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It's not an exaggeration to say that we've been very impressed by this year's Panasonic plasma TVs. We think this is good news, especially since the company will be providing the panels for Pioneer TVs next year. Of course, Panny remains committed to plasma, which we're also pleased about, as the technology has matured wonderfully and 1080p TVs are now becoming more common.
We took a look at the company's 46-inch TV from the PZ85 range. The Panasonic Viera TH-46PZ85 is a high-end TV that's available online for somewhere around £1,300, a reasonable price considering the tags of some competition. Does that mean this Panny scrimps on features?
It seems fair to say that until Panasonic brings out the ultra-thin plasma it demonstrated at CES this year, it isn't going to win any awards for 'world's most beautiful TV'. That said, we've yet to see a screen from the company that we'd describe as ugly. The screens just aren't as appealing as some of the thin bezel LCDs that have been cropping up recently, like Toshiba's Regza 40ZF355D.
Finished in the glossy black that's all the rage currently, the PZ85 is a handsome machine. Some people weren't thrilled with the sliver strip that sits beneath the partially concealed speaker, but for the most part, it won't worry most people.
There aren't really any controls on the front of the TV -- just a power LED and an off switch. It's a clean, modern look, and we like it. There are some basic controls on the right-hand side of the screen, underneath a flap alongside an SD card slot. There are S-Video and composite inputs next to an HDMI on the left-hand side of the TV for easy access.
At the rear of the set, you'll find two other HDMIs, a pair of RGB Scart sockets and the usual aerial, PC VGA, conditional access module (for pay TV services) and component video sockets.
The remote control is identical to every other Panasonic TV's companion we've seen recently. It's sturdy, about the right weight and has nice large buttons, which are reasonably easy to find in the dark. We do think the volume and channel change buttons are the wrong way around, though.
The TH-46PZ85 has plenty of nice features to keep us happy. Most significantly is the inclusion of what Panasonic calls 'Intelligent Frame Creation'. This complements the TV's 100Hz picture mode, and claims to create extra frames of video to reduce the judder when you're watching movies recorded at 24 frames per second. This is one of those features that you'll either love or demand to be switched off at all times.
Panasonic makes some bold claims about its 11th generation plasma screens. For a start, it says you should get 100,000 hours use out of your TV before the brightness is reduced by 50 per cent -- this is the way TV manufacturers measure the life of a TV: at 50 per cent brightness, you'll probably want to replace the set. To put this claim in perspective, LCD TVs will get an average of 60,000 hours before seeing this reduced brightness.
Panasonic also bigs up the TV's overall performance. For example, it says you get contrast ratio of 30,000:1 -- or 1,000,000:1, if you want the oft-quoted 'dynamic contrast ratio' figure. You should also see (or rather not see) 5,120 steps of gradation, which should mean smoother pictures free of any banding.
In the sound department, you get BBE ViVA HD3D, which should create a more immersive listening experience.
Starting at the bottom, Freeview performance was generally good. The 46-inch TV we're looking at here has a size disadvantage over the 37-inch, 720p Panasonic Viera TH-37PX80B we looked at previously, and we did think the quality was slightly lower on this screen.
But Freeview wasn't designed for this size of TV and for the most part, there weren't any serious problems. We did need to reduce the brightness and colour settings to get a more lifelike image. On the default settings, Countdown looked like an episode of Teletubbies, and that's not a reflection on Carol Vorderman's makeup.
For a test of upscaled DVDs, we took a look at Blade and everything looked great. We certainly appreciated the increased bitrate available on DVDs over that of Freeview. There was plenty of detail, even in the darker scenes, which is good news in Blade since an awful lot of it takes place in fairly murky lighting.
Blu-ray also looked brilliant. The opening scenes and credits of Casino Royale had their usual charms. We also bunged on the most ridiculous movie since Armageddon -- Dragon Wars. In this movie, where dragons fight helicopter gunships, we were very pleased with the picture quality. While the acting was off-putting, that's hardly Panasonic's fault.
There was a time when we wouldn't have suggested plasmas as being good companions for games consoles, but with improved resolutions, we love the natural motion and sharp graphics. Our favourite waste of time, Burnout Paradise, looked amazing. Once again, we toiled away many minutes in order to evaluate how the game looked.
We couldn't discuss the performance of the 46PZ85 without mentioning the Intelligent Frame Creation. Designed to generate frames to increase film to 100Hz, IFC is supposed to help smooth the motion and it does a good job. The simple truth of these picture processing systems is that if you don't like the slightly jerky film look, they can be very good at removing it. The Panasonic system is the most natural we've seen; with these modes you'll usually get some picture artefacts.
Sound quality is often left until last, but it's equally as important as pictures. We're thrilled with the performance of the sound on this TV. Bass was big and bold, with crystal clear dialogue. Even the virtual surround sound system managed to make sounds appear to be coming from somewhere some distance from the TV. It's easily some of the best built-in sound from a TV we've heard for some time.
We think the 46PZ85 is a great TV that excels in HD movie playback, gaming and upscaled DVDs while still managing to produce a good Freeview picture. We do think the Freeview performance is lacking, especially in comparison with the job the Toshiba Regza 52Z3030D did.
Overall, this TV remains a sensibly priced 1080p TV with great performance and more than enough features to keep everyone happy. Competition can be found in the 1080p Pioneer TVs, but their prices don't suit every pocket.
Edited by Shannon Doubleday