NEC is one of the biggest plasma manufacturers around. But while its screens have successfully graced exhibition halls, boardrooms and other corporate occasions for some time now, they have never quite taken off with home cinema fans - perhaps because that's not who they are specifically aimed at. So, can the 42in PX-42XR3G - which is certainly more reasonably priced than the brand's previous efforts - change home cinema opinion?
The inclusion of a pair of speakers that can be fitted to the PX-42XR3G's sides suggests that this screen is intended for pleasure rather than business - but this is immediately negated by the absence of a TV tuner and Scart input (leaving you having to connect a digibox via inferior S-video). The screen hasn't got particularly living room-friendly looks either, with its dull grey frame, but at least it's pleasingly slim.
The missing Scart won't be much of a problem for those interested in the higher branches of the video tree, as the NEC boasts an HDCP-enabled DVI input (making it ready to accept Sky's HD broadcasts), and component video jacks for analogue HD and progressive scan sources.
PC support is also present, in the form of a D-Sub connector and a set of five BNC jacks that can double up as a further video input.
The PX-42XR3G's specs look promising. The 1,024 x 768 resolution supports the DVI input in making the screen capable of showing unscaled 720p HD feeds (a set needs at least 720 lines to display HD correctly), while a 700cd/m2 brightness and 1,000:1 contrast bode reasonably well.
Other features include anti-screenburn measures, 3-2 and 2-2 pulldown, noise reduction, gamma correction, picture presets and a black level adjust for the DVI input.
Devil with the detail
When it comes to performance, the NEC is ultimately disappointing. There's plenty of good stuff, however - particularly the screen's fine detail response. We could make out every last bit of craziness in the intricate sets of our test disc, The Life Aquatic, while high-def sources showed terrific texture and pixel-perfect sharpness. What's more, this was achieved with nary a trace of dot crawl, grain, colour banding or motion noise.
The screen also delivers great brightness levels, which was ideal for our test disc, bringing out all the vibrancy of The Life Aquatic's ultra-colourful world.
When we checked out some dark scenes, however, a couple of flaws became evident. First, black levels aren't profound, meaning dark areas of our test movie often looked grey. This 'flattened' the picture, and led to a loss of detail. And second, colours lost their naturalism, with the old-school plasma tendency to exaggerate greens in evidence.
The NEC's speakers are more consistent. Although they're a little reserved - you'd need a separate speaker setup to really get things going - they handled dialogue and treble effects well enough.
HD-ready and with often enjoyable images at a realistic price, the PX-42XR3G is a step in the right direction. But we still feel that NEC needs to put a bit more effort into making its screens into movie stars.