Once the most desirable products in the AV world, plasma TVs are now facing some tough competition from LCD -- falling prices and a typically better picture quality are making LCDs the product of choice for the discerning buyer. However Hitachi is fighting back with a massive increase in its production of plasma TVs. It has good reason to be confident, because the company's 42PD5200 was an excellent plasma that was ahead of its time on specification, and was thus able to stay on the market for a long time. It's now due for an upgrade, and this new model looks set to continue Hitachi's reputation for quality.
The plasma is stylish, well featured and has been brought up to date with high-definition compatibility, making this a TV we'd recommend as a long-term investment. It's the performance that's the most impressive facet of this television though, with a solid, detailed picture across all sources thanks to Hitachi's Picture Master processing.
Hitachi's plasmas lack the distinct sophistication of Pioneer and Panasonic's recent efforts, but the 42PD7200 still manages to look modern. It's a classic example of understated design, with only a thin black frame to detract from the main attraction -- the massive screen itself. And despite having Picture Master processing, you won't see Hitachi boasting about it with huge logos on the front -- only the Hitachi badge divides the clean lines of the TV.
Hitachi's remote keeps up this appearance, and while it's too big and could do with grooves to make it easier to hold, clusters of similar buttons are well organised. The nicest feature is that the main buttons -- channel numbers, volume and channel up/down -- are all hard plastic with the labels imbedded into the keys. That means that unlike most other remotes, the buttons won't wear down after a couple of years' use. The back panel on the TV has quite a few connections, so it's good that each one is allocated a separate button on the remote control. It will also control your DVD player and satellite box, and many keys double up for different uses depending on which mode it's in.
Many manufacturers opt for a separate media box to increase connectivity on their flat screens, but Hitachi has managed just fine without. On the PC front, the roster is unchanged from the 42PD5200, with one VGA input and one DVI input, which will suit modern PCs and media centres.
On the AV side there's been a big shakeup. One set of component inputs has been removed (still leaving one set) and replaced with a shiny new HDMI input. Not many TVs have this, but over the coming years expect HDMI to become the digital equivalent of Scart. If you have a new-fangled DVD player such as the Denon DVD-2910, you can send the Hitachi plasma digital video and audio through one cable, resulting in the best possible picture. The DVI input is also HDCP compatible, so you're effectively getting two high-definition-compatible inputs, and there aren't many TVs that can yet boast that. It's not all about catering for the future market though, as there's also been an increase in the number of Scarts, with two RGB and one video Scart taking the total up to three.
Hitachi's menu systems aren't flashy, but they're very easy to use. It helps that there are a number of presets that you can activate from the remote control, so you never have to dip in there if you don't want to. From the box, we found that the Natural picture setting offered the best results for television programmes and movies, whereas the Dynamic mode was useful for some videogames.
If you are more experienced, you can delve into the menu system, and you'll find that Hitachi offers a lot of options for the power user. You can go as deep as changing the colour temperature or adjusting the individual colour levels. On the audio side, things are just as in-depth, with separate adjustments for treble, bass and balance. The sound system also has built-in Dynamic Bass and Matrix Surround, but they're off by default and we suggest you leave them that way.
Behind the scenes, the major improvement in this next-generation panel is Hitachi's Picture Master processing. Like Sony's Wega Engine, it aims to keep digital-to-analogue conversions at a minimum. The television analyses and adjusts individual sections of the picture to make them appear more natural on-screen, and if you're using the RGB Scart or component inputs, the results are noticeably improved. Of course, if you upgrade and keep everything in the digital domain with DVI or HDMI video then the picture quality is even better. But as this won't be made widely possible until the introduction of high-definition standards, Hitachi's interim solution gives your television viewing an immediate improvement.
One feature on the Hitachi plasma increases the 'wow' factor considerably. The desktop stand is motorised, meaning you can use the remote control to swivel the TV left and right automatically. If this isn't fancy enough, bear in mind that there is also a Freeview model called the 42PD7500, which costs around £200 more.
At a mid-range price, the 42PD7200 could potentially be forgiven for having a weaker picture quality than recent efforts from Pioneer and NEC. This hasn't been the case though, as this plasma offers a rock-solid picture performance across all sources. We got into the cricket while testing the screen, and Channel 4's Ashes coverage showed off a nice mix of colours and some fast camera pans. Usually, there is significant breakup from Freeview material when viewed on an LCD or plasma, but Hitachi's screen showed no weaknesses in this area. If you go close up to the screen, you can see some colour banding, but it's a great improvement over the 42PD5200, even though it's hardly more expensive than the older model.
The great thing about the speakers is that they can easily be removed. While we expect a good proportion of plasma buyers to have a dedicated surround setup, the quality of the included speakers is very good, and they add to the sophisticated look. The two 12W speakers aren't particularly powerful, but they perform well in the mid-range and always provide vocal clarity -- making them good for television programmes, as opposed to movies.