Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
Panasonic rules the plasma roost, outselling other brands and rolling out a massive suite of models to compete against LCD in 2008. The TH-PZ85U series may be the most exciting of the bunch, thanks to its improved black-level performance, the holy grail of home theater image quality. The 46-inch TH-46PZ85U represents a new size that contends directly against 46- and 47-inch LCD sets, and it indeed produces some of the deepest black levels we've ever seen on any display. A few other aspects of its picture quality, however, make this Panasonic plasma a bit less exciting than we originally thought. Still, for home theater aficionados who can deal with a bit of video noise, somewhat less-accurate color, and a price premium over many LCDs and even some 50-inch plasmas, the TH-46PZ85U's deep blacks are easily worth the trade-offs.
While it can no doubt qualify as "sleek," the Panasonic TH-46PZ85U isn't quite as handsome to our eye as the Samsung PN50A550, although the styling differences between the two glossy-black, flat-panel plasma HDTVs are subtle. The bottom of the Panasonic's frame rounds downward slightly, where a sort of "lip" protrudes with downward-firing speakers. The included stand doesn't swivel, and it lacks a trim, attractive pedestal supporting the panel, but at least its large swath of glossy plastic out front seems entirely tip-proof. All told, this 46-inch plasma measures 46 inches by 31 inches by 15.3 inches including the stand and 46 inches by 28.9 inches by 3.7 inches without it, and weighs 81.6 pounds and 772 pounds, respectively.
The remote is also the same as last year, and we remain fans of its design. The medium-length wand groups the distinct sets of right-size buttons in an easy-to-feel arrangement, and although we'd have liked to see some backlighting, we didn't really miss it after a few minutes of becoming familiar with the button layout. Panasonic also throws a smattering of controls, along with the SD card slot, into an access bay on the right side, which might be a bit difficult to access if the set is mounted on the wall.
A familiar yellow-on-blue menu system leads to the television's setup functions, and although the graphics lack the panache of a Sony or a Samsung menu, navigation was intuitive enough. We liked that the company renamed its previously confusing "Normal" command to "Reset," which more accurately describes what it does to your picture settings.
Like most plasmas in Panasonic's 2008 lineup, the TH-46PZ85U has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, or 1080p. In fact, Panasonic's 46-inch plasmas all have 1080p resolution, which is fast becoming a standard feature on all flat-panel HDTVs. As we've said before, however, the difference between 1080p and lower resolutions is difficult to discern, especially at this screen size (see Performance for more).
Picture controls on the TH-46Z85U aren't as extensive as seen on many HDTVs. While we appreciated the capability to adjust all of the five picture modes, and the fact that the Custom mode is independent per input, we missed the capability to adjust color temperature beyond the three presets. There's also no gamma control, which may have improved the realism of the set's shadows. Extra picture controls of note include a color management control that does improve color decoding slightly; a "C.A.T.S." mode that changes contrast on the fly and so should be left turned off; two species of noise reduction; and a black level control.
Panasonic also touts the mysterious Game mode, which turns out to be little more than an easy way to select a particular input. A quick press of the "Game" button on the remote toggles between any of the inputs that have been labeled "Game" in the input naming menu. Pressing that button does not engage the Game picture mode (which is simply another collection of adjustable picture settings), nor does it affect video processing or lag time between controller and screen--although, to be fair, such modes on other HDTVs have little value as far as we can discern.
The TH-46PZ85U offers five aspect ratio controls for HD sources, more than most HDTVs on the market. There's also a setting that lets the TV display every pixel of 1080i and 1080p sources without overscan, and we recommend using it unless you notice interference along the extreme edges of the screen, which can occur on some HD channels. The same selection of five modes is also available for SD sources.
A new menu for 2008 deals with burn-in or, as the company calls it, "image retention." There's a pixel orbiter that moves the entire image gradually around the screen, along with an option to set the 4:3 mode to include gray bars to either side of the picture (as opposed to black, which cause image retention more easily than gray). On the off chance that the plasma retains an image, there's a scrolling bar that slides across the screen as a sort of eraser.
We would have liked to see an energy-saver mode on this TV, especially with its prodigious power consumption--according to our measurements (see the Juice box below), it actually consumes more power than the 50-inch Samsung PN50A550. The Panasonic TH-46PZ85U also lacks picture-in-picture, but it does include a thoughtful "Surf Mode" control, which can be set to restrict the TV's tuning options. You can set it to "all," "favorite," "digital only," or "analog only."