Sony is the most prolific electronics manufacturer in the world, but the company hasn't made a huge impact in plasma TVs -- yet. The Japanese giant has been backing the technology, but it has let Panasonic and Pioneer woo the early adopters, before swooping in for the drop on the mass market.
The KE-P42M1 is the company's cheapest plasma television yet. While the combination of a Sony badge and a bargain price might be enough to tempt many potential buyers, we found its limited range of features offputting. It has a remarkably low resolution of 852x480 pixels, omits a PC input, and is very poorly designed by Sony's standards. With high-definition TV now imminent and a raft of competitors taking up the format as standard, this Sony plasma represents very poor value for money.
To be blunt, the KE-P42M1 looks like it was designed by Fisher-Price. It should come with a sticker saying 'My First Plasma TV'. Sure, it's aimed at the budget market, but the huge plastic frame makes it look far too big, which isn't necessary when you've got a 42-inch screen to begin with. It looks very cheap compared to the sophisticated styling of Panasonic or Pioneer plasmas.
Connectivity is satisfactory if you're an AV user, but not if you want to connect a computer. A VGA or DVI socket should be considered a necessity for any digital display, especially with high-definition TV and DVD due in 2006. Without DVI, the KE-P42M1 is good for neither PCs nor high definition.
Three Scarts (two of which are RGB) should be enough to satisfy most home users, plus a set of component inputs offer the best picture quality from the display. That's your lot on the rear panel, apart from a centre channel speaker input and L/R stereo audio output. We think the former is pretty useless (it turns the stereo speakers into one combined centre channel for use in a home cinema setup), but the latter will output audio to a surround-sound system, so that it can be amplified or mixed into a Pro Logic II surround soundtrack.
The rest of the connections are housed on a panel that folds down on the front of the television. Although the design of the TV itself is lacklustre, the front panel is pure Sony -- hidden away so that others won't know it's there. In the down position, it will accept composite and S-video connections along with one L/R audio input for both. It's really easy to connect a camcorder to the TV. Sony has also included a headphone socket and a selection of control buttons on this panel.
It might seem like a small point, but Sony remotes always feel 'right'. From the pressing of the buttons to the smooth finish of the body itself (we know, we should get out more), Sony remotes feel perfect. This model can also control other devices such as a Sony DVD player or VCR, and when you change between devices, the remote lights up like KITT from Knight Rider.
With the KE-P42M1 lacking a high-definition video input, we scanned the manual to find out the resolution of the screen. Sadly, 852x480 pixels isn't a typo: Sony's plasma has one of the lowest resolutions we've seen. No wonder it's lacking a PC input -- can you imagine browsing the Internet in lowly WVGA resolution?
If you're only going to be using the Sony for DVD and TV viewing, you might be able to put up with it. Sony has implemented its acclaimed Wega Engine processing technology to improve the quality of all picture sources. Instead of using a variety of analogue to digital conversions between the source and the final picture, Wega Engine processes everything in the digital domain. This is common sense for a digital display, and the results are certainly very clean. It also offers a contrast boost and more vibrant colours.
Sony's usual picture options are all available, and are presented on a handsome menu system that sits in the bottom left of the screen instead of obstructing the whole picture. You can format all material to fit the screen how you like, so you can cut off the top and bottom of 4:3 to make it look more natural on screen. It's best to stick with the Smart mode though, so the television will recognise all sources and format them automatically.
In terms of picture presets, you can only choose between Live, Movie and Personal picture presets, with the latter offering full control of your brightness and contrast settings. If you find the picture needs more contrast, you can boost it with the Dynamic Picture Mode. Once you've got used to it, it's unlikely you'll ever turn this mode off. You can also engage a Power Saving feature that will dim the brightness of the backlight, but unless you're particularly energy-efficient, there's not much point in hampering your viewing pleasure. Sony's Screen Saver flashes the screen with white pixels to neutralise them. You may find this useful if you're paranoid about screen burn.
Without HDMI or DVI connectivity, the Sony isn't high-definition compatible, but it will scale down 720p and 1080i material automatically. We used Denon's DVD-2910 player to transmit 720p/1080i signals over component, and Sony's internal processing scaled it down for us. Pretty pointless, but if you ever invest in a high-definition DVD player and it supports component output, then the KE-P42M1 will at least offer support.
The visual fidelity of Sony's plasma is actually very good, although you lose all fine detail during camera pans. While that's a characteristic of plasma technology, the other traditional effects are less noticeable. Thanks to Wega Engine, contrast depth is good. The fine shadows on human faces don't blur into a horrible mess, and the colours always look natural. During Finding Nemo, the deep blue of the ocean and the vibrant red of the clown fish's skin showed no colour bleed at all. Use component inputs and you'll get a further enhancement to picture quality, although recent efforts from NEC and Pioneer beat it hands down.
Sony's audio performance is virtuoso, with real depth in the bass and plenty of detail in the treble. You can use the speakers as one centre channel if you've got a home cinema system, but they did a pretty good job on their own. They provide all the vocal clarity that's necessary for television and movie viewing.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide