an audience that otherwise might not have been able to afford it. It doesn't affect Panasonic's devotion to active technology one iota, but with the ET5 range it now has something for everyone.
Screen size (inches)
1920 x 1080
IPS LED LCD
Smart Viera Engine Pro
3D glasses supplied
Yes, 4 pairs
300Hz (backlight scanning)
2 x 10W
Energy efficiency class
Dimensions (with stand, W x H x D)
874 x 580 x 238mm
Dimensions (without stand, W x H x D)
874 x 534 x 52mm
Digital audio output
SD card slot