Times are confusing enough for your average TV punter these days without more format fisticuffs to worry about. Yet it looks like 2006 might not only be the year HD DVD locks horns with Blu-ray, it may also mark battle for the TV middle ground, between plasma and LCD.
For, while both technologies have so far co-existed alongside each other, with LCD servicing the smaller end of the market while plasma caters for larger screen sizes, LCD is about to muscle in on plasma's patch.
Sony, Samsung and Philips all have a new range of 40in plus LCD TVs ready to ship soon, meaning buyers are about to be faced with a decision not just between which brand of screen to buy, but which technology to support. It's hardly surprising, then, that plasma vendors like Pioneer and Panasonic are becoming much more vocal about why they believe plasma is the better technology for big-screen viewing.
Talking only gets you so far, though; if plasma really wants to outgun its fast-rising rival, it's going to have to back up its fi ne words with some hard evidence. Which is exactly what Panasonic hopes to do with its 9th-generation plasma screen, the Viera TH-42PX60.
Set atop one of the brand's eye-catching fl oor-standing mounts (my favourite configuration), the 42PX60 is both strikingly attractive and slightly disappointing. The new sculpting for the stand and TV emphasises the screen's slenderness even more than the previous Viera look, but on the downside, the 2006 matt, silverdominated fi nish just doesn't look as luxurious as the old gloss-black approach.
Connectivity includes dual HDMI sockets, component video for analogue HD sources, a trio of Scarts, and a D-Sub PC jack.
The 42PX60's feature list is a solid mix of handy 'upfront' options and new 'behindthe- scenes' picture processing.
Top of the up-front stuff is a digital tuner, complete with a CI slot for adding Top Up TV channels to the standard Freeview service. Full support for the Freeview 7-day electronic programme guide is provided, complete with genre fi ltering and an 8-event timer memory.
Also present is HDAVI, which cleverly routes system control codes via the HDMI link from one compatible Panasonic unit to another.
Behind the scenes, meanwhile, there's the so-called 'V-Real' processing umbrella. This collects together a suite of innovations, including Digital Remastering for up-converting standard-defi nition video; Gamma Control, wherein 11.5-bit video processing delivers 3,072 gradations steps and a 29 billion colour range; and a sub-pixel controller that processes the red, green and blue colours separately in each pixel to make lines sharper.
Also of interest is a new noise reduction system; colour and contrast management that processes hue and luminosity separately to improve richness and tonal accuracy, and Panasonic's well-regarded Real Black Drive system for upping black levels. Panasonic now claim a 10,000:1 contrast ratio (in our real-world tests, we measured contrast at 270:1, after calibration).
After reviewing a glut of LCD TVs recently, the fi rst thing that strikes me about the 42PX60 is the remarkable depth and naturalism of its black level.
Exceptional subtlety in the 42PX60's greyscale also means that dark areas look enticingly three-dimensional, thanks to extensive shadow detailing.
The set's colour response is also excellent - vibrant but believable. There's no problem with vibrant hues overwhelming the picture, as can happen with more aggressive LCD presentation.
Despite a wealth of processing power, image clarity is held back by the glass itself, which has a native resolution of 1024 x 720. For fi lms this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it can help some material look less noisy than they occasionally do on LCD screens. That said, I'd defi nitely prefer to play Xbox 360 and PC HD games on a good, high-contrast LCD.
But this doesn't diminish the screen's overall eye candy. Feed it an HD source, and images can appear little short of spectacular in their sharpness.
Not that the 42PX60 is flawless. Horizontal motion, especially when accompanied by a camera pan, can stutter. Also, the set very occasionally leaves colour blends banding.
The model's sound performance is decent enough. Voices are rich yet believable and volumes can be hit without distortion.
This 9th-gen plasma is a convincing product. There's no doubt that if you want a fl atscreen for watching movies in a darkened environment, plasma offers the best performance, and with this model Panasonic puts forward a good case.
Overall image quality is high, and with only aesthetic quibbles, it's impossible not to recommend it.