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Panasonic TH-42PZ77U Plasma HDTV Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 May 2008
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Panasonic TH-42PZ77U Plasma HDTV
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A lot of people are ready to sound the death knoll for plasma, asserting that the technology won’t be able to keep pace with LCD, in price or volume, over the long term. Rather than try to compete with LCD in a price war, companies like Pioneer and Hitachi are positioning their plasma HDTVs as higher-end luxury items. Panasonic, meanwhile, has chosen to remain in the mid- and entry-level rings and duke it out with LCD. They landed a good punch when they became the first plasma maker to offer a true 1920 x 1080 resolution at the 42-inch screen size, a category where LCD held a clear advantage. The benefits of 1080p at this screen size are questionable at best – at least in terms of how much resolution the eye can actually see from a normal viewing distance – but consumers want it, so Panasonic provided it in the form of last year’s $2,000 TH-42PZ700U. That was an important first step, but LCD still holds the advantage in the price department. Now, Panasonic has delivered another blow with the TH-42PZ77U, a 42-inch 1080p model with an MSRP of $1,800, but available for less than $1,400 through many reputable online retailers.

Panasonic consistently strikes a nice balance between video performance and price, but I always felt that their HDTVs looked like entry-level offerings, with a basic, boxy silver chassis that lacked the build quality of other flat panels. That’s not the case anymore; newer Panasonic plasmas, including this one, sport a sleeker design, with a glossy black frame and black side-aligned speakers that more effectively disappear into the frame. A non-swiveling base is provided in the box, but you have to assemble it yourself. The set-up instructions in the owner’s manual are somewhat vague, failing to mention that the same bases are used for both the 37- and 42-inch plasmas. The first time around, I incorrectly set up the base to hold a 37-inch model; only after my PR rep assured me that it was the right base did I go back and discover my error. I’ll take some of the blame for the mistake, but I still think the manual could be clearer. The back panel includes two HDMI inputs, which is one less than you’ll find on many new flat panels. Both HDMI inputs get accompanying stereo analog inputs if needed. You also get two component video, three S-video and three composite video inputs, with stereo analog audio. One set of A/V inputs is located on the right side panel, where you’ll also find an SD card slot through which you can play JPEGs and AVCHD video files from an HD camcorder. Sadly, Panasonic chose not to put an HDMI or component video input on the side panel for easier access when the TV is wall-mounted. An optical digital audio output is available to send audio to an external A/V system, and a single RF input grants access to the TV’s internal NTSC, ATSC and Clear-QAM tuners. Not surprisingly, the TV lacks a CableCARD slot, and also lacks a program guide and picture-in-picture functionality. 

The remote is home to a lot of square black buttons on a black background and lacks backlighting, so it’s not easy to use in the dark. It also lacks dedicated source buttons, but the TV/Video button pulls up an input list that you can scroll through easily. You can program the remote to control three additional components or, if you’ve connected devices via HDMI, you can set up the EZ-Sync function, Panasonic’s version of HDMI-CEC that allows you to automatically control multiple HDMI-connected components via this remote. The Menu button is prominently positioned near the top, and the inclusion of exit and return buttons makes it easier to navigate the onscreen menus, which are well laid out. My only complaint about the menu system is that, while it does reduce to a small bar when you’re trying to make picture adjustments, the full-screen menu pops back up way too quickly. It’s hard to check your work.

Panasonic provides a nice complement of video adjustments, beginning with four picture modes: Vivid, Standard, Cinema and Custom. I started with the most natural-looking choice, Cinema, and made adjustments to contrast, brightness, color, tint and sharpness, using my Digital Video Essentials DVD (DVD International). All of the picture modes have the contrast set to maximum out of the box; for a plasma, you really want to turn down the contrast to at least two-thirds to reduce the chance of image retention. The TV does show some edge enhancement with the sharpness control turned all the way up, but it isn’t as excessive as you’ll see elsewhere; I left the sharpness control at its mid-point and didn’t notice any white lines or ringing around hard edges. There are also three color-temperature settings (cool, normal, and warm) and a basic color management feature that, according to the manual, “enhances green and blue color reproduction.” I went with the warm color temperature and left the color management feature at its default On setting. When set up properly for a darkened room, the Cinema mode was a bit dim for a bright viewing environment, so I also used the Custom mode and set up a brighter but still natural-looking picture for daytime viewing. Unfortunately, you can’t adjust each picture mode separately for each input, which limits your set-up options if you plan to use different input types for different sources. Also, Panasonic makes it a little too easy to reset the picture adjustments to their factory defaults. The first item in the Picture sub-menu, labeled Normal, returns every value to its preset; you should avoid this item once you’ve set up the picture to your liking, as one errant click will undo your work.

Under the “Other Adjust” sub-menu, you’ll find video, block and mosquito noise-reduction controls, a 3D Y/C filter, the ability to select an HD or SD color matrix for the component video inputs, light/dark black-level settings and the option to turn on 3:2 pull-down for film-based sources. There’s also an HD Size menu: HD Size 1 shows 95 percent of the HD image, while HD Size 2 shows 100 percent, so that you can display 1920 x 1080 sources pixel for pixel. Aspect ratio choices include 4:3, Zoom, Full, H-fill and Just. You can adjust the aspect ratio of HD sources and alter the color of 4:3 sidebars (from light gray to dark black), but there’s no automatic aspect ratio detection.

The audio set-up menu includes basic bass, treble and balance adjustments, plus the option to turn on an enhanced surround mode. The AI Sound feature equalizes the sound level across all inputs, while Audio Leveler equalizes sound for the external inputs only. You can set the HDMI audio for analog, digital, or auto, or turn off the TV’s speakers entirely if you’re using an outboard sound system.

If you’re wondering what the feature differences are between this model and the more expensive TH-42PZ700U, the higher-end model includes a PC input, a more robust speaker system with BBE ViVA surround simulation and the use of an anti-reflective filter, instead of the anti-glare filter used here (more on this below).

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