Regular readers will know that we've long admired Panasonic's flatscreens. Yet it's also become increasingly difficult to ignore a single, consistent flaw in them: a lack of true high-definition compatibility.
While they have always been physically capable of showing HD sources, they have to be downscaled to a native resolution of just 854 x 480 pixels. This, and the fact that they have only offered analogue component connectivity, has denied them HD Ready status. Industry body EICTA's rules state that if a screen is to call itself 'HD Ready' it must have both a digital video input (compatible with HDCP digital rights management) and a native widescreen resolution of at least 720 lines.
But the 32in LCD TX-32LXD500 finally resolves these shortcomings. It sports an HDMI input and has a native pixel resolution of 1366 x 768. Panasonic finally appears to be HD Ready.
Like previous Viera-branded screens, the design is striking. A black frame is offset by a glinting silver strip along the bottom; naturally it comes with a cutesy (optional) desktop stand.
Connectivity is dominated by that HDMI port but there's lots going on besides, including three Scarts, component video inputs, an SD card slot so you can use the TV for playing back or recording digital stills and MPEG4 movies, a PC jack, and finally a PCMCIA slot for updating the 32LXD500's digital TV tuner. This includes support for the sevenday Freeview EPG, genre searching, and direct-selection timer setting. It's worth noting that the digital functions run much faster than on Panny's previous digital tuners, but I was disappointed by the fact that the EPG doesn't retain a miniature version of the picture in the corner while you browse.
Other feature attractions include MPEG block noise reduction for smoothing out the macro-blocking prevalent on some digital broadcasts; standard noise reduction and the facility to switch what goes out of the AV2 Scart (for recording purposes) between various AV jacks and both the analogue and digital tuners. The set also has sophisticated colour management, comprising a trio of technical advances the manufacturer claims for the 32LXD500.
When activated, it alters the way colours are presented, varying the brightness level as well as the tone and hue of each individual pixel - a process which apparently generates a significantly larger colour palette. Advance number two is a 'sub-pixel controller' that breaks the RGB picture into its three separate constituents to process each colour individually, rather than just processing the RGB picture elements en masse. The aim is to reduce jagged or blurred contours.
The third benefit is the latest incarnation of Panasonic's optimistically titled 'AI' processing, which, among other things, automatically adjusts the contrast and brightness in response to the content of your source pictures. On tonight's panel...
When it comes to delivering onscreen gold, the 32LXD500 doesn't disappoint. I ran a variety of high-definition material into it and was very pleased with the result. There's a clarity, sharpness and texture to the 32LXD500's HD pictures that really does ram home the abilities of the panel and its driver electronics. Contributing to the picture's threedimensionality is an exceptional greyscale,
which ekes out the most subtle colour shifts and blends, even in dark corners. Predictably, the 32LXD500's black level response rocks. There's scarcely a trace of grey over parts of the picture that should be black, marking a big improvement over previous Panasonic LCD screens. Images look vivid, layered and cinematic.
There's also very little overt colour banding or motion smearing. This superclean approach extends to digital HDMI feeds, which - provided you avoid the TV's over-aggressive Dynamic setting - reveals practically none of the nasty MPEG noise seen on one or two rivals. So the screen looks good with HD, but what about more mundane, everyday sources? Progressive or standard DVD playback enjoys the vast majority of the plus points already covered, sans the extra resolution.
Images from the onboard Freeview tuner generally offer less clarity but this is down to the low bitrate common on so many digital terrestrial channels. In general, the colour richness and tone, black level response and greyscale subtleties remain intact. It's great to find, too, a dearth of common tuner nasties like edge haloing or jagged curves. On the debit side, I was occasionally distracted by a slight pulsing of the image's contrast, presumably caused by the set's enthusiastic 'AI'.
Sonically, the 32LXD500 impresses. The skinny built-in speakers really don't look up to much, but the soundstage is wide and benign.
It's taken Panasonic some time to upgrade its LCD range to HD readiness, but in many ways the wait has been worthwhile. The 32LXD500 is a wellequipped, high performing LCD screen that doesn't disappoint either in terms of performance or design. It could be argued that a 32 inch screen is too small to appreciate the benefits of highdefinition broadcasting, and that buyers should either upgrade to a 40in model or take the savings and buy a non-HD 32in alternative.
However, there's no doubt that this model has the performance edge over its cheaper non-HD sibling, the TX-32PD50. Highly recommended. John Archer