Editor's note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
As high-definition TVs continue to evolve with evermore-enticing technologies and doodads, the majority of buyers are still looking for the best bang for the buck. Panasonic's plasmas are usually at or near the top of the heap in that category, and the 42-inch TH-42PX80U is a great example. This set doesn't sport 1080p resolution or scads of picture controls, and while we would have wanted a bit more in the way of adjustability, we definitely didn't miss the extra pixels. This plasma gives the best black levels we've tested for the price, and while its color and noise reduction could use improvement, Panasonic's least-expensive 2008 plasma is still an all-around superb value.
There's nothing fancy about the look of Panasonic's entry-level plasma, but we liked the no-nonsense style. Like those of most HDTVs at all price points these days, the screen is bordered on all four sides by a rectangle of glossy black. A subtle accent strip below the frame bends oh-so-slightly down at either side in a sort of half-frown, and below that, there's a swath of matte black that encompasses the speakers and a flip-up door on the front (much more accessible than side-mounted jacks, especially for wall mounts) hiding a set of inputs and basic controls.
All told, the TH-42PX80U measures a relatively compact 40.2 inches wide by 28.7 inches tall by 12.9 inches deep and weighs 61.8 pounds with the included stand. Removing the stand shrinks the dimensions to 40.2 inches wide by 26.8 inches tall by 3.8 inches deep and its weight drops to 56.7 pounds.
The medium-size remote control is nicely designed with buttons big enough, and with good differentiation, to make finding your way by feel less of a hassle. That's especially important since the remote lacks any sort of illumination, although on an entry-level TV we're not surprised. Unlike many remotes, this one can't command other gear. Panasonic's standard yellow-on-blue menu system is as easy to read as ever, and we had few problems finding what we wanted.
You still can't expect 1080p resolution on a 42-inch entry-level plasma this year--you'll need to step up to any of the company's more expensive lines for that. If you do so, however, you still shouldn't expect to see any difference in detail; in other words, the 1,024x768 resolution of the TH-42PX80U is perfectly fine for this screen size, where 1080p would be a waste.
Picture controls are relatively sparse in the TH-42PX80U's menu system, although we were happy to see four adjustable picture presets along with a fifth, called Custom, that's independent per input. You can choose from among three color temperature presets although there's no way to fine-tune the color temp beyond that. Other controls include color management (On/Off; the On position was slightly better for color decoding), two species of noise reduction, and a black level control that's best left in Light to preserve shadow detail. It has five aspect ratio controls for both HD and SD sources, more than most HDTVs on the market. Check out our recommended picture settings for the Panasonic TH-42PX80U.
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 on 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, although it is relatively efficient for a 42-inch plasma--see the Juice box below for details. The Panasonic TH-42PX80U 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."
In terms of connectivity, we were happy to count a total of three HDMI inputs, two on the back panel and a third around front. Around back there are also two component-video inputs, one AV input with S-Video and composite video, one optical digital audio output, one monitor AV output with composite video, and one RF input. Panasonic doesn't include an analog PC input at this price level. The front panel includes that HDMI jack, a second AV input with S-Video and composite video, and an SD card slot that lets the TV show digital photos on the big screen.
A standout among HDTVs for the entry-level crowd, the Panasonic TH-42PX80U exhibited great black-level performance, although we'd still like to see better color and more effective noise reduction.