Panasonic's Viera range is now firmly established as a front-running flat-screen brand. The manufacturer's early missteps, such as the use of low-resolution screens and a lack of digital video connections, have now been consigned to the dustbin marked 'past mistakes', as this new model shows. It's fully prepared for the rapidly approaching high-definition revolution, sporting two HDMI inputs and boasting a 1,024x768-pixel resolution on its 42-inch plasma panel. But Panasonic hasn't forgotten about the present either -- there's a built-in digital tuner providing access to Freeview.
At around £1,900 online, it's certainly not among the cheaper options available -- although it should be noted that this price includes the giant cabinet stand (a pedestal stand version costs around £350 less).
Wow. That was pretty much the sound that came out of our mouths when we stepped back and took a long look at the TH42PX60 after setting it up. It's not just that it looks fantastic, it's that it's a marked improvement on the last bunch of Vieras -- which were themselves jaw-droppingly handsome pieces of kit.
Panasonic has managed to shave a few centimetres off the frame either side of the screen, and also, in a trick worthy of creepy magic man David Copperfield, made the speakers disappear. Don't worry, they're there, it's just that you can't see them.
The screen's frame flows smoothly into the stand, making for a product that certainly looks the part. It might be too much for some, in fact: the stand is huge, and it makes for an imposing spectacle that will dominate most living rooms. The upside of this is there's plenty of space on its glass shelves for DVD players, satellite receivers and the like -- and of course if you don't like the stand you can always opt for the pedestal version instead. The cabinet stand also has plenty of cable management to help keep the clutter from leads and cables out of sight, which is handy if you're after that clean, no-mess look.
The clean front is almost unspoilt by ornamentation. There are a couple of labels and the on/off switch, but everything else is hidden under a flap in the centre. Lift it up and you'll find some AV connections, a headphone socket and a few basic controls.
The other connections are at the back, and there are a lot of them: two HDMI inputs, three Scarts (two of them RGB capable), one component video input and one analogue PC input, plus analogue stereo ins and out. There is also a common interface slot, enabling Freeview to be upgraded to TopUp TV. Some digital audio connections would have been nice, but overall it's an impressive selection.
Panasonic has given this TV an extremely simple, straightforward menu system. There are only three main sections -- picture, sound and setup -- so there's really no way to get lost in there. Setup takes you to the tuning options (all automatic), while picture and sound both keep choices to a minimum. Using the well-designed remote, it certainly isn't difficult to tweak the picture and audio to your desired settings.
Panasonic televisions have always employed an odd method for accessing the AV channels -- at least in comparison to other manufacturers' models. Instead of simply cycling through the external input channels with one button on the remote, here you have to use the four colour keys. It takes some getting used to, but is actually quicker in the long run.
One such channel shows video from the PC input. It's worth noting that, unlike the majority of flat-panel televisions, the TH42PX60 shows an entire PC screen -- as long as you input in the correct resolution (1,024x768 pixels) you won't see a single pixel of your computer image spilling over the side of the panel and out of view. The problem is, of course, that 1,024x768 is usually a 4:3 resolution; Panasonic uses rectangular pixels to make it 16:9. This is fine when you're using the other video inputs, but it means that it's difficult to get a properly proportioned PC picture on the screen without reverting to the 4:3 aspect ratio -- a shame, and worth noting if you're planning on hooking up your computer permanently or regularly.
The TV features Panasonic's V-Real picture-processing technology, which is running constantly and cannot be turned off. You also get an adjustable digital noise reduction function, which may come in handy when viewing particularly noisy images (some of the poorer quality channels from the digital tuner, for instance).
Audio features are pretty thin on the ground, although Panasonic has included its underwhelming Ambience mode, which basically widens the soundfield a little. It's not an effective virtual surround mode, although some might prefer its effects to those of the basic setting.
The Panasonic doesn't disappoint when it comes to picture quality. Movement is even, colours look natural (if somewhat muted, compared to decent LCDs), the contrast range is impressive and the viewing angle is wider than you could ever need. Object edges are smooth rather than jagged, and pictures from high quality sources show very little noise.
We hooked up several different sources -- Sky+ box, Denon upscaling DVD player, PlayStation 2 and PC -- and we more than happy with the results from all. The pictures from DVD via HDMI were brilliantly crisp, while high-definition Window Media Video material played from the PC boasted incredible amounts of visible detail. All in all, it's one of the best plasma pictures money can buy -- and it will perform very nicely indeed with HDTV.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide