Plasma technology is currently doing very well with the mass market, thanks to companies like Tiny selling 42-inch models for under £1,000. However, they've had a bad reputation, particularly with consumers who've found that the screen shatters and the picture quality is generally poor. It's for this reason that we'd always recommend you go with someone with more experience in this area, particularly as there's acres of difference between a good plasma and a bad one.
The 42PD5200 comes without a media box (unlike its 42PD5300 brother), but its connection roster is mostly unaffected. It offers full high-definition compatibility thanks to a HDCP-compliant DVI input, and the only thing lacking is Scart sockets -- there's only one available. While picture quality through analogue sources may be a horrible mess, it actually does very well with FreeView, and shines brightly when you use a high-definition source, as many people might be hoping to do over the coming years.
Pioneer's plasmas may look the business, but Hitachi's understated design is our personal favourite. As opposed to having the standard silver frame that every other manufacturer uses, Hitachi has employed a graphite finish that's unbelievably classy. With only the Hitachi logo at the bottom, understatement is the order of the day, and we'd feel extremely proud to have one hanging on our wall.
The package comes with a desktop stand and stereo speakers. The latter can clip on to the side of the screen itself or sit freely on their own bases. The included remote is just as nice as the screen itself -- it's easy to use. It can control your Hitachi DVD player, which is a nice bonus, and it has direct selections for each of the inputs to save you flicking through them in order. Note to other manufacturers: include this feature as standard.
Hitachi was one of the first manufacturers to start including HDCP-compliant DVI sockets on its plasmas, pre-empting Sky's decision that the input protocol would be used as standard. So, you can be assured that the display will be ready to accept whatever the AV world can throw at it over the coming years.
But it's not only forward thinking that Hitachi has been worried about. You'll also find all the other important connections here. Unfortunately, there's only one Scart input, and while it's RGB, it won't be enough for the majority of users, who are likely to have a DVD player and VCR or games console. At least there's an attempt to combat this particular predicament with the inclusion of two sets of progressive scan component inputs. If you've any sense, you'll connect your DVD player to one of these. All this fancy progressive and high-definition connectivity also means you'll be ready for the next set of games consoles too, which will be high-definition compatible.
The more standard connections are also there in abundance -- two composite inputs and one S-video input, in addition to four analogue stereo inputs to accompany all the video inputs. While you might only want to use this plasma as a presentation display as opposed to an everyday computer monitor, there's a standard PC audio input to cover all bases.
The menu options are presented in an extremely sensible manner, which is a bonus because Hitachi has included a wealth of tweaks that you can make to both the picture and audio. First, the picture: before you change all the contrast and brightness settings, you can make the image considerably brighter by changing the picture mode to Dynamic from Natural. After you think you've found the optimum settings, you might be daunted to find another page and a half of changes you can make, including the colour tone, contrast mode, a mode for films, black enhancement, colour temperature and recoding... the list goes on. The default settings work fine, but more experienced users can tweak them to the material you're watching and save them as a favourite.
Audio options are no less comprehensive. The stereo speakers feature both SRS Trubass and Matrix Surround, while presets are available for Movie, Music and Speech scenarios. You can also equalise your own preferred settings under Favourite.
The screen can also 'wipe' itself by neutralising all the pixels periodically, to prevent any screen burn. The 61-inch NEC plasma that we had recently was very good at recognising still images -- even after 10 seconds it would begin to move the image around pixel by pixel to stop you burning anything in to your lovely new screen. The default setting for Screen Wipe on the 42PD5200 is 60 minutes, but during the first few weeks of use you might want to change it to lower than this or do it manually yourself, especially if you are going to be playing computer games or making any presentations. There's also a built-in screen saver designed to tackle this problem, which will intervene after 20 minutes of inactivity.
If you're really paranoid about the life of the plasma, you can dim the panel brightness down across two settings, from normal to Extend 1 and Extend 2, which is something we normally only see on projectors. On the remote, you can also activate cross-source Picture in Picture, as well as freeze and zoom (which actually alters the aspect ratio as opposed to zooming in) on any of the pictures.
Bear in mind that the actual resolution of this screen is 1,024x1,024, not true widescreen. But it's not too important a factor, because the picture is detailed and it still offers a high-resolution image.
We haven't seen any other plasma do better, but analogue video on a plasma is, to use the old terminology, like putting a Mini engine in a Ferrari. You'll be punished by an image that's barely watchable. However, invest in a FreeView box and the RGB Scart feed is much improved, with rich colour depth and better detail. True, there's still a lot of noise and dot crawl if you look up close, but at normal viewing distances you'll only be able to notice the great depth of contrast and superb colours.
High definition is predictably where it's at. Whether using the component inputs or DVI socket to service the screen, the detail and smoothness of the image was superb. We used Xbox Media Centre to link up a DivX HD version of Star Wars Episode II, and the fast-moving chase through the skies at the beginning of the film was incredibly involving, while 1080i clips from Microsoft's website were just as gorgeous. If, like us, you're looking forward to the maiden voyage of Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, this is the screen to take with you.
Edited by Mary Lojkine