Not to be outdone by Pioneer and their procession of 1080p televisions, Panasonic has introduced its own range of HD plasmas. The TH-50PZ700A sits in the middle of the company's offerings and offers a significant discount on their competitor, and since we first previewed it four months ago it has dropped over AU$1,000. But does it have the performance and features?
Not too much to comment on here -- what you get is a fairly stylish TV. And of course it's in a piano black finish. Looks-wise, all that spoils the view is the strange diamond-shaped stand. But it's not the bezel that's worth remarking about here, it's the screen itself ...
Given that a plasma screen is reflective by virtue of its design -- it features a glass outer layer, after all -- Panasonic have attempted to combat this by covering the TH-50PZ700A panel with an anti-reflective coating. The effect is diffuse enough, and while you wouldn't be able to shave with it, LCDs are still better at minimising reflections.
Considering HD is the buzz word of the year, it's fortuitous that the TH-50PZ700A complies by featuring a native 1080p resolution. It also includes a gadget called the Digital Re-mastering Processor -- which automatically converts SD sources to high definition.
In addition the Panasonic features a high-def tuner, a front-mounted SD-card reader (for photo viewing), and a massive 100,000 hour life. Three HDMI inputs come as standard, including a front-mounted port for connecting a compatible camera or console.
One of the only features missing from this TV is one that has proved to be incredibly useful in real-world testing -- 100Hz capability. Most manufacturers now offer this feature on their premium TVs and its sole function is to remove the judder that occurs when you convert film or overseas broadcasts to PAL.
Plasma panels of old used to have some real problems with subtle colour gradations, but the Panasonic claims to have 4,096 gradations of colour -- which means no more "banding". The claimed total number of visible colours is a whopping 68.7 billion where most screens count less than 20 million. Of course this is much higher than the number of colours you'll see through your average HD broadcast, but good to know the capability is there. Especially as far as Blu-ray, HD DVD and the new Deep Colour capabilities of HDMI 1.3 are concerned.
One downside to the new TV is actually one of its advertised strengths: Viera Link. The HDMI standard allows for two-way communication between components such as a TV and a DVD player. This means you can press a single button and turn off all compatible components -- like the--or play a DVD without switching remotes or inputs, for example. But, like most iterations from other manufacturers we've seen, this only works with Panasonic products. Maybe one day your different branded HDMI components will play nice with each other, but not currently.
While the Digital Re-mastering Processor did what it said on the tin -- that is, upscaled SD sources to 1080p -- we found it carried this out with a little too much enthusiasm. As a result, some sources could become so processed that they sacrificed detail.
Testing the analog tuner of theDVD recorder we found that the Panasonic made the images a little too soft to be believable. Skin became a monotone, and details such as hair and scenery were treated to a heavy dollop of Vasoline. Admittedly, we wouldn't be buying an analog recorder to partner with a TV like this, but it was symptomatic of the combination of both Samsung and Panasonic's processing.
Using the Panasonic's own tuners we found that noisy signals were reined in on analog broadcasts, and digital signals were relatively free of noise and artefacts. In fact, the digital tuner on board the Pana is one of the better ones we've seen in a while. Set-up is quick, and the set grades each channel by the signal strength -- which is a nice touch. We also found that both Channel 9 and 10's EPGs were displayed for a full week (as per the new agreement), though strangely SBS and ABC were erratic.
However, the inconsistencies of the scaler only became apparent when we connected theBlu-ray player. Using our King Kong DVD we found markedly different results when relying on the Panasonic's upscaling capabilities. Fed a 576i image and the results were clean and very watchable. When we tried upscaling through the player the Panasonic didn't know what to do, and the results were some of the worst DVD replay we've seen in a while. There was a lot of noise around contrasting edges -- such as during the long-shot of King Kong on top of the Empire State -- and plenty of jaggies. As we found, the processing will only work when fed an SD image, and this is to the detriment of a high definition source.
But when fed an actual HD signal, the results were happily better. Mission Impossible III was detailed, and the Panasonic delicately handled the disk's balance between grainy realism and any outright noise. It's in native high definition that this television really shines.
2007 has been a big year for plasma, and not only because it's the year that Panasonic and others released their 1080p panels. No, it's because Pioneer's Kuro has changed everything. It is the benchmark against which all other high-def plasmas must now be judged.
While the Panasonic is a relatively good plasma, its lack of user customisation, picture processing that is unable to be turned off, and lack of features mean that it's now an also-ran.