Akai is a brand that has been out of the limelight for a while, but it's back - with the clear aim of making an impression on the budget market. Alongside a small range of other affordable home cinema kit (LCD TV, DVD recorder and home cinema package) the company has launched its first plasma television - and it's a snip at just over £1,000.
On the outside, the 42in PD-P42VIT looks every bit the budget model. The screen's frame is plain and plasticky, a far cry from the de rigueur black and silver styling that so many mid-priced plasmas boast these days. The supplied desktop stand doesn't swivel, while the stereo speakers need to be attached to each side with clunky brackets (the upside of this, of course, is that you can always leave them off if you plan to use separate home cinema speakers - which we would usually recommend).
The remote control is no more attractive. A grey plastic monstrosity peppered with dour rubber buttons, it's completely uninspiring. And that's before you discover its irritating unresponsiveness.
Back to basics
As you'd expect from a screen at the cheaper end of the plasma market, the Akai isn't exactly laden with features. Most of the basics are here - adjustable picture and sound settings, several different aspect ratio modes - but auto tuning has been left out, forcing the user to separately tune in each terrestrial TV channel before rearranging them in the correct order. If you think that sounds like a drag, you should try actually doing it. Thankfully, though, it's a task that most people need only engage in once.
When it comes to connections, the lack of component video is a disappointment - even at this price. There are two Scarts (both of which are RGB capable) plus the usual S-video and composite video connections and a DVI PC input.
This digital PC connection is curious, because it appears at first to be able to take video too (and therefore, in theory, HDTV): when we hooked up our DVI-outputting DVD player, the picture wasn't scrambled. However, the image would appear only for a few moments before blacking out, then reappearing several seconds later. According to Akai, this process should last only a couple of minutes as the screen 'finds its feet'. We left it going for five before giving up and concluding that RGB Scart is the best-quality video input available - shame.
Watching our test DVD, The Motorcycle Diaries, via said input produced mediocre pictures. The colours of the South American countryside were muted and restrained (not in a good way!) and hues in general were washed out and bloodless, with skin tones failing to convince. The TV also suffers from colour-banding, and what should have been smooth transitions from light to dark tones in our test movie were rendered in an ugly, archery target-esque series of contours.
Another problem is the softness of the PD-P42VIT's image. While we have to make allowances for the fact that this set doesn't have the picture enhancement processing that features on many more expensive plasmas, we felt like we were watching The Motorcycle Diaries through a thin smearing of Vaseline. We've seen other budget models do better.
The Akai's sound is more consistent, and par for the budget course - fine for everyday viewing, but don't expect much bass.
Despite our criticisms, we concede that that the PD-P42VIT's pictures are watchable. If you can't spend any more money than this, and want a big screen, it's worth a look.