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Televisions are no longer an area in which massive technological advances are being made, although it's fair to say that each generation of screens improves in many important ways. Picture quality, for example, has generally been getting better and better with each new range that hits the market. But, because screen technology hasn't changed much in the last three years, it can sometimes seem that there isn't that much awesome new stuff to get excited about.
Well, it seems like the geeks at Panasonic agree, because they've gone and created a 46-inch, 1080p plasma TV that has more bells and whistles than a bells and whistles emporium that has recently received a large overstock shipment of bells and whistles from Bells and Whistles Ltd. The main area causing copious ringing and whistling is the Viera TX-P46Z1's wireless high-definition video transmission. This is certainly an exciting development, and we're pretty sure the TX-P46Z1 won't be the only TV this year that makes use of this feature.
It would be quite remiss of us not to mention that this TV costs about £4,200. It doesn't matter who you are -- that's a sizeable wad of cash for a 46-inch TV. It's virtually the same kind of money you'd spend buying a 60-inch Pioneer Kuro. Of course, innovation is never cheap, and the more new technology that goes into something the higher the price will go. Because the Panasonic has 600Hz intelligent frame creation, a NeoPDP panel and, of course, 1080p wireless, it's a very expensive piece of kit.
It's clear that Panasonic wanted to differentiate this series of Z1 televisions from the older plasmas. It's done this by spraying the whole TV silver, which we can't help think makes it look rather like it's come out of a '90s time warp, when silver was all the rage.
The problem we have with the style is that it's inconsistent. The TV is mostly silver, but there are two black bars that border the panel. When the TV is off, these are fine, and you won't notice they're there. But, when you're watching TV, because they're black, they can make it appear that the picture isn't filling the screen. Of course, it is, but the illusion is slightly irritating. We can't help feel it would have been better if the whole set had been piano black, even if there is little then to differentiate this TV from the rest of the range.
With this TV having wireless HD connectivity, there isn't a great deal built into the set itself. The only sockets you'll find anywhere on this TV are a single HDMI input and a companion data connection that looks like a mini FireWire port.
The rest of the connections are relegated to the separate media receiver. That box includes four HDMI inputs, a pair of Scart sockets, component, composite and VGA connections. You also get aerial inputs for both an antenna and satellite dish -- the latter for freesat viewing.
Wireless transmission of HD video is a new phenomenon. It's taken a long time to appear because the technical challenges behind it are tough to overcome. There have also been regulatory issues, but, thanks to an EU harmonisation ruling, the UK frequency watchdog Ofcom has been forced into allowing the use of these TVs.
The system uses very high frequency RF transmissions to get the video signal from the external receiver box to the TV. These signals, which are in the order of 50GHz, are of a high enough frequency that they bounce around the walls in your room and, in so doing, boost the signal. This means that walking in front of the transmitter won't necessarily result in the picture being interrupted. Of course, put enough junk in the way, and you will eventually cause the transmitter to break up.
The good news, though, is that we were able to send a signal some 20m with a line of sight between the transmitter and receiver. This was in a large, open office. This means that all but the very largest of lounges should pose no challenge at all for this system.
Of course, the main benefit of wireless connectivity is that you can place the TV on a wall or on a stand in the corner of your lounge and place the media receiver elsewhere. This has two advantages. The first is that you now no longer need to keep your TV near the aerial socket. The second is that your AV gear can all be tucked away in a cupboard, with just the wireless transmitter out in the open. This will lead to a totally clutter-free TV experience, and could potentially save your marriage.
The picture quality with HD material is nothing short of amazing. We especially loved the THX mode, which is designed by the Lucasfilm spin-off to ensure that the file you see looks as close as possible to how the director intended. It certainly seems to produce the best image of all the pre-defined modes on the TV. Of course, there's still plenty of scope for you to adjust settings to get a picture that suits your tastes.
One note, though -- don't use the THX mode with Freeview. We found that, because THX turns off the 'overscan' feature of the TV, the bottom of the picture was noisy and had occasional white lines. With Blu-ray, turning off the overscan is a good idea, because it will result in a 1:1 pixel mapped picture, which is the only way to get the best-possible image quality.
We've always said in the past that Panasonic plasma TVs have real skill at displaying the fairly low quality Freeview signals we've come to expect from the nation's digital broadcasters. We feel, however, that the TX-P46Z1 is possibly the least capable of all the TVs we've seen from the company in this regard.
It didn't seem to matter what we did -- we couldn't quite persuade the TV to produce an image that looked natural and MPEG noise-free. We constantly felt that the image was slightly too colourful, to the point where it looked rather unrealistic. We also felt that standard-definition images weren't as detailed as those on our reference high-end plasma, the Pioneer Kuro PDP-LX5090.
Freesat is also included, which will give you the bonus of two HD channels from the BBC and ITV. This will certainly provide a marked improvement on standard-definition TV, and, if you're spending this much on a set, we think it deserves to be fed with the best-quality signal possible. Of course, Sky+HD offers much greater choice in the HD stakes, so it's probably worth getting yourself a subscription.
Full 'Full HD'
One of the interesting points made by Panasonic this year concerns moving image resolution. Most of us assume that, because our televisions claim 1080p support, we're always seeing a 1080p image. This is true when you're looking at a still image, but, as soon as the picture on the screen starts to move, most TVs start to lose resolution. The bulk of Panasonic's screens this year boast around 900 lines of moving image resolution. The TX-P46Z1, however, claims a full 1,080. This could explain why the 1080p Blu-ray video we tested looked so utterly great. We certainly have no complaints at all about how this TV deals with HD material. We've never seen Casino Royale look so beautiful.
The question is: would we pay £4,000 for the Panasonic Viera TX-P46Z1? For us, the answer is 'no'. That's not to say this is in any way a bad TV. It's actually very good indeed, and there are plenty of really cool features here to keep you happy. The problem is that the set's Freeview performance is sub-standard and this TV is just too expensive to have any excuse for this failing.
In terms of alternatives, see if you can get a Pioneer Kuro PDP-LX5090. Although these are no longer being made, there's still some knocking around. You'll save about £2,000, get 4 inches more screen real estate, and a better all-round picture. If wireless connectivity is important to you, the TX-P46Z1 is still a great buy -- just don't expect great standard-definition performance.
Edited by Charles Kloet