In the past month, Panasonic has been busy ramping up its high-def ranges in preparation for "its" Olympic Games. While the TH-42PX8A doesn't really fit within the company's 1080p ethos, it's a significant inclusion for bargain hunters. The price may be the lowest we've seen for plasmas of this size, but how's the performance?
The company has ditched the boomerang stand of the previous range in favour of a sturdier plinth. Panasonic has bucked against the piano brigade and chosen gunmetal for its colour scheme.
The controls on the television are hidden behind a flap and may appear complicated at first, as instead of separate Ch and Volume buttons there is an "F" key to toggle the +/- keys between the two functions.
The rear inputs are designed with tabletop-mounting in mind as they all face towards the user rather than the floor — as with wall-mounted TVs. This makes it easy to connect new peripherals but could obviously make wall-mounting difficult.
The remote control is chunky and reasonably well-designed — with big friendly buttons. It will also control other Panasonic components via the Viera Link, but we think other brands such as Sony do HDMI control better.
The new TV has not only enjoyed an AU$1,000 price drop, but also a boost in specifications on the outgoing TH-42PX70A. The most obvious is the amount of black present in the image — an increase from 10,000:1 to 15,000:1. This results in an impressive amount of contrast and image depth.
Another impressive specification that is obvious over even Panasonic's 1080p model of last year is the 4,096 steps of gradation which results in an incredibly smooth colour palette. The TV also features a 100Hz mode, which in typical Panasonic fashion can't be tweaked or turned off, but it does lend a lot of solidity to moving images.
The number of inputs remain relatively similar, though, with only two HDMI ports, two component, a PC input, two S-Videos and four composite inputs.
If you're looking for an HD panel then it's best to consider an LCD over plasma at this size — despite the Panasonic's HD Tick, this is not an HD panel in the true sense. Its resolution is 1,024x768 — yes that's right, the same as many 4:3 computer monitors. To get the extra horizontal resolution, the panel scales your 1,280x720 content to fit. This is what you might call "cheating". To avoid any scaling errors being introduced into your picture, it's ideal if the resolution matches that of the content, but in budget plasmas of course that's rare.
For a not-quite HD screen we were very impressed by its performance across both standard-def and high-def content. Only occasionally did the screen's relatively low resolution result in a little bit of fly-screen effect — particularly noticeable in the vertical.
Viewed against our studio plasma, the PDP-5000EX, the Panasonic exhibited better blacks and contrast on the No Country For Old Men Blu-ray, though the picture lacked the Pioneer's solidity. This is due in part to the Panasonic's tendency to fly-screen and cause jaggies on horizontal edges. But this is still impressive for a TV that's a sixth of its rival's original asking price. We also found that the 100Hz filter reduced much of the judder from the movies long panning scenes as well, making for a much more natural picture.
The TH-42PX8A also performed reasonably well in the synthetic HQV tests — especially in the diagonal jaggies test. This is good news as due to the reduced resolution the plasma needs to scale most content. Noise was also much reduced due to the screen's inbuilt mosquito noise reduction.
When we tested the Panasonic TH-42PZ700A only three months ago, King Kong and its troublesome Empire State building sequence had its merry way with it. Colour gradations were rendered as discrete colour bands — which is bad — and the panel was generally noisy. Imagine our surprise then, when the budget TH-42PX8A outperformed it in both respects. For a relatively low cost television, the picture processing is outstanding.
Though we'd be wary of using a plasma screen as a PC monitor on a regular basis, the VGA input worked quite well. Using Windows Vista at 1,024x768 resolution resulted in clear and readable text. However, using an HDMI connection instead refused to scale correctly. This is a potential issue if you only have a DVI-out on your PC (HDMI and DVI are directly compatible).
If there's any faults with this plasma, the ones you'll encounter with the most are: off-axis viewing can result in image doubling, due to the outer glass screen reflecting the images underneath; and less-than-optimal performance in a bright room as the panel lacks the anti-reflective coating of the more expensive models.