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The arrival of 3D TV has reignited the long-running debate as to the relative merits of plasma and LCD tellies. Panasonic insists that plasma technology is best suited to 3D, and backed up its case convincingly with the Viera TX-P50VT20. Rivals Samsung and Sony disagree, but their LCD offerings have struggled to match the clarity of Panasonic's 3D TVs.
Now Panasonic has launched the 46-inch, 1080p Viera TX-P46VT20, which, even if not quite a second-generation 3D plasma TV, is still an upgrade. Plasma fans will be pleased to know that the technology can still lay claim to the three-dimensional high ground. The TX-P46VT20 is available now for around £1,900.
Although not as thin as the latest wave of LED-edge-lit TVs, the TX-P46VT20 is still slim enough, at 85mm thick, to create a good impression. The bronze finish is embellished by a silver trim, and looks uncluttered.
Beneath the screen are two infrared transmitter clusters for syncing the supplied pair of active-shutter glasses. On the left-hand side of the TV, you'll find two USB inputs, an SD card slot compatible with Panasonic's new 3D camcorder, an HDMI input, a headphone jack and phono AV inputs, plus a manual power-off rocker.
On the rear of the set are the three remaining HDMI inputs, two Scart sockets, component video connection, PC input, digital optical audio output, Ethernet jack, and both terrestrial aerial and satellite terminals. The set has a built-in freesat HD tuner, as well as Freeview HD and analogue ones. You can use a Panasonic Wi-Fi dongle to get the TV online if you don't have a wired connection.
Back in the day, Panasonic TVs offered precious little scope for tweaking pictures. That's all changed. There are now plenty of opportunities to pinch and pull parameters. But the presets are extremely well judged anyway. The set is THX-certified, which essentially means it offers a mode that optimises the screen for watching movies. We love the balance of this preset -- it works wonderfully well.
In use, the set bears all the usual Panasonic hallmarks. The menus are a mixture of conservative boxes and the more graphically impressive Viera Tools bar, which gives quick access to networked media, 3D modes and the like. Panasonic's electronic programme guide is still irritating. Supplied by Guide Plus+, it features hard-sell advertising, which is rather annoying. The EPG is certainly fast, though.
Other pleasing extras include the Viera Cast online portal and DLNA streaming. Online content includes the ever popular YouTube, Dailymotion, and photo website Picasa. The set also sports the beta version of the Skype video-calling service (a video camera is required).
The on-board media player for connected USB devices is excellent. File support is extensive, covering everything from AVI to MKV. It even recognises and plays SRT subtitle files. The TV's DLNA streamer is less adept. We had success playing AVI and DivX files (both standard-def and 720p) from a network-attached storage device, but encountered failure with MKV material. SRT subtitle files were also ignored.
We love the visual punch of the TX-P46VT20's 1080p pictures. Plasma may lack the retina-scratching sharpness associated with LCD technology, but this TV doesn't skimp on detail. This definition isn't lost during movement either. Plasma technology's rapid response times make it a great choice for sports fans. The set's colour fidelity is equally outstanding.
Plasma pixels are self-illuminating so, unlike with LED-illuminated LCD screens, there's no need for localised dimming in order to create dynamic blacks. The result is an image with effortless depth. Black levels are profound when viewed in a room with low ambient light, and shadow detail lurks wherever you care to look.
One much-hyped aspect of the set is its inclusion of Panasonic's proprietary Intelligent Frame Creation software, with 600Hz sub-field processing. It definitely cures some motion noise artefacts, but we found it also introduces other artefacts all of its own. Our advice is to play with the setting, to determine whether you prefer it on or off.
What makes the TX-P46VT20 particularly intriguing is that it includes the ability to convert 2D images to 3D. The end result isn't too offensive, although its effectiveness is highly dependent on the source material. Stick with high-definition material and you might have some fun. The BBC HD transmission of First Night of the Proms lent itself surprisingly well to the conversion process. The conversion lent an appreciable sense of scale and size to the stage within the Royal Albert Hall.
When it comes to genuine 3D, the TX-P46VT20 treads a similar path to the TX-P50VT20. Its 3D picture has a glacial smoothness, and there's no overt crosstalk, whereby images appear with a sort of shadow around them. The caveat is that Panasonic's 3D goggles absorb more light than a black hole. This means 3D content looks rather dark. Overall, though, Panasonic can still claim to offer the best 3D performance on the market.
The Panasonic Viera TX-P46VT20 gets two thumbs up. Its 2D image quality is outstanding and its 3D performance shows the competition a clean pair of heels. The implementation of 2D-to-3D conversion is also surprisingly good, as long as you don't expect too much. We've grumbled about Panasonic's uncomfortable 3D glasses before, and those gripes still stand, but they shouldn't dissuade you from auditioning this fabulous TV.
Edited by Charles Kloet