Panasonic's LCDs have always dazzled us with superior picture quality, but the company has taken its time creating a package that combines preformance with our long list of feature requirements. The TX26LXD50 nearly got it right, combining an integrated Freeview tuner when many others hadn't even got their iDTV range past the design stage. But with Freeview already seeming old hat due to the announcement of Sky HD, the TX26LXD50's lack of an 'HD Ready' badge made us strongly warn off potential buyers. It also disappointed on connectivity, with no HDMI or computer terminal.
The follow-up LCD is only one digit different in its name, but it finally boasts the 'HD Ready' badge as well as the Freeview tuner and picture quality of the previous model. Sure, there are still problems -- there's no PC input (why, Panasonic, why?) but they're outweighed by nice touches that include a slot for TopUp TV upgrades. That flawless picture quality is the biggest selling point though, coming a close second to Sharp's famous LCD panels.
Panasonic's range of LCD TVs may not be as stylised as Samsung's recent efforts, but it does offer an understatedly cool allure. The simple black frame hovers above two silver speakers, with a folding panel in the centre hiding basic connectivity. Too many flat screens neglect front connections, forgetting that many people have camcorders and games consoles that they like to connect up only occasionally. The Panasonic includes composite and S-video terminals under this smooth-opening panel, as well as basic operating buttons.
Round the back of the TV and behind a removable panel, the rest of the ample connectivity reveals itself. There are three Scart sockets, two of which are RGB-compatible for improved picture quality from modern equipment (digiboxes, DVD players and games consoles, for example). There are also component video inputs -- perfect for a DVD player that supports progressive scan. The red, green and blue phono connectors provide a much better picture quality than RGB Scart, and while the Panasonic is a strong all-round picture performer, the jump in quality warrants the expense of a progressive-scan DVD player.
The new addition to the TV, and the one that necessitates the upgrade, is the HDMI socket. HDMI is a completely digital standard that carries video and audio down a single cable. It means you can send a standard or high-definition picture and a Dolby Digital/DTS soundtrack directly to the TV, with little to no degredation. There are DVD players that support HDMI, although to be honest, the difference between component video isn't as marked as the difference between component and Scart. It would be best to keep this socket reserved for Sky HD (which it will require because of HDMI's built-in copy protection) or a Blu-ray player. For more information on the high-definition revolution, have a look at our Television Buying Guide here.
We're very annoyed that the television doesn't feature a VGA input. We thought that we would be able to use a DVI-HDMI adaptor to run our Dell XPS into the TV, but the Panasonic was happy to turn a blind eye to our high-definition test platform. This will be annoying to media-centre owners, but it will likely be more annoying to the many more Xbox 360 owners, who can use a VGA cable for hi-def gaming on their flat screen. They'll have to opt for component instead, and then buy a splitter so they can use a DVD player at the same time.
Panasonic's remote control is simple to use and looks great. The buttons are well laid out and most are in a solid, rectangular format. If you're a Panasonic junkie you can also use the remote to control one of the company's DVD players. Panasonic is not selling an HDMI-equipped DVD player as yet though, but it would make sense to accompany this new TV. The company is playing catch-up to Samsung and Toshiba in this respect.
The Panasonic TX26LXD52 is fully high-definition compatible, a first for a 26-inch TV from the company. It will support 720p and 1080i resolution video through both component and HDMI video sockets, although you'll be forced to use the latter for Sky HD. While an extra set of component inputs or another HDMI socket wouldn't have gone amiss, this is a mid-range set and its full support for HD means you can be certain it will be compatible with all upcoming video standards. The native resolution of the panel (1,366x768 pixels) means that there's little to be gained from using 1080i video feeds, as the internal scaler will only bring it back down. Much better to use 720p -- it's more suited to the LCD panel and rock solid when thrown up on the screen.
It's also a good idea to budget in a progressive-scan DVD player when you buy the TV. Progressive-scan video is supported via component and HDMI video, and it means that video is much smoother than the normal interlaced format. Such players cost as little as £60 these days, but invest more and you can get an upscaling DVD player with HDMI for the best picture quality, such as the superb Denon DVD-2910.
The TX26LXD52's integration of Freeview is as good as we've seen from any manufacturer. The electronic programme guide is fully supportive of 7-day programme information, so you can skip forward day by day without much need for a traditional guide. There's also a Common Interface slot on the rear, meaning you can purchase a TopUp TV card and subscribe to the extra TV channels on offer. We wouldn't say that the extra channels are to die for, but it's a nice offering, as many other manufacturers still aren't including Freeview as standard, let alone TopUp TV.
Panasonic's TVs include picture-processing technology, but it's less prominently advertised than, say, the Viera badge. The Colour Management System is the catch-all term for the various processes going on inside the TV when you feed it a video signal. Contrast is boosted, fine detail recalculated -- even the sound is boosted. This technology is absolutely required when you're using digital television and DVDs -- their resolution is much lower than the Panasonic's resolution, so something has to be done in-between. Upscaling DVD players will convert movies to high-definition resolutions before they're pumped out of the player, but digital TV certainly benefits from the Colour Management System.
We were seriously impressed with the picture quality from the TX26LXD52. Sure, we were disappointed with the difficulty of testing HD content, but as the majority of films and TV will be watched at standard definition for most of us, Panasonic's picture quality for standard def is a close second to Sharp's LC-32P50E. And that has a native PAL panel -- it's intended to be the best for digital TV and DVD movies.
The picture from interlaced pictures (everything except progressive-scan component video and HDMI) is remarkably solid. Fighting games demand a TV that can keep up with lots of movement and action on screen, and playing Soul Calibur 3 on Sony's PS2 was glorious, even using the Scart output. There was very little smearing, colours were natural and dynamic, and the contrast depth made the picture seem realistically three-dimensional. The detail from the in-built Freeview tuner was also hugely impressive, standing up to scrutiny even from close-up viewing. There's no doubt that Panasonic's TV costs a little more than Toshiba's and Samsung's sets, but if picture quality is your priority then it's worth the investment. Even the 20W speakers are much better than what's usually offered on 26-inch screens, and they're bassy enough to handle movie playback.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide