freesat is here, and has been for a while now, but without the simplicity of Freeview can the service ever really take off? Sure, it's great to have access to HD channels, even if there are only two of them, and they're both part-time. What will make or break the service is the availability of hardware, so Panasonic's PZ81 range is critical -- for the first time, freesat comes built-in to a TV. We got the 42-inch TH-42PZ81 model in for a closer look.
If you've already got a Sky dish on your house, this TV lets you hook it up directly to the dish and start watching freesat channels straight away. If you don't have a dish, you can simply use the built-in Freeview and analogue TV receivers to watch TV through your normal aerial.
Although freesat is the focus for the PZ81 range, it's well worth pointing out that this is a high-end Panasonic plasma, so you get a 1080p panel, with the superb picture quality we've come to expect from the company and features such as Intelligent Frame Creation and 100Hz support, to smooth out film motion.
Dixons is selling this TV for £1,150, which considering its size, features and picture quality, we think is a veritable steal. You can even find it for under £1,100 elsewhere if you shop around. Give it a few months and the price might even drop slightly. So, with the TV basics out of the way, let's have a look around the set and find out what it offers. -Ian Morris
Let's start with the most important thing, the satellite connection. As you'd expect, this is the familiar satellite F-type connector, which differs from regular aerial sockets in that it has a thread to keep the cable in place.
Next to the satellite input is the slot for a conditional access module. In a world that was fair and balanced, this CAM socket would enable you to plug in a Sky TV module, and subscribe to Sky's TV services if you wanted to. In reality, Murdoch will never allow this, and Ofcom is happy to allow him to do what he wants, so you're stuck with an over-priced Sky-branded box, or nothing. This socket is useful, however, if you want to subscribe to channels such as Setanta or what's left of the TopUpTV channels.
Here's the tuner selection menu. You get three tuners in the Panasonic (although in reality the Freeview and analogue TV tuners are the same unit) so you can simply select the source you want to view. With some channels on Freeview not being available on freesat yet, we can imagine this menu will get a fair amount of use.
Notice the ludicrous adherence to the lower-case f in freesat. We award the freesat consortium an F for 'FAIL' for its decision to kill off the capital letter.
Here's a shot of the Ethernet socket. freesat boxes have these because in the future there's talk of using your existing broadband connection to send data back to broadcasters, as a way of interacting with TV shows and such.
More exciting is the idea of using the Ethernet socket to get video over the Internet, and of course everyone knows the endgame here is to get iPlayer up and running using this system. freesat decoders and TVs make the ideal way for the BBC to get its on-demand TV service into the living room. You can bet the boffins are working on this right now -- it's just a matter of time before it actually shows up.
In an ideal world Panasonic would have allowed this to be used to watch video downloaded from the Internet on the TV too, but that's just a pipe dream sadly. Unless someone invents a hack.
Also at the back of the TV are the usual sockets. The 42PZ81 has two HDMIs at the rear, and a third at the front. To be honest, we would prefer three at the back and a fourth at the front, but hey-ho, you can always get a switch if you need more.
You also get RCA sockets for component in, audio in and out and a pair of Scarts. There's a VGA socket for PC connections and an optical digital audio output to get sound to your home cinema system. This becomes more important with freesat, because HD channels carry Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.
The Viera can also play still photos and video from an SD card. We shot a little test video on a Panasonic HDC-SD9, bunged the card straight in the TV and there, with no further fuss, was some HD video on the screen. Sheer genius. Of course, you'll need to record video on a camcorder that supports both SD and AVCHD, but don't fret, Panasonic makes those.
Under a flap at the front are some simple controls for adjusting stuff, plus composite and S-Video inputs, an extra HDMI and an SD card slot for photo and video playback. To the left of this front flap, you'll find the TV's power button. That's right, a real life off switch.