The Viera range has long been the pinnacle of flat-screen style, but with this eighth generation model, it's also the pinnacle of features and performance. It would still fit into the most stylish, minimalist of homes whether it's hung up the wall or sat on its optional glass cabinet. But now it can also court the technological elite thanks to its high-definition capability and integrated Freeview tuner.
At around £2,000 online, the Viera may well be expensive, but you're buying a TV that's been crafted with loving care. The image quality is startlingly good -- anyone who had written plasma off should be pleasantly surprised by the colour and contrast depth of this brand-new panel. The colours are so rich they look like they're dripping off the screen, while the detail levels are strong even from standard definition sources. LCDs with 37- and even 40-inch screens are available for less money, but if you want a super-stylish plasma with amazing colour reproduction, this Viera will take some beating.
This Viera is the epitome of understated cool, with a slick black frame surrounding the main panel. There are a few logos around the edge of the screen but they do little to spoil the minimalist design, and the minuscule perforations down the side mean the speakers are barely noticeable. Our test model came with a glass cabinet stand, which costs about £200 more than the desktop stand, but it looks amazing in either configuration and gleaned plenty of admiring glances in an office that's well used to seeing high-end TVs roll in and out.
Connectivity is excellent on this plasma, spanning all upcoming standards while catering for all current inputs. There's only one HDMI connector (many new TVs are shipping with two), but you can connect a second high-definition source via the component inputs (the Xbox 360 or a DVD player, for example). The VGA input is perfect for accommodating a media centre PC or laptop, but if you want to show off your holiday snaps you can plug your SD card straight in to the front of the TV.
Let's not get carried away though -- the only HD source available at the time of writing is the Xbox 360. Chances are you'll be wanting to use standard definition sources for a while yet, and the Viera is well specified in this area. There are three Scart inputs (two RGB) on the rear, and considering that there's a Freeview tuner in the TV itself, this allocation should be more than enough. The television accomodates more temporary sources (a camcorder or games console, for example) by including S-Video and composite inputs on the front of the TV underneath a panel.
The menu system and remote control are both immaculately designed, which gives you the feeling that the entire package has been designed with huge attention to detail. The setup procedure for both analogue and digital takes a matter of minutes, and the electronic programme guide supports the full 7-day schedule broadcast by Freeview. The remote control also supports Panasonic DVD players and recorders, and the record button has even been tucked under a flap so you don't knock it by accident.
The inclusion of an integrated Freeview tuner may not be that rare these days, but a TopUp TV slot is a definite Brucie Bonus. Not many people subscribe to the extra channels offered by this service, especially since E4 moved to Freeview, but it's great to have the option. And if you plug the subscription card in, all the extra channels appear automatically on the EPG.
The analogue channels take slightly longer to tune in than the digital ones, but when it's all completed both tuners prove to be equally strong. We've seen Freeview reception break up on lesser TVs that feature integrated digital tuners, but this was able to find all channels and hold a consistently strong picture throughout.
The panel resolution of this Viera might be lower than average at 1,024x720 pixels, but it is still fully high-definition compatible. The TV will accept HDCP-enabled content such as Sky HD via the HDMI input, and non-protected content such as the Xbox 360 or HD DVD via component inputs. The television supports both 720p and 1080i broadcasts, although there are no benefits from using 1080i because of the 720-line panel resolution.
The Viera Colour Management system produces some incredibly impressive results, with greens and reds that are more vibrant than we've ever seen before. The system boasts some 8.6 billion colours, which is five billion more than the previous, seventh-generation screens were capable of. Impressive stats, and when you see the colours jump off screen you'll see it's one of the most impressive processing technologies available.
Panasonic has included a few more improvements to its picture processing. The engine can control up to 2,084 shades of greyscale and adjusts pixel brightness individually, resulting in a much more dynamic picture than before. Overall brightness has also been improved by ten per cent, and the screen looked just as good under the bright lights of the office as it did in the home cinema room.
Nothing can quite prepare you for the gorgeous colour reproduction of this Viera television. Colours appear natural but are so vibrant that they seem to drip off the screen. This succulent performance is complemented by an awesome contrast level -- the dark scenes of the Mission: Impossible 3 trailer proved to be no problem. Dark colours remained black and never muddied into a grey mess -- we lapped high-definition video up on the Viera.
Having said that, high-definition content is rare at the moment, so it's more relevant that the Viera is also an excellent standard-definition performer. The integrated Freeview tuner is a high quality one, and even during the Winter Olympics, where skiers flew by the camera, the action remained solid and detailed. You won't find a more solid Freeview performance away from a high-quality CRT screen.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide