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Panasonic TH-42PHD8UK 42" Plasma Display

Trust me. You have seen this Panasonic plasma before. At the airport, bowling alley, department store, maybe even at a car wash. This is a professional model plasma, sold typically to businesses for utilitarian use, like departure-gate displays at the airport. But these models also hold something of a mystique for people like you and me, and as a result they have developed a cult following. And after looking at this one for a few weeks, I can see why.

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Panasonic insists that their professional series plasmas use exactly the "same glass" as the consumer models. Maybe so. In an ideal world, I would have reviewed the consumer equivalent side-by-side. But I have reviewed numerous Panasonic plasmas over the years and have always regarded them as being among the best. So I doubt you would find the consumer version much, if any less appealing.

Panasonic sells an entire line of professional displays, from a 37-inch model that costs $1,895 to a 65-inch behemoth that retails for $11,995.00. You can find out more about them here

I choose to review the 42-inch model, at a price of $2,995, because that seems to be the sweet spot in plasmas just now – a popular-sized display at a price many people can afford. Of course, $2,995 is the list price, and you would be hard-pressed to pay that much. I have seen this model for sale online for about $2,000.

The first thing that appeals to me about this model is its perfectly simple appearance. It has a modest black frame; that is all. No decorative silver-color bottom frames. When you watch it, this professional model does not draw attention to itself. What you see is the picture, and no more.

What is more, without speakers and decorative add-ons, this TV is svelte. It's a mere 40-inches wide, a good two or three inches narrower than any other 42-inch plasmas I have seen, meaning that if you want to fit a plasma into a tight space, this is one to consider.

The native resolution is 1024 x 768 – close to high definition, but not quite there. By the consumer-electronic industry's own definition, 720-progressive offers 1280 x 720 lines, the lowest pixel-count resolution that qualifies as HDTV. But you will find a raft of plasmas and other fixed-pixel displays that offer 1024 x 768, and many of them are called high-definition anyway. Among the companies doing that is Panasonic.

Now comes the largest caveat. This is a monitor, and it comes standard with only basic analog inputs. There are no on-board tuners, either digital or analog. No speakers, either. You can order plug-in inputs and accessories, such as speakers (a $600 option) and an HDMI board ($145). I asked Panasonic to send me an HDMI board, but two months later it had not arrived. I got tired of waiting, so I reviewed the set without it. That is a cautionary tale. If the company could not manage to get one to me for a review in a reasonable amount of time, don't expect your order to come quickly.

A large host of add-on boards is available on line, from the web site listed above. You can configure this TV however you want – always at an extra cost.

But here's the paradox: the consumer model with exactly the same technical specs, the TH-42PX50U, comes with built-in analog and digital tuners, speakers, cable-card readiness and an HDMI input for exactly the same price. Asked about this, a Panasonic spokesman said the professional version "has more inputs." Numerically that is true. There's an RGB input, for example, that the consumer version does not have. It also has more flexibility; you can replace the provided inputs (which are on removable modules) with (optional) modules of other types—for example, an extra RGB input or even a serial digital connection (common in the pro-video business but of little use in consumer video.

But it is still hard to see how the company can charge the same amount, at least at list prices, for both sets, given that the consumer model includes two tuners, speakers and an HDMI input – items that certainly add at least a couple hundred dollars to the cost of the product. But then, since most buyers of the professional sets are businesses, perhaps they are not as price sensitive.

There's not much to say about features. There's a complete rundown on Panasonic's website. The remote is better than average for a monitor. The set offers five different aspect-ratio modes. And it provides up to four picture-in-picture frames as well as a zoom mode for enlarging part of the picture. And, here's a feature designed for commercial applications you probably won't need: up to four units can be set up in sync to make a video wall. (This sort of feature may be at least partially responsible for the set's price—Ed.).

Performance
I connected a digital tuner to this set first thing, to see what it could do with high-definition. I turned to WETA-digital, the local PBS station I have been using as a primary source for DTV reviews since the dawn of the digital age seven years ago. The station airs material in 1080i, the predominant format to this day, and the signal quality is excellent. And I have to say that the Panasonic's rendition was quite pleasant. But I would also have to say that, to me, it looked like near, rather than full, high definition.

The clarity was definitely better than 480p, but it did not quite reach up to that "looking through a window" level. On the one hand, I enjoyed watching it- the clarity and color purity were quite good. On the other, I found myself straining to see details that stood out and on sets with full high definition resolution. If you want to watch HDTV, this set and its consumer equivalent are very pleasing, but a compromise nonetheless.

(The main reason that smaller plasma sets like this one do not feature the full 1280—or more—horizontal resolution is the technical difficulty of producing smaller pixels in plasma designs. With the technology currently in place to produce 1920x1080 plasmas in the next generation of larger models, it is possible that this will allow 1280 or more horizontal pixels in smaller sets.—Ed.)

206panasonic.2.jpgNext I ran the set through two test discs, Video Essentials and the Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark DVD. The latter, in particular, has several torture tests for the scalers and deinterlacers. The good news is that I have not seen a TV do better on the Silicon Optix "jaggies" test for interlace errors. A look at several test patterns and video images that are good tests for this showed that the Panasonic was very clean, though not perfect.

The Silicon Optix test disc did show a weakness, and given the set's origin and central purpose I suppose it is not surprising. One video image tested the set's 3-2 pulldown detection and compensation. This test sequence showed a race car running past an empty grandstand. On the Panasonic, the grandstand was a positive riot of jaggies and other errors. Presumably most business customers do not need 3-2 pulldown correction and Panasonic's literature does not list it among this set's features. I hope that is so, because if the circuitry is there, it is wholly ineffective. That problem probably accounted for the occasional errors I saw on DVDs.

The consumer version of this set does list 3-2 pull-down correction among its features. But again, I have not seen that set and cannot tell you how its performance compares. (Good progressive scan DVD players with effective 3-2 pulldown compensation are very inexpensive these days, mitigating this downside of the Panasonic pro plasma at least a little. Further, deinterlacing is not required of 720p HD signals, and 1080i HD often looks quite good regardless of how the deinterlacing is performed. –Ed.)

Black Levels
For all the years that plasmas have been on the market, inadequate black levels have been their greatest weakness. The first plasmas I reviewed, in 1998, could render nothing better than medium grey. Over the years, of course, the quality has improved, and in recent years many plasmas have been able to produce about 80 percent of what's possible.

This set offers the darkest blacks I have ever seen on a plasma display. For years I would play the movie Dark City to test a plasma's black level. Time and time again, most of the screen showed dark grey voids with no detail of any kind. It was not a pretty sight. Plasma after plasma failed so miserably that, a few years ago, I stopped using the movie as a test.

This Panasonic seemed good enough to pull out Dark City again. Right away I could see that the picture seemed more complete than I had ever seen on a plasma before. I saw no dark voids. At the same time, the Panasonic failed one scene I had used for tests before – a dark, brick wall. On a CRT, the individual bricks were visible. On the Panasonic they were not.

In terms of black levels, this set is an impressive achievement. Dark City was simply unwatchable on every plasma I have reviewed before now. The state-of-the-art has only a short way to go to reach the top.

Conclusion
By most measures this is a superb plasma. In terms of picture performance, I can recommend it. I have to caution, though, that you may be happier with the consumer version that offers more for the same price.

Highs and Lows

Highs
• Excellent black levels
• Scaling/deinterlacing effective with video-based material
• Clean, svelte appearance

Lows
• Only near-high definition performance
• No apparent 3-2 pull-down correction
• Extra cost for digital inputs

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