Panasonic plasmas fall into a few distinct camps: there are the budget, 720p models, which are brilliantly competent and a total bargain; then you get the 1080p screens which offer top notch, 'full HD' resolution but without bundles of extra picture processing; and the final group is made up of the high-end models that feature things such as freesat and all the picture modes you can imagine.
The 46PZ80, which goes for around £1,020, sits in the middle group -- it's a sturdy TV with a good spec sheet, but it doesn't have menus stuffed to capacity with tweaks and extra functions. We think this TV is aimed at people who want a reasonably low-cost, stylish TV that they can set up once and forget about doing anything else to it. In short, it's ideal for non-techies.
Panasonic could never be accused of following the crowd. Its TVs generally have a sturdy look and feel, and it isn't afraid to try new things. This PZ80 is no exception, with a surprising silver lip housing some important features beneath the more traditional black bezel.
Firstly, the silver lip has the all important power switch -- a big deal in itself these days, what with polar bears being stranded on solitary ice cubes in the middle of a vast and rapidly warming sea. So that means use it. Underneath a flap is a single HDMI socket, a headphone output, RCA video and audio connections and Panasonic's trademark SD card slot.
The inclusion of a front-mounted HDMI socket means that at the back there are just two HDMI inputs. While three rear-mounted connections would be just about enough -- you'd be amazed how quickly these sockets get used up these days -- we don't think two at the back and one at the front is a very sensible configuration. Still, some people won't care, and if you do, there are always HDMI hubs to help out.
As you would expect, there are also VGA, Scart and component video inputs also to be found at the rear of the TV alongside the aerial inputs. There are analogue audio outputs too, via RCA jack, but no digital audio output. The sturdiness of Panasonic's design extends to the remote, which isn't quite as bold and weighty as the one that comes with Pioneer TVs, but it is still a good, high-quality piece of kit.
The Panasonic also has a swivel base, which allows you to move the TV slightly. We aren't talking dozens of degrees here, but it will allow you to tweak your viewing position should the need arise.
This TV supports 1080/24p, which means that it will really shine when plugged into a Blu-ray player, and you'll get to see films in a format the director intended. The 'full HD' badge means you're going to love watching HD material on this television.
You also get an SD card socket, designed to view photos taken on a digital camera directly on the TV. This is a handy feature, but really works best if your camera can shoot with an aspect ratio of 16:9, because otherwise the TV will have to scale your photos, reducing the quality.
One of the things we love about Panasonic is its simple menu systems. On some TVs it's possible to spend hours getting lost in the configuration of the screen. The Panasonic has menus very simply split among Viera Link, picture, sound and setup, each with just enough options to allow you to tweak the TV, but not too many as to confuse.
As with most modern AV products, the Panasonic features a kind of HDMI CEC, which is a control mechanism where many products can be controlled from one remote control. There are other benefits too, such as AV receivers that switch themselves on when you change to the HDMI input they're connected too. The Panasonic can also shut off your Blu-ray player when you switch the TV off, which is a nice little touch.
Standard definition via Freeview is decent enough. We tend to compare all plasma TVs to our reference Pioneer PDP-LX5090, which does the best job with Freeview we've ever seen -- in fact at times it's hard to believe how much detail it manages to rescue. While the Panasonic isn't quite as good as the Pioneer, it does still do a very good job with Freeview. Pictures were bright, colourful and there was a decent amount of detail. The TV does sometimes struggle to disguise the picture artefacts generated by the MPEG-2 compression.
Blu-ray performance was, as you would hope, very good indeed. We popped on the movie 21, with Kevin Spacey, and were dazzled by a very natural-looking picture. The film has a distinctly muted feel to it -- it doesn't have many bright colours and generally takes place indoors in darkened casinos and dingy MIT classrooms. The Panasonic handles all of this with distinction, with dark blacks -- although not quite to the level the Pioneer manages.
The Panasonic doesn't have a movie judder-reduction mode, like some of the higher-end models. In fact, we don't consider this to be much of a problem because these modes ruin the film's look, and we're purists so we turn it off anyway. If you really want an extreme judder-reduction mode, you'll want to look elsewhere.
Looking very closely at the screen, it's possible to see some blue speckling on areas that are dark, but not totally black. This doesn't affect areas like the black bars you get at the top and bottom of some movies, but if you look closely at deep blues you'll see them. We aren't going to criticise the Panasonic too much for this because it's not noticeable unless you've got your nose pressed up against the screen. And you shouldn't do that, it's bad for your eyes.
We also found ourselves impressed by the sound quality of the PZ80. Speech in particular was crisp and clear. Sometimes we felt there was too much booming bass, but running the TV in its default sound setting and decreasing the bass control would certainly help reduce this. But overall, you could get by with the built-in speakers on this TV for the most part. Big action movies always benefit from a sound bar or 5.1 system, but that doesn't necessarily suit every home or budget.
If you're after bundles of features or many picture modes, this TV isn't for you. If you want a good all-round performer capable of making Freeview look good and bringing the best out of your Blu-ray player, HD games console or HD TV service, we think you'll be thrilled with this screen.
For alternatives, take a look at the Toshiba Regza 40ZF355D, which has a beautiful picture-frame bezel, and some of the best movie performance we've seen from any TV around this price. You could also spend a little more on the Panasonic Viera TH-46PZ81, which has freesat built-in, and some other picture processing modes.
Edited by Marian Smith