It may not handle HDTV, but those not bothered should be sure to test-drive this almost perfect plasma from Panasonic
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This new addition to Panasonic's Viera line of flat TVs - mounted on the brand's now trademark floorstand - is special for more reasons that its novel 37in screen size. But there is one rather big surprise - it's not HD-ready. There are no digital inputs (such as HDMI or DVI) for high-def footage, and even if there were the TH-37PE50's 852 x 480 resolution screen isn't up to showing such footage in all its detailed glory. If you're after a Panasonic screen that can do high-def, you'll have to opt for a TV from the brand's new 500 series - some of which we've already given rave reviews.
Still, the TH-37PE50 does boast a built-in digital TV tuner, which will provide instant access to Freeview channels without the need for a separate set-top box, while the feature that really grabs our attention is an eighth-generation Panasonic plasma panel. This offers the brand's Viera colour management system, 3D Colour Management system, motion-sensing circuitry, sub-pixel controller and Real Black Drive. More colours, better black levels, suppressed picture noise and extra brightness await us - in theory.
More on that later, but first let's consider what connections this screen does offer. Its three Scarts should be plenty, while there are component video inputs that should handle at least some forms of HD material, along with providing progressive scan pictures from a similarly-equipped DVD player. Aside from the usual AV connections, the only other input of note is a digital PCMCIA input, for Top Up TV and other Freeview add-ons in the future.
Pictures from our test DVD Alexander proved that the eighth-gen plasma panel was worth the wait. The first thing to strike us was the lack of picture noise. How many times have you watched a plasma and been driven mad by fizzing, or 'mosquito', noise in backgrounds? Sometimes it's so bad that it's only a plasma's flatness that is the selling point - but not here. Even during challenging footage with a lot of horizontal motion, such as Alexander on the battlefield, the Panasonic's picture remained clean, while the murky indoor temple scenes demonstrated black levels as strong as we've ever seen on a plasma.
Outdoor scenes from our test disc showed the TH-37PE50's amazing colour palette, while close-ups revealed realistic skin tones. What's more, a lot of depth is evident in the battle scenes - and all this despite the screen's rather low resolution.
It was quite a dizzying display, and this continued when we piped in HD from a D-VHS machine via component video. This TV might not be completely ready for the high-def future, but the level of clarity here proved its versatility.
Finally, pictures from that built-in Freeview tuner looked pleasantly similar to those from DVD, only with less stability and detail (blame the lower-quality source). What remained was a picture that was rich in colour and clarity.
Audio is almost as impressive, giving a distortion-free, bass-laden sound that is well suited to the chaotic but varied movie soundtrack of Alexander.
Those tempted to buy into plasma at its lowest price (screens can be got for around a grand from some retailers) should sit up and think again: you get a lot more grunt for two grand. It may not handle HDTV, but those not bothered should be sure to test-drive this almost perfect plasma from Panasonic.
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