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While LCD TVs have been commercially available for a long time, eager price watchers will have noticed that they've only very recently become a viable alternative to dull old CRTs. Panasonic's TX26LX50 is much cheaper than last year's models, making it a candidate for the bedroom or a smaller living room -- especially as it houses an integrated digital TV tuner.
While the Panasonic is very capable on picture quality, with rich colour depth and great contrast, it will be hindered by its lack of an 'HD Ready' badge, something which rivals Philips and Toshiba have offered on their latest mid-range models. And even though there still isn't any high-definition material available right now, it should be at the forefront of your mind as you make an investment that should last you a number of years.
Panasonic's Viera plasmas have won admiring glances from the AV world and style gurus alike, but this 26-inch LCD is a much more plain affair. The main panel sits atop a silver desktop stand, with a matching speaker grille sitting under the big black frame. It's classy, in an understated way.
Most of the connectivity is tucked away on the rear, so that the inputs sit vertically in the back. The selection is good, but it's missing a couple of the more modern connectivity options that are specifically designed to suit flat-screen TVs. Two RGB Scart inputs and one standard video Scart is more generous than we'd expect on a screen this size, and the component inputs are high-definition, progressive-scan compatible. If your DVD player doesn't have component outputs, make sure you make the upgrade along with the TV, as it'll make a huge difference.
That's it for the most important connectivity, but on the audio side there's a set of L/R stereo inputs and outputs, as well as a headphone socket sits under a nice fold-up panel on the front. This same section hides basic operation buttons as well as an S-video and composite video input -- obviously intended for ease-of-access when using a camcorder or games console. Finally, there's a Common Interface slot tucked away that will support TopUp TV's access module, if you want to upgrade the basic Freeview package.
Missing from this list of inputs and outputs is HDMI/DVI and VGA, for high definition and PC sources respectively. The lack of HDMI/DVI was commonplace up until recently, but the lack of PC input is a major problem. We imagine that many of you will want to set this TV up in the bedroom, so plugging in a computer is a high priority. And with Media Center PCs growing in popularity, you might be looking for an LCD TV to complete the 21st century home cinema.
We've lavished praise on Panasonic's remotes in the past, and we'll be treating this one with equal respect. It fits in the hand beautifully, and the buttons are large and logically laid out. Along the base, there's controls for a Panasonic DVD player, DVD recorder or VCR. The on-screen menu system is also well implemented, with the TV setting itself up automatically within minutes of activation.
The TX26LXD50 is part of a dying breed -- a mid-size LCD TV that doesn't qualify for an 'HD Ready' badge. High definition has become such a buzzword within the AV industry that it's spilled out into the mainstream and all that's left is for the manufacturers to catch up. Thankfully, we're finally there -- we've had 26/27-inch LCDs in recently from Philips and Toshiba that are HD-ready, and the TX26LXD50 could be the last TV at this size that doesn't meet the grade.
In technological terms, the problem lies with the allocation of video inputs as opposed to any panel weaknesses. Sky has announced that its HD service will require a digital video connection incorporating high-definition copy protection (HDCP). Only HDMI and DVI inputs meet the grade, and the TX26LXD50 lacks both. Panasonic plans to rectify this with an upgraded model called the TX26LXD52. [Note: the TX26LXD52 became available shortly before this review was published.]
The television does, however, offer that other increasingly demanded feature -- an integrated digital TV tuner. This means it can receive terrestrial digital signals if you live in a Freeview area and standard analogue TV if not. It's simple to set up and the box fully supports the 7-day electronic programme guide. And as the TV houses a Common Interface slot on the rear, you can add subscription channels from TopUp TV as you wish. Cleverly, the TV recognised new channels automatically during our reviewing process, and it alerted us to the presence of new digital channel More4.
In terms of picture processing, Panasonic uses an MPEG filter to remove any image problems from DVD and Freeview. It will also compute ways of reducing the amount of motion noise when the camera pans quickly across, or if there is a lot of movement on screen. These are very welcome additions, as they help combat two of the most annoying problems with LCD picture quality. The panel resolution is 1,366x768 pixels, so it will support high-definition pictures if you can provide them via component. While Sky requires a digital video input, it's possible that other high-definition formats such as HD DVD and Blu-ray may be compatible with component video.
Panasonic's plasmas have been held in high regard for some time, but in terms of LCD it would be fair to say that Sharp is the top dog. If the TX26LXD50 is anything to go by, however, Panasonic might just score the double. While its component video performance is predictably good, it's of a benchmark standard with Freeview. The colours seem to jump off the screen and the picture is immaculately detailed, with a real three-dimensional quality. Most importantly, there's little or nothing in the way of MPEG artefacts, nor is there any colour bleed.
We tested DVDs and our new PS2 via component video, and it proved to be worth the effort. The picture is extraordinarily solid, particularly in darker areas of the picture that never seem greyed over. We actually started to wonder what voodoo magic Panasonic has employed in there to suddenly provide such good quality pictures.
The speakers are modestly powered on paper, but they filled the room with sound while maintaining a detailed performance. Philips' 26-incher included a digital audio output, which is of benefit to owners of home cinema systems, but the sound output from the built-in speakers was crisp enough for us.
It makes you wish that the television was HD Ready with more connectivity, as it's a clear winner on performance. If you're an LCD purist, keep an eye out for the upgraded model.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide