Panasonic's flagship VT50 plasma TVs are setting new picture standards this year, at least for people with a penchant for dimming the lights for serious film nights. However, the VT50 televisions are also tantalisingly beyond the financial reach of many AV punters.
Which is where the step-down GT50 series comes in, as represented here by the 42-inch Panasonic Viera TX-P42GT50. The GT50 TVs strip away a few of the fancier features of the VT50s while still using at their heart the very latest - and easily greatest - version of Panasonic's plasma panel technology.
The key features the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 doesn't have that the VT50s do include Panasonic's most high-contrast Infinite Black Ultra filter; a second touchpad remote for easier on-screen web surfing; and recording from the built-in tuners to SD cards (though you can still record to USB HDDs).
Before you get too despondent about any of this, though, the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 also shares plenty of features with its illustrious sibling besides the new ultra-efficient, black level-boosting plasma panel design already mentioned. It's 3D-ready for starters, and also sports Panasonic's Viera Connect online service.
It shares, too, the Panasonic VT50's endorsement by the independent THX quality assurance group, and carries an impressively wide range of connections, including four HDMIs, three USBs and an SD card slot.
Dual-core processing in the £1,200 (around $1,880) Panasonic TX-P42GT50 means you can enjoy multitasking while using the TV's online features and apps, and its Infinite Black Pro screen design still delivers an enormous 5,500,000:1 native - repeat, native - claimed contrast ratio.
Also in the GT50 range is the excellent 50-inch Panasonic TX-P50GT50, available for around £1,400 (about $2,200). In terms of alternatives to the Panasonic GT50 series, if money's no object to you, then you'll probably want to step up to the VT50 series. However, there's no 42-inch VT50; the VT50s start at 50 inches.
Elsewhere, if you want a passive 3D LCD TV, there's the LG 42LW550T. Or for an active 3D alternative, there's the Sony 40HX853 or the Samsung UE40ES7000. We'll discuss these rivals in more detail on the Verdict page.
The Panasonic TX-P42GT50 is very well specified indeed for a 42-inch TV - as you would expect given its fairly steep £1,200 (around $1,880) asking price.
Its design is robust in the extreme for starters, and looks quite glamorous in some ways, thanks to its glinting black finish offset by a tasteful metallic trim that runs around all of its edges. The only problem is that - as usual with plasma TVs - the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 isn't anywhere near as slim and lightweight as the majority of Edge LED TVs - including Panasonic's own DT50 and WT50 series.
Connections are prodigious. The usual AV stuff is all present and correct of course, including four v1.4 HDMIs and a component video port. But these stalwarts are joined by a raft of multimedia bits and bobs, most notably three USBs, an SD card slot, and both a LAN port and integrated Wi-Fi.
The USBs can be used for playing back a solid mix of video, photo and music files from USB storage devices, or for recording video to USB HDD from the TV's Freeview and Freesat HD tuners. The SD card slot can play back the same file formats from SD cards as the USBs can, though unlike the VT50 TVs, you can't record video to SD on the Panasonic TX-P42GT50.
The LAN/Wi-Fi options predictably have two main functions. First they enable you to stream multimedia files stored on a networked DLNA PC to the TV. Second, they enable you to take the TV online with Panasonic's Viera Connect service.
This service has come a long way since its earliest days, and now offers a fairly strong selection of video streaming platforms (the services we still consider to be the most important where online features on a TV are concerned).
The best of the options on offer here are Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Eurosport, BBC News, YouTube and Acetrax - though it's still a shame there's no sign of either Lovefilm or any of the other mainstream channel catch-up services (ITV Player, 4oD or Demand 5).
Social media is supported through Twitter, Facebook and Picasa apps, meanwhile, with Myspace 'overlaid' content also supposedly arriving before the year is out.
There are a few information apps too, along with a pretty wide selection of games. While many of these games are of the same basic standard as those on other manufacturers' online TV services, there are a couple - Asphalt 5 and Let's Golf 2 - that deliver an experience more akin to a games console than a TV gaming platform. You can even play these with other players online. Impressive.
Panasonic's online service is also commendable for delivering the first and still most fully formed online marketplace, from which you can buy hardware (keyboards, joysticks, 3D glasses and even, in the future, a treadmill and weighing scales) as well as premium software apps.
Anyone who's played with the online services of LG, Samsung and Sony will quickly realise that Viera Connect isn't as packed with content as rival platforms. But its infrastructure is strong, and with features such as Disney Books and Myspace waiting in the wings, its content levels can only improve.
Shifting our attentions to the specification of the Panasonic TX-P42GT50's panel, the first thing to say is that it's a Full HD affair. This wouldn't normally be too significant by today's TV standards, but Panasonic remains the only manufacturer offering a Full HD (1920 x 1080) pixel count in a 42-inch plasma screen. Fitting that many plasma cells into such a relatively small area really isn't easy, it would seem.
The screen also boasts a 5,500,000:1 contrast ratio, thanks to a combination of plasma's innate advantages in this area and the application of Panasonic's Infinite Black Pro technology, which uses a proprietary filter design in the screen to boost black level response.
To underline just how important this could be, the huge 5,500,000:1 contrast ratio claim is a native, constant figure, rather than a figure only created by dynamically dimming and boosting the brightness based on an assessment of the image content, as happens with LCD. This means that dark scenes don't require their bright elements to sacrifice luminance in order to produce a credible black colour.
The Panasonic TX-P42GT50's pictures should also benefit from the set's dual-core processing. Motion and image stability should be enhanced, for instance, by the onboard 2,500Hz Focused Sub-Field Drive system, while noise reduction and rescaling engines should deliver slightly more accurate results, thanks to the processing power the TV has at its disposal.
Also impressing on the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 is the amount of flexibility provided when it comes to fine-tuning its pictures. This extends to gamma and colour management, and control over almost all of the TV's picture processing elements.
If you feel a bit daunted by all the options on offer, though, then there's a healthy selection of picture presets, including a couple put together by THX. Or, if you're feeling flush, you can call in an accredited Imaging Science Foundation engineer to come round to your house and professionally calibrate the TV to suit your own individual viewing conditions.
The last thing to discuss on the Panasonic TX-P42GT50's spec sheet is its 3D playback. This is of the active Full HD variety, and includes 2D to 3D conversion. However, please note that unlike the Panasonic VT50 TVs, the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 doesn't ship with any 3D glasses included as standard.
As a quick addition to this point, the Panasonic TX-P42GT50 also doesn't ship with the second touchpad remote you get with the VT50 models. But given how uninspired this second handset is, we can't say we found ourselves missing it much.