Smaller screens have always been the domain of LCD TVs, with plasmas being more comfortable in the larger sizes. Lurking around in the background were 37-inch plasmas, but they generally weren't good value in comparison to LCDs of the same size. Now, Panasonic has a TV that should offer people who want smaller screens a credible alternative to LCD TVs.
The TH-37PX80B is still more expensive than a budget 37-inch LCD but as we discovered, those extra pounds could translate to extra happiness when you see what this TV can do. It's available for around £750.
As it sits at the bottom of Panasonic's range, we wouldn't expect a huge song and dance about the design of this TV. With its piano black finish, though, the 37PX80 will look great in any room. The bezel is rather thick, which does hint at its non-premium roots as it's more expensive to make it thinner, but does that really matter?
Another visually appealing attribute is the near-invisibility of the speakers on this television. Sadly, it's a disaster for sound quality -- more on that later.
The remote control is sturdy, with large buttons that are easy to press. The TV also responds quickly to any commands you issue, which can be a problem on some makes of TV -- sometimes, it feels like you could squeeze in a short holiday during the time it takes to switch from one menu item to another.
All of Panasonic's plasmas have 100Hz refresh rates included. Panasonic calls this feature 'double scan' and it does a pretty good job, too. We like that it seems to take a very moderate approach to adjusting the picture, meaning that movies don't suddenly start looking like video, but have a nice smooth motion to them.
At the front of the 37PX80 is a slot for an SD card and the TV even supports SDHC for extra capacity. We took some shots with a Panasonic Lumix in 16:9 mode, played them back via the TV and were amazed by the quality. Imagine -- your TV, the massive photo frame! If you have a camera that shoots on SD, it's a much better way of viewing your photos than having the whole family crowd around a 51mm (2-inch) camera screen. The only disappointment is that the TV refused to play a short video we'd shot with the camera.
The setup procedure for the 37PX80 is amazingly simple, too. The moment you turn it on, it begins searching for channels -- both digital and analogue -- and has everything tuned and stored within a few minutes.
After setup and making a few small adjustments to the picture settings, we plugged in an HD DVD player, flung The Matrix Reloaded into the disc tray and fired that bad boy up. It's not an exaggeration to say that we were blown away by -- we must point out -- what is essentially a low-cost plasma TV.
We were absolutely enchanted by the startlingly sharp picture. This is most obviously apparent from the TV's menu system, but looking at the on-screen HD DVD menus in the Matrix films, we were amazed at the sharpness of the text.
What also struck us was the plasma's ability to handle a PC input. This isn't generally a strong suit of PDPs, and we'd always advise caution when hooking up a computer to a plasma because screen burn is still an issue. However, despite this and the Panny's daft 1,024x720-pixel native resolution, connecting our laptop to the screen produced a very likeable image. We watched the fantastic WALL·E trailer, which we downloaded as a 1080p QuickTime file from Apple's trailer Web site and it looked nothing short of amazing.
Freeview picture quality was also very good. Obviously, the limiting factor with broadcast TV is the quality at which it's being sent out and the compression applied to it. Nonetheless, the Panny does the best with what it's given.
As we mentioned earlier, some considerable effort has gone into concealing the speakers on the 37PX80. With all flat TVs there is a danger that sound quality is compromised by the push to both reduce size and keep things hidden. That's certainly true of this TV. Although the sound is decent enough for most casual TV viewing, we noticed that it's subject to bass distortion on movies, especially if you turn the levels up. We aren't enormously surprised, and on a set at this price point, it's almost certainly not a deal breaker.
With flat TVs, we'd always suggest that you look into another sound system. It doesn't have to cost a fortune, but it will really help you get the best out of your home entertainment system. There are a number of all-in-one soundbars on the market that fill this niche quite well, such as the Denon DHT-FS3, which will offer vastly improved sound for TVs.
This TV is an excellent performer and offers great value compared to other competitors. Despite that, we think HD TVs have a way to go before they could really be called 'affordable'. Still, its black level reproduction is fantastic and it makes watching movies a real pleasure.
The only slight letdown is the poor sound. For most viewing, it's perfectly capable, but movies -- especially those with deep bass -- will swamp the speakers and make you shudder. Of course, reducing the bass level will help with this but such a lovely picture really deserves better sound to back it up.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday