While many companies were happy to bang out plasmas and rely on their flat charms to appeal to the public, Panasonic's famous Viera advertisements drew attention to just how slinky these things could look. But now all the ultra-rich inhabitants of Knightsbridge have one hanging on their walls, Panasonic is bringing its plasmas to a budget audience. Is it time to jump headlong into the future of television?
The bad news is that Panasonic has been very slow in adopting the high-definition standards, and it isn't about to play its trump card on the lower end of the market with the TH42PE50. So while the level of style has remained intact, the company still doesn't meet the technical demands of a market that now demands high definition and a good selection of AV inputs.
Sure, the TH42PE50's picture quality is very nice, the Freeview adaptor is very welcome, and the ability to record to SD card may appeal to those with portable video players. However, without even the most basic connectors (S-video, composite and PC), and with an unbelievably low screen resolution, the Panasonic looks outdated by years. Even though it's set at a relatively attractive price, plasmas from Hitachi and Pioneer are much better investments for £2,000. We have high hopes for the high-definition version of the Panasonic, but we can't recommend the TH42PE50.
This Panasonic plasma is a real looker. It doesn't have any extravagant touches, but it has a simple, understated presence that manages to look classy rather than boring. The screen is surrounded by a smooth black frame, and the stand is nice and curvy, although it doesn't swerve or tilt. Underneath the solitary Panasonic logo is a grille that hides two 8W speakers.
With digital TV boxes, games consoles and DVD players all fighting it out for space in the cabinet, a TV needs at least three Scart connectors to cope. The TH42PE50 happily meets the criteria, with AV1 and AV3 being RGB-enabled, and AV2 and AV3 capable of input and output.
But what if you've got a camcorder or older games console that you want to plug into the TV? Most companies fit a standard set of S-video and composite inputs on the front of the TV so you can easily connect equipment that you use less regularly. The TH42PE50 disagrees with this convention, so you'll need to buy a Scart adaptor and start fiddling round the back of the Panasonic if you plan to do this. It's cumbersome, especially if you have your plasma hanging on the wall.
Picture fanatics will be glad to see Panasonic has endowed its plasma with component inputs, which can provide the television with silky smooth progressive-scan images. It's such a shame, then, that Panasonic didn't go one further and include a high-definition compatible digital video socket. Not only does the television lack high-definition compatibility, but also it's no use if you plan to connect up a Media Center PC. There's no HD content around at the moment, so it isn't a massive issue until the end of the year, but expect more and more AV equipment to start needing DVI connectivity to look its best.
Let's get our major sticking point out of the way first -- the panel resolution is a paltry 852x480 pixels, meaning it isn't even close to being high definition. In fact, standard 576-line PAL broadcasts have to be scaled down to fit on the screen. Reactions varied between physical disgust and instant dismissal from the CNET editorial team, because the only other plasma we've seen with such a low resolution is from budget king Tiny. However, we have to admit that lower-quality sources such as camcorders look good running at this resolution, simply because their flaws aren't being massively inflated by a high-resolution screen.
The lack of HDMI or DVI socket also means that the Panasonic is in no way ready for high definition. Many people considering a plasma or LCD are driven by the massive jump in quality that high definition will offer, and material is due to arrive before the end of 2006. The upcoming Sky HD service demands this connectivity, so we're astonished that a big manufacturer like Panasonic is marketing a plasma without this compatibility. While it may need to clear remaining stocks (and the next range will be fully HD), we think there'll be more than a few unwitting buyers out there.
It's not all bad news, because the integrated Freeview adaptor means you can plug in the aerial as normal, and then watch either digital or analogue broadcasts. The interface for Freeview is pretty clean, if unspectacular, but you can call up 'Now and Next' programme detail at the touch of a button. If don't live in a Freeview coverage area, you can use an analogue TV signal, but it looks horrible.
The integrated Freeview receiver provides a good picture, especially when compared to a standard box that plugs into the Scart socket. There's a noticeable lack of the blocking that seems to rear its ugly head whenever you connect a standard Freeview box to a digital screen, and there's no colour bleeding.
The low resolution of the screen actually gives it certain advantages, because it makes standard definition TV sources look fairly acceptable. The colour reproduction is not spectacular, though -- the green of Wimbledon's Centre Court grass looked fake and there was a definite loss of detail during movement. There was also next to no shadow detail, which was offputting on the contours of people's faces and quite distracting during darker TV programmes.
DVD films are very enjoyable though, especially when using the component inputs. Compatible DVD players are available for as little as £60 now and it does deserve the investment. There was still a noticeable lack of contrast depth, but there's far more detail to be seen when you switch to progressive-scan mode.
We also thought that audio performance was pretty good. These speakers can go fairly loud but their main attraction is how detailed they are. There's a real clarity to vocals and they can even pick out environmental effects in a show as mundane as EastEnders.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide